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June 17th, 2012

Elinor Ostrom’s work on Governing The Commons: An Appreciation

19 comments | 146 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

blog admin

June 17th, 2012

Elinor Ostrom’s work on Governing The Commons: An Appreciation

19 comments | 146 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Leading political scientist Elinor Ostrom passed away on 6 June 2012. Wyn Grant gives an appreciation of her work and innovative thinking. He notes her thought was always marked by an outstanding commitment to the development of the modern social sciences and the integration of clear theory with strong evidence.

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Laureate 1933–2012                                  (Photo by Chris Meyer)

Professor Elinor Ostrom died of cancer on June 6, 2012 at IU Health Bloomington Hospital aged 78. She was the first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics for her groundbreaking research on the ways that people organize themselves to manage resources. A former president of the American Political Science Association, she worked across different disciplines in the social sciences and also influenced work in the physical sciences relating to environmental management.

Born August 7th 1933 in Los Angeles, Professor Ostrom worked at Indiana University, where she was senior research director of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Distinguished Professor and Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, and professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Elinor Ostrom was an outstandingly generous and comparatively orientated American political scientist. She had kindly accepted my invitation to be the keynote speaker at the IPSA Congress at Madrid in July, but had to withdraw as her medical condition worsened. Only weeks before she died she contributed to the LSE Review of Books “Academic Inspiration” series on the influences on her early work. She commented there: “I have very little spare time for pleasure reading. I do take a fair number of journals in political science, economics, public policy, and resource policy. One of my evening activities is going through the recent articles and choosing those that I will read very seriously and take notes on.”

I teach her work each year in my module on Economics and Politics and it was greatly enjoyed by my students, particularly a video clip in which she explained that no one wanted to be a ‘sucker’ and criticised central authority in terms of “the big guys with the guns.”

Understanding when collective action can be effective

In all her work Professor Ostrom sought to explore mechanisms for tackling common problems that faced communities across the world, avoiding both statist and market oriented approaches. She did not like the image of the helpless observer caught in an inexorable web of destroying their own resources. She argued that societies and groups regularly devise rules and enforcement mechanisms that stop the degradation of nature.

In Governing the Commons: the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action she set sought to develop a series of empirical studies of groundwater basins to provide a “broader theory of institutional arrangements related to the effective governance and management of common-pool resources” (p. xiv).

At the beginning of the book she sets out three models often used to provide a foundation for recommending state or market solutions. She then poses “theoretical and empirical alternatives to these models to begin to illustrate the diversity of solutions that go beyond states and markets”, (p. 2).

As she points out later in the book, these models are not wrong; rather they “are special models that utilize extreme assumptions rather than general theories. These models can successfully predict strategies and outcomes in fixed situations approximating the initial conditions of the models, but they cannot predict outcomes outside that range” (p. 183).

The three models are Hardin’s tragedy of the commons; the prisoners’ dilemma model; and Olson’s logic of collective action. Hardin’s model has been very influential. As Ostrom points out, it has been used as a metaphor for the general problem of overpopulation. Another way of putting it in terms of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s notion of the limited “carrying capacity” of the planet which has already been exceeded, particularly by resource hungry developed countries. As Ostrom notes, “Much of the world is dependent on resources that are subject to the possibility of a tragedy of the commons” (p. 3).

As Ostrom notes, “Hardin’s model has often been formalized as a prisoner’s dilemma game” (p. 3). She develops alternative games to open up the discussion of institutional options for solving commons dilemmas. This involves including additional moves so that players can make a binding contract to commit themselves to a cooperative strategy that they themselves will work out.

The third model that Ostrom considers is Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action (1965). She later rather tartly described it as a theory of collective inaction. Olson, of course, specifically excludes altruistic groups from his theory and it is these groups that have proliferated in numbers and members since 1965.

However, as Jordan and Maloney have demonstrated in Democracy and Interest Groups (Palgrave Macmillan) 2007 much of the membership of these groups is limited to cheque book or direct debit participation with little potential for effective democratic engagement. As one of my students sagaciously observed in response to a question comparing Olson and Ostrom, a great deal of apparent action may be a mask for inaction in terms of democratic participation.

Jordan and Maloney suggest that “Olson may be correct to focus on the majority who do not participate” (p. 68) and that “Olson may be inadequate in explaining participation, but conceivably … he could still be right about the motivations of the majority of non-participators” (p. 67).

Ostrom considers that Olson is less pessimistic than many readings of him suggest. She is interested in what he has to say about intermediate groups which fit many of the characteristics of the group she studies. These groups are not so large that other participants cannot see who is failing to contribute to the collective good and hence are able to exert pressure on them.

Working with a broadly institutionalist perspective, Ostrom sought to find solutions to the “Tragedy of the Commons”, exploring the prisoners’ dilemma and using game theoretic reasoning in an innovative way. She attempted to provide alternatives to standard and narrowly constructed models of rational choice. She emphasised that it was important to incorporate actors” self-understanding of their roles and their conceptions of proper or acceptable behaviour in particular contexts.

For me Ostrom’s work demonstrated once again the validity of a point made by Patrick Dunleavy many years ago that rational choice offers a neutral toolkit for political science and needs to be rescued from being captured by any political position. No doubt it has been used by many neo-liberals and advocates of limited government as noted by Colin Hay in Why We Hate Politics. As Dunleavy has also noted, the dominant rational choice models of bureaucracy do not travel well across the Atlantic and need to be modified for use outside the US.

Nevertheless, Ostrom shows that this kind of thinking can be deployed and developed to explore cooperative solutions. I would see her as part of an American liberal tradition in the broad sense of that term. That would include a suspicion of the capacity and motive of the state, although she would recognize that government authority and resources can be used to underpin and facilitate efforts at self-organization.

She argued that long-term sustainability needs rules that match attributes of resource systems and users. Large-scale governance systems may facilitate such arrangements, but they could also be destructive, e.g., colonial powers did not recognise local resource institutions that had developed over centuries.

Understanding the complexity of socio-ecological systems

In an important integrative article in Science in 2009 (Vol. 325, 24 July) Professor Ostrom sought to provide “A general framework for analysing the sustainability of socio-ecological systems” – that is, environmental systems with a strong human intervention. Cumulating her work and that of others, she sought to identify ten subsystem variables that affect the likelihood of successful self-organization of efforts to achieve a sustainable socio-ecological systems by the communities involved. Summarized in a simple form the ten variables were:

  1. The size of resource system – a moderate territorial size is most conducive to self-organization.
  2. The productivity of system – self-organization is less likely to work if a resource is either over abundant or already exhausted.
  3. The predictability of system dynamics – for example, some fishery systems approach mathematical chaos, making self-organization infeasible..
  4. Resource unit mobility – self-organization becomes more difficult with mobile rather than stationary units, e.g., in a river versus a lake.
  5. The number of users, – transaction costs can be higher with larger groups, but such groups can also mobilize more resources. The net effect depends on other variables and on the tasks undertaken.
  6. Leadership – high skills and an established track record amongst leaders aids self-organization.
  7. Norms and social capital – in terms of shared moral and ethical standards.
  8. Knowledge of the socio-ecological system – more if better.
  9. The importance of resource to users – where the resources is vital, self-organization becomes easier.
  10. Collective choice rules – which can lower transaction costs.

In recent work for the World Bank Professor Ostrom had sought to scale up her approach so as to tackle the problem of climate change. She advocated a polycentric approach that recognised the value of “bottom up” ways of tackling this global public bad.

Elinor Ostrom was clearly a great human being, modest, approachable and doing a great deal to encourage young scholars. She sought to be both methodologically rigorous and to outline practical ways of tackling real world problems that were inclusive and engaged citizens. She will be greatly missed.


Wyn Grant is a part-time professor in the Department Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. He has worked closely on research projects with colleagues in the Department of Life Sciences and teaches there and at the Warwick Crops Centre, Wellesbourne. In 2010 he was presented with the Diamond Jubilee Lifetime Achievement award of the Political Studies Association of the UK at their Awards Ceremony. He was elected an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2011. His most recent book is (co-edited with Graham Wilson) The Consequences of the Global Financial Crisis: the Rhetoric of Reform and Regulation Read more reviews by Wyn.


Elinor Ostrom: collected links

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This work by LSE Review of Books is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales.