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Elinor Ostrom passed away last week. She was the first, and remains the only, woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Her recognition stands out again due to her training in Political Science and the relative lack of mathematical modelling in her work. Over the last week there has been tons of attention paid to her passing (see here, here, here, here and here), which speaks to either her tremendous influence in the social sciences or the closedness of my intellectual circle — I’ll let the reader decide. I had wanted to write something last week, but wanted to make sure I got the chance to re-read some of her work before.

Ostrom was best known for her research on common-pool resources (CPRs). She positioned herself against the tradition established by Garrett Hardin in 1968 with his extremely influential article “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin, as well as many after him, argued that when individuals face a resource that is both non-excludable (once access is provided to some, it is very difficult to exclude others) and subtractable (an individual’s use of the resource means that another can’t use that same portion of the resource), an incentive exists for individuals to overuse the it (the CPR) and thus deplete it. Scott Gordon’s analysis of a resource’s “maximum sustainable yield” is another, perhaps more sophisticated, analysis of this same problem — where individuals face an individual cost-benefit curve that intersects the maximum sustainable yield curve beyond its sustainable point. The standard economic models that grew out of these analyses argued that overcoming the incentive to overuse and deplete a common resource necessitated outside intervention (ie, the State) and/or instituting well-defined property rights.

Ostrom’s research challenged this approach towards managing the commons. Ostrom explained how communities around the world have developed a diverse array of institutions, policies, rules, norms and systems to cope with the complex task of managing the commons. 

In “Coping with Tragedies of the Commons,” she outlined seven clusters of rules (boundary, position, authority, scope, aggregation, information and payoff) that have been used by communities to manage CPRs. She found that the possible combinations of rule types was practically infinite and that no single rules have unambiguously positive impacts on the management of the resource — although no community managed to maintain their commons without either a type of boundary or authority rule. Rather, rules and institutions must be tailored to the complex local environment in which the action takes place. Rules and institutions interact with each other and with the biophysical environment in ways that are not easily predictable. Due to this complex feedback process, groups situated locally are better able to experiment, evaluate and re-craft rules to better manage the resource than are external analysts imposing allegedly objective standards (“individual property rights”). Ostrom also insisted that developing overlapping (redundant) systems to manage the same resource has a resilience advantage. If a system fails at a local level, a supplementary system needs to be in place at a larger level to compensate, and vice versa. This finding led Ostrom to advocate for polycentric systems of governance where “citizens are able to organize not just one but multiple governing authorities at differing scales” to cope with the persistent personal incentive to overuse a CPR (p. 528). “Coping with Tragedies of the Commons” is a dense but very interesting article, and I encourage you to read it — along with her chapter on collective action theory.

As you can probably tell, the implications of Ostrom’s research are extremely messy. She resisted the scholar’s drive for tidiness and parsimony, insisting instead that scholars look at the multiple and complex interrelations in a biophysical space and its local community. This never led to simple models, but Ostrom’s research demonstrated that seeking parsimony above all else led to incorrect findings.

I’ll finish with two parting quotes on Ostrom from David Harvey and Kieran Healy:

Ostrom show[ed] that individuals can and often do devise ingenious and eminently sensible ways to manage common[-pool] resources for individual and collective benefits.

She was the best kind of researcher—the sort who really cares about getting the right answer to a real empirical problem, even if the problem is very hard and the answer is very tricky.

Further reading:

Ostrom, Elinor. 1999. “Coping With Tragedies of the Commons.” ARPS 2, pp. 493-535.

—. 2005. “Collective Action Theory,” in The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics. edited by Susan Stokes and Charles Boix.

—. 2009. “Sustainable Development and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Stockholm Whiteboard Seminars. (really funny…)

—. 2009. “Elinor Ostrom Checks In,” NPR Planet Money.

—. 2012. “Green from the Grassroots,” Project Syndicate.

Matthew Yglesias on Ostrom.

Edward Glaeser on Ostrom and Williamson after winning the Nobel Prize.

The Monkey Cage’s roundup of Ostrom links.