Elinor Ostrom profiled

The current issue of Finance & Development, a quarterly publication of the IMF, profiles Indiana University political scientist Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. She shared the prize with Berkeley economist Oliver E. Williamson.

I was surprised to learn that Ms Ostrom (née Awan) was able to excel academically, despite economic hardship and no support – material or otherwise – from her family. She succeeded because of ambition and hard work, but also because she had the good fortune to live in a school district with an excellent public high school and be able to study in a world-class university with affordable fees.

It is often said -tongue in cheek- that the best way to succeed in life is to choose good parents. Ostrom’s life shows that community (public) institutions can compensate for unsupportive parents.

Elinor Ostrom … was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1933. Growing up poor in the middle of the Depression, Ostrom lived with her divorced mother, who taught her to grow vegetables and can fruit from their trees to save money. Their home was on the edge of the Beverly Hills school district, so she was able to attend the swank Beverly Hills High School and receive a top-notch education. Showing an early disdain for materialism that persists today, Ostrom bought her clothes secondhand ….

Ostrom enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), against her mother’s wishes. No one else in the family had been to college—there seemed to be no point to it—and her mother refused to provide financial support. Undeterred, the young Elinor put herself through college, working a series of odd jobs. “At the time, UCLA had a very low fee, so I was able to avoid going into debt,” Ostrom remembers.

Despite graduating with honors in political science, Ostrom headed to Boston to work as a clerk for an electronics exporting company. ….

In 1957, Ostrom returned to UCLA, taking a mid-level post in the university’s personnel office while pursuing graduate studies in political science. Her mother remained mystified by her choices. “She asked what my salary would be after I got my Ph.D.—would it be more than I was currently earning? I said, no, it’d be the same or less. She just didn’t understand,” Ostrom recalls with a smile.

Maureen Burke, “The Master Artisan“, Finance & Development 48:3 (September 2011), pp. 2-5.

There is much more in the complete profile, which can be freely downloaded.

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