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Research as the Commons: Elinor Ostrom

by Irmi Seidl Wednesday, Jul. 25, 2012 at 2:19 AM

Elinor Ostrom was well-known in 2009 when she was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for economics. In her analysis of governance of the commons, she put in question the past economic model that common goods can only be managed successfully by the market or the state.


Elinor Ostrom studied the Swiss commons, refuted the notion of Homo oeconomicus and proposed ways out of the “tragedy of the commons”

By Irmi Seidl

[This article published in the Swiss WOZ, 6/21/2012 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.woz.ch/1225/elinor-ostrom-193302012/auch-die-forschung-wer-fuer-sie-gemeingut.]

Elinor Ostrom was well-known in 2009 when she was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for economics. The contribution of the US political scientist born in 1933 for economics, as the Nobel Prize committee wrote, was in her analysis of governance, especially of common property, “governance of the commons.” She put in question the past economic model: that common goods can only be managed successfully by the market or the state.

Ostrom analyzed the extensive literature on dealing with common property that arose in many countries and different disciplines. From that, she developed a theory on the conditions under which these common goods could be successfully shared without being destroyed. She presented the theory in the book “The Order of the Commons. Beyond State and Market” (1989). She subjected her findings to scrutiny. With experiments and colleagues, she refuted play-theory assumptions according to which everyone tries to maximize his or her benefits. She invalidated the assumptions about the Homo oeconomicus, the sacred cow of economics up until recently, in the use of common property. In theory and experiments, she showed the importance of communication, reciprocity, trust and social relations in economic conduct.


Elinor Ostrom also influenced the development of the experimental economy, the most exciting new development within economics in the last two decades. Besides laboratory experiments, Ostrom utilized field experiments, role-playing and other current initiatives. Economics cannot simply ignore her findings. Her wide-ranging methodical repertoire, her training in different disciplines including economics, political science and ethnology as well as the large number and heterogeneity of her cooperation partners were impressive and extraordinary.

For Ostrom, research and knowledge were a common heritage that thrives best when used and further developed in common. Together with her husband, Vincent Ostrom, she founded the “Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis” at her home university, Indiana University, in Bloomington in the early 1970s. This project is based on the philosophy that science is a form of handiwork and that political institutions and human conduct can be better understood through a diversity of studies of different disciplines.

Ostrom’s work is also effective in environmental policy. Environmental problems often result from the overuse of public goods and common property (for example: over-fishing, deforestation, water- and air pollution). That was her research theme. She argued that the “tragedy of the commons” is not an unavoidable fate and showed the factors for success and failure in relating to environmental goods. She inspired both environmental research and policy and the development of institutional arrangements for protecting environmental goods. Thanks to her worldwide network of colleagues from research and practice, her work is effective to the distant corners of the earth. At the end of March 2012, she appeared in London at the International conference “Planet under Pressure” already visibly weakened by her cancer.


Ostrom’s works influence engagements with “modern common property” like urban gardening, open hardware and software, open design projects, knowledge-commons like Wikipedia, book-crossing communities and so on. “Commons-based production methods” are envisioned: an organization of economic actors where different people participate, engage themselves, develop rules, produce and consume together – without the goal of profit, self-organized and not mediated by the market or the state. Ostrom encouraged people to develop these public goods.

Ostrom had a close connection to Switzerland. In 1999 the University of Zurich awarded her first honorary doctorate. Early on she was inspired by the use of the commons, the Alps, the forest and less productive fields in the village Torbel (Wallis). She described this in detail in her book on the commons. She relied on the studies of the American ethnologist Robert Netting who did field research in Torbel in the 1970s. The traditional use of the commons in Switzerland is lived out in the research community around Ostrom.

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