Birth Date: 7 August 1933
Date of Death: 12 June 2012 (age 78)
Place of Birth: Los Angeles, California, United States
Place of Death: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation/Field of Study American political economist, first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences


KEYWORDS: Political Science, Economics, Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize, Common Pool Resources, Economic Governance



Elinor Ostrom was an American Political Economist and the first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. She received the award, shared with Oliver E. Williamson, in 2009, for her “analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”3 (p. 2).  Elinor Ostrom’s work associated with the School of “New Institutional Economics” was aimed at researching how individuals manage common resources, from irrigation, fisheries, and information systems to markets, companies and the state(p. 6-7).

It was a general idea between economists that collectively used natural resources could be over-exploited and destroyed in the long-term. Elinor Ostrom challenged this idea by directing her own field studies on how people in small, local communities manage common natural resources. She determined that when natural resources are jointly used by multiple users, they establish the rules for the usage of the resources on their own. Due to the established rules, the usage is economically and ecologically sustainable.

Elinor Ostrom’s research consisted of studying how self-organisation and local-management work in order to keep common resources viable, whether the resources are natural or human-made. Through analysis with classical methods like surveys and advanced modern ones like satellite imagery, Ostrom revealed numerous principles that control successful sustainability of resources and challenge conventional beliefs1 (p.19-21).

In collaboration with her husband Vincent, she identified the difference between “common pool resources” and “common property”. The first one is a type of resource and the second one is an institutional arrangement about ownership and responsibility. This categorisation was crucial for her later work about small-scale local management of common pool resources, which Ostrom explained in her landmark book, Governing the Commons (E. Ostrom, 1990). Throughout her analyses, Ostrom identified key principles that brought people to cooperate without resorting to private ownership or government regulation3 (p. 4).

Ostrom further developed her ideas from the book, Governing the Commons, into an economic principle known as middle-range theory. She continued her analysis with further comparative research on the capacity of people to develop an effective system for protecting common pool resources for the future. She discovered that the forms of cooperate arrangements vary from place to place. Ostrom concluded that context and complexity of common pool resources clearly have an evident effect on the type of the agreement between people4 (p. 69-73).

Elinor Ostrom’s legacy will continue to have enormous practical, political, and ethical implications for policies toward public health, climate change, population growth, and other important issues of the 21st century3 (p. 7).



Elinor Ostrom
© The Nobel Foundation. Photo: U. Montan

Elinor “Lin” Claire Awan was born on 7 August 1933 in Los Angeles, California in the United States as the only child of Leah Hopkins and Adrian Awan. She grew up in a poor household only with her mother, since Elinor’s parents separated early in her life. Her mother made a lot of effort so Elinor could attend the prestigious Beverly Hills High School3 (p. 2).

Elinor’s professional and personal life path was obstructed by a perceived weakness: stuttering.  It was a challenge for the young Elinor to be the poor kid in a rich kid’s school, but it gave her a competitive streak that helped her later in life. In her free time, she enjoyed swimming and swam competitively until she started teaching it in order to earn funds for college. During the course of her High School education, she enrolled in the debate team, which helped her overcome her speech impediment and taught her how to make good arguments for both sides of a discussion5 (p. 19221).

Even in High School, Elinor was especially passionate about participating in debates on political topics; so, it is not a surprise that she later pursued her career in political science. However, she had been discouraged from studying Trigonometry, as girls without top marks in Algebra and Geometry were not allowed to take the subject.  After graduating from High School in 1951, she wanted to attend college, although, her mother saw no reason for Elinor to continue her education. Despite the fact that her mother had provided her with all the necessary resources to attend a prestigious High School, she did not feel the need to financially support Elinor through the continuation of her studies3 (p. 2-3).

Elinor enrolled at UCLA and she financially supported her studies with part-time jobs.  Three years later in 1954, she received her bachelor’s degree with honours in Political Sciences 3 (p. 3).

After graduating from UCLA, she had a lot of trouble finding a job in other than a teaching or secretarial position. Elinor spent the next 3 years working as an assistant personnel manager for a law firm in Boston. After her years in Boston, she moved back to Los Angeles and started a job at the UCLA’s personnel office. Being back in an academic environment motivated her to attend graduate level courses and eventually to apply to a PhD programme 5 (p. 19221).

Elinor wanted to pursue an economics PhD at UCLA, but she was rejected due to her lack of trigonometry knowledge.  She was admitted to UCLA’s graduate program in Political Science which she finished with a master’s degree in 1962. While in graduate school, she met her future husband, fellow political scientist Vincent Ostrom and the couple married in 1963. For her dissertation, Elinor analysed water management, in particular how individuals could collectively work together to protect a common resource.  Without knowing that she was studying a common-pool resource problem, Elinor became very familiar with the kind of problems that users of common-pool resource face trying to manage such a resource3 (p. 3).

Ostrom concluded her formal education at UCLA with a PhD in 1965, also in Political Science.  In the same year, her husband Vincent Ostrom was offered a full professorship at Indiana University in Bloomington1 (p. 3). At the same University, in the Department of Political Science, there was an open teaching position for the course in American government. In those years it was very difficult for a woman to find an academic position, so Elinor gladly accepted to be a visiting assistant professor in the department of Political Science. She remained in the position for a year, from 1965 until 1966. After her initial position, Ostrom climbed up the academic ladder at Indiana University; first as an assistant professor from 1966 until 1969, later as an associate professor between 1969 and 1974, and in the end as a professor between 1974 and 1991. Ostrom was also the department chair from 1980 until 1984; becoming the first woman to hold the position in the process. In addition, Elinor got a part-time professorship in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where she held lectures from 1984 until 2012. She was also Arthur F. Bentley professor of Political Science between 1991 and 20123 (p. 3).

In 1969, Elinor and her husband Vincent started carrying out an informal seminar once a week to analyse and discuss topics in the fields of political science, economics, and sociology. Over the following years, their project grew, as Elinor focused her attention on collaborative studies of urban resources5 (p. 19222).

In 1973, she and her husband Vincent Ostrom founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, which was focused on political and economic governance through polycentric systems. Elinor co-directed the Workshop until 2009, when she became senior research director1 (p. 3). The Ostroms expanded their Workshop internationally in 1981, when they started collaborating with the Center for Interdisciplinary research in Bielefeld, Germany5 (p. 19222).

Elinor Ostrom:
The only woman to win the Nobel prize for economics

In addition, Elinor also co-directed the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change at Indiana University from 1996 to 20062 (pg.4). Elinor was also the founder of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC), a multi-disciplinary organisation focused on the management of the collective resources1 (p. 10).

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom reached the peak of her professional career, as she was awarded with Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, becoming the first and only female recipient of the award in this category. During her long and productive career, she wrote many books in the field of organisational theory, political science, and public administration. She was completely dedicated to her profession until the very end. Among her numerous life achievements and honours were The Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 1999, the J. Cathy Award from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004, and The James Madison Award by the American Political Science Association in 20053 (p. 2).

Elinor Ostrom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October 2011, but during her final year of life, she continued to write and lecture. She died on 12 June 2012 in Bloomington, Indiana, at the age of 783 (p. 2).



Elinor and her husband Vincent supported many foreign students, visiting researchers, and policy-makers through their Workshop and research grants. Since they had no children, they also used their personal funds to help others with their schooling fees.

For her ground-breaking research Elinor Ostrom received help from numerous financial supporters. Between the major contributors to support her work were National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Geological Survey, amongst various others.

Ostrom was also an active member of different professional associations, such as the American Political Science Association, the Committee on Professional Careers and Standards, the Women’s Caucus for Political Science, the Public Choice Society, and the Midwest Political Science Association.

For her exceptional pioneering work in the field of Political Science and Economics, Elinor Ostrom received 12 honorary doctorates and 25 major awards from academic and professional organisations. For her scientific contribution in the field of Political Science, she was honoured with an election to the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1991 and to the National Academy of Science in 2001. Throughout the course of her productive career, she wrote nearly three dozen books and more than 300 articles. In addition, she was an editorial board member for 24 journals, including the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Institutional Economics, and Science, amongst several others3 (p. 6).

Furthermore, in 1973, Elinor and her husband Vincent founded the Indiana University Workshop in Political Theory and Political Analysis, where scholars could participate in collaborative and interdisciplinary learning. The main goal of the workshop was to connect experts from economics, political science, and other fields for the purpose of researching how institutional arrangements in different political settings affect behaviour and outcomes1 (p. 3-4). The Ostroms developed the “Bloomington School” of Political Economy, built on the concept of polycentric systems which involve resource management at multiple levels4 (p. 6-7).

Elinor Ostrom’s field of expertise was the analysis of the management of common pool resources.  Her institutional approach in examining the use of collective action, trust, and cooperation in public policy is known as the Institutional analysis and development framework (IAD). The IAD model describes the participants as the main force behind the management of resources4 (p. 144).

Her work was aimed at investigating how the overexploitation of commonly owned resources could be prevented by collective action by local users. In her most famous and ground-breaking book, Governing the Commons, Ostrom analysed local management regimes for common resource usage, and she established the main principles for predicting success and failure of these systems. Through her research, she proved that privatisation and government control do not lead to the best arrangement for managing common property4 (p. 121-122). Ostrom acquired a truly innovative approach for obtaining data; by combining theoretical models, official records, and field research to procure a broader focus on issues. She firmly believed in combining concepts from different social sciences to political theory5 (p. 19222).

Elinor Ostrom was a woman challenging widely-accepted concepts in her field of political science. She challenged Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” published in Science magazine in 1968. Through the usage of practical examples, Hardin showed that it comes to the degradation of the environment whenever many individuals use a scarce resource in common. He showed his theory on a practical example of a pasture “open to all.” In his example, each herder is motivated to add more and more animals because he receives the direct benefit from them, but this eventually leads to the worse overall position of the community. Throughout her research, Ostrom proved that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). As a result of her research, she was able to summarise the principles required for a group of people to manage common resources. Her findings consisted of eight core rules; clearly defined boundaries; proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; collective choice arrangements; monitoring; graduated sanctions; fast and fair conflict resolution; local autonomy; and polycentric governance6.

This innovative approach on resource management earned her the Nobel Prize in 2009 and recognised her as an important contributor to economics. She shared the prize with Oliver E. Williamson. Elinor donated her share of the $1.4 million Nobel award money to the Workshop3 (p. 2).

Elinor’s later work was focused on informing the scientist and policymakers about complex and dynamic systems. In addition, she built the foundations for the analysis of “social-ecological systems”3 (p. 6).

Whether we are analysing forests in India, irrigation in Spain, fishing grounds in Mexico, or global warming on our planet, we can apply Elinor Ostrom’s theory to situations happening all around us. Ostrom proved that higher levels of state action are often necessary to make the lower levels work well. In such cases the state may play a structuring and entrepreneurial role, or it may simply allow these arrangements to function efficiently on their own by providing the legislative basis for the arrangements. She showed us that the appropriate role of the state depends on the characteristics of that community or system. Above all, if want to have a system or community that is sustainable on its own, we need overarching institutions to perform state functions while, at the same time, preserving the flexible, grounded, local knowledge, and participant commitment2.



The power of a theory is exactly proportional to the diversity of situations it can explain.

Cited in Elinor Ostrom (2015). “Governing the Commons”, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 24.

Some of the homes that have been built in the last 10 years just appal me. Why do humans need huge homes? I was born poor and I didn’t know you bought clothes at anything but the Goodwill until I went to college. Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.

Cited in “Elinor Ostrom Wins Nobel for Common(s) Sense”. Interview with Fran Korten, 26 February 2010.

We should continue to use simple models where they capture enough of the core underlying structure and incentives that they usefully predict outcomes. When the world we are trying to explain and improve, however, is not well described by a simple model, we must continue to improve our frameworks and theories so as to be able to understand complexity and not simply reject it. 

Cited in Elinor Ostrom (2009) “Nobel Prize Lecture”, 8 December.



Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes. 

Cited in The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2009: Press Release 12 October 2009 on

Ostrom cautioned against single governmental units at global level to solve the collective action problem of coordinating work against environmental destruction. Partly, this is due to their complexity, and partly to the diversity of actors involved. Her proposal was that of a polycentric approach, where key management decisions should be made as close to the scene of events and the actors involved as possible.

Cited in Vedeld, Trond. 2010, February 12. “A New Global Game – And How Best to Play It,” The NIBR International Blog.



1992: Harold and Margaret Sprout Award for excellence in the field of international environmental affairs for Governing the Commons, International Studies Association
1996: Miriam Mills Award for being an outstanding woman in the field of policy studies, Policy Studies Organization
1997: Thomas R. Dye Service Award for outstanding service to the Policy Studies Organization
1997: Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy
1999: Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, Uppsala University
2000: Aaron Wildavsky Enduring Contribution Award for Governing the Commons, APSA, Public Policy Section
2003: Lifetime Achievement Award, Atlas Economic Research Foundation
2004: J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science, National Academy of Sciences
2005: James Madison Award, American Political Science Association
2005: Sustainability Science Award, Ecological Society of America
2006: Cozzarelli Prize, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
2006: APSA, Political Economy Section, William Riker Award for Best Book on Political Economy, APSA, Political Economy Section
2008: Galbraith Award, American Agricultural Economics Association
2008: William H. Riker Prize in Political Science, University of Rochester
2009: The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel
2009: Elazar Distinguished Federalism Scholar Award, APSA, Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations SectionReimar Lüst Award for International Scholarly and Cultural Exchange, Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany
2009: Jonathan M. Tisch Prize for Civic Engagement Research, Tufts University, Medford, MA, March 5
2010: Diamond Jubilee Award for Lifetime Achievement in Political Studies, Political Studies Association of the UK
2010: Distinguished Faculty Award, College of Arts and Sciences, Indiana University, Bloomington
2010: Herman B. Wells Visionary Award, Indiana University Foundation, Bloomington, IN
2010: Living Legend Award, Office of Women’s Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington
2011: Adam Smith Award, Association of Private Enterprise Education, Nassau, Bahamas



An Interview with Ostrom

Interview with Elinor Ostrom. Annual Reviews Conversations Presents An Interview with Elinor Ostrom. 2010. Margaret Levi, Interviewer. Online transcript. 



1990: Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
1993: Ostrom, Elinor; Schroeder, Larry; Wynne, Susan. Institutional incentives and sustainable development: infrastructure policies in perspective. Boulder: Westview Press
1994: Ostrom, Elinor; Walker, James; Gardner, Roy. Rules, games, and common-pool resources. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
1995: Ostrom, Elinor; Crawford, Sue E. S. “A grammar of institutions”. American Political Science Review. American Political Science Association via JSOR. 89(3): 582–600.
1998: Ostrom, Elinor. “A behavioral approach to the rational choice theory of collective action: Presidential address, American Political Science Association, 1997”. American Political Science Review. American Political Science Association via JSTOR. 92 (1): 1–22.
2003: Ostrom, Elinor; Walker, James. Trust and reciprocity: interdisciplinary lessons from experimental research. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
2005: Ostrom, Elinor. Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
2007: Ostrom, Elinor; Kanbur, Ravi; Guha-Khasnobis, Basudeb. Linking the formal and informal economy: concepts and policies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2007: Ostrom, Elinor; Hess, Charlotte. Understanding knowledge as a commons: from theory to practice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
2009: Ostrom, Elinor. “Engaging with impossibilities and possibilities”, in Kanbur, Ravi; Basu, Kaushik, Arguments for a better world: essays in honor of Amartya Sen | Volume II: Society, institutions and development, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 522–41.
2010: Ostrom, Elinor. “Beyond markets and states: polycentric governance of complex economic systems”. American Economic Review. American Economic Association. 100 (3): 641–72.



Aligica, Paul Dragos (2008). “Ostrom, Vincent and Elinor (1919– and 1933– )”. In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute.
Aligica, Paul Dragos; Boettke, Peter (2009). Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School. Routledge.
Aligica, Paul Dragos (2014). Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond. United Kingdom, Oxford University Press.
Auer, Matthew (August 2014). “Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms: The Principled Optimism of Elinor Ostrom”. Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research. Taylor & Francis. 6 (4): 265–71.
Ostrom, Elinor (2009). Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems, Prize Lecture. Available online on :
Locher, Fabien. “Third World Pastures. The Historical Roots of the Commons Paradigm (1965-1990)”. Quaderni Storici. 2016/1: 303–333.



  1. Forsyth, Tim and Johnson, Craig (2014). Elinor Ostrom’s legacy: governing the commons, and the rational choice controversy. Development and Change, 45 (5).
  2. Mansbridge Jane: “The role of the state in governing the commons”.<>
  3. McCay J. Bonnie and Bennet, Joan (2014). A Biographical Memoir. United States, National Academy of Sciences.
  4. Tarko, Vlad (2017). Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography. United States, Rowman &Littlefield Interntional
  5. Zagorski Nick. Profile of Elinor Ostrom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2006;103(51):19221-19223.
  6. Wilson Sloan David: “The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas” <>


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