Moment of Indiana History

Far from “common”… Elinor Ostrom

Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom dared to theorize that common property might be best managed through the cooperation of those who use it.

When, on October 12, 2009, Elinor Ostrom received an early morning phone call from Stockholm, the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science became the eighth Indiana University professor to be awarded the Nobel Prize.

She was IU’s first female professor so recognized however, and the first woman in the world to be named Nobel Laureate in Economics.

Establishing a precedent is nothing new for Ostrom, who earned her Ph.D. at UCLA in 1965, despite being discouraged, as a woman, to do so. The California native began teaching at IU that same year, and became the first chairwoman of the Department of Political Science in 1980.

Later, Ostrom was distinguished as the first woman to receive the prestigious Johan Skytte Prize in the social sciences from Sweden’s Uppsala University.

Although her formal training is in political science, Ostrom’s scholarship has been determinedly inter-disciplinary.

The Swedish Nobel committee singled out Ostrom’s contributions as an economist for her groundbreaking work in the study of resource management.

Her 1990 publication Governing the Commons demonstrates how common property might be best managed neither by the government nor a private concern, but through the cooperation of those who use it.

Having studied the stewardship of watersheds and forests, Ostrom has also examined the management of man-made resources.

In the 60s, she determined that a decentralized police force would provide greater effectiveness and economies of scale for Indianapolis. The finding contradicted prevailing wisdom and informed the re-organization of police departments in cities nationwide.

In her early years at IU, the political scientist’s ecumenical approach prompted weekly forums encompassing topics in economics and sociology, and eventually business and anthropology. “The disciplinary huts of many modern universities do not really enable one to have effective intellectual exchange across disciplines,” Ostrom once lamented.

By 1974, her pursuit of integrative scholarship resulted in IU’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, which she founded her husband, the political scientist Vincent Ostrom.

Ostrom shared the 2009 $1.4-million economics prize with Berkeley professor Oliver E. Williamson.

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