Elinor Ostrom: Nobel Prize in Anthropology!

I have never quite understood why there is a Nobel Prize just in economics. Why a prize basically on financial relationships? Why not a prize for the human sciences as whole instead? After all, there is a prize in biology, and no prize in marine biology, or a prize in physics and no prize in physics of condensed matters (what about a prize in "Peace in Middle-East" or "Literature in prose"? Anyway, it is not really a Nobel Prize). Be that as it may, if there had been a Prize just in anthropology rather than in just in economics, I would still have nominated Elinor Ostrom, (the 2009 Noble Prize in Economics).


First, Ostrom's work is both theoretically and empirically grounded. It is theoretically grounded because her enquiry started from the problem of collective action discovered by the rational choice theory. There are situations where everyone stands to benefit from the contribution of others and even more so if they do not contribute themselves (see Garrett Hardin's famous article on the tragedy of the commons in Science 13 December 1968: Vol. 162. no. 3859, pp. 1243 – 1248). Her work is also empirically grounded for Elinor Ostrom has started her work from the observation that, despite the apparent paradox, people do solve problems of collective actions. She has studied literally thousands of examples all over the world: Forests, fisheries, oil fields, grazing lands, irrigation systems, and so on. She came with a great book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Actionalt, that highlighted the important features of successful institutions (deliberation, punishment, cheater detection, etc.).

Her work is also of importance for a second reason. Today, issues of collective actions have become a central problem in evolutionary anthropology. There are supposed to present the greatest challenge to evolutionary theories of human cooperation. There are studied experimentally in public good games. Ostrom's work reminds us that humans do not need cooperative tendencies to solve tragedies of commons and build successful institutions. They only need to talk, to organize themselves, and to find the adequate solution for their particular problem. I am not saying (as in rational choice theory) that humans are selfish. Far from it. I do think that they are truly cooperative. I am only suggesting that public goods games, problems of collective action and large scale cooperation (villages, tribes, churches, etc.) may not need a general evolutionary solution to be explained and that evolutionary theories should focus rather on small scale cooperative interactions.





  • Hugo Mercier
    Hugo Mercier 13 October 2009 (23:44)

    As a possible answer to your first question: “why there is a Nobel Prize just in economics” a part of the answer might be that there is no Nobel Prize in economics, but a Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel funded by the bank of the same name. If rich institutions with an interest in other social science decide to create another new ‘Nobel Prize’, it might happen…

  • Jean-Baptiste André
    Jean-Baptiste André 14 October 2009 (14:31)

    just a side comment: There is no more general Nobel prize for biology than for the human sciences. There is just a prize in “physiology or medicine”. No prize for Darwin, Fisher or Hamilton then!

  • Mike hunter 5 March 2010 (10:22)

    I of course think she is a great choice for the prize, but what I am wondering about are some relatively recent publications/comments (found in audioformat by [url=http://www.mp3hunting.com] mp3 search [/url] ) she has made about being optimistic about the ability to provide the global public good of climate change mitigation (i.e. protection of the global common pool resources of certain atmospheric services). It seems to me that the climate problem categorically does not meet Ostrom’s prerequisites and it is thus difficult to understand what her optimism is grounded in. The problem is not that no global commons problem cannot meet the prerequisites (e.g. I would say the ozone problem did/does to a much larger extent), but rather that the particulars of the climate problem should generate strong pessimism if we follow Ostrom.