In this week’s edition of In Memoriam—our series in which we honor 10 noteworthy social scientists who have passed away in recent years—I bring you Elinor “Lin” Ostrom. Lin is the only woman on our list and the only woman thus far to win the Nobel Prize for Economics. Her work has also had a great impact on me personally.
Lin received her PhD in Political Science from UCLA in the 1960’s and spent the bulk of her 40-plus year career at Indiana University Bloomington, where she and her husband Vincent Ostrom founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. There Lin carried out a research program that was focused on addressing real-world problems—from how organizational theory could offer insight into public administration of local police services in the St. Louis metro area, to identifying the institutional requirements for sustainable local management of common pool resources in Indonesia, to the most effective use of development aid in Africa—and she did so not only through an impressive array of social science methodologies, e.g., econometrics, game theory, etc., but with an emphasis on field research which sought to take seriously the capacity of people in local communities to solve their own problems with appropriate help. In the video below, Ostrom summarizes the Tragedy of the Commons and how local communities can devise strategies to avoid depleting common pool resources:
In keeping with the pattern I established in my Amos Tversky and Herbert Simon posts, I will say a little about Lin’s contribution to the rationality debate. In the development of theoretical models, Lin warned, researchers should remain well-grounded in the world of real humans:
An important challenge facing policy scientists is to develop theories of human organization based on realistic assessment of human capabilities and limitations in dealing with a variety of situations that initially share some or all aspects of a tragedy of the commons. Empirically validated theories of human organization will be essential ingredients of a policy science that can inform decisions about the likely consequences of a multitude of ways of organizing human activities. Theoretical inquiries involve a search for regularities. It involves abstraction from the complexity of field setting, followed by the positing of theoretical variables that underlie observed complexities. Specific models of a theory involve further abstraction and simplification for the purpose of still finer analysis of the logical relationships among variables in a closed system. As a theorist, and sometimes a modeler, I see these efforts at the core of a policy science. One can, however, get trapped in one’s own theoretical web…Confusing a model—such as that of a perfectly competitive market—with the theory of which it is one representation can limit applicability…
People are nested in cultural settings with indigenous norms. Any theoretical account which ignores such phenomena has abstracted away too much from how human decisions are made. When it comes to collective action problems, Lin reminded social scientists that top-down planning by elites is not the only way that collective action dilemmas can be resolved and often not the best way. She called on social scientists to look hard at actual communities and discovery how individuals can often voluntarily cooperate to solve their own problems in ways that make sense on the ground:
What is missing from the policy analyst’s toolkit—and from the set of accepted, well-developed theories of human organization—is an adequately specified theory of collective action whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts.
Hat’s off to you, Lin Ostrom!