Department of Political Science

Awarded on May 9, 2008, to Elinor Ostrom


Citation by Professor James Johnson
The Award to Elinor Ostrom

We are extremely pleased to award the 2008 William H. Riker Prize in Political Science to Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University. Once again the selection committee was chaired by James Johnson (Rochester) and included a past recipient of the prize Robert Bates (Harvard) and an alumnus of the department John Huber (Columbia).

Lin Ostrom earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors in Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1954. After spending several years employed in the “real world,” she returned to UCLA where she earned her Ph.D. in Political Science in 1965. She has been awarded Honorary Doctoral Degrees by the University of Michigan (2006), Uppsala University (2007), Humboldt University (2007), the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague (2002) and the University of Zurich (1999).

In 1966 Lin accepted a teaching position at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she has been on the faculty ever since. She currently is the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science. She has served twice as Chair of the Political Science Department at Bloomington and has, since 1973, been Co-Director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis there. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Member of the National Academy of Science and the American Philosophical Society. She is Past President of the American Political Science Association, the Public Choice Society, the Midwest Political Science Association, and the International Association for the Study of Common Property. And she has received numerous awards including the Cozzarelli Prize from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2006), John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science from the National Academy of Sciences (2004), the Johan Skyette Prize from Uppsala University (1999), and the James Madison Award from the American Political Science Association (2005).

Lin Ostrom has been a prolific scholar by any measure. I invite you to peruse the roughly twenty single-spaced pages listing her “Selected Journal Articles and Book Chapters.” For the less ambitious among you I recommend two of her books in particular: Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge UP, 1990) and Understanding Institutional Diversity (Princeton UP, 2005). What I find striking, however, is less this prodigious output than the substantive importance and sheer originality of her work. It is no stretch to characterize her research as boundary shattering. In this it is easy to make several comparisons with Bill Riker. And, of course, around here that is the highest form of praise!

[1] Lin, like Bill, is an exponent and practitioner of serious social science. Her research draws upon game theory, experimental methods (both in the lab and in the field), agent-based models, and other techniques to analyze a seemingly encyclopedic set of empirical cases.

[2] Whereas Bill arguably concentrated the bulk of his methodological borrowing and intellectual energies on consolidating a particular vision of political science as a discipline, Lin has pursued an extraordinarily ambitious interdisciplinary research agenda that revolves around a defining preoccupation with the myriad manifestations of what we might call the "the commons and its vicissitudes." Neither Lin nor Bill was much concerned with either the conventions or the ephemeral preoccupations of political scientists. Both pursued a reform agenda with respect to the rest of us.

So, yes, she has published papers in the American Political Science Review. But she also has published in pages where political scientists surely are rare contributors:

  • Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
  • Science
  • World Development
  • Environmental Economics and Policy Studies
  • International Forestry Review
  • Society and Natural Resources
  • Ecology & Society
  • Ecological Economics

[3] Like Bill, Lin is concerned with institution-building. I will say that she was a founding editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics of which I subsequently became co-editor. This, like the Workshop she directs in Bloomington, is an enterprise focused on the dissemination of knowledge and the training of impressionable minds.

[4] Finally, like Bill, Lin is acutely aware of the world of policy. She spends considerable time and effort conveying the insights of her theoretical work to denizens of that world. But, like Bill too, she understands how crucial good concrete examples are in focusing such conversations. So while Bill could use the distribution of airport slots as a vehicle for conveying his ideas about the origins of property rights, Lin has assessed the “Performance of Farmer-Managed Irrigation Systems in Nepal” in an analogous way. She tells me that we will hear a bit about Nepal in her talk this afternoon.

In closing I would like to identify the single most important thing I learned from reading Lin Ostrom’s work.

When designing institutional arrangements to confront what are generically know as commons problems, we need to pay attention to the diversity of actual problems that that label encompasses. And we need to recognize that in institutional terms there is no “panacea,” no single or “only way” to remedy that class of problems. Different institutional arrangements may, under specifiable conditions, be relevant to resolving or forestalling different sorts of commons problems.

The graduate students here who’ve just endured my seminar in political theory hopefully will see in her work a powerful brief for institutional pluralism.