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Intellectual breakthroughs

Ostrom's breakthrough was, in part, due to her interdisciplinary approach which allowed her to understand the nuances of environmental issues.
© Adam Smith Center, Singapore

The next research project that Lin embarked on became her life’s work and the intellectual contribution she is best known for.

She began to study the potential for small-scale local management of common pool resources, posing a direct challenge to Garrett Hardin’s theory of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ that necessitated either government regulation or privatisation of common pool resources. What was incredible about Lin was that she did not simply theorise about the issue at hand. Rather, she went on the ground, completing years of fieldwork to inform her research. Lin looked at forests in Nepal, irrigation systems in Spain, mountain villages in Switzerland and Japan, and fisheries in Maine and Indonesia all in an attempt to discover the variety of ways in which people around the world have come together, often in stable arrangements lasting for centuries, to manage common resources. The results of her findings are recorded most notably in her landmark book Governing the Commons, published in 1990.

Lin was a formidable woman who accomplished incredible feats in her work, but she did not do so alone. Lin’s work grew out of her collaboration with her husband Vincent as well as with scholars from around the world at the Indiana University’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, a research centre the academic power couple founded in 1973 and ran together for 39 years. The Workshop believed that social science should conducted with a hands-on approach, interacting and learning from those you study rather than being detached and pretending to be coldly observing. The Workshop also strongly emphasised interdisciplinary research and collaboration. These philosophical underpinnings gave the Workshop its name.

Indeed, Lin’s illustrious research career embodied the beliefs of the Workshop both in terms of the years she spent in the field and the number of researchers she worked with across diverse disciplines. Lin never hesitated to move between the fields of political science, economics, ecology, psychology and anthropology, learning from all the disciplines and synthesising them in her work. She was the exemplar of a “scholar entrepreneur”, ever so willing to adopt innovative new research methods across all of the social sciences as well as the natural sciences. Game theory, agent-based modelling and geographic information systems were amongst some of the tools Lin utilised in her analysis of common resource problems.

In 2009, Lin became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics. She shared the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel with Oliver E. Williamson, being cited for “her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. Lin’s achievement was remarkable not just because she overcame the odds of her less privileged background and the prejudices against her gender, but she received the Noble prize for economics with little formal training in economics! Yet Lin stayed humble through it all, donating all the prize money to the Workshop for scholarships because her work was ‘a collective effort’. For all those who knew her, Lin was a genuine and generous person, her positivity and humility about life always a source of encouragement and strength for others.

In 2010, Lin and her husband Vincent received the University Medal, the highest award bestowed by Indiana University. In 2012, Lin was named to Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. When Lin passed away on June 12, 2012, she was a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, senior research director of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at IU, and founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University. However, the greatest legacy that she left behind was the hundreds of students, researchers, and colleagues who learned from and were inspired by her.

© Adam Smith Center, Singapore
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Environmental Management: A Bottom-Up Approach to Policy Implementation

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