Elinor Ostrom (August 7, 1933 – June 12, 2012) was an American political economist. In 2009, she was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her “analysis of economic governance, especially the commons“, which she shared with Oliver E. Williamson. To date, she remains the first of only two women to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, the other being Esther Duflo.

It was long unanimously held among economists that natural resources that were collectively used by their users would be over-exploited and destroyed in the long-term. Elinor Ostrom disproved this idea by conducting field studies on how people in small, local communities manage shared natural resources, such as pastures, fishing waters, and forests. She showed that when natural resources are jointly used by their users, in time, rules are established for how these are to be cared for and used in a way that is both economically and ecologically sustainable.

Design principles for Common Pool Resource (CPR) institution

Ostrom identified eight “design principles” of stable local common pool resource management:

  1. Clearly defined (clear definition of the contents of the common pool resource and effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties);
  2. The appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions;
  3. Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
  5. A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
  6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
  7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities; and
  8. In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

These principles have since been slightly modified and expanded to include a number of additional variables believed to affect the success of self-organized governance systems, including effective communication, internal trust and reciprocity, and the nature of the resource system as a whole.

Ostrom and her many co-researchers have developed a comprehensive “Social-Ecological Systems (SES) framework”, within which much of the still-evolving theory of common-pool resources and collective self-governance is now located.

Learn More:


  • Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-40599-7.
  • Ostrom, Elinor; Schroeder, Larry; Wynne, Susan (1993). Institutional incentives and sustainable development: infrastructure policies in perspective. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 978-0-8133-1619-2.
  • Ostrom, Elinor; Walker, James; Gardner, Roy (1994). Rules, games, and common-pool resources. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-06546-2.
  • Ostrom, Elinor; Walker, James (2003). Trust and reciprocity: interdisciplinary lessons from experimental research. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. ISBN 978-0-87154-647-0.
  • Ostrom, Elinor (2005). Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-12238-0.
  • Ostrom, Elinor; Kanbur, Ravi; Guha-Khasnobis, Basudeb (2007). Linking the formal and informal economy: concepts and policies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-923729-6.
  • Ostrom, Elinor; Hess, Charlotte (2007). Understanding knowledge as a commons: from theory to practice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-51603-7.

Chapters in books

  • Ostrom, Elinor (2009), “Engaging with impossibilities and possibilities”, in Kanbur, RaviBasu, Kaushik (eds.), Arguments for a better world: essays in honor of Amartya Sen | Volume II: Society, institutions and development, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 522–541, ISBN 978-0-19-923997-9.

Journal articles