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Elinor Ostrom Wins Nobel for Common(s) Sense

The newest Nobel Laureate in Economics has built her career on the science of cooperation.

Elinor Ostrom was an unusual choice for the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

For one thing, she is the first woman to receive the prize. Her Ph.D. is in political science, not economics (though she minored in economics, collaborates with many economists, and considers herself a political economist). But what makes this award particularly special is that her work is about cooperation, while standard economics focuses on competition.

Ostrom’s seminal book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, was published in 1990. But her research on common property goes back to the early 1960s, when she wrote her dissertation on groundwater in California. In 1973 she and her husband, Vincent Ostrom, founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. In the intervening years, the Workshop has produced hundreds of studies of the conditions in which communities self-organize to solve common problems. Ostrom currently serves as professor of political science at Indiana University and senior research director of the Workshop.

Fran Korten, YES! Magazine’s publisher, spent 20 years with the Ford Foundation making grants to support community management of water and forests in Southeast Asia and the United States. She and Ostrom drew on one another’s work as this field of knowledge developed. Fran interviewed her friend and colleague Lin Ostrom shortly after Ostrom received the Nobel Prize.


Elinor Ostrom

Nobel winner Elinor Ostrom has built her career on the science of cooperation.

Photo by Chris Meyer / Indiana University

Fran Korten: When you first learned that you had won the Nobel Prize in Economics, were you surprised?

Elinor Ostrom: Yes. It was quite surprising. I was both happy and relieved.

Fran: Why relieved?

Elinor: Well, relieved in that I was doing a bunch of research through the years that many people thought was very radical and people didn’t like. As a person who does interdisciplinary work, I didn’t fit anywhere. I was relieved that, after all these years of struggle, someone really thought it did add up. That’s very nice.

And it’s very nice for the team that I’ve been a part of here at the Workshop. We have had a different style of organizing. It is an interdisciplinary center—we have graduate students, visiting scholars, and faculty working together. I never would have won the Nobel but for being a part of that enterprise.

Fran: It’s interesting that your research is about people learning to cooperate. And your Workshop at the university is also organized on principles of cooperation.

Elinor: I have a new book coming out in May entitled Working Together, written with Amy Poteete and Marco Janssen. It is on collective actions in the commons. What we’re talking about is how people work together. We’ve used an immense array of different methods to look at this question—case studies, including my own dissertation and Amy’s work, modeling, experiments, large-scale statistical work. We show how people use multiple methods to work together.

Fran: Many people associate “the commons” with Garrett Hardin’s famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” He says that if, for example, you have a pasture that everyone in a village has access to, then each person will put as many cows on that land as he can to maximize his own benefit, and pretty soon the pasture will be overgrazed and become worthless. What’s the difference between your perspective and Hardin’s?

Elinor: Well, I don’t see the human as hopeless. There’s a general tendency to presume people just act for short-term profit. But anyone who knows about small-town businesses and how people in a community relate to one another realizes that many of those decisions are not just for profit and that humans do try to organize and solve problems.

If you are in a fishery or have a pasture and you know your family’s long-term benefit is that you don’t destroy it, and if you can talk with the other people who use that resource, then you may well figure out rules that fit that local setting and organize to enforce them. But if the community doesn’t have a good way of communicating with each other or the costs of self-organization are too high, then they won’t organize, and there will be failures.

Fran: So, are you saying that Hardin is sometimes right?

We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.

Elinor: Yes. People say I disproved him, and I come back and say “No, that’s not right. I’ve not disproved him. I’ve shown that his assertion that common property will always be degraded is wrong.” But he was addressing a problem of considerable significance that we need to take seriously. It’s just that he went too far. He said people could never manage the commons well.

At the Workshop we’ve done experiments where we create an artificial form of common property—such as an imaginary fishery or pasture, and we bring people into a lab and have them make decisions about that property. When we don’t allow any communication among the players, then they overharvest. But when people can communicate, particularly on a face-to-face basis, and say, “Well, gee, how about if we do this? How about we do that?” Then they can come to an agreement.

Fran: But what about the “free-rider” problem—where some people abide by the rules and some people don’t? Won’t the whole thing fall apart?

Elinor: Well if the people don’t communicate and get some shared norms and rules, that’s right, you’ll have that problem. But if they get together and say, “Hey folks, this is a project that we’re all going to have to contribute to. Now, let’s figure it out,” they can make it work. For example, if it’s a community garden, they might say, “Do we agree every Saturday morning we’re all going to go down to the community garden, and we’re going to take roll and we’re going to put the roll up on a bulletin board?” A lot of communities have figured out subtle ways of making everyone contribute, because if they don’t, those people are noticeable.

Fran: So public shaming and public honoring are one key to managing the commons?

Elinor: Shaming and honoring are very important. We don’t have as much of an understanding of that. There are scholars who understand that, but that’s not been part of our accepted way of thinking about collective action.

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