Elinor Ostrom biography

Published by Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016. [Amazon] [Rowman]ElinorOstrom3


The book is presenting the life and work of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics, showcasing both her key contributions to economics and political science, and various aspects of her personal life relevant to understanding her work.


Despite having won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, having been the president (1996-97) and vice-president (1975-76) of the American Political Science Association, the president of the Midwest Political Science Association (1984–85), and one of the founding members and president (1982–84) of the Public Choice Society, Elinor Ostrom’s work still remains relatively unfamiliar to both the interested general public and to the broad economics profession. One reason for this is that her approach to understanding the problem of how societies develop in productive and sustainable ways has been relatively heterodox.

Together with her husband Vincent they formed a formidable intellectual team, with Vincent providing the deep philosophical underpinnings and Elinor setting up amazing empirical studies. The book explains not just the empirical studies, but also the deep connections to Vincent Ostrom’s more philosophical work. Together with the school of thought and practice that they have started at Indiana University in Bloomington, they have tackled the fundamental question of economics, going back to Adam Smith’s “inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations”, but they have undoubtedly been out-of-the box thinkers and practitioners. They are leading figures in New Institutional Economics and Public Choice, two approaches that have pushed mainstream economics towards the rediscovery and deeper appreciation of the critical importance of institutions.

Looking at the life and work of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School of Political Economy provides a good opportunity to highlight key ideas about sustainable development and the importance of self-governance, especially now that the wider economics profession is far more attuned to this line of thinking and inquiry.


Economic Detective, “Elinor Ostrom, Polycentric Governance, and Policing“.

Mercatus Center, FA Hayek Program Podcast, “Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography Book Panel“.


Best book award, from the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics, at the Southern Economic Association conference 2018.


Tarko’s concise intellectual biography of Elinor Ostrom provides readers with an authoritative account of the Bloomington School and is a masterful work of political economy in its own right. The fields of economics, political science, and philosophy would be far better off if Ostrom’s insights were more widely understood, and this book should help to make that happen.
— Jason Brennan, Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy, the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University

This is a masterful account of Ostrom’s work. An inspiring synthesis, of an inspiring intellectual life.
— Mark Pennington, Professor of Political Economy and Public Policy, King’s College London

Tarko does an outstanding job capturing the breadth and depth of Lin’s work to produce a course in the New Institutional Economics, as well as an intellectual history of Lin, Vincent and the many scholars associated with the Workshop in Political theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University.
— Robert L Bish, Professor Emeritus, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Vlad Tarko has written more than an intellectual biography of one of the most influential social scientists of her generation. His book is at the same time an insightful introduction and a nuanced interpretation of a fascinating research program with significant applied-level implications.
— Paul Dragos Aligica, Senior Research Fellow, George Mason University

Vlad Tarko’s book adds a valuable perspective on the ideas and work of Elinor Ostrom plus that of Vincent Ostrom and the Bloomington Workshop they established. The extent of their influence, and the reasons for it, come through clearly in these pages. It will be useful for readers looking for an introduction to Elinor’s work, and enjoyable for readers who are already familiar with it.
— William Blomquist, Professor, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Vlad Tarko has provided a brilliant overview of what Lin Ostrom often referred to as her and Vincent’s “polycentric journey”. Along the way she studied local public economies, the wrestling with common-pool resources throughout the world, and the complexity of economic development. Her enduring research legacy is to be found in both her multiple methodologies approach to studying institutional diversity, and the conclusions she drew on the possibility and sustainability of self-governing democratic societies. Tarko’s book is a must read not only to those who want to learn about Elinor Ostrom and her contributions, but to all students of political economy.
— Peter J. Boettke, Professor, George Mason University


[T]he book presents, in a systematic way, an excellent and easy-to-read exposition of the Ostroms’ approach to social science, with the main focus being Elinor’s prolific work, which led to her becoming the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

— John Kincaid, Publius: The Journal of Federalism

Elinor Ostrom, the first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, is an exemplar of the benefits of interdisciplinary research. She built her institutional analysis on insights from a myriad of fields including political science, public administration (PA), sociology, economics, and the natural sciences. She designed her empirically grounded theories to cross boundaries between economics and other social sciences. … For PA scholars and practitioners who have limited knowledge of Elinor Ostrom’s work, this intellectual biography can be a useful introduction. After reading it, people can delve deeper into the thoughts and methodologies in her books and articles. Tarko’s volume offers a clear, but relatively brief, analysis of Elinor Ostrom’s intellectual approach to how communities all over the world have handled difficult, collective problems.

— Hindy Lauer Schachter, Public Administration Review

Vlad Tarko does a superb job of outlining the key contributions of Elinor Ostrom’s scholarly career in this accessible volume on her intellectual journey. One of its greatest strengths is the clear and succinct presentation that allows even a novice reader to gain an appreciation for the core concepts that Ostrom (and colleagues) developed over her 50+ year career. Tarko captures Ostrom’s optimistic spirit and perseverance in creating complex theoretical frameworks with rich empirical analyses across diverse settings of self-governance. Those who knew her and her work well will find themselves nodding along as he describes the path she followed to such success, while those unfamiliar with her accomplishments will gain a new appreciation for the scope of the work she tackled. … Great social scientists such as E. Ostrom are shaped by their formative interactions and intellectual puzzles. Undoubtedly, the constant obstacles she faced early on showed her to be resilient enough to challenge the accepted view and look for the many paths to success which humans create for themselves. Through those same insights, she designed a career based in understanding the struggles of others to solve problems and through Tarko’s examination, we gain an answer to Lin’s own version of Hamilton’s Dilemma of whether careful reflection and choice can win out over accident and force: It can; She did; and Tarko shows us just how important her efforts were in advancing the field of political economy and institutional analysis.

— Bobbi HerzbergPublic Choice

In addition to presenting Ostrom as a model of intellectual curiosity and careful scholarship, Tarko manages to bring an extraordinary degree of conceptual clarity to a complicated research program: the study of institutions as complex systems of rules-in-use that come to exist through a combination of deliberate craft and unintended consequence. … [Elinor and Vincent Ostrom] viewed individuals’ efforts to govern themselves as the key to understanding institutions and thereby the key to understanding social organization. Tarko gives good reason to follow them in this project, and makes significant contributions towards understanding how to do so. If that thought appeals, this concise, well-written volume is well worth your attention.

— Jayme Lemke, Independent Review

Vlad Tarko’s Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography is an excellent and concise account of Elinor Ostrom’s work and of the Bloomington School of Political Economy. It is also a stimulating contribution, in its own right, to crucial and contemporary themes in political economy, building from, but moving beyond, the work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom. The book is not merely an intellectual biography of the first woman to receive the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science; its five chapters offer illuminating insights on important debates in political economy and institutional analysis, debates that challenge conventional wisdom on such matters as the robustness of self-governing arrangements, the effectiveness of endogenous bottom-up rules, and the efficiency of emergent contractual and ‘quasi-market’ decentralized ways of providing public goods.

— Pablo Paniagua Prieto, Review of Political Economy

Tarko combines a compelling picture of Ostrom’s career as a scholar and educator with the background information necessary to understand the significance and exceptionality of that career. Tarko’s volume is, in short, the best available introduction to the unique and remarkable thought of Elinor Ostrom.

— David S. D’Amato, Review at libertarianism.com


Introduction: The idea of self-governance as the foundation to institutional analysis and development
Overcoming prejudice
Basic principles of institutional economics
What are institutions?
Transaction costs
The limits of institutional design
The role of the expert
Vincent Ostrom’s contribution to the Alaskan constitution
The expert as a catalyst of self-governance

1 Against Gargantua: The study of local public economies
From UCLA to Indiana
The complexity of public services

The rise and fall of community policing
How reliable are citizens’ surveys?
The failure of “community policing”
The impossibility of efficient hierarchical public economies
Control over the cause of the problem
Accurately measuring the demand for public goods and the opportunity cost of providing them
Fiscal equivalence and redistribution
The separation of production and provision

2  Polycentricity: The art and science of association
A few examples of large-scale polycentric systems
The scientific community
Common law
Polycentricity as a framework for the analysis of emergent orders
Complex adaptive systems
Vincent Ostrom’s polycentricity conjecture

3 Escaping the tragedy of the commons: The concept of property and the varieties of self-governing arrangements
Beyond markets and governments
Civil society is a real thing
The hard case: common-pool resources
What are property rights?
Property is a bundle of rights
Self-governance depends on mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing rules
Why state solutions often fail
The complexity and limits of private property
Bottom-up solutions to social dilemmas
From Prisoners’ Dilemma to the Stag Hunt
Beyond the Prisoners’ Dilemma model

4 Resilience: Understanding the institutional capacity to cope with shocks and other challenges
Conceptualizing resilience
An equilibrium perspective
Highly optimized tolerance
The problem of self-interested actors evading rules
Polycentricity as a method to design resilient systems
Avoiding slippery slopes
Entrepreneurship, creative destruction, and the Red Queen race
Elinor Ostrom’s “design principles” for resilient systems
The operational level
The collective choice level
The constitutional level
How general are these principles?

5 Hamilton’s dilemma: Can societies establish good governments by reflection and choice?
The Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework
Action arenas and institutional roles
Evaluation of outcomes
Example: Socio-ecological resilience
Institutional factors
The action arena
Patterns of interactions and the evaluation of outcomes
Institutional evolution and public entrepreneurship
Rules as the basic unit of institutional evolution
Public entrepreneurship
Building a science of association

Conclusion: Elinor Ostrom as a role model for social scientists