Ostrom’s legacy remains strong seven years after Nobel

Indiana University’s Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in December 2009, becoming the first — and still the only — woman to receive the award.

Seven years later, there are nearly constant reminders of her influence, including academic studies that build on her theories, symposia that celebrate her work and policy analyses that credit her thinking.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie, right, inspects a display at the Ostrom Symposium in Beijing with Wang Jianxun, professor in the China University of Political Science and Law, who earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University with Vincent and Elinor Ostrom as thesis advisors.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie, right, inspects a display at the Ostrom Symposium in Beijing with Wang Jianxun, professor in the China University of Political Science and Law, who earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University with Vincent and Elinor Ostrom as thesis advisors.

“Professor Ostrom had a profound impact on development studies through her work on public choice, institutionalism and the commons,” IU President Michael A. McRobbie said this month in Beijing at the “Ostrom Symposium on the Study of the Commons, Governance and Collective Decision.”  “Her work had — and continues to have — a major influence on scholars from around the world.”

Elinor “Lin” Ostrom and her husband, Vincent Ostrom, established the Ostrom Workshop at IU Bloomington in 1973 and mentored generations of scholars who study institutional governance, natural resource management and other topics. Both Ostroms died in June 2012.

She was a Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and both held the position of Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science. She received the 2009 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, also known as the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, for her work on the economic governance.

The Ostrom Symposium in Beijing, organized by the university’s Research Center for Chinese Politics and Business and held at the IU China Gateway, highlighted the extraordinary influence the Ostroms had and continue to have among a group of Chinese scholars.

“You might say Lin is somewhat of a rock star here,” Ryan Piurek wrote Dec. 7 from China. “Not to make light of it, but the gateway office looked a little today like the outside of Elvis’ Graceland, the walls lined with large photos of Lin and Vincent, dozens upon dozens of translated books and, best of all, several T-shirts with Lin’s face emblazoned on them, one of which was presented to McRobbie after his remarks.”

Photographs and items from the Ostroms' visits to China are displayed at the symposium.

Photographs and items from the Ostroms’ visits to China are displayed at the symposium.

Less than a week after the China conference, IU News published a release about a study co-authored by an IU geography professor that found decentralized governance systems combined with engagement with local resources produced lower rates of deforestation in two Central American countries.

The study by Tom Evans of IU, Krister Andersson of the University of Colorado, Glenn Wright of the University of Alaska Southeast and Clark Gibson of the University of California, San Diego — all of whom worked with Elinor Ostrom — credits her work on the governance of common-pool resources, or CPRs.

“Specifically, we derive our argument from the work of Elinor Ostrom, who proposed eight design principles for sustaining CPRs,” the authors write.

Meanwhile, search Google News and you’ll find that Elinor Ostrom is being cited in publications that include Forbes, Bloomberg News and the Economist as well as European news and feature outlets. The articles include arguments over economic policy and a travelogue on Törbel, the village in the Swiss Alps that inspired Ostrom’s classic book “Governing the Commons.”

For all the fame and influence, people who knew Ostrom remember her as a cheerful, down-to-earth and hard-working scholar who cared deeply for colleagues and students.

“Lin Ostrom was a person who combined brilliance with collegiality, and exuberance with modesty,” McRobbie said in his China remarks. “She epitomized what it means to be a scholar and a true colleague.”

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