Remembering Douglass North, friend to IU’s Ostrom Workshop

Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass C. North, who died last month at age 95, was a longtime friend and admirer of Indiana University faculty members Elinor and Vincent Ostrom. His death was duly noted on the website of the Ostrom Workshop, which posted a link to the New York Times obituary.

North was one of a handful of non-Indiana colleagues who spoke at a university-sponsored celebration of life for the Ostroms. Both Elinor and Vincent Ostrom died in June 2012.

Douglass North with Elinor Ostrom

Douglass North with Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom received the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2009, becoming the first (and still only) woman in the elite group that North joined when he received the prize in 1993.

At the October 2012 celebration of life, North said the Ostroms showed that true understanding of the complexity of human interactions and the workings of institutions requires combining academic disciplines, including political science, sociology, anthropology, law and others.

“Lin and Vincent are probably the two most spectacular members of the social sciences disciplines that tried to do that,” he said, “Vincent by putting the fundamentals together and Lin by going out and getting her hands dirty and watching irrigation systems or whatever, and by actually understanding the nature of institutions and how they evolve through time.

“They were really terrific.”

Similar descriptions have been applied to North. From The New York Times:

The son of a high school dropout, Professor North traced an unlikely path to academic renown and the halls of government in China, Latin America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, where he was a sought-after consultant.

In academia, where his teaching career spanned seven decades, and in his many books and articles as an economics historian, he became known for challenging traditional methods of economic analysis, in which markets hold sway, finding that they often fell short of explaining long-term economic growth.

In casting his net wider, he took into account, among other things, the economic impact of social and political institutions, of laws and customs regarding property rights, and of religious beliefs and human cognition.

North said in 2012 that the world of higher education tends to reward research that stays within the confines of a single academic discipline. Doing work that crosses boundaries “makes you unpopular in your discipline, I can tell you from experience.”

For both North and the Ostroms, professional recognition came late but in abundance.

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