The Sum of Ostrom, Common Pots, and Persistence

I’ve deeply been deeply influenced by Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012). This is my brief introduction to her work, with links to two lectures that I’ve recorded about her, drawing on chapter 4 of my book What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life.

Lin Ostrom had many fans, including several of my colleagues at Tufts. Nevertheless, I see myself as her most enthusiastic champion here. Therefore, imagine my delight when a student told me about “The Sum of Ostrom, Common Pots, and Persistence,” a two-story mural by Jamal Thorne in Tufts’ new Joyce Cummings Center. At the time, I was co-teaching a course in the same building in which we discussed how Ostrom’s model applies to religious organizations.

According to the catalogue, “Thorne evokes a seeming past made present through the reclamation of iconic symbols, such as a walnut tree, native flora, a standing clock, lanterns, and a quilt. These variously denote the setting’s connections with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, the Underground Railroad, and George L. Stearns, a Boston merchant and abolitionist whose estate was acquired by Tufts in 1920. Furthermore, the inclusion of an abstracted road sign alludes to Thorne’s collaboration with the Math and Economics departments, the varied fields and perspectives represented among faculty, and an appreciation for how the wonders and theorems of abstract thought connect with human behavior.”

One of the murals shows a mathematical representation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (which, Ostrom argued, people can solve), plus directional signs that point to Aristotle, Da Wei Cheng (1533–1606), who wrote Suanfa Tongzong (General Source of Computational Methods), Hypatia and Euclid (Greek mathematicians), Dorothy Vaughn (one of the Black women mathematicians and computer pioneers who contributed to the Pentagon and NASA), and the Argentine-US mathematician Alberto Pedro Calderon (1920-1998).

Ostrom is all about emergent systems in which people voluntarily contribute and create common goods. Some of these systems are natural: environments in which human beings play positive roles. Some of them are intellectual: Ostrom understood knowledge as a commons that is generated by people in institutions like Tufts. Often commons have cultural dimensions, incorporating the cultural products of the past. Some are indigenous and threatened by modernist schemes. Some, however, are global. Thorne eloquently combines these aspects in an installation for our newest major building.

See also: 142 previous posts on this blog about Ostrom.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.