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Two enduring lessons from Elinor Ostrom


This article is a tribute to Elinor Ostrom. It explores two enduring lessons she taught: a substantive lesson that involves embracing complexity and context, and a methodological lesson that involves embracing a framework-driven approach to systematic, evolutionary learning through various interdisciplinary methodologies, theories, and empirical approaches. First, I discuss Ostrom's work on environmental commons. I illustrate the two lessons through a discussion of the tragedy of the commons. Next, I explain how the two lessons play a significant role in recent efforts to extend Ostrom's work on environmental commons to knowledge/cultural commons. I draw a parallel between the tragedy of the commons allegory and the free-rider allegory, and show how many of the problems Ostrom explored in the environmental context are manifest in the cultural environmental context. I discuss an ongoing research project that follows the path that Ostrom blazed and systematically studies commons in the cultural environment.

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C. D. Becker and E. Ostrom (1995), ‘Human Ecology and Resource Sustainability: The Importance of Institutional Diversity’, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 26: 113133.

D. L. Burk and M. A. Lemley (2009), The Patent Crisis and How the Courts Can Solve It, Chicago and London: University Of Chicago Press.

R. H. Coase (1960), ‘The Problem of Social Cost’, Journal of Law and Economics, 3: 144.

R. Cook-Deegan and T. Dedeurwaerdere (2006), ‘The Science Commons in Life Science Research: Structure, Function and Value of Access to Genetic Diversity’, The International Social Science Journal, 58 (2): 299318.

B. Frey (2008), Happiness: A Revolution in Economics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

B. Frischmann (2012), Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Infrastructure, New York: Oxford University Press.

E. Ostrom (1990), Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, New York: Cambridge University Press.

E. Ostrom (2000), ‘Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms’, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14 (3): 137158.

E. Ostrom (2007), ‘A Diagnostic Approach For Going Beyond Panaceas’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (39): 1518115187.

E. Ostrom (2009), ‘A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems’, Science, 325 (5939): 419422.

P. Samuelson (1954), ‘The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure’, The Review of Economics and Statistics, 36 (4): 387389.

P. F. Uhlir (ed.) (2011), Designing the Microbial Research Commons: Proceedings of an International Symposium, National Academies Press.

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Journal of Institutional Economics
  • ISSN: 1744-1374
  • EISSN: 1744-1382
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-institutional-economics
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