Elinor Ostrom

Who Was Elinor Ostrom?

Elinor Ostrom was a political scientist who in 2009 became the first-ever woman to receive the prestigious Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, along with economist Oliver Williamson. Ostrom was awarded the accolade for her research analyzing economic governance, with a focus on managing finite common-pool resources within a community. These finite resources are referred to as "commons."

Key Takeaways

  • Elinor Ostrom was a political scientist who made history in 2009, becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
  • Ostrom was awarded the accolade for her research analyzing economic governance, with a focus on managing finite resources, referred to as "commons," within a community.
  • The Indiana University professor demonstrated that common-pool resources can be effectively managed collectively, without government or private control.

Life and Career

Elinor Claire Awan was born Aug. 7, 1933, in Los Angeles, California, living for 78 years until she died of pancreatic cancer on June 12, 2013. She studied political science in college, and graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a Ph.D. in 1965, two years after marrying her husband, political economist Vincent Ostrom.

Ostrom's started her academic career at Indiana University. Over the years, she moved up the ranks, starting as an assistant professor before eventually being promoted to the role of Arthur F. Bentley professor of political science and co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

Ostrom, known as "Lin" to her family, friends, and colleagues, was also the founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University.


Elinor Ostrom published several books during her career, including Governing the Commons (1990), Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005), and Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice (2010). Ostrom contributed plenty to the field of political science, although it was her award-winning scholarly work showing how communities can successfully share common resources, such as waterways, livestock grazing land, and forests, through collective property rights that best defined her legacy.

Conventional economic wisdom said that property that is communally owned tended to be mismanaged, a phenomenon known as the "tragedy of the commons." Ostrom was able to debunk this popular theory, which was originally outlined by ecologist Garrett Hardin, documenting many places around the world where communities have cooperated successfully to govern common resources and ensure that they remain viable for current and future inhabitants.

Hardin posited that common resources should be owned by the government or divided into privately-owned lots to prevent them from being depleted. Through her studies, Ostrom proved that this is not always the case, showing that when a resource is shared its users can establish rules for the use and care of them in ways that are both economically and environmentally sustainable without any regulation by central authorities or privatization.

In 2012, Ostrom appeared on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Theory of Collective Action

Based on her extensive research, Ostrom developed eight principles for the successful management of common resources through collective action.

  • Define clear boundaries of the common resource: For example, groups that are allowed access to the common resource should be clearly defined.
  • Rules governing the use of common resources should fit local needs and conditions: Rules should be determined by local interested parties.
  • As many users of the resource as possible should participate in making decisions regarding usage: People are more likely to follow rules that they have helped create.
  • Usage of common resources must be monitored: Users of the resource must be made accountable for not following defined rules and boundaries.
  • Sanctions for violators of the defined rules should be graduated: Rather than an immediate ban on access to the resource, violators are first subject to a system of warnings, fines, and informal reputational consequences.
  • Conflicts should be resolved easily and informally: Low-cost dispute resolution regarding the resource encouraging compliance.
  • Higher-level authorities recognize the established rules and self-governance of resource users: Governments or other territorial authorities should ideally recognize and back up, or at least not undermine, collective action agreements, institutions, and conflict resolution.
  • Common resource management should consider regional resource management: Responsibility for governing the regional resources should start from the smallest local level and include the entire interconnected system, such as in the case of managing a regional waterway.