In Memoriam Elinor Ostrom

Today, one of the most important social scientists of the last few decades, Elinor Ostrom, died at 78. She was the first woman to be awarded the Swedish Royal Bank’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (in 2009, jointly with Oliver Williamson). Her main area of study was the commons – “resources that are owned in common or shared among communities [including] everything from natural resources and common land to software.” She challenged the conventional wisdom, which builds particularly on the work of Mancur Olson and Garrett Hardin (the author of the famous Tragedy of the Commons), that common property resources can only be managed properly if they are a) privatised or b) nationalised. Instead, she proposed a framework of analysis, based on numerous case studies and other empirical evidence, that shows that collective action on commons is possible and can in many cases be the most sustainable solution to a commons problem. However, her most important contribution to social sciences in general and to economics in particular is not the theory which she developed itself, but her repeated and persistent call for methodological openness and flexibility. She consequently refused to accept one-size-fits-all explanations of phenomena and equally parochial problem solution approaches. Instead, Ostrom asked for what is called a policentric approach to policy – a framework within which multiple scales with different, case-specifically tailored approaches are relevant. Similarly, in the area of theoretical and empirical research, she stressed the importance of various differing approaches and sources of data. For most of modern social sciences, this has been truely revolutionary.

Ostrom’s premature death is a great loss for social sciences, especially of the practical, policy-oriented kind. One only can hope that her ideas will not die with her.

Rest in peace.

Update: Here Ostrom’s last article, published on the day of her death, can be found: Green from the Grassroots.

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