October, 2019

Ostrom's Tensions

Reexamining the Political Economy and Public Policy of Elinor C. Ostrom
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Elinor C. Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, with recognition for her path-breaking work on institutions organized to address common-pool resource settings. She and her collaborator and spouse, Vincent Ostrom, contested the scholarship of mainstream political economy, public administration, and public policy in their quest to understand how individuals resolve a variety of social dilemmas. Ostrom’s work challenged the belief that a system of governance based on expert public officials could perform better and should a priori be preferred to a system based on citizens’ self-governance. Like any great and productive scholar, her body of work includes tensions, flaws, and inconsistencies that must be confronted by scholars looking to engage, critique, and advance her distinctive project in political economy.

Starting from the recognition that Ostrom’s work remains open for contestation and improvement, Ostrom’s Tensions: Reexamining the Political Economy and Public Policy of Elinor C. Ostrom presents a critical assessment of Ostrom’s research and ideas. The contributions to this edited volume, which include original chapters by several of Ostrom’s colleagues and students, identify sources of tension within her writing. The research program Ostrom developed continues as an open-ended project advancing adaptable models and polycentric governance solutions rather than static models and one-size-fits-all policies. Taken as a whole, this volume identifies important questions and areas for future research by the next generation of political economists.


About the Editors:

Paul Dragos Aligica is senior fellow with the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University and director of the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Roberta Q. Herzberg is distinguished senior fellow with the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.


About the Contributors:

Aurelian Craiutu is professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Peter Levine is associate dean of academic affairs and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.

Adam Martin is associate professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and political economy research fellow at the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University.

Michael D. McGinnis is professor emeritus of political science and former director of the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Adrian Miroiu is professor of political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest, Romania.

Erik Swyngedouw is professor of human geography in the School of Environment, Education and Development at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom.

Vlad Tarko is assistant professor in the Department of Political Economy and Moral Science at the University of Arizona.

Andreas Thiel is professor of international agricultural policy and environmental governance at the University of Kassel and a senior fellow with the Käte Hamburger Kolleg Centre for Global Cooperation at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.



“Ten years before this book’s publication, Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, mainly for analyzing common-pool resources and associated governance systems. In studying complex humans within equally complex social-ecological settings, Ostrom had to grapple with a variety of ‘tensions’: Could she create an easy-to-use analytical framework for highly variegated and complex social-ecological systems? Could she improve theory through practice, that is, by ‘empirically grounding’ theory? Could she induce scholars from diverse disciplines, with diverse methods, to coalesce around a common conceptual vocabulary to more accurately diagnose, and potentially help to resolve, social and combined social-ecological problems? In this book, a group of esteemed Ostrom experts cast light on how she dealt with such tensions. It is a highly valuable addition to the growing body of work on the Ostroms and their ongoing research program.”

Daniel H. Cole, Professor of Law and of Public and Environmental Affairs, Maurer School of Law, Indiana University Bloomington


“This thoughtful and engaging collection of essays raises important questions and debates on Ostrom’s scholarship and her unique brand of political economy. Highly recommended.”

David Skarbek, Associate Professor of Political Science, Brown University


“Elinor and Vincent Ostrom embraced a spirit of friendly contestation in all they did. This excellent volume beautifully reflects that legacy with contributions that explore tensions both within the Bloomington School and with contrasting perspectives on the nature of governance and social order. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the problem of governance – and to anyone with an open mind.”

Mark Pennington, Professor of Political Economy, King’s College London


“The Bloomington School is flourishing! The flow of work recently emerging from this tradition has been impressive, deep and diverse. There are so many books and articles that are obligatory reading that it is hard to keep up. This book, a collection of varied, original, and intellectually exciting essays, needs to be added to this obligatory reading. If you are interested in the Bloomington School you must read this book. If you are interested in the emerging field of civic studies (Tocqueville’s ‘new political science for a new age’ renamed to fit better a new age), you must also read this book. Sorry to impose on you, I know life is short.”

Karol E. Soltan, Associate Professor of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park


"This remarkable volume not only highlights important tensions in Elinor and Vincent Ostrom's work, but it brings together a diverse group of scholars from so many disciplines who are building on their legacy. The diversity of these approaches, which push the boundaries in public administration, political theory, economics, political science, and anthropology demonstrate the enormous gravity of their work. The pieces here, together, provide an invaluable and illuminating guide that will shape the future trajectory of research inspired the Ostroms for generations to come."

Jennifer Murtazashvili, Associate Professor and Director, Center for Governance and Markets, Univeristy of Pittsburgh