Skip to main content

Elinor Ostrom was a professor at Indiana University and the senior research director of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, which she and her husband founded in 1973. Ostrom was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2009. She is the only female Nobel Laureate in economics.

Elinor Ostrom was born Elinor Clair Awan in Los Angeles on August 7, 1933. A child of the Great Depression, Ostrom quickly learned the value of hard work and put herself through UCLA, receiving a B.A. in political science. She avoided student loans by teaching swimming and working at the school library, a dime store and a bookstore.

Throughout her career, Ostrom faced many setbacks. In her official Nobel Prize autobiography, she describes shock that potential employers ignored her academic success and only cared if she had typing or shorthand skills. “I learned not to take initial rejections as being permanent obstacles to moving ahead,” she says of the various early difficulties she faced. Later the economics department at UCLA was hesitant to admit a woman to its Ph.D. program, but eventually she joined a class of 40, including three other women, in the political science program. It was in her graduate work that she began researching and trying to understand local management of common resources.

Vincent Ostrom co-developed and refined the idea of “polycentric” public administrations, which was the basis for Elinor Ostrom’s graduate research. The two married in 1963 and later she joined him at Indiana University, Bloomington, after he was offered a full professor position. “I tagged along,” Ostrom explains, “as it was very hard for any department to hire a woman in those days.” She took on various part-time positions with the university until she landed a graduate advisor role.

The Nobel Prize summarizes her contribution to the field: she “challenged the conventional wisdom by demonstrating how local property can be successfully managed by local commons without any regulation by central authorities or privatization.” She shared the honor with Oliver E. Williamson “for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm.” Ostrom conducted field studies to challenge a long-held assumption that collective resources would be depleted or destroyed in the long run by their users. After conducting research on natural resources, such as fishing waters and forests, she was able to show that resources with many users are not destroyed, but rather the users establish their own rules to protect the resources. A profile of Ostrom in The Economist summarizes her philosophy:

Mrs Ostrom put no faith in governments, nor in large conservation schemes paid for with aid money and crawling with concrete-bearing engineers. “Polycentrism” was her ideal. Caring for the commons had to be a multiple task, organised from the ground up and shaped to cultural norms.

Ostrom conduced much of the necessary fieldwork herself. She traveled throughout the world but also looked to her own backyard as she studied “water wars” going on in Los Angeles.

In October 2011, Ostrom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but she continued to write and lecture. Ostrom died in Bloomington, Indiana, on June 12, 2012; her final paper, “Green from the Grassroots,” appeared in Project Syndicate that same day.

Vincent Ostrom died less than a month later.


Hero of Liberty image attribution: © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0)