After graduating with a B.A. and Ph.D. from UCLA, Ostrom lived in Bloomington, Indiana, and served on the faculty of Indiana University, with a late-career affiliation with Arizona State University. She was Distinguished Professor at Indiana University and the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, as well as research professor and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University in Tempe. She was a lead researcher for the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program (SANREM CRSP), managed by Virginia Tech and funded by USAID. Beginning in 2008, she and her husband Vincent Ostrom advised the journal Transnational Corporations Review.
Elinor Claire Awan was born in Los Angeles, California as the only child of Leah Hopkins, a musician, and Adrian Awan, a set designer. Her parents separated early in her life, and Elinor lived with her mother most of the time. She attended a Protestant church with her mother and often spent weekends with her father's Jewish family. Growing up in the post-Depression era to divorced artisans, Ostrom described herself as a "poor kid."
Ostrom grew up across the street from Beverly Hills High School, which she attended, graduating in 1951. She regarded this as fortunate, for the school had a very high rate of college admittance. As a high school student, Elinor Ostrom had been discouraged from studying Trigonometry, as girls without top marks in Algebra and Geometry were not allowed to take the subject. Her mother did not wish for her to attend college, seeing no reason for it.
She attended UCLA, receiving a B.A. (with honors) in political science at UCLA in 1954, graduating in three years. She married a classmate, Charles Scott, and worked at General Radio in Cambridge, Massachusetts while Scott attended Harvard Law School. They divorced several years later when Ostrom began contemplating a PhD.
She was consequently rejected for an economics PhD at UCLA. She was admitted to UCLA's graduate program in political science, where she was awarded an M.A. in 1962 and a PhD in 1965. She married political scientist Vincent Ostrom in 1963, whom she met while assisting his research on water resource governance in Southern California.
In 1961 Vincent Ostrom, together with Charles Tiebout and Robert Warren published "The organization of government in metropolitan areas," which would go on to be an influential article and introduced themes that would be central to the Ostrom's work. However, the article contributed to a conflict with UCLA's Bureau of Governmental Research because, counter to the Bureau's interests, it recommended against centralization of metropolitan areas in favor of polycentrism. This conflict prompted the Ostroms to leave UCLA. They moved to Bloomington, Indiana, in 1965 when Vincent accepted a political science professorship at Indiana University. She joined the faculty as Visiting Assistant Professor. The first course she taught was American Government at 7:30.
In 1973, Ostrom and her husband founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. Examining the use of collective action, trust, and cooperation in the management of common pool resources (CPR), her institutional approach to public policy, known as the Institutional analysis and development framework (IAD), has been considered sufficiently distinct to be thought of as a separate school of public choice theory. She authored many books in the fields of organizational theory, political science, and public administration.
Ostrom's early work emphasized the role of public choice on decisions influencing the production of public goods and services. Among her better known works in this area is her study on the polycentricity of police functions in the Greater St. Louis areas. Her later, and more famous, work focused on how humans interact with ecosystems to maintain long-term sustainable resource yields. Common pool resources include many forests, fisheries, oil fields, grazing lands, and irrigation systems. She conducted her field studies on the management of pasture by locals in Africa and irrigation systems management in villages of western Nepal (e.g., Dang Deukhuri). Her work has considered how societies have developed diverse institutional arrangements for managing natural resources and avoiding ecosystem collapse in many cases, even though some arrangements have failed to prevent resource exhaustion. Her work emphasized the multifaceted nature of human–ecosystem interaction and argues against any singular "panacea" for individual social-ecological system problems.
Ostrom identified eight "design principles" of stable local common pool resource management:
- Clearly defined (clear definition of the contents of the common pool resource and effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties);
- The appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions;
- Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
- Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
- A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
- Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
- Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities; and
- In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.
These principles have since been slightly modified and expanded to include a number of additional variables believed to affect the success of self-organized governance systems, including effective communication, internal trust and reciprocity, and the nature of the resource system as a whole.
Ostrom and her many co-researchers have developed a comprehensive "Social-Ecological Systems (SES) framework", within which much of the still-evolving theory of common-pool resources and collective self-governance is now located.
According to the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research, "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."
Ostrom's Law is an adage that represents how Elinor Ostrom's works in economics challenge previous theoretical frameworks and assumptions about property, especially the commons. Ostrom's detailed analyses of functional examples of the commons create an alternative view of the arrangement of resources that are both practically and theoretically possible. This eponymous law is stated succinctly by Lee Anne Fennell as:
"A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory."
Ostrom was a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and president of the American Political Science Association and the Public Choice Society. In 1999, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science.
Ostrom was awarded the Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award for Political Economy in 1998. Her presented paper, on "The Comparative Study of Public Economies", was followed by a discussion among Kenneth Arrow, Thomas Schelling and Amartya Sen. She was awarded the John J. Carty Award from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004, and, in 2005, received the James Madison Award by the American Political Science Association. In 2008, she became the first woman to receive the William H. Riker Prize in political science; and, the following year, she received the Tisch Civic Engagement Research Prize from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. In 2010, the Utne Reader magazine included Ostrom as one of the "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World". She was named one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World" in 2012.
The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) awarded its Honorary Fellowship to her in 2002.
In 2008 she was awarded an honorary degree, doctor honoris causa, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
In 2009, Ostrom became the first woman to receive the prestigious Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Ostrom "for her analysis of economic governance", saying her work had demonstrated how common property could be successfully managed by groups using it. Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson shared the 10-million Swedish kronor (£910,000; $1.44 million) prize for their separate work in economic governance. As she had done with previous monetary prizes, Ostrom donated her award to the Workshop she helped to found.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Ostrom's "research brought this topic from the fringe to the forefront of scientific attention...by showing how common resources – forests, fisheries, oil fields or grazing lands – can be managed successfully by the people who use them rather than by governments or private companies". Ostrom's work in this regard challenged conventional wisdom, showing that common resources can be successfully managed without government regulation or privatization.
Ostrom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October 2011. During the final year of her life, she continued to write and lecture, giving the Hayek Lecture at the Institute of Economic Affairs just eleven weeks before her death. She died on June 12, 2012, at the age of 78. Her husband Vincent died 17 days later. On the day of her death, she published her last article, "Green from the Grassroots," in Project Syndicate. Indiana University president Michael McRobbie wrote: "Indiana University has lost an irreplaceable and magnificent treasure with the passing of Elinor Ostrom".Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521405997.
Ostrom, Elinor; Schroeder, Larry; Wynne, Susan (1993). Institutional incentives and sustainable development: infrastructure policies in perspective. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 9780813316192.
Ostrom, Elinor; Walker, James; Gardner, Roy (1994). Rules, games, and common-pool resources. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 9780472065462.
Ostrom, Elinor; Walker, James (2003). Trust and reciprocity: interdisciplinary lessons from experimental research. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. ISBN 9780871546470.
Ostrom, Elinor (2005). Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691122380.
Ostrom, Elinor; Kanbur, Ravi; Guha-Khasnobis, Basudeb (2007). Linking the formal and informal economy: concepts and policies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199237296.
Ostrom, Elinor; Hess, Charlotte (2007). Understanding knowledge as a commons: from theory to practice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262516037.
Ostrom, Elinor (2009), "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, ISBN 9780199239979.
Ostrom, Elinor; Crawford, Sue E. S. (September 1995). "A grammar of institutions". American Political Science Review. American Political Science Association via JSOR. 89 (3): 582–600. doi:10.2307/2082975.
Ostrom, Elinor (March 1998). "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. doi:10.2307/2585925.
Ostrom, Elinor (June 2010). "Beyond markets and states: polycentric governance of complex economic systems". American Economic Review. American Economic Association. 100 (3): 641–72. doi:10.1257/aer.100.3.641. Pdf version.