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Remembering Elinor Ostrom

In the early nineties when I was writing my PHD dissertation and struggling with dozens of field notes and types about Mayan forest Communities of the Yucatan peninsula, somebody handed me a book I read within few days and have written many times ever since. What was new and valuable about “Governing the Commons” in those days of combined disenchantment and nostalgia towards big theories and utopias? Certainly a new sense of coherence and understanding of social processes that did not derived from pre-established laws or universal truths but from rigorous empirical research, and based on this a fresh breath of rational optimism in regards of social life.

Governing the Commons confirmed many of my “instinct” as a member of the “post 68” generation and Latin American: the idea that local communities are often key actors in the governance of their own territories and societies, that equity is crucial for society and sustainability, but also that basic respect for the other, trust and informed decision making are equally important. Governing the Commons also provided a critical perspective against “conceptual fast tracks”, ideological explanations of socio-ecological processes and consequent panaceas frequent in all sides of the political spectrum.

Soon after I had the good fortune to meet Elinor Ostrom, spend two academic semesters at the Workshop for Political Theory and Policy Analysis and took part in diverse academic adventures she led. I had taught many courses of Methodology, worked for years with interdisciplinary teams on interdisciplinary themes, trying to make applied and problem solving research about Mexican forest communities. In spite of this and because of this, I found the “Bloomington School” to be an amazing institution. First because of the discovery of a rich integrative framework, that enabled researchers to put together in an organized explanatory field many of data (and even the intuitions) from fieldwork; also because of the thoughtful care that Ostrom and colleagues gave to the search of coherence between theory, methodology and data gathering; and last but not least to discover the Workshop of Political Theory and Policy Analysis, as a rich academic and human common nurtured by Vincent and Elinor Ostrom where collective action and generosity were common practice and base of academic practice.

The work of Elinor Ostrom is mostly known in Mexico, as in other places, for her challenge to the “Tragedy of the Commons”. Often people think her contributions concluded with the criticism to the universal validity of rational choice paradigm, and the production of wide evidence of “commons governance” experiences. From this view it is presumed that her findings lead to the promotion of “small is beautiful” communitarian utopias, that her conceptual and policy proposals do not apply to larger and most complex systems and processes.

Other interpretations of Ostrom’s work frequent in Mexico s proposed that the criticism to ideologies and panaceas results in the absence of social commitment. In fact the search of values such as equity, self-governance, trust, reciprocity, cooperation have a strong place in Ostrom’s framework but rather of being starting points, they have the roll of guiding variables for a wide empirical exploration. They are part of the theoretical questions, not pre-established answers. Ostrom’ s findings show that trust, cooperation and self-governance are often present in social exchanges under certain conditions, but are not necessarily common features of all types of social interaction. In the same sense the search of better policies and the emphasis on “polycentric governance system” was in the center of many of her inutiatives, but instead of thinking these systems as a “given” or as a “must”, she invites to think public policies as experiments, and alert about the imposition of conceptual and political of political panaceas in real societies.

The work around natural resources forests, irrigation systems, fisheries, rangelands, biodiversity, most of the “commons” first rediscovered by Ostrom led naturally to interdisciplinary efforts. Her work appealing to biologists and conservationists as well as to social scientists, contributes to another paradigmatic shift taking academics and practitioners to think in terms of governance of socio-environmental systems and plan policy accordingly. Nevertheless the relevance of her work is not limited to the field of natural resources. Since the 1970 the years devoted to search on security on urban areas until her work on knowledge commons in the late 2000, the concern and research on collective action and governance included cultural and socially created finally conceptualized as commons.

The lecture of the acceptance of the Nobel Prize in 2009 shows the formidable trajectory of Ostrom’ s work before and after “Governing the Commons”. Her understanding of collective action under different circumstances, in different contexts and scales continuously develop, fully acknowledging the need of conceptual and policy strategies capable to address the complexity and diversity of contemporary challenges. In the concluding pages of her last published book, Ostrom and coauthors [[Amy Poteete, Marco A. Jansen and Elinor Ostrom, 2012; “Working Together. Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice”, Pricenton University Press.]] propose that the crucial themes for further research on the commons are those of the impacts of heterogeneity on collective action, the complexity of socio-ecological systems and collective action around global commons [[In a broad sense commons are understood as shared resources, most commons refer to what environmental economics define as common pool resources and public goods. Ostrom, 2009.]] such as the atmosphere the oceans and the global climate.

The continuation of academic research on the commons is way to honor Elinor Ostrom’s legacy, to promote the involvement in this efforts of young scholars, practitioners and scholars from developing countries is also a way to remember the generous mentor and colleague she was.

Leticia Merino, July 2012

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico.

Leticia Merino is a member of AGTER