Elinor Ostrom was an exceptional academic leader who, throughout her career, had challenged the conventional vision of individuals who act only as rational utility-maximizers and are neither able to cooperate, not to create, own, or use collective goods sustainably, except under external authoritarian rule or by dividing those goods into small units and privatizing them. By demonstrating that collaboration is possible, frequent and occurs among individuals of different rationalities and in different contexts, Ostrom promoted a paradigm shift in political science and economics, as well as behavioral and social sciences in general.
Ostrom’s methodological and theoretical approaches were guided by a strong problem-solving impulse. Her aim was to provide scientifically and empirically grounded evidence for public policy. Not surprisingly, many of her contributions have direct implications for policy and governance of a wide range of collective goods that came to be recognized and defined as “commons”- including some of those “global” goods critical for the survival of humans and even of the Earth System, such as biological diversity and the Earth’s capacity to regulate climate. Today, other types of critically important goods, such as the Internet, the genetic information, and knowledge itself, are part of the theoretical and policy domain of the commons, largely as a result of Ostrom’s work.
Ostrom’s empirically grounded faith in collective action and self-government was based on extended research on the roles that institutions (regarded as rules-in-use) play in societies and a wide analysis of the conditions and factors that improve or block their capacities to solve the governance problem of the commons. She found conditions such as trust and reciprocity among players to be crucial for any collective enterprise and argued that policy-makers should recognize their critical importance. Ostrom was a firm supporter of local collective action, but never considered that communities always acted as responsible stewards of common goods. Her stronger recommendations for policy making were poly-centricity and awareness of the considerable risks of imposed panaceas. For Ostrom, the relationship between the worlds of academia and of policy-making could be a win-win game. While she strongly believed that better policy- making required empirically grounded research, she also saw the existing policy experiences as a rich pool for new academy work.
Ostrom was a strong believer in the need for collective action in research work itself. From the beginning, her continuous work on forests, water, wildlife, and fisheries took the “commons and collective action school” close to practitioners. She promoted inter-disciplinary collaboration beyond the realm of social sciences, as she worked closely with biologists, foresters, geographers, and mathematicians. She also fully acknowledged the need to use different methods and collaborative research in order to produce meaningful knowledge to address contemporary problems. In this realm, she also promoted paradigm shifts, as she emphasized the need to regard environmental problems as complex processes experienced by socio-ecological systems whose understanding and governance demanded equally complex approaches. It can also be said that Ostrom’s practice and reflections call for changes in the way scholarly work is produced, accessed, evaluated, distributed, and used.