The Science of Cooperation

Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom takes the prize for her commons sense


| September-October 2010


This article is part of a series of articles on the commons. For more, read The Case for Commons, and A New Political Dawn. For more writing on the commons from the alternative press, visit utne.com/Commons. 

Elinor Ostrom was an unusual choice for the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. She is the first woman to receive the prize, and her doctorate is in political science, not economics (though she considers herself a political economist). And while standard economics focuses on competition, her work is about cooperation.

Ostrom’s influential book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action was published in 1990. But her research on common property goes back to the 1960s, when she wrote her dissertation on groundwater in California. In 1973 she and her husband, Vincent Ostrom, founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, which has produced hundreds of studies of the ways in which communities self-organize to solve common problems.

Fran Korten, Yes! magazine’s publisher, interviewed Ostrom shortly after Ostrom received the Nobel Prize.


Many people associate “the commons” with Garrett Hardin’s famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” He says that if, for example, you have a pasture that everyone in a village has access to, then each person will put as many cows on that land as he can to maximize his own benefit, and pretty soon the pasture will be overgrazed and become worthless. What’s the difference between your perspective and Hardin’s?I don’t see the human as hopeless. There’s a tendency to presume people act just for short-term profit. But anyone who knows about small-town businesses and how people in a community relate to one another realizes that many decisions are not made just for profit, and that humans do try to organize and solve problems.

If you are in a fishery or have a pasture and you know that not destroying it is to your family’s long-term benefit, and if you can talk with the other people who use that resource, then you may well figure out rules that fit that local setting and organize to enforce them. But if community members don’t have a good way of communicating with each other or the costs of self-organization are too high, then they won’t organize, and there will be failures.

Tim Gieseke
9/9/2010 7:32:48 AM

I think Ostrom's perspective is important and her acknowledgment that multiple models will be needed is a welcome sign. As a farmer, I see the commons as the waterways and habitat that I and the agribusinesses manage. In this case, I envision EcoCommerce as the means to manage the commons. This model integrates ecological and economical systems to value the attributes of managing the commons.