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  • Writer's pictureJohanna Mamali Panagiotou

How Elinor Ostrom shaped our understanding of the Commons

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

This paper refers to the of the US-political scientist and economist Elinor Ostrom and situates her life and contribution on how she globally and sustainably shaped our understanding of the common goods in a general discussion on the way institutions actually work – beyond theories and the idea of a supposedly perfectionism. As systems are not disconnected from society, human factors cannot be neglected, since citizens build, shape, and maintain these structures. The evaluation system that examines institutions according to their ability to cope with two human imperfections including the problem of inadequate knowledge and limited benevolence is called Robust Political Economy Analysis and will be also discussed.   

© PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America)

How Elinor Ostrom shaped our understanding of the Commons

 

Johanna Mamali Panagiotou

University of Regensburg

Center of Language and Communication (ZSK), German as a Foreign Language (DaF)

Universitätsstraße 3, 93053 Regensburg, Germany

      

 SCHOOL OF BUSINESS, Department of Business Administration        

 6 Aug 2023 to 13 Aug 2023, Chios, Universtiy of Aegean 

 Topic: Common Good in a World of Increasing Asymmetries and Global Challenges


Abstract

This paper refers to the of the US-political scientist and economist Elinor Ostrom and situates her life and contribution on how she globally and sustainably shaped our understanding of the common goods in a general discussion on the way institutions actually work – beyond theories and the idea of a supposedly perfectionism. As systems are not disconnected from society, human factors cannot be neglected, since citizens build, shape, and maintain these structures. The evaluation system that examines institutions according to their ability to cope with two human imperfections including the Common Goods, Elinor Ostrom, IAD Frameworkproblem of inadequate knowledge and limited benevolence is called Robust Political Economy Analysis and will be also discussed.   

 

Keywords: Common Goods, Elinor Ostrom, IAD Framework

 

JEL Classification:  A12, A13, B31, B54


1. Introduction

Elinor Ostrom (1933−2012) became in 2009 the first woman to be awarded[1] the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her analysis of the commons. This distinction was of great significancy not only because of women’s underrepresentation in the economics profession, which is »more pronounced in the United States compared to heterogeneous Europe[2]«, as a research group delineated it in a recent survey from a transatlantic perspective. Ostrom’s contribution and the recognition of her work gave us the opportunity to seriously rethink the commons in crucial periods of time. Back in the prize-giving year her research was for some scholars »an appropriate reaction to free-market failures highlighted by the 2008 financial crisis[3].« Today, in a world of increasing asymmetries and global challenges within an environment of multicrisis, studying Elinor Ostrom prevent us for instance from the dilemma of free markets or governmental regulation[4] extending our knowledge beyond the efficacy of this scheme.


Further, Ostrom’s legacy helps us to rethink complex settings. The mechanisms’ complexity of the Commons can for instance be depicted on the paradigm of polycentricity, »the coexistence of many decision centers with autonomous and sometimes overlapping prerogatives, some of them organized at deferring scales, and operating under an overarching set of rules[5]«, which was one of her work’s focuses. Regarding her research, a definition of the term common goods or commons and the distinction from the common good (singular) would be essential:


»As these definitions already suggest, those who use this concept speak both of “common goods” plural, and of “the common good” singular, the latter being in some sense overarching, macro as opposed to micro. No doubt the language of “common good” can be used imprecisely, vaguely and rhetorically. This section aims to show how it may be used with some analytical precision and thereby to spell out the meaning it tends implicitly to have even when used without clear elucidation. We proceed by distinguishing conceptually between collective action/goods and common action/goods[6]

 

2. Literature Review

The essay is based on a literature review of recent English-written publications (2010−2022) mentioned in the footnotes and alphabetically listed in chapter 6. References−Bibliography. The main source for the research was the anthology of essays in the book Ostrom, Elinor (2012). The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs (iea).

 

3. Data and Methodology

The entire data and information were drawn on the above-mentioned literature review. The research method includes interpretative methods of social sciences that are focused on understanding and explaining the complex phenomena related to the Commons in a comprehensive and holistic way including human factors. An additional approach that could be received as not typical in Economic Studies is bringing some biographical data of Elinor Ostrom into the equation and highlighting the person behind ideas and theories. This method aims to underline the reciprocity process of how the social environment shapes the personality of scholars and how intellectuals can influence and revolutionize their field according to their own experiences. The aim here is not to write a hagiography[7] of Ostrom. This is being avoided by including for instance critical opinions such as the one of Mark Pennington who constructively criticizes that Ostrom’s theories on common-pool resource management are indeed working on bottom-up governance institutions; Pennington nevertheless expresses his skepticism on how the theoretical frame of Robust Political Economy can apply on top-down governance arrangements. Ostrom, also according to Pennington, uses further an RPE framework for endogenous rule formation in order to draw attention to the inter-relationships between different layers of rule-making. The author points here out that Ostrom »was by no means the first to adopt this perspective.[8]«  

 

4. Result and Discussion

In the following, the main topics for further discussion are presented. The material is structured in chapters referring to the personality of Elinor, which had a crucial influence on the school founded by her and her husband Vincent[9] Ostrom, and her contribution.


4.1 Elinor Ostrom: A biographical approach

»While it was a challenge being a poor kid in a rich kid’s school, it did give me a different perspective on the future[10]«

 

Elinor Ostrom was born in Los Angeles, California on August 7, 1933, and grew up during the Great Depression. According to autobiographical narratives, their house had a large backyard filled with vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Thus, she learned how to grow vegetables and how to preserve apricots and peaches during the hot summer months. Her childhood was spent learning and practicing traditional activities for girls from the last century. This included »to knit scarves during World War II for "boys overseas"[11]«.

 

There is no doubt that her early life and socialization were important components for shaping an open-minded scholar, who thought out of the box, as even terms like poverty and wealth were fluctuating for her. Moreover, the environmental respect growing up in a backyard was also given. Finally, even if she was raised as a typical girl in the 1940s, she managed later to assert herself in a male-dominated field in such an extended way that even if she closely worked together with her husband Vincent Ostrom, she succeeded in making her personality a synonym for The Ostroms.

 

4.2 Practicing and experiencing interdisciplinarity

»The strengths of the disciplines lie in the boundaries they have set around their knowledge-seeking tasks and the focusing of the tools to investigate the worlds within those boundaries.

But those same boundaries have made it difficult to remember

what they have set aside and to remake connections across boundaries[12]«

 

Being a political scientist by her own, Elinor Ostrom nonetheless revolutionized the fields in Economic Studies and has contributed to an endeavor in order to rethink the functionality of common-pool resources. Intellectually and also ideologically – as Ostrom never was dogmatically in favor of either private markets or governmental[13] regulations – it would be difficult to classify her into certain categories. Ostrom was an interdisciplinary spirit that allowed her to think widely and holistically in her research. In her own words on the occasion of the Nobel Prize she described the lack of an interdisciplinary as following:


»The National Research Council created a special committee in the mid-1980s to review the empirical research written about common-pool resources. Scholars began to recognize that much research on this topic had been conducted but was divided by discipline, sector, and region. Consequently, scholars who studied inshore fisheries in Africa did not know about other studies of resources in Africa. If they were sociologists, they did not know any of the work done by economists and vice versa. Participating in the NRC committee, and seeing the immense amount of research that had been done but not synthesized, taught me a major lesson. The way we organize the modern American university fragments our knowledge badly. Not only are we divided by discipline, but we are divided by the methods that scholars use. Economists using nationwide statistical data are critical of economists using the experimental lab to test theory. Scholars who do field research are critical of the use of any other method[14]

 

As Vlad Tarko summarizes, »Elinor Ostrom’s contributions, as part of the Bloomington school, have challenged in important ways the conventional expert wisdom about the ways in which communities work and social cooperation emerges or fails. These contributions have led to a very important theoretical development – the construction of the IAD framework, and the associated theory of society as an interacting system of action arenas[15]

 

4.3 The IAD Framework, socio-ecological systems, and design principles for the Commons

IAD is the acronym of Institutional Analysis and Development, and it is a framework initiated by Ostrom and her research team in order to analyze institutions through individual choices.  

Table 1:  IAD Framework Components[16]   


Further, the multilevel framework provided by Ostrom, and her team can be better understood if we take into consideration following principles: a. Boundaries to facilitate exclusions, b. The importance of internal rules, c. The importance of locally adapted rules, d. The importance of monitoring and enforcement, e. Dispute resolution, and f. Interaction between systems of rules[17].


5. Conclusion

Elinor Ostrom’s work focused on the study of common-pool resources and how communities can effectively manage and govern these resources without external regulation or privatization.


Her research challenged the prevailing notion that common pool resources, such as forests, fisheries, and irrigation systems, were doomed to overuse and degradation due to the "tragedy of the commons" - the idea that individuals acting in their own self-interest would deplete shared resources. Instead, she found that communities around the world have developed various systems of collective action and self-governance to manage these resources.


This contribution is fundamental, as Economists have long argued that natural resources used collectively by users will be overexploited and destroyed in the long run. Elinor Ostrom counters this idea through field research on how people in small local communities manage shared natural resources such as pastures, fishing waters, and forests. She proved that as natural resources are shared among users, self-made rules are established over time about how to use these resources and to use them in an economically and ecologically sustainable way.


One of Ostrom’s most significant contributions was her development of a framework known as the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) that provides a systematic way to analyze the complex interactions between individuals, institutions, and the physical environment in the management of common pool resources. This helps us to identify the key factors that contribute to successful self-governance and provides guidance for policymakers and practitioners in designing effective governance systems. In this frame we also mentioned the Robust Political Economy Analysis and critical comments made by Pennington.


Ostrom’s research also emphasized the importance of human and systemic imperfection, local knowledge, social norms, and trust in facilitating successful collective action. She argued that communities are often better equipped to manage their own resources than external authorities, as they have a deep understanding of the local context and can develop rules and norms that are tailored to their specific needs and circumstances.


Overall, Ostrom’s research has had a profound impact on the field of economics and beyond and has challenged conventional wisdom about the management of common pool resources. Her work has provided valuable insights into the potential for collective action and self-governance to address environmental and social challenges, and her ideas continue to influence people around the world.


6. References−Bibliography 


Essays in Books

Pennington, Mark (2012). Elinor Ostrom, common-pool resources and the classical liberal tradition.  In: Ostrom, Elinor. The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs (iea), p. 35.

 

Tarko, Vlad (2012). Elinor Ostrom’s life and work. In: Ostrom, Elinor. The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs (iea), pp. 60−61.

 

Articles in Journals

Auriol, E.; Friebel, G.; Weinberger, A.; Wilhelm, S. (2022). "Underrepresentation of women in the economics profession more pronounced in the United States compared to heterogeneous Europe". In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 119, Issue 16, April 2022. Available under:

 

Bazerman, Charles (2011). "Standpoints: The Disciplined Interdisciplinarity of Writing Studies." In: Research in the Teaching of English, August 2011, Volume 46, Nr. 1, p. 10.

 

Burke, Maureen (2011). "People in Economics. The Master Artisan". In: Finance & Development, September 2011, pp. 2–5.

 

Deneulin, Séverine; Townsend, Nicholas (2007). "Public goods, global public goods and the common good". In: International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 34 No. 1/2, 2007, p. 25.

 

Groenewegen, John (2011). The Bloomington School and American Institutionalism. In: The Good Society, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2011, p.30.

 

Ostrom, Elinor (2010). "Beyond markets and states: Polycentric governance of complex economic systems". In: American Economic Review, 100(3), pp. 641−672.

 

Ostrom, Elinor (2005). Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 59, fig. 2.3. [Table 1 was adapted from here].

 

Pennington, Mark (2013). "Elinor Ostrom and the robust political economy of common-pool resources". In: Journal of Institutional Economics, 2013, 9: 4, p. 455.

 

Wrigglesworth, John, & McKeever, Mary (2010). Writing History: A genre-based, interdisciplinary approach linking disciplines, language and academic skills. In: Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Volume 9, Nr. 1, pp. 107–126.

 

Internet Resources

"Elinor Ostrom – Facts". In: Nobel Prize Org, 8 Aug 2023. Available under:

 

"Elinor Ostrom: 1933−2012. Biographical Memoirs". A Biographical Memoir by Bonnie J. McCay and Joan Bennett, 2014. In: National Academy of Sciences, p. 2. Available under: www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/ostrom-elinor.pdf  



Footnotes

[1] Along with co-recipient Oliver Williamson, University of California at Berkeley.

 

[2] Auriol, E.; Friebel, G.; Weinberger, A.; Wilhelm, S. (2022). "Underrepresentation of women in the economics profession more pronounced in the United States compared to heterogeneous Europe". In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 119, Issue 16, April 2022.

 

[3] Burke, Maureen (2011). "People in Economics. The Master Artisan". In: Finance & Development, September 2011, pp. 2–5.

 

[4] Cf. Ostrom, Elinor (2010). "Beyond markets and states: Polycentric governance of complex economic systems". In: American Economic Review, 100(3), pp. 641–672.

 

[5] Tarko, Vlad (2012). Elinor Ostrom’s life and work. In: Ostrom, Elinor. The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs (iea), pp. 60−61.

 

[6] Deneulin, Séverine; Townsend, Nicholas (2007). "Public goods, global public goods and the common good".

In: International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 34 No. 1/2, 2007, p. 25.

 

[7] A hagiography admires and idealizes the subject and is written like a biography of a saint, without skepticism or criticism.

 

[8] Cf. Pennington, Mark (2013). "Elinor Ostrom and the robust political economy of common-pool resources". In: Journal of Institutional Economics, 2013, 9:4, p. 455.

 

[9] »Vincent Ostrom developed a theory of human action that was not based on abstract formal attributes of the actor, like full rationality, but on stylized facts derived from an anthropological and historical understanding of what would be the central issue in social science: choice.« Groenewegen, John (2011). The Bloomington School and American Institutionalism. In: The Good Society, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2011, p.30.

 

[10] "Elinor Ostrom: 1933−2012. Biographical Memoirs". A Biographical Memoir by Bonnie J. McCay and Joan Bennett, 2014. In: National Academy of Sciences, p. 2.

 

[11] "Elinor Ostrom – Facts". In: Nobel Prize Org, 8 Aug 2023. Available under:

  

[12] Bazerman, Charles (2011). "Standpoints: The Disciplined Interdisciplinarity of Writing Studies." In: Research in the Teaching of English, August 2011, Volume 46, Nr. 1, p. 10, www.jstor.org/stable/23050587

Cf. also Wrigglesworth, John, & McKeever, Mary (2010). Writing History: A genre-based, interdisciplinary approach linking disciplines, language and academic skills. In: Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Band 9, Nr. 1, pp. 107–126, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1474022209349987

 

[13] Government could, according to Ostrom, be involved in the ownership of regulation of some common-pool resources that are too high. The state’s useful role could: 1. promote the development of dispute resolution procedures, 2. Ensure legal concession agreements, 3. Serve as a trust source for spreading information on new scientific and technological knowledge. Cf. Pennington, Mark (2012). Elinor Ostrom, common-pool resources and the classical liberal tradition. In: Ostrom, Elinor. The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs (iea), p. 35.

 

[14] "Elinor Ostrom – Facts". In: Nobel Prize Org, 8 Aug 2023. Available under:

 

[15] Tarko, Vlad (2012). Elinor Ostrom’s life and work. In: Ostrom, Elinor. The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs (iea), p. 64.

 

[16] Ostrom, Elinor (2005). Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 59, fig. 2.3.

 

[17] Cf. Pennington, Mark (2012). Elinor Ostrom, common-pool resources and the classical liberal tradition. In: Ostrom, Elinor. The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs (iea), p. 26−29.

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