In Memorium, Elinor Ostrom

Nobel Prize winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom died recently at age 78. I am saddened by the loss of someone I knew, liked, and respected both personally and professionally. This memorial to her is a combination of personal recollection, what she meant to me, and paean to her scholarship.

My first encounter with Lin was at a conference. She and her long-time research collaborator Jimmy Walker had accepted a version of my doctoral research as a chapter in a book on cooperation that they were editing. They had asked my dissertation adviser for a chapter, and I was working on his project, so he suggested contributing my part of the project as the chapter, and they accepted. (That “fine computer simulation” that Herb Ginti’s review mentions? That’s us.) That connection gave me the gumption I needed to introduce myself to her, and my first impression became one of my most lasting ones: “Walk with me,” she said, and we walked down the hallway of the hotel chatting. A great number of my subsequent conversations with her were conducted while she walked from one meeting to another. She was the most active person I have ever known, perpetually engaged in a variety of research projects with multiple overlapping groups, right through to her last years, despite being long past nominal retirement age. I once asked her how she kept track of everything. “I couldn’t do it without yoga and my administrative assistant,” she replied. It was typical of her to give the credit to someone else.

At the conclusion of that first brief walk-and-talk, Lin invited me to apply for a post-doctoral fellowship at her research institute, Indiana University’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. I did, was offered the position, and spent the 2001-2002 academic year in Bloomington. When I was offered the position I eagerly informed my undergrad mentor (with whom I had become, and remain, close friends) who had earned his undergrad degree there and after earning his Ph.D. had returned there to teach for a few years. He was delighted, because he had been there in the early days of the Ostroms’ work, when the approach that would eventually lead to the Workshop and a world-wide network of research collaborators was first being formed. Later, when I was to mention him to Lin, she smiled broadly and said, “Of course I remember Charles. He was very insightful, and really contributed a lot to the development of our ideas.”

When I arrived in Bloomington I had only had that brief meeting with Lin, and was still mostly unfamiliar with her work. My first experience at the Workshop was a tremendously intimidating meeting with her and her husband Vincent, a tremendously deep thinker who knows how to ask the most penetrating questions. I began to feel as though I had no business pretending I belonged there, but before the end of the meeting both of them were complimenting me and making me feel like I really belonged.

A friend of mine recently described Lin Ostrom as “fierce…but nice.” That’s an excellent description. She was fierce. She and Vincent moved from L.A., where he was already making a name for himself at UCLA, to Indiana, because California had anti-nepotism laws that prevented them from both working at UCLA. But in Indiana, despite having earned a Ph.D. at UCLA, she could at first only get a secretary’s job. She didn’t let it stop her or intimidate her, and eventually she gained an academic position, co-founded a research institute, consulted with governments all around the world, and did as much–probably more–for IU’s academic reputation than anyone else. She was nice, nice to everyone around her, treating everyone who participated at the Workshop, including the staff, as though they were a fundamental part of its success. I think she truly thought of them that way. And knowing that my wife and I were struggling financially that year, she offered my wife work, to add to my not-very-high post-doc’s salary. It wasn’t simple charity, of course; my wife was asked to participate in one of the Workshop’s projects, scanning and cleaning up old pre-electronic age manuscripts, for the Digital Library of the Commons. My wife is proud to have participated in helping to develop that library. And Lin was also personally nice to my wife, and when I would see Lin at a conference after I had left IU she would always ask about her.

Some of the obituaries say that Ostrom challenged the fundamentals of economics. I don’t think that’s correct. Rather, she illuminated better ways of understanding those fundamentals. Her primary work involved collective action problems, which in her 1997 presidential address to the American Political Science Association she called “the central subject of political science.” She never denied that individual rationality led to collective action problems, but she showed ways in which people could build bottom-up institutions to resolve them, rather than needing to rely only on top-down institutional design. As I became familiar with this approach I became more and more impressed with the importance of it—it was something I’d not encountered before and it dramatically reshaped my understanding of the world.

While nearly everyone in the discipline is familiar with her, not everybody really quite gets her work. She focused so intensively on the design of institutions (sets of rules and procedures) for managing commons that those who have only a passing familiarity and haven’t read closely seem to have taken away only the message that a set of rules for commons management is necessary, and they look for “the” set of rules, which they expect to be able to implement from the top-down for any commons. But that misses the thrust of her research almost entirely.

Ostrom focused primarily on unique locally evolved institutions. She adamantly opposed the idea that there was a one size fits all solution to commons management. She saw local culture as a critical factor in institutional design. An imported or imposed institutional design that did not mesh with local culture, that might violate or ignore important cultural norms, was one doomed to failure because the locals would not follow it. She also emphasized the frequency with which sustainable local management was superseded by national-level “scientific” management, with disastrous results, both for the commons and for the local community. Frequently this has been the case in developing countries with forests management. Another example, taught to me by a Spanish grad student who was at the Workshop with me (Marta, whose last name I have regrettably forgotten), is the EU’s open-fisheries rule, which has replaced centuries old village-based fisheries management (cofradias) in Spain.

While she did believe that for international commons national involvement was necessary, it cannot be overstated just how disdainful she was of the idea that only national governments have the knowledge or capacity to implement solutions for more localized commons. Having traveled the world and met with indigenous people who were managing their own common-pool resources, she knew that they frequently had the capacity (if not stripped of it by government) and that they not only had the appropriate knowledge, they had the specific localized knowledge that government didn’t that so often made their historically evolved solutions superior to “designed from scratch” programs.

She did believe there were commonalities among the various successful local designs—while the specifics might differ, there were certain tasks that each one fulfilled that made commons management successful, and in trying to devise new institutions for commons management the task was to learn from the experience of others—making sure that those tasks were fulfilled by the rules—while doing so in a way that fit with local culture. Among those critical tasks are a good system for monitoring compliance by others (an institutional structure that does not detect cheaters will fail), and a means of punishment of those cheaters, preferably one that’s as automatic as possible. For example, in many communal irrigation systems, such as for terrace farming, everyone takes a turn opening and shutting the gates that move water among the fields. Those who try to cheat and take more than their share of water will normally be noticeable by the differential growth of their crops, and punishment will take the form of others simply not directing water to the cheater’s field when it is their turn to manage the system. With the Spanish cofradias, monitoring of other fishermen to ensure they are not overfishing is accomplished by everyone from the village meeting at the docks in the morning as they prepare to go out for the day, and then again in the evening when they return. Those not showing up with the rest, either leaving too early or staying out too late, are easily recognized, and the punishment is a straightforward shunning response, effective in tight-knit communities.

Considering this led to a disagreement between Lin and me. I suggested that simplicity in the rules was valuable. She objected that there was nothing simple about this, that it was all quite complex. But I still think that while the subject is quite complex, the variations among institutions are complex, figuring out the necessary commonalities are complex, and designing a set of institutions to manage a commons is complex, the more straightforward simplicity of the way the rules function, the better. Still, she was the world’s leading expert, and I was just her student, taking a crash course in an entirely new way of viewing the world. And anyone who really wants to learn this issue in depth should take me with a grain of salt and instead read her work. Her most frequently read book is Governing the Commons. That’s where I would recommend anyone interested in commons issues, or anyone interested in environmental politics generally, begin. Another outstanding book, a little more technical in style, is Rules, Games, and Common-Pool Resources (Lin was kind enough to give me a free copy shortly before I left Bloomington.) And to dig deeper into the concept of institutions, I recommend Understanding Institutional Diversity. And those with access to JStor or another academic database can peruse her many many article-length publications. If I have one criticism of Ostrom, it is that she did not right in a style more accessible to the intelligent lay person. Her writing is not obtuse, and it’s far more accessible than Vincent’s, which is nearly a language all of its own (he is the only person I have ever known who uses the term “over-against” (those who know any German philosophy will recognize the terrifying gegenüber) in serious conversation, and to choose it for its precise meaning), but it is not well chosen, alas, for popularizing her work.

But Lin Ostrom’s work went beyond research in the commons. She did a good deal of laboratory experiments, and worked often with game theory (with Jimmy Walker her usual partner in this). Yet she never succumbed to the game theorists’ tendency toward arrogance and self-assurance that theirs is the only appropriate way to do research. There is a divide among social scientists about the value of formal models; I am on the game theorists’ side, but I can’t deny their tendency toward dickishness. But a mark of Lin Ostrom’s greatness is how she transcended traditional political and academic territories. She worked in game theory without alienating those who don’t like game theory, but prefer a more anthropological approach. She did a lot of anthropological-style work, exploring indigenous institutions, but she gained the respect of the formalists in doing so. She worked firmly within the public choice tradition, which is an approach hated by many political scientists, yet she was loved even by those who hate that approach, and loved by those who never bought into the bottom-up institutional design approach and still believed in centralized rule-making, because in everything she did she was non-dogmatic and demonstrated her intense concern for the real living people who are at the center of these political problems.

A key concept behind the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis was to combine theory and policy. Just as Keynes said, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist,” policymakers are usually influenced, frequently unconsciously, by political theory of various sorts. Following Vincent’s (her former teacher’s) lead, Lin wanted to develop good theory to inform, and help make good, policy. One classic example of this was her 1970s era work on policing.

In the ‘70s, consolidation of government services was all the rage. School consolidation was proceeding at a rapid pace in many states (including Indiana), a handful of communities were considering city-county consolidation (including Indianapolis/Marion County, which consolidated in 1970), and there was a growing call for consolidation of police departments, on the theory that small police departments were not as efficient as large ones. Of specific interest to Ostrom, the small Indiana communities of Speedway and Greencastle, which are completely surrounded by Indianapolis/Marion County, were urged to merge their police departments with the Indianapolis Police Department. The argument was simply that bigger was better, smaller was inefficient.

There were theoretical reasons to doubt this. For one, smaller communities may be more responsive to their citizens. Most people, I think, tend to think that smaller communities tend to be more corrupt and clique-controlled. While that can happen, this theoretical position is well-founded in the work of Charles Tiebout, who analyzed the potential for a multiple city megalopolis to be more efficient than a single large city due to competition between the contiguous cities for residents and investment, a competition that would lead to each offering a distinct set of tax and expenditure policies, much as McDonalds offers apple pies for dessert, while Burger King offers onion rings as a substitute for fries. This process is called Tiebout sorting, and one of Tiebout’s early collaborators was…Vincent Ostrom. Another theoretical reason to doubt larger police forces are more efficient is that economies of scale are associated mostly with capital intensive activities, and not with labor intensive ones. So Ostrom decided to compare the police forces of Indy and Speedway. A good, accessible, account with a larger crucial message, can be accessed (full text pdf) here. I recommend it—especially its overall message—for every reader.

To ensure a fair comparison, Ostrom selected side-by-side neighborhoods in Speedway and Indy, neighborhoods that were nearly identical socio-economically. Her findings were not supportive of the bigger-is-better theory. Residents in Speedway were more likely to know a policeman by name, to be comfortable calling the police, and had faster response times. Comparing the two police departments as wholes, the smaller community had a much larger percentage of its police force on the street, while Indy had a much larger percentage behind desks. As predicted, labor intensive activities didn’t produce economies of scale. But economies of scale do exist in police work. One objection to small departments was that they couldn’t afford high-tech crime labs. True enough, they couldn’t, but they simply contracted that work out to the bigger department: problem solved without consolidation.

This lesson has not yet been accepted by everyone in the discipline. I once used a mostly excellent State and Local Government text that had but one flaw—it said bluntly that big urban regions would benefit from consolidation, and fewer local governments. I wrote the author a letter complementing his book, noting how even-handed he was with most issues, and recommending that he read Ostrom’s and Tiebout’s work so he could also be even-handed in the sole area in which he had fallen short. (I wrote it as politely and non-snarkily as possible—more so than the prior sentence would suggest.)

That was surely too long an explanation of that particular bit of research, but I wanted to give a thorough explanation of how careful and insightful a scholar Lin Ostrom was. She was not unique in that respect, but by combining that with a non-dogmatic, non-ideological, approach to enquiry, she probably was uniquely respected within the discipline. And as I look back, I am amazed at the influence she and those affiliated with her had on me, even before I became aware of her. My undergraduate mentor, Charles, was there at the beginning of the Workshop, and while his intellectual interests ultimately were far removed from her, the influence of her way of thought was in him, and he was the first to begin to instill it in me, in many small ways that are now only vaguely remembered. But I do explicitly remember him telling me how important it was that empirical research be derived from theory, a very Ostromish idea. In grad school, one of my most influential professors, Bill Mitchell, was at the founding meeting of the Public Choice Society, along with Vincent Ostrom. And my graduate mentor, John Orbell, while not a Workshop person by any means, had also collaborated with her, and she and he greatly admired each other’s work. Somehow I stumbled into this network of scholars, and ultimately I think it is their way of thinking is the way of thinking I was looking for. In the end, there were three people that I look upon as my true mentors, Charles, John, and Lin. Amazingly, Lin’s influence came after my graduate education, after I had completed my Ph.D. Only through luck did I have the opportunity to do a post-doc at the Workshop, and had I never done so, my education would ultimately have been much much diminished.

Despite her accomplishments, Lin was one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met, wholly without pretense. Her Nobel Prize money went to scholarships for students studying at the Workshop. When I was at a dinner at the Ostrom’s house in the hills of southern Indiana and went to take a walk on their property, she and Vincent insisted I use one of their many walking sticks. The hills were too steep to go without one, they said, we’re so worried someone might twist an ankle and not be able to make it back up to the house. This was no fear of a lawsuit, but a warm parental concern (from someone who was childless). And the last time I saw her was at a Workshop conference, clapping and singing along enthusiastically and wholly unself-consciously to a bunch of hokey old songs, while Jimmy Walker played his guitar. The picture at the top of this post is how I remember her, laughing, always smiling, enjoying life through and through.

I used to joke that I was amazed to think that there was a Nobel Prize winner who would have crossed the street to talk with me. And I know what her first words would have been: “Walk with me.” I’m saddened that I will never be able to truly walk alongside her again. But fortunately, through her intellectual legacy, we all can still walk with her in spirit.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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6 Responses to In Memorium, Elinor Ostrom

  1. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    That was a fascinating insider’s view into the work and personality of Elinor Ostrom. To be honest I had never heard of her before her recent death.

    I was a bit puzzled by your reference to Speedway and Greencastle as being “…completely surrounded by Indianapolis/Marion County.” While this is certainly true of Speedway, Greencastle is in Putnam county about fifty miles from Indianapolis. Perhaps you meant Castleton which has pretty much been absorbed by Indianapolis?

    I was once stopped by one of it’s two policeman (It was the father of the father and son police force). I was seventeen and had a headlight out. I received a warning. I felt sorry for the guy because his police car was about ten years old and was showing some rust.

  2. James Hanley says:

    D’oh! According to Wikipedia, in addition to Speedway, Beech Grove, Lawrence and Southport are cities excluded from Unigov. Why I wrote Greencastle I don’t know, except I thought one of the excluded municipalities was named Green-something. Poor fact-checking on my part. Thanks for the catch.

  3. Lance says:

    No problem.

    There is a city just to the south of Indianapolis called Greenwood, but it’s police department, and other municipal services are independent since it is in Johnson county.

  4. James Hanley says:

    Yes, that’s what I was thinking of. For some reason I always want to include it as one of those excluded municipalities, even though it indisputably is not.

  5. Lance says:

    The town of Castleton was absorbed into Indianapolis during Unigov so it may have been the reason the “castle” suffix came to mind.

  6. James Hanley says:

    Now you’re being much too generous in your assumptions about my knowledge. The only “greens” I could think of were Greencastle and Greensburg. Greensburg I only know because of the tree growing out of its courthouse roof, so it was eliminated from contention. I temporarily forgot why I know Greencastle (DePauw U.), so it was selected. Quite the rigorous thought process.

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