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Nobel laureate Ostrom discusses social ecology systems

Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom spoke at a packed Annenberg Auditorium on Thursday about social ecology systems, focusing on the theoretical framework behind cooperation in the commons.

Ostrom, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences with Oliver E. Williamson, was the first woman to win in that category.

Throughout the lecture, Ostrom assessed how “social and ecological systems interact” and when they prove to be “resilient.” This topic of study, she argued, has been complicated by the fact “that social systems have immense variety.”

Ostrom said having an understanding of these systems yields important implications when scholars study lakes, forests, fisheries and other “commons.”

“Our argument is that our social, ecological systems are structured by multiple variables that affect the patterns of outcomes over time and that we need to be better developing our diagnostic skills,” Ostrom said.

But accomplishing this goal, she warned, is not an easy feat.

In fact, there have been hotly contested debates over the theoretical groundwork of the commons. The conventional theory of collective action has assumed that individuals maximize short-term material benefits for themselves. Ecologist Garrett Hardin became known for his work on the tragedy of the commons theory, which maintains that self-interested individuals are trapped in a non-cooperative state and will deplete the resources within their commons.

Ostrom was one of the first scholars to challenge this widely accepted theory.

To escape from the tragedy of the commons, individuals “have to impose rules from the outside,” Ostrom said.

The implementation of socially optimal rules will lead to a beneficial outcome; the problem, however, is that individuals do not always follow this path.

“The theory says that it’s possible [but] we find that in many cases that it isn’t supported,” Ostrom said.

“[Empirically] you find a very large number of factors that appear to be affecting whether or not people succeed,” she added.
Ostrom cited a host of factors that encourage cooperation among individuals; she highlighted learning norms and building trust as especially significant features. Ostrom concluded that academics “have to examine how the micro situation affects trust and reciprocity.”

Ostrom’s lecture resonated strongly with international relations major Lacey Dorn ’11.

“It’s an intersection of my interests — ethics and the environment,” Dorn said. “And I really admire Elinor Ostrom for being the first female winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics.”

Given her avid interest in the environment, Dorn jumped at the opportunity to attend an event co-sponsored by the Woods Institute and the economics department.

“I thought that her interest in community members’ ability to learn has a really inspiring implication for environmental scientists to continue to research and educate the global commons,” Dorn added.

Dorn’s high praise of Ostrom was echoed by philosophy professor Debra Satz, who introduced the visiting speaker as a “pioneer and path-breaker” during the beginning of the talk.

In 2009, Ostrom became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on the commons. She currently serves as the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and is the author of a large volume of papers and books.

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