Elinor Ostrom: Only Woman to Win Nobel Prize in Economics

Elinor Ostrom was born in the year of 1933 in California, United States. Almost tem years after getting her doctorate in Political Science (University of California), she became professor at the Indiana University Department of Political Science in 1974. Over her long academic career, her activities included extensive field experiences in underdeveloped countries and active participation in many professional associations, such as the American Political Science Association. She was awarded 12 honorary doctorates from universities around the world and three years before her death Elinor Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. She was the only woman ever to win the Nobel  Prize in Economics.

Her approach to social and ecological systems highlights the complexity of natural and human systems. In her famous book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990), Elinor Ostrom focused on the capacity of people around the globe to create long-run resilient arrangements for protecting environmental resources. In particular, she studied how groups of people manage and preserve common-pool resources such as forests and water supplies. However, collective actions have not inevitably emerged in all groups of people. Ostrom defined common or common-pool resources as public goods with finite benefits. Therefore, common-pool resources can be potentially used beyond the limits of sustainability because of the lack of exclusion of users. This creates an incentive for increasing the rate of use of this resource above its physical or biological renewal. Besides, her research pointed out that common property is a kind of institutional arrangement that regulates ownership and responsibility.

Considering this framework, Ostrom developed a theoretical approach to the management of common-pool resources at local and global levels where polycentric systems of governance refer to build collective-actions. In this respect, she considered there is not one ideal governance regime, but a variety of regimes of governance that might include: rules of appropriation of  resources, rules of maintenance of resources, rules of monitoring and enforcement of the appropriation and obligation activities, rules for of conflict resolution,  besides the evaluation of the performance of the resource system and the strategies of participants to change previous rules. Indeed, the users of common-pool resource can work together to enhance the  sustainable governance of  their commons by collective action. Indeed, under her view, successful commons’ self-governance institutional arrangements depend on: the coherence between the resource environment and its self-government structure, the enforcement of rules through effective monitoring and sanctions, and the adoption of low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.

According to Ostrom, adaptive governance is related to changing rules and enforcement mechanisms over time since institutional arrangements are able to cope with human and natural complex systems. As a result, citizens, governments, businessmen, and resource users  might deal with collective-action problems in diferente ways at diverse scales. When considering the relations between urban public policies and the commons, her latest works highlighted the challenges to collective-action in metropolitan areas where  citizens can less effectively articulate preferences, define problems and choice packages of urban public goods and services. Under her understading, the competition for contracts in urban goods and services might foster technological innovations and social co-production to find out new ways to face the social and environmental needs.

Indeed, Elinor Ostrom´s contribution adds to our understanding how collective actions and polycentric arrangements of governance  can influence economic outcomes, human behaviours  and institutions towards growing resilience and sustainability. In this attempt, she crossed traditional boundaries between political science and economics.



Madi, M. A. ( 2017) Puralist Readings in Economics: key-concepts and policy tools for the 21st century. Bentham Publishers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: