Wanting to earn a graduate degree in economics, Dr. Elinor “Lin” Ostrom was turned down because she had been advised that girls shouldn’t take upper level math courses while in high school.
She was accepted into the political science program at UCLA where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees. Moving when her husband was offered a job at Indiana University, Lin joined the faculty as a visiting assistant professor teaching American Government. The next year she started advising graduate students and was given a regular appointment to the faculty.
Ostrom’s early research emphasized the role of public choice on decisions influencing the production of public goods and services, but it is her later work that is more well known. Focusing on how humans interact with ecosystems to maintain long-term sustainable resource yields from common pool resources without these resources being privately owned or managed by central authorities, challenging the conventional wisdom that private property is the only means of protecting finite resources from ruin or depletion.
For her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons, Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009, making her the first and to date only woman to be recognized with this award.
Tackling economic problems from the perspective of a political scientist allowed her to change the common method of starting with a hypothesis and then testing it, to instead start with documenting reality including the numerous examples of how local property can be successfully managed by user associations without any regulation by central authorities or privatization. This economic analysis can be used to shed light on most forms of social organization and has had a great impact amongst both economists and political scientists.
Starting with eight “design principles” of stable local common pool resource management and through further refinement her work has led to the adage known as Ostrom’s law that can be summarized as a resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.
Written by Angela Goad