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October 08 , 2010

Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School of Political Economy

Resource Governance


Elinor (Lin) Ostrom was awarded the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her pathbreaking research on "economic governance, especially the commons"; but she also made important contributions to several other fields of political economy and public policy. The range of topics she covered and the multiple methods she used might convey the mistaken impression that her body of work is disjointed and incoherent.

This four-volume compendium of papers written by Lin, alone or with various coauthors (most
notably including her husband and partner, Vincent), supplemented by others expanding
on their work, brings together the common strands of research that serve to tie her impressive
oeuvre together. That oeuvre, together with Vincent's own impressive body of work, has come to define a distinctive school of political-economic thought, the "Bloomington School."

Each of the four volumes is organized around a central theme of Lin’s work. Volume 2 examines the most well-known part of Lin’s legacy: her empirical, analytical, and theoretical work demonstrating that, in many cases, local resource users can solve collective-action problems through common-property management regimes. The volume comprises various papers relating to and building on the findings of her masterpiece, Governing the Commons (1990), including some lesser-known papers. Part I focuses on the all-important distinction between biophysical resources and the humanly devised institutions designed to govern them. Part II moves to the policy level, addressing how various sets of humanly devised institutions work better or worse, in various social and ecological circumstances, for the long-run sustainability of biophysical resources. Part III takes us full circle back to Ostrom’s first work (as part of her PhD) on water resources in Southern California, which was a topic she returned to, along with her students, throughout her career (and totaling more than 50 years’ worth of studies), with the specific intention of gathering data for dynamic (or, at least, comparative static) longitudinal analyses of combined social (including institutional) and ecological change. In sum, this volume presents what is, at least at present, thought to be Lin’s greatest legacy to social science: how resources can be sustainably managed over very long periods of time by the collective action of ordinary people, in addition to or without markets and states.
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