Elinor Ostrom

by Kieran Healy on June 12, 2012

Elinor Ostrom, a great voice for good social science, and good in social science, has died. A political scientist by training, she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. She did a great deal of important work on the creation and management of common-pool resources. Reading her work, it always seemed to me that 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.



+Roger Burgess 06.12.12 at 1:57 pm

I remember writing up a congratulatory remark for her on the Center for the Study of Public Choice site a couple of years ago. That’s sad.


Sandwichman 06.12.12 at 3:15 pm

I only know Elinor Ostrom through her work but it feels like I have lost a close friend or family member. Elinor Ostrom, Presente!


Lee A. Arnold 06.12.12 at 3:55 pm

I am sitting here looking at five of her books on my shelves. Her list of the design principles for common-resource institutions is a good starting-place for thinking about institutions of any type. She showed that the free-rider problem has been solved in other ways, sometimes in better ways, than by market privatisation of the natural resource (yet privatization remains the foolish solution of standard economists). Indeed she argued that Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” was largely caused by the introduction of the market into arrangements that had been stable and sustainable for centuries (see for example, Dietz, Ostrom, and Stern, Science vol. 302, December 2003).


Guano 06.12.12 at 4:37 pm

I too have a number of her books on my shelf. The lesson of her books seems to be that, even if they are very tricky, management problems of common-pool resources have to be solved because the problem won’t go away. Trying to solve them by privatistaion of the resources is just ignoring the nature of the problem.


Sus 06.12.12 at 5:31 pm

She really did care about getting the answer right, and was unceasingly curious. She was also a great teacher and mentor to those of us fortunate enough to spend time at her Workshop on Political Theory and Policy analysis. She’ll be missed personally and professionally.


Paddy Matthews 06.12.12 at 5:40 pm

Completely off-topic when it comes to respected economists, but an old friend of Crooked Timber seems to have made a bit of a boo-boo.


Henry 06.12.12 at 5:44 pm

This is terrible news. In addition to being a great scholar she was a wonderful human being – warm, funny, incredibly sharp. She was very kind to me when I was a younger scholar, and to many others too. We’ve lost someone extraordinary.


Shane Taylor 06.12.12 at 6:15 pm

Rajiv Sethi just paid his respects to Ostrom and her legacy in this post.


Sumana Harihareswara 06.12.12 at 7:05 pm


Katherine 06.12.12 at 7:36 pm

Any literature recommendations?

Sheesh, all I seem to be doing at the moment is asking people to tell me how to find out about stuff. Apologies if this is irksome.


TheF79 06.12.12 at 8:49 pm

“She showed that the free-rider problem has been solved in other ways, sometimes in better ways, than by market privatisation of the natural resource (yet privatization remains the foolish solution of standard economists). ”

As a pretty bog-standard neoclassically-trained economist who has incorporated Ostrom’s ideas into basically everything I’ve ever worked on in this area, I find that comment a bit strange. Clearly lots of economists value her work, as evidenced by that Nobel thingy she has.

In any case, she was a great scholar and she will be missed. When I was still a grad student, she passed on some extremely nice comments about a paper I was working on. My parents were rather confused when I called them breathlessly exclaiming that Elinor Ostrom said something nice about my work!


Maria 06.12.12 at 10:32 pm

Hi Katharine, far from it being irksome, most people love to share names of books they’ve loved.

Speaking as more of a general reader, I recommend Governing the Commons. It has several really compelling and well-researched case studies and had big theoretical impact. I’m not neoclassically trained, per The F79 above, but my memory is that this book explicitly sets out to look at non-privatization ways people have figured out to avoid the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’.

I only met Elinor Ostrom once, introduced by Henry at APSA a few years ago, and she was remarkably warm and kind. It was pre-Nobel but I was completely starstruck to meet the person who’d written such an important book.


John Quiggin 06.12.12 at 10:38 pm

I met her once or twice at conferences on common property back in the early 1990s. A lovely person who really made this into a growing field of research rather than a handful of isolated individuals in different disciplines, often rediscovering the same things.


Lee A. Arnold 06.12.12 at 10:54 pm

“I find that comment a bit strange.”

Sorry, I should have written “privatization remains the foolish solution of any economist who has made a serious impact on the public discussion in this area.” Because it seems to me that the last one to have such an impact was Milton Friedman, and environmentalists are still fighting against his influence upon people who think that privatization of wildlands is a good idea. I have two recent college textbooks on environmental economics in front of me, and only one of them mentions Ostrom (one paragraph).


gmoke 06.12.12 at 11:22 pm

I mentioned her last night at Harvard Law on the book launch of Doc Searl’s _The Intention Economy_, which deals with Vendor Rights Management and maintaining the Internet as a common pool resource. Suggested to Searl’s wife that they contact Elinor Ostrom as I thought she’d be a wonderful resource to draw on. But now she’s gone.

So glad I took the opportunity to thank her for her work when she lectured at Tufts a few years ago. Saw her lecture twice at Tufts and MIT. Read some of her articles and will now have to study her work more thoroughly.

Fact is, she was not as well known as she should have been and her work was not part of the mainstream conversation. I remember when she won the Nobel that even Krugman mentioned that he was not familiar with her work and at least two extremely active women in the sustainability field told me that they did not know her or her work.

May her work become better known after her death because we certainly need it. I shed a few tears today. She was a deeply honest thinker and a gracious lady.


Chris Bertram 06.13.12 at 7:18 am

Very glad that I made it to her Oxford Amnesty lecture a few weeks ago. Very inspiring.


Katherine 06.13.12 at 10:13 am

Thanks Maria.

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