Who was Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom was a political scientist who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009, along with Oliver Williamson, and was the first woman to earn this distinction. Her award-winning research analyzed economic governance, with a focus on managing finite resources within a community. These finite resources are referred to as "commons." She has published several books, including Governing the Commons (1990); Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005) and Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice (2010).


Elinor Claire Ostrom was born on August 7, 1933, in Los Angeles, California, and died 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. She was later part of the faculty of Indiana University. While there, she was the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. She was also the founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University.

Contributions to Economic Sciences

Ostrom is most recognized for her scholarly work in regard to understanding how communities can successfully share common resources, such as waterways, livestock grazing land and forests. Conventional economic wisdom says that property that is communally owned tends to be mismanaged, a phenomenon known as the "tragedy of the commons." However, Ostrom debunked this common wisdom through her studies, as she documented many places around the world where communities have cooperated successfully to govern common resources and ensure the resources remain viable for current and future inhabitants. She showed that when resources are shared by their users, over time, those users can establish rules for the use and care of those resources in ways that are both economically and environmentally sustainable without any regulation by central authorities or privatization.

Ostrom's Eight Principles for Managing Common Resources

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

  1. Define clear boundaries of the common resource. For example, groups that are allowed access to the common resource should be clearly defined.
  2. Rules governing the use of common resources should fit local needs and conditions. Rules should be determined by local interested parties.
  3. 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.
  4. Usage of common resources must be monitored. Users of the resource must be made accountable for not following defined rules and boundaries.
  5. 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.
  6. Conflicts should be resolved easily and informally.
  7. Higher-level authorities recognize the established rules and self-governance of the resource users.
  8. 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, for example in the case of managing a regional waterway.