13 May 2018

Elinor Ostrom’s pragmatism:4:30pm, May 29th, 2018 Bush House North East Wing, Kings College, University of London

‘He was, indeed, in the habit of always comparing what he heard or read with an already familiar canon, and felt his admiration quicken if he could detect no difference.  This state of mind is by no means to be ignored, for applied, to political conversations, to the reading of newspapers, it forms public opinion and thereby makes possible the greatest events in history.’  (Proust 2000: 469)

Proust, M. (2000) In Search of Lost Time: III The Guermantes Way. Vintage Books, London.

 Elinor Ostrom’s pragmatism.

I am speaking at Kings College on 29th May on Elinor Ostrom.  I am hoping that lots of people come along and we can have a good discussion, I have tried to pick a topic that goes beyond what people may already know about Elinor Ostrom and tried to move things on from what I have written about her before in my intellectual  biography  The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom and my account of Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals.

 I will try to situate her approach, to explain a way of understanding where her work comes from and how it relates to the work of other thinkers and traditions.  Elinor Ostrom, as is obvious, to those who have read her work or may have even met her was a complex, diverse and, above all, unusual thinker.  What I am especially concerned to do is to situate her as a pragmatic thinker and to show that while we can never escape ideology and ideological readings of her work are tempting, her pragmatism makes her particularly interesting and important.  Pragmatism, of course, can never be separated from ideology but my point is that if we come to a thinker in the spirit of Proust’s words, looking for confirmation of our pre-existing beliefs and biases, this may be unproductive.

Here I will introduce Elinor Ostrom’s work, if you are already familiar you can probably skip this.  I will suggest that she is a difficult thinker to ‘situate’, she doesn’t quite fit in with an established cannon or tradition, there is always an excess or supplement or contradiction in placing her.

I will go on to look at the fact that ideological readings of her work can be tempting.

I will outline briefly that while viewing her as liberal thinker how Paul Dragos Alligica shows to my mind quite convincingly that she has a strong affinity with the American philosopher John Dewey.

Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) was the first and so far the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics.  Strictly speaking there is no specific economics nobel but the Swedish Royal Bank Prize is by convention described as such!  She was awarded it, sharing with another institutional economist Williamson, for her work on commons.  Commons are collectively owned resources.  In 1968 the biologist Garrett Hardin published The Tragedy of the Commons in the journal Science.  He suggested that common ownership would inevitably lead to the destruction of the environment.  He argued that commons, for example, fields, fisheries or forests, should be privatised or controlled by the state, rather than continuing as collectively community owned property.  Elinor Ostrom while taking Hardin’s thesis seriously argued that commons were not always tragic, she found many examples of commons that had been sustained sometimes over centuries.  Her body of work dealt with researching how commons could be maintained and focussed on locally agreed sets of conservation rules which created ecologically sustainable institutions for resource management.  Her work built strongly on that of her husband Vincent Ostrom.  Intriguingly they took a methodologically individualist approach to social phenomena but worked in a collective manner.  The fact that she dealt with a serious of problems that concerned many on the left but drew most obviously on thinkers normally conceived as on the right, most significantly, James Buchanan, even at this level of brief description brings a pleasing challenge to all who would describe her work with certainty and simplicity.

Ideology is a difficult term.  First like many terms in political science it can be used in a pejorative sense like ‘imperialism’, ‘fascism’ or perhaps ‘statist’.  Equally where it has been used to analyse rather than insult, its complexity makes it difficult to pin down.  I believe the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton wrote that is was the second most diversely defined term in the English language the first being ‘nature’.  Positively and simply it might denote a political or philosophical discourse based on a set of linked concepts.  Socialism, green politics (sometimes termed ecologism), liberalism, conservatism and fascism are all in this sense ideologies.  I am using it here to include this notion of a relatively stable set of ideas that provide a political and, inevitably, a philosophical worldview.  I am also using it in the sense of a group identity, like Proust’s character we seek to read what we already know and to take comfort from such reading!

So those of us, on the left, who are enthused with the commons and angry about its enclosure (which incidentally continues in the 21st century), have an obvious ideological excitement about Elinor Ostrom’s work.  Yet read most accounts of her and they are full of free market Austrian economists such as Frank Knight, James Buchanan and Hayek.  She certainly can be understood with reference to ‘classic liberalism’.  But, in turn, she subverts so much of what is seen as liberalism including the notion of undiluted self-interest and the primacy of private property.

Paul Dragos Aligica, who was a student of the Ostroms, has written extensively on their legacy.  While he stresses the liberal aspect of their work, they rejected state solutions where community action was possible, which he sees as an approach where Hobbesian pessimism (which would call for a strong state) is met with a (Adam) Smithean, and thus classically liberal alternative, Dragos Aligica notes the strong connect between both Ostroms approach and that of the US philosopher John Dewey.  While Aligica does not claim Elinor would have claimed to have been a follower of Dewey, many aspects of his philosophy such as a focus on language, democracy and practical implications of conceptual work, are shared with her.  Aligica and Boettke have previously noted the sophisticated linguistic element of the Ostroms’ work, which they relate to the pragmatists Searle and Pierce.  Thus while sympathetic to direct democracy and popular participation, values of diversity and ecological respect, neither Ostrom sought to set up a system based on fixed and unchanging concepts.

Elinor Ostrom was a pragmatist in a specific sense that she sought to answer a problem or puzzle, rather than dealing with broad prescriptions.  Her approach contrasts strong in this regard with Garrett Hardin.  Ideological approaches to the commons, either condemning or celebrating collective ownership, can be contrasted with a pragmatic view that poses commons as a collective action problem.  This was very much her approach, some resources can not easily be owned privately, they are almost inevitably commons, commons can lead to degradation, so how can we work out ways of making the commons sustainable.


So often we find that self-declared pragmatism is contrasted with the (foolish and dogmatic) ideology of others.  Ideology being used in this way as a pejorative term which is challenged with ‘common sense’.  ‘I am practical, you in contrast are enslaved by dogma.’  This is not a move that Elinor Ostrom made but nonetheless it may be impossible to entirely separate pragmatism from ideology in her work or indeed in that of any thinker.  An emphasis on practical problem solving provides a contrast, broadly, with an ideological approach based on a pre-existing framework which is defended.  However, the kinds of problems which are thought worthy of solving are conditioned perhaps by ideological considerations.

Elinor Ostrom should not be seen, in my opinion, as providing a flag to follow, a symbol to pursue in support of an ideology but instead provides a set of concepts for dealing with socio-ecological problems.

Ideology might be viewed as closed, in contrast, her work and that of Vincent was always open to further reformulation.


Dragos Aligica, P. (2014) Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ostrom, E.  (1990) Governing the Commons.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Dr Derek Wall is an associate lecturer in Political Economy at Goldsmiths College.  His books include The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom (2014) and Elinor Ostrom's Rules for Radicals (2017)

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