On occasion of the death of Elinor Ostrom

I was sad to read that Elinor Ostrom, political economist and 2009 Nobel Prize winner in economics, died this Tuesday. Since I came across her work years ago, she has been one of my favourite economists, and a great inspiration for my thinking about society. My decision to study behavioural sciences, including economics, I owe in part to her work.

With her studies on self-governing communities, Ostrom freed the commons of the attribute ‘tragic’, as the German taz writes. She showed that between state control and privatization, a third avenue exists for collective action. Bringing together rigorous economic theory and field observations collected by anthropologists, Ostrom mounted a powerful challenge to mainstream economic theory.

In recent years, Ostrom’s work gained reach beyond her initial case studies, which dealt with water basins, irrigation systems, and mountain meadows. Lawrence Lessig, in particular, expanded the idea of the commons to the digital realms. The licensing scheme he initiated, Creative Commons, is used on this blog – as on many others – to make virtual products available to us 21st century kids and our read/write culture.

Despite my glowing reverence, and that of many who unite under the banner of the commons in search for a better society, Ostrom’s work has always struck my as thorough and tentative. ‘Governing the Commons’, her major work and the one which established her reputation, is formulated not like the triumphal product of years of hard work, but like a research report. It combines the two attributes of a great researcher; a revolutionary vision and detailed empiricism.

For me as a social liberal and anti-surveillance activist, the role Ostrom attributes to monitoring and punishment in self-governing communities was an intellectual challenge when I first discovered her work. In the past months, in particular, I have spent much thought to the relationship of liberty and punishment. My academic work has focused intensively on altruistic punishment and its role in human cooperation recently, and I am looking forward to dedicating my senior thesis to this topic.

As much as Elinor Ostrom has influenced me academically, I also admire her life story. Until today, she is the only woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in economics, and her biography betrays a sense of the hurdles she had to overcome on the way. Most notably, she received the prize although she did never study economics – when she applied for graduate school, she was turned down as women were deemed unfit for such a mathematical subject, and ended up in political science.

Elinor Ostrom’s work has given me a vision of collective action and a society without hierarchies, but it has also warned me of the sacrifices such a community demands of its citizens. She has been an inspiration in many ways, and she will remain a model researcher to me in the future.

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