Elinor Ostrom wins the Nobel!

The Nobel Foundation announced yesterday that Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel prize in Economic Sciences. She is the first woman to win the prize and surely one of the few non-economists. When Lin was president of the American Political Science Association, she was a strong voice for civic education and has been a consistent supporter of CIRCLE–a coauthor of our paper on civic education in universities and co-editor of a book that includes my chapter on youth-led research. She was one of the small group of political theorists who originally envisioned the Summer Institute of Civic Studies that we finally turned into a real course at Tufts last July. She is a model practitioner of collaborative community-based research who combines patient, low-profile interactions with practitioners and high-level theory–each enriching the other. She has built an institution, the Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, that I see as an ideal model for all “engaged” universities. Before the Nobel Committee snagged her, we awarded her the 2009 Tisch Research Prize.

I started last summer’s Institute by reading aloud Margaret Mead’s famous exhortation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I noted that Mead’s statement is false, because many other things (wars, governments, floods, plagues) have also changed the world. Mead is also wrong to imply that committed citizens always succeed, or that when they do the results are necessarily good. Mussolini and his fellow fascisti were committed–and even thoughtful in their way–yet they made the world a lot worse. I said that what we need is a real study of active citizenship that includes: (1) empirical evidence about when small groups of citizens can change the world; (2) moral analysis that tells us when their methods and their results are good; and (3) strategic advice about how to support and encourage their most effective and beneficial efforts.

Such research is scarce because social science tends to think first of institutions and macro-level changes, being skeptical about the impact of small-scale, deliberate, citizen politics. (In fact, we citizens have relatively modest effects. But what we do is the most important factor for us to understand; everything else is context.) Further, social science still cannot comfortably handle arguments about values. For their part, moral philosophy and political theory address values but cannot handle strategy. Yet a value or an ideal that has no practicable strategy is worse than nothing.

In my opinion, Elinor Ostrom is one of a small number of thinkers about citizenship who combine empirical insights, moral arguments, and strategies. The ideal for Lin Ostrom is a group of people who manage to overcome collective action problems, such as the “tragedy of the commons,” through voluntary action. The tragedy of the commons is enormously important–if we perish as a species, it may be because we fail to address such problems as climate change that can be understood this way. Yet Lin has shown empirically and with great rigor that people can voluntarily overcome collective-action problems–using appropriate rules and techniques, under appropriate circumstances.

Promoting such achievements requires a whole set of strategies, from constitutional and other legal provisions, to reforms of institutions, to research that reveals effective techniques, to civic education that imparts the necessary skills. As just one example of her many reform proposals, Ostrom argues that we should reverse the trend toward consolidating school districts, because each school board teaches its members participatory skills. Going beyond mere proposals, Ostrom has helped to build and lead institutions that promote and embody these ideas. The Nobel Prize will surely help endow the Workshop that she and her distinguished husband Vincent Ostrom have created.

In my ideal university, Ostrom’s methods and topics would be right at the heart of the whole enterprise. There is no more important question than “How can we improve the world?” The scarcity of really rigorous answers–not to mention the marginality of the very question–is a scandal. Ostrom’s work is a shining exception that richly deserves recognition. As one of my colleagues wrote last night, “this is the first Nobel Prize for civic studies.”

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