A social-science Nobel in Economics

Sean Safford, who blogs at OrgTheory, wrote an interesting description of Elinor Ostrom’s academic work, for which she was just awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.   As Sean notes, she began with a question that is both important and ubiquitous.  The Tragedy of the Commons is a standard issue in social science – it’s been considered sociologically, in terms of political science, and economically.

Description: Cattle, colloquially referred to ...
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The Commons.  In Britain, many villages had a common pasture on which villagers could graze a cow, allowing them to have milk and butter.  So  long as people only grazed for their own needs, the pasture supported the animals well.  However, if a person got a second cow, it was possible to sell milk and butter, or make cheese, or in other ways better one’s lot.  So there was a strong incentive to increase one’s herd.  But – as happened across England – as everyone follows their individual interest, the pasture is chewed down to the soil. Eventually, there is not enough grass to support any animals at all.  The usual solutions are either (a) break the large common pasture into small individual holdings so each person prospers or not according to the whims of nature and their own management or (b) institute regulation from outside to define and police acceptable behavior.

Not always.  Ostrom’s insight was to notice that situations of a Commons do not always lead to tragedy, nor do they always require either privatization or general outside control.  Her work focuses on the ways in which people – like the villagers in England – can organize themselves to jointly manage the common resource.  Through her study of particular situations where a common resource has been managed for a long period of time, she explored the complex interactions through which people monitor and manage their behavior.

The result seems to be that such self-organization needs to be based on small communities.  Although all the nations that fish in the  Atlantic are aware that the fish population is crashing – perhaps to a level that won’t be able to recover – they do not have the kind of face-to-face interactions that would let the solve the problem individually.  The oceans  may be a commons that is too big for Ostrom’s theory to help.

Many other, more local, questions of sustainable economies, though, may have a lot to gain from her work.  As families, work groups, colleges, and churches try to work together to save electricity, use less water, waste less food, and the like, her work may provide some insight.

As Sean notes, the Nobel committee seems to be considering economics in an interdisciplinary social science perspective. To my way of thinking, this makes sense.  We don’t divide up our social behavior according to the disciplines; I’m not a political person one moment, an economic one the next, and psychological one a third.  Elinor Ostrom, whose training is in political science, clearly has done some interesting work that draws on and contributes to several of the disciplines.

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