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In memory: Elinor Ostrom, a scholarly giant in the social sciences

June 12, 2012

Elinor Ostrom, a research professor at Arizona State University who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 and was named among Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2012, died June 12 at IU Health Hospital in Bloomington, Indiana. She was 78.

Ostrom, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at ASU, was small in physical stature yet a scholarly giant in the social sciences and notably the field of economic governance. Though roughly five feet tall, it was easy to spot her in a crowded room. She was the colorfully garbed woman with a big laugh, warm smile and eyes that engaged others in serious conversations about how humans self-organize themselves to manage resources, such as wildlife or water in an unregulated river. She authored “Governing the Commons,” which was published in 1990.

"The world has lost a pioneer in systems level thinking in the social sciences," said ASU President Michael M. Crow. "So many of our social ills and complexities today are the result of ignorance and Lin Ostrom worked to defeat that ignorance."

“Lin Ostrom was a wonderful example of not only a brilliant scientist who had a huge impact on her discipline and other disciplines but also someone who was a wonderful human being, who with all her accolades, remained modest, helpful to everybody who needed her help,” said Sander van der Leeuw, dean of ASU’s School of Sustainability. “She battled all the time in favor of transdisciplinarity, under sometimes very difficult circumstances.”

Marco Janssen, an ASU colleague and director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity said, “I consider her as my scientific mother. I met Lin in September 2000 at a workshop of the resilience alliance in Stockholm. It was, and still is, difficult to do a transdisciplinary research program. She is an exemplar in her own field but also as an interdisciplinary scholar. Although such interdisciplinary work is often not appreciated by the traditional academic fields and might be a risky career path, I was stimulated to continue this avenue.”

In addition to her research appointment at ASU, Ostrom had an academic home at Indiana University in Bloomington, where she was a Distinguished Professor and Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science. She is survived by her husband and colleague, Vincent, who together shared their research and ideas with colleagues at IU’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, recently renamed in their honor.

Friends and colleagues who were aware that Ostrom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer late last year noted that she did not let that slow her down.

“I saw her last in March in London where although she had been ill for quite a considerable time, she had nevertheless taken it upon herself to be the chief scientist for uniting this world conference – Planet under Pressure – on environmental and sustainability issues,” said van der Leeuw.

“In April, I spent a week with her in Bloomington. She had increasing challenges caused by the cancer treatment but did not want to have that as an excuse to miss a meeting with colleagues. In a world with a focus on status and pretentions, she was an exemplar by focusing on content,” noted Janssen, who added, “within a year of meeting Lin, I resigned my job in the Netherlands and moved to Bloomington, Indiana. When I got a great offer to come to ASU, I was able to convince her to accept a part-time position here to start up a research program that we (Marty Anderies, Lin and I) started during that meeting in 2000.”

“Lin Ostrom set an intellectual example but also created at ASU this very special unit that looks at the interaction between the environment and society as mediated in institutions,” said van der Leeuw. “That is one of the most advanced pieces of research in that domain that is actually in existence and we are extremely grateful to her for helping us set up the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, get its people and get the experiments ongoing.

“Lin was, moreover, I think for all of us at ASU, an absolute example of how to do science and how to do social science in particular,” van der Leeuw said.

Ostrom, a California native, received doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s degrees in political science from UCLA. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

At ASU, in addition to her role as founding director for the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, Ostrom was a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability and a research professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Funeral and memorial services are pending.