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Indiana University researchers receive Elinor Ostrom Prize for institutional economics article

Sept. 24, 2015

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University Bloomington faculty members Dan Cole and Mike McGinnis and doctoral student Graham Epstein have been awarded the 2015 Elinor Ostrom Prize for the best full-length article published during the previous year in the Journal of Institutional Economics.

The prize, awarded this month at the second annual meeting of the World Interdisciplinary Network for Institutional Research in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, honors the memory of the late IU Distinguished Professor Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

Cole is a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Maurer School of Law; McGinnis is a professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences; and both are affiliated faculty with the Ostrom Workshop at IU Bloomington. Epstein is a Ph.D. student in SPEA.

“As someone who has read so many great articles in the Journal of Institutional Economics over the last several years, I was very excited when Mike, Graham and I felt we finally had a paper good enough to publish in it,” Cole said. “Now, to receive this prize for that paper, named in honor of our late dear friend and colleague Elinor Ostrom, is far more than we ever could have anticipated.”

McGinnis said the award is a tribute to the continuing influence of Elinor Ostrom and her husband and longtime collaborator, Vincent Ostrom, on new developments in research.

“We were able to extend methods originally developed, primarily, by Lin Ostrom, apply them in a slightly revised mode to a question she herself had examined, and arrive at conclusions that I am confident that she would have appreciated even if she disagreed with us over some details,” he said. “We never could have gotten to this point without her pioneering work as an example, but I think she would have been most pleased to see that we were willing to arrive at conclusions that she herself had not seen. She and Vincent saw constructive contestation as the foundation for advances in social science, and in the far more important task of democratic self-governance.”

The winning article, "Digging Deeper Into Hardin’s Pasture: The Complex Institutional Structure of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,'" re-examines a classic problem in institutional economics and shows the problem to be more complex than previously recognized.

Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article “The Tragedy of the Commons” described a pasture used for grazing by competing herders and argued that the only ways to prevent its destruction were private ownership and government regulation. Elinor Ostrom showed, however, that pasture users could develop rules and institutions that would allow for sustainable management of the shared resource.

Cole, McGinnis and Epstein, using Ostrom’s Social-Ecological System framework, find that both Hardin and Ostrom took a simplified approach that ignored certain institutional rules, such as private ownership of cattle and available markets for selling them. They show that Hardin’s tragedy results not from a lack of institutions but from a set of institutions that support incentives for exploitation.

“Rather than choosing to ignore the complexity of the real world around them, the Ostroms chose to embrace it in their work and urged their students to do the same,” Epstein said. “Our work extends prior work by Elinor Ostrom to highlight important and necessary conditions that contribute to environmental degradation in Hardin's classic tragedy of the commons.”

Elinor Ostrom was instrumental in founding the Journal of Institutional Economics, an interdisciplinary journal focused on the social sciences. The Elinor Ostrom Prize is funded by the Foundation for European Economic Development and carries a prize of 1,000 British pounds.

Ostrom and economist Oliver Williamson shared the 2009 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, commonly known as the Nobel Prize in Economics. She died in June 2012.