Are ordinary people able to self-organize?

Elinor Ostrom was the first female Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences. Her extensive fieldwork focused on how people interact with ecosystems such as forests, fisheries and irrigation systems. It challenged the conventional wisdom that ordinary people weren’t able to successfully manage natural resources without any regulation or privatization. Ostrom believed that people are perfectly capable of taking control of the decisions that affect their lives. In some sense, she had already proven this to be true when, as a young woman, she was trying to succeed in the still male-dominated working and academic worlds of the 1950s.

Elinor Ostrom

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (shared), 2009

At a glance

Born: 1933, Los Angeles, California, USA

Died: 2012, Bloomington, Indiana, USA

Field: Public Economics, Economic Governance

Prize-winning work: Analysis of economic governance, especially the commons

Unknown talents: Sketched most of the designs when building her ranch house

Trying to make ends meet

Ostrom was born into a family of limited means. Money was short, especially at the time of the Great Depression. Even in her later years, she remembered how her parents would try very hard to make ends meet. Childhood was also challenging because she was one of the very few poor kids at the “rich kids’ school” in Beverly Hills. “There were times that was very painful for me,” she remembered. “And then, of all things, I stuttered.” But she was encouraged to join the debating team, and did well. Plus, she learned an important lesson very early in life: how to make a good argument.

How to become the first female Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences

As a girl in the 1940s, Ostrom grew up in a different world to ours. During the war, her family encouraged her to knit scarves for the soldiers overseas, but not to go to college. Her mother had arranged for her to attend high school, but expected her to find a job after graduation. “No one in my immediate family had any college experience,” Ostrom recalled. “My mother saw no reason to support me.” But she worked her way through and graduated “with eight dollars in the bank”.

The challenges of starting a career as a woman

The challenges didn’t end there. When looking for a position, future employers asked whether she’d taken shorthand and typing in college. She hadn’t. “I wanted a real position,” Ostrom recalled. “I didn’t want to end up being a secretary for the rest of my life.” But in those days, it wasn’t appropriate for a woman to aim for more. Ostrom didn’t care, and finally got a job in a business firm “that had never hired a woman in anything but a secretarial position”. Still in her early twenties, she “talked her way” into a position as an assistant personnel manager, which was the start of her highly successful career.

Ostrom had taken her first economics course during her final year as an undergraduate. And she’d liked it. So much so that she thought about applying for a PhD. At UCLA, however, she found herself in a rather hostile environment. “A lot of the faculty didn’t like having women on the program. They just said no,” partly because Ostrom hadn’t taken any math in college, nor had she taken trigonometry in high school. The Political Science department was also rather skeptical about admitting women, but gave her a chance.

During grad school, Elinor met Vincent Ostrom, who would become her second husband, and professional partner in crime. It was also as a graduate student that she was introduced to the question of how to organize a common resource, and the related research and field work would earn her the Nobel Prize four decades later.

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Do people care for the common good of society?

In 1833, economist William Forster Lloyd published an essay outlining what became known as the “tragedy of the commons”. Lloyd believed that environmental commons – natural resources that aren’t privately owned but are accessible to everybody and collectively used – would, in the long term, be destroyed because the individual users would act in their own self-interest only and not care about the common good.

130 years later, most economists still believed this to be true. “They presumed that people could not self-organize. They just couldn’t do it,” Ostrom explained, the implication being that there was only one way around this: government regulation or private ownership. Ostrom wanted to put this presumption to the test, and collected a large number of case studies to find out more about how humans interact with ecosystems. As Robert Johnson at Columbia University explains:

Elinor was inspired by observing the world, grappling with problems rather than theorizing.

Why you need to talk to ordinary people

Together with her husband, Ostrom founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. They believed that it was crucial to discuss their work with scholars across disciplines, and to conduct their field studies with the help of researchers in multiple countries.

It was a struggle because so many of my political science colleagues didn’t like what we were doing. A lot of them interviewed legislators, mayors, and people in the cabinet. They found it strange that we were interested in farmers and peasants and people organizing water.

But it was worth it. Ostrom discovered that small, local communities were able to manage shared natural resources such as fishing water or forests, and that, over time, rules for managing the common were established to maintain the resources’ long-term sustainability. No need for the government to step in, or to privatize resources. Ostrom’s research proved that community management was a powerful tool, and that ordinary people were able to take control of the decisions affecting their life.

How do we need to organize our societies?

“It’s encouraging for people who would like to see more local, rather than top-down, global control,” Johnson, who put Ostrom on TIME’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2012, explains. “Governance by people for themselves can be a very healthy and positive way of organizing society,” Johnson believes, and emphasizes how important Ostrom’s work was to acknowledge this.

Ostrom described eight design principles that affect the success of self-organized governance systems, for example collective choices, mechanisms of conflict resolution and the recognition of a community’s self-determination by the authorities. These principles remain valid today, as a framework for further developing the theory of common-pool resources. As she once remarked:

I think we’ve gained a much greater respect for human ingenuity. People can come up with many solutions to challenging problems.

Why top-down control doesn’t work

Ostrom’s work shed light on a topic that remains crucial for the future of the human species: how can we protect the environment? Again, she fought against top-down control, explaining how individuals and communities were essential to halt climate change. Though she knew that some international agreement was important, she felt the need to really involve the people outside the government. Her concept of “polycentrism” recommended giving local communities the authority to regulate the use of common resources.

“I won’t be the last.”

In 2017, women are still seriously underrepresented in the Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics, medicine and economics (18 in total). But Johnson believes that things are changing, and that the rate of change is healthy: “The challenge isn’t over, but women are recognized as being more important to the profession,” he explains.

Though there hasn’t yet been another female laureate in Ostrom’s field, she was very optimistic about the future. During the press conference for her Nobel Prize she proclaimed:

We’ve already entered a new era. We recognize that women have the capability to do great scientific work. I appreciate that it’s an honor to be the first woman, but I won’t be the last.

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