Thursday, June 14, 2012
Obituary: Elinor Ostrom
Elinor Ostrom, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 78, was the first and only woman to win the Nobel prize for economics. She received the award, shared with Oliver E Williamson, in 2009 for her analyses of how individuals and communities can often manage common resources – ranging from irrigation and fisheries to information systems – as well or better than markets, companies or the state. Earlier this year, she appeared on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Lin, as she was known to friends, family and colleagues – of whom I was one – was born in Los Angeles and attended Beverly Hills high school. After completing her doctorate in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1965 – a time when it was still rare for women to hold advanced degrees, let alone tenured positions, in the social sciences – she moved, with her husband, the political theorist Vincent Ostrom, to Bloomington, Indiana, where Lin was initially hired as a visiting assistant professor at Indiana University. The couple remained at the university for the rest of their long and productive careers. Her work was for a long time considered far outside the mainstream of American political science.
In 1973 the Ostroms co-founded a research and teaching centre, the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, where academics could engage in collaborative and interdisciplinary learning and scholarship. The couple evolved a distinct "Bloomington school" of political economy, premised on notions of polycentric governance that Vincent had pioneered in the early 1960s. Polycentric systems involve resource management at multiple levels. The notion remained a constant feature of Lin's work throughout her career, including recent contributions to climate change literature.
Having started her career by focusing on groundwater resources in the Los Angeles basin, then studying neighbourhood policing in Indianapolis, Lin turned her attention to the subject that gained her worldwide recognition: how the overexploitation of unowned or commonly owned resources could be averted by collective action by local users. Her hugely influential 1990 book, Governing the Commons, examined numerous local management regimes for common resources and established a set of principles for predicting success and failure. It was this work, challenging the conventional wisdom of resource management, which the Nobel committee cited as her primary contribution to economics. But it was far from her only major contribution.
The Ostrom name will for ever be associated with two related frameworks for social-scientific analysis: the institutional analysis and design (IAD) framework and the still-evolving social-ecological systems (SES) framework. The former received its most comprehensive treatment in her 2005 book, Understanding Institutional Diversity, and has become one of the leading analytical tools in the study of public policy. While IAD focused on social rules governing resource use, the SES framework, which pays equal attention to ecological features, will be among Lin's legacies to social science. She also provided a model for breaking down disciplinary boundaries so that researchers from diverse fields could collaborate. In her 2010 book, Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice, Lin and her co-authors offered concrete ideas to make collaboration more successful.
Throughout her work, Lin made it clear that complex and combined social and ecological problems defied simple (or simplistic) institutional solutions. At the biweekly Bloomington Workshop seminars, over which she presided for many years, she would often deny the existence of panaceas. To her, the combined social and ecological world was a highly complex place in which different circumstances favoured different approaches to problem-solving.
Lin received a dozen honorary doctorates from universities from Harvard to Uppsala, and more than two dozen awards and prizes from academic and professional organisations. She served as president of the American Political Science Association, the International Association for the Study of Common Property, and the Public Choice Society, and on the executive boards or committees of dozens of professional organisations, including the National Science Foundation, the Max Planck Institute, the National Research Council, the MacArthur Foundation and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. She sat on editorial boards of nearly two dozen journals.
Lin was an intensely private and modest person who was taken aback and sometimes embarrassed by the attention she received towards the end of her career. To her, accolades took a back seat to the work, which was always, in her mind, a collaborative enterprise. It was not out of false modesty that she often referred to her Nobel prize as the Workshop's prize.
Her legacy is contained not only in the nearly three dozen books and more than 300 articles and chapters she published, but also in the approximately 80 students whose dissertations she supervised (she sat on the dissertation committees of approximately 50 others) and who now are scholars in social science departments at colleges and universities throughout the world. Lin was diagnosed with cancer in October 2011 but maintained for as long as possible her demanding work and travel schedule. Even after surgery in May 2012, she completed work on several papers and continued to talk about future projects.
She is survived by Vincent.
• Elinor Ostrom, economist, born 7 August 1933; died 12 June 2012