Elinor Ostrom and Camp Wopatopa

Jun 13 '12

This is a guest post by Rick Wilson, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Political Science at Rice University.


There are a lot of great people and scholars in political science.  This week we lost one of the best.  Elinor (Lin) Ostrom, as already noted on this site, died early Tuesday morning.  She left an impressive intellectual legacy.  More than that she was a warm, generous, open and demanding scholar who nurtured countless students, post-docs and co-authors.  No one who was touched by Lin would fail to remember the bright twinkle in her eye, usually backed up by: “how can you show me that this is true?”

I was fortunate to be one of Lin’s students.  She welcomed me into Camp Wopatopa (formerly the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis and now the Elinor and Vincent Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis).  When I arrived (more years ago than I like to think), the Workshop was a fascinating intellectual hub at Indiana.  The regimen was strict – a weekly colloquium that was visited by political scientists, economists, policy people and whoever was drifting through the area.  This was coupled with the year long seminar on Institutional Analysis and Design – a requirement for all.  Often times graduate students presented at the colloquium – I can recall more than a few times when both Lin and Vincent took me to task for offering some incomplete (and often silly) idea.    Nonetheless the Workshop inspired us all to be active members of a vibrant intellectual community.

Lin’s favorite refrain always was: “so what’s the question?”  This was quickly followed by: “so what’s the theory?”   Methods were always celebrated, but took back stage to the question.  For Lin the question always dictated the appropriate method.  There was no one-size fits all approach to answering a theoretically driven question.  When I approached her about using experiments in my dissertation, she paused, asked why I wanted to do so, and satisfied with my answer, sent me packing with a lengthy reading list.  She had never run experiments, but was happy to let me move ahead, satisfied that I had a reason for doing so.  If the method fit the question, then she was happy.

This methodological diversity has always shown in Lin’s work.  One of her recent books, written with Amy Poteete and Marco Janssen, is Working Together:  Collective Action, the Commons and Multiple Methods in Practice.  This is a wonderful book that exemplifies Lin’s career.  She and her co-authors detail the central question (the problems inherent in collective action for common pool resources) and then proceeds to triangulate on the question with a multiplicity of methods.  This is an accessible but very deep book that exemplifies what is best about political science and why Lin was such an exemplar of a fine political scientist.

Lin was a public citizen.  She believed in putting our science forward and using that science to make a difference.  The science was always foremost for Lin.  She wanted us to get it right and use what we learned to improve institutions.  To this end she was relentless in pushing what she learned and working with many different people to get the research out.  Lin’s hallmark was that she was a scientist first and foremost.  She did not make policy recommendations unless they were firmly rooted in theory and empirics.

Not many political scientists win the Nobel Prize for Economics.  Lin’s winning the prize was a great source of pride for all of us and for many reasons.  For me it was an acknowledgement of the importance of politics and economics.  For my long time co-author, Catherine Eckel, an economist, it was a vindication of behavioral economics and a remarkable symbolism.  The day that Lin won the Nobel prize Catherine called me up at the crack of dawn to ask me if I had heard that Lin had won.  I hadn’t.  She then told me “It’s about time they gave the Nobel Prize in Economics to a girl – and they had to go outside Economics to do it!”  Lin broke many barriers.

Lin will have a long-term impact on all of us.  Her students will remember the lessons that she taught us about doing science.  Visitors to the Workshop will remember the exacting standards she set.  Co-authors will remember countless revisions until the article was right.  Political science will remember a kind, generous person who wanted to know the answer to so many questions and then use that knowledge to improve policy choices.  She is going to be sorely missed.