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Nobel Prize Lands at IU

Headshot of Elinor Ostrom
This photo of Elinor Ostrom was taken on Oct. 12, 2009, the day the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences named her a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Photo courtesy of Chris Meyer.

The late Elinor “Lin” Ostrom, a former professor of political science at IU, was named a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009.

“A great thrill—a very big surprise,” Ostrom said at a news conference on the IU Bloomington campus on Oct. 12, 2009, the day the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences made the announcement. “What a way to start a Monday morning.”

Ostrom, described as hard-working, passionate, inclusive, and nurturing, is the eighth Nobel Prize recipient with ties to IU. The previous seven recipients were honored for their research in either physics or medicine.

She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics, which has been awarded since 1968.

“This is fantastic news,” former IU President Michael A. McRobbie, DSc’21, said. “Professor Ostrom has won widespread recognition from around the world for her very original research and scholarship. For her to win the Nobel Prize is fully appropriate.”

Ostrom, who taught at IU Bloomington from 1965 until her death in 2012, was the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She was also the co-founder and senior research director of the Ostrom Workshop, formerly known as the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, which is based on the Bloomington campus.

Ostrom Workshop
Ostrom Workshop on the IU Bloomington campus. In 2023, the Workshop celebrated its 50th anniversary. Courtesy photo.

James Walker, professor of economics at IU Bloomington and former co-director of the Workshop, spoke about Ostrom following the big announcement.

“It’s pure excitement. In academics, this is like the Super Bowl. She is extremely dedicated to the kind of work she does,” he said. “60 hours a week [of work] is a low number for her. You sometimes get emails from Lin at 3 or 4 in the morning.”

According to the prize committee, Ostrom’s analysis of “economic governance, especially the commons,” or, put another way, what happens when natural resources are shared commonly, earned her the Nobel.

Ostrom’s 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, is widely known as a seminal work in the field, Walker said.

The book challenged the idea of the “tragedy of the commons,” brought forward in a 1968 article by academic Garrett Hardin. To illustrate the concept, Hardin supposed a pasture that was “open to all.” He wrote that the benefits to each herder of overgrazing (a well-fed herd) outweighed the cost of overgrazing to each herder (the deterioration of the pasture).

In other words, each herder gets the full benefit but only bears a portion of the cost.

In Hardin’s view, the “tragedy of the commons” was that when people share a finite resource, they will ultimately destroy it.

Ostrom contended that when people shared a finite resource, a tragedy was not inevitable. She cited numerous cases in which people were sharing limited resources and were able to develop institutions, networks, communication, and collaboration that solved the problem.

“Since my dissertation, I have been studying how local people, as well as government officials, have attempted to solve very difficult resource problems,” said Ostrom, who earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in political science from UCLA.

A native of Los Angeles, Ostrom began her academic work in the early 1960s by studying Californians’ efforts to solve the common problem of saltwater intrusion into the groundwater systems of Los Angeles. Her investigations ultimately became the topic of her doctoral dissertation.

Her work investigated issues around the world. One of her studies looked at irrigation systems in Nepal. She found that locally managed irrigation systems—with small dams built from stone, mud, and trees—had successfully allocated water among users for many years.

Elinor Ostrom with a group of people in Nepal
Elinor Ostrom in Nepal in March 1993. Photo courtesy of Arizona State University.

In a number of localities, the Nepalese government, with assistance from foreign donors, had built modem dams of concrete and steel. Despite flawless engineering, many of the modem projects ended in failure—crop yields around these modem dams were often lower than they were around the primitive dams.

Ostrom posited that because the modem dams are durable, they require little need for cooperation and communication among the users, leading to uneven use of the water and, ultimately, uneven crop yields. The primitive dams, on the other hand, require users to work together to keep them functional, often resulting in better crop yields for all users.

Closer to home, in the 1970s and 1980s, Ostrom studied theories of police management in police departments in Indianapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, and many other cities. She found that smaller communities with smaller forces received as good, if not better, police services at significantly less cost, compared with large metropolitan forces.

For that study, Ostrom says she spent a lot of time in jails and police cars.

“I’ve probably been in more jails than any other Indiana University faculty,” she said with a laugh.

She entered academia in a different era, she said, one in which women’s teaching prospects were limited. Early in her academic career, she was advised against pursuing her PhD.

One person told her the best teaching job she could hope for after completing her degree was “teaching in a city college somewhere.” Ostrom pressed on, though, because of the passion she had developed for her work.

“I loved what I was doing,” she said. “I didn’t enter [the field] to get a job, because I was warned I wouldn’t get one.”

But a quality job offer did come, and it was from IU.

For the 1965–66 academic year, Ostrom was a visiting assistant professor of American government, teaching on “Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 7:30 in the morning,” she recalled.

Beginning the following year, she served as assistant professor and graduate adviser in IU’s Department of Government. In 1969, Ostrom taught as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science until becoming a full professor in the department in 1974. She was chair of the Department of Political Science from 1980 to 1984, the first woman to serve in that role.

In 1973, Ostrom co-founded the Ostrom Workshop with her husband, Vincent A. Ostrom. He taught in the Department of Political Science from 1964 to 1990 and was the Arthur F. Bentley Professor Emeritus of Political Science. Vincent also died in 2012—a mere 17 days after Elinor.

Elinor and Vincent Ostrom at a party
Elinor and Vincent Ostrom. Photo courtesy of the Ostrom Workshop.

The mission of the workshop is to “seek and share solutions to the world’s most pressing problems involving communal and contested resources—from clean water to secure cyberspace.” The term “workshop” refers to the fact that the organization’s students, working as apprentices and journeymen, collaborate with experienced scholars as they develop their research skills. In the center’s literature, the Ostroms—drawing on their love of woodworking—compare the academic workshop to “a workshop for woodcarvers [that] provides a forum for apprentices to hone their skills as craftsmen.”

“Lin works with more students than anyone I’ve ever known,” said Walker, who described her as “very nurturing.”

Walker also described Ostrom as “inclusive.” That inclusiveness is reflected in the approach of the workshop, which stresses that modem, complex problems must be approached from a variety of perspectives.

“[The workshop] started very much with economics and political science. But now we have—in addition to those two core disciplines—colleagues in anthropology, geography, history, law, biology, and many other fields,” said Ostrom. “We didn’t create it to become interdisciplinary, that’s just the nature [of the research].”

Ostrom shared the Nobel Prize with Oliver Williamson, a former professor emeritus of business, economics, and law at the University of California, Berkeley. He died in May 2020.

The two scholars received a gold medal and diploma from the Swedish king on Dec. 10, 2009. They split the $1.4 million prize money.

When asked about the prize money, Ostrom said she would use it to build an endowment for the workshop.

“I’m going to spend it on my students and my wonderful colleagues,” she said.

A version of this story was originally published in the November/December 2009 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine. View current and past issues of the IUAM.

In April 2023, a children’s book chronicling Elinor Ostrom’s life was published by IU Press. Read our interview with the authors, Scott Shackelford, BA’05, and Emily Castle.

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Written By

J.D. Denny

J.D. Denny, BS’90, MA’01, is director of content for the IU Alumni Association and editor in chief of the IU Alumni Magazine.

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