3 Jul 2011

Elinor Ostrom 'an accidental life'

Here are my rough notes towards a biography of Professor Elinor Ostrom, only women to win a Nobel Prize for economics and if you ask me about the only economist to ask serious questions about the big stuff like propsperity, ecology, human freedom and collective choices.

Rough, may have missed some references but enjoy, her really interesting life has helped shape her economics.

ha and lovely biography of my other hero is here.


Elinor Ostrom's biography helps us to understand the development of her ideas, she clearly believes that life experience can shape the kind of research undertaken by academics and in an informative article entitled 'A long polycentric journey' she attempts to sketch her intellectual autobiography. She suggests that her career was the product of a series of accidents and that as a women working in a politics department in the 1950s and 1960s she faced challenges from a profession that dismissed the contribution of women. While Ostrom has never to my knowledge defined herself as a feminist or a feminist economist, her experience as a woman has shaped her thinking. If one takes Rebecca West's dictum that, 'I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat', Ostrom is indeed a feminist.

After winning the Nobel Prize she noted ' To an outside observer, my career may look
rather successful at the current time. Has it al-
ways been this way? To be honest, the answer
is no. My entry into an undergraduate major in
political science was almost accidental.'

Elinor was born in Los Angeles on August 7th, 1933 Adrian and Leah Awan. Her mother was Protestant, her father Jewish, brought up a Protestant, she remembers children shouting 'Jew' at her in the sunday school playground, ' "I got circled in the schoolroom, out on the playground."

'You Jew! You Jew!'" she recalled, her voice rising, imitating the taunts.
"Having that experience as a kid and being a woman, and having that challenge as it has been at different times to be a woman, I've got pretty good sympathy for people who are not necessarily at the center of civic appreciation'

Adrian Awan was a set designer for the Hollywood Bowl and the Civic Light Opera, Leah was a musician and for a time managed the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Born during the Depression and growing up in war time, Elinor suffered personal disappointment and auster times. She wanted to be a ballerina but suffered from flat feet and had a stutter which limited her interactions at school. Her almost Gandhian commitment to a low impact lifestyle was influence by her up bringing, while later she was to take economics courses and excel in them, she never seems to have had a desire to accumulate wealth.

We need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house. Some of the homes that have been built in the last 10 years just appall me. Why do humans need huge homes? I was born poor and I didn’t know you bought clothes at anything but the Goodwill until I went to college. Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth. http://rs.resalliance.org/2010/04/18/an-interview-with-elinor-ostrom/

Elinor developed a love of what she termed 'contestation' i.e debate and argument from an early age. This she argued was rooted in discussion about religion, while neither of her parents were particularly religious, she spent time with her aunt who was committed to kosher practices.

"That was a wonderful experience for me, the Friday night discussions they had," she recalled. "It was a serious kosher home, and the Friday night discussions were very serious."

Companies - Published Wednesday, 09 December 2009 06:57 | Author: Herald-Times http://www.swedishwire.com/business/1985-the-story-of-non-economist-elinor-ostrom

Her parents divorced and she continued to live with her mother in Los Angeles, they grew their own food, to help get through tough times. To the amusement of Elinor and her friends she graduated from Beverley Hills High School.

High School provides two of the accidents that propelled Elinor towards an academic career. An unusually large percentage of Beverley Hills students went on to higher education, if Elinor had gone to another High School her academic career might have been stopped at an early stage. The school also saw her interest in politics blossom because of her stutter.

'Colleagues have asked what led me to become

a political scientist. One answer is that I be-

came a political scientist because I stuttered in

high school'

She was encouraged to join a poetry club and then the debating club:

'For two years

I competed against teams from many other

California high schools. Learning how to de-

bate was a great background for a scholarly ca-

reer. As a debater, you learn that there are al-

ways at least two sides to every issue, because in

the diverse rounds of one tournament you are

likely to be assigned both sides of the debate

topic, and you must be prepared to make an

effective argument for whichever side you are


Elinor went on to UCLA and took a politics course, she gained an early interested in economics and seems to have excelled, 'I also took a lot of

economics and business courses. Fortunately, I

did very well in my economics classes and was

asked in my junior year if I would help grade the

freshman economics exams. I ended up grading

economics exams for a year and a half.

She graduated with a political science degree in 1954, she wanted to continue in education but faced some opposition.

she learnt to type, working for an electronics firm and then a Boston law firm.

Looking for a job in the 1950s as a female and

as a new college graduate was an “instructive”

experience. The first question in every inter-

view was whether I had typing and shorthand

skills. After working for a year as Export Clerk

in a Cambridge electronics firm, I finally landed

a position as Assistant Personnel Manager in a

distinguished Boston firm that had never hired a women before'

She married a fellow UCLA student Charles Scott but the divorced a few years later, he was critical of her plan to take a Ph.D . The divorce however was amicable and Ostrom saw it as an example of the kind of politics of negotion that inspired her work on the commons, "That's problem solving, too," she observed. "Sometimes, with couples, it's OK to say it's not working and it's not going to work and you move on."

She returned to Los Angeles and took first a masters and then her Ph.D in politics at UCLA. In 1957 she also gained a position in the Personnel Office for UCLA, involved in recruitment she note 'This was particularly grati-

fying because I had been able to diversify the

firm’s staff, previously all white and Protestant

or Catholic, to include several new employees

who were black or Jewish'

While she was discouraged from taking a Ph.D in economics because of her lack of mathematice, her job was used to try to discourage her from taking a politics doctorate. Sexism was a huge barrier for would be women academics during the 1950s,

The graduate advi-

sor in political science strongly discouraged me

from thinking about a doctorate, given that I al-

ready had a very good “professional” position.

He indicated that the “best” I could do with a

Ph.D. was to teach at some city college with

a very heavy teaching load. My earlier expe-

rience with finding a professional position in

Cambridge led me to ignore this warning and

apply for an assistantship so I could pursue a

Ph.D. on a full-time basis. Fortunately, I was

granted an assistantship.'

She took seminiar with Vincent Ostrom and she eventually married. Vincent's research interest was in local governance, he had published a ground breaking paper “The Organization of Government in Metropolitan Areas: A Theoretical Inquiry,” Elinor's work has been strongly influenced by his work and they have collaborated for decades on projects. Vincent asked students to research the governance of water basins,

My assignment was the West Basin, which

underlay a portion of the city of Los Angeles

and 11 other cities. During the first half of the

twentieth century, water producers ignored the

facts that the level of groundwater underlying

Los Angeles was going down and seawater was

intruding along the coast. Toward the end of

World War II, several municipal water depart-

ments asked the U.S. Geological Survey to con-

duct a major study of the area and agreed to fund

one third of the study. The report detailed a

grim picture of substantial overdraft and threat

of further saltwater intrusion that could even-

tually ruin the basin for human use.

Both Ostroms became fascinated in how individuals could cooperate to conserve environments like the West Basin, without destroying them.

my dissertation was a great big thick thing on how ground water producers in Southern California, earlier in an urban area, in LA, were able to solve a very very tough problem. They were pumping water down and the salt water was going in and they developed a whole series of strategies to solve it and solve it very successfully.


After marrying they move dto Bloomington, Indiana, where they both gained jobs at Indiana University, Elinor was in her words "bottom of the totem pole" as one could get, teaching American government at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Both want to make political science into a practical, even experimental, endeavour, later setting up a political science workshop, they were inspired by the unlikely pursuit of furniture making,

Vincent and I used to go on Thursday nights and all day Saturdays to (Unionville carpenter) Paul Goodman's," she recalled. "Yes, we made furniture there. Our dining room table. Cabinets. Pretty much everything in our house except the padded chairs.

The collaborative experience, especially making large furniture items, played into both Vincent and Lin's already-held beliefs about working together to solve problems. "One of the reasons we called this place a workshop instead of a center was because of working with Paul and understanding what artisanship was.
"You might be working on something like a cabinet and thinking about the design of it, and thinking this idea versus that idea, and then Paul could pick up a board and say, oh, you shouldn't use this one because it will split. He could see things in wood that we couldn't. So the whole idea of artisans and apprentices and the structure of a good workshop really made an impression on us.
"It was Vincent's idea to call it a workshop in political theory and policy analysis. There's a real philosophical reason for it. And to this day, the people who have come through or are currently working there refer to themselves as workshoppers."

Thus in 1973 they created the the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. Elinor increasingly focussed on the question of Commons, publishing the ground breaking 'Governing the Commons' in 1990 and winning recognition for her work in 2009. The often unusual life experience of Elinor Ostrom clearly shaped her innovative approach to political economy.

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