Stephen M. Walt

A More Rational Choice for a Nobel Prize

Professional economists may be dismayed, but scholars and students of international politics should be delighted by the decision to award this year’s Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences (aka the “Nobel Prize in Economics”) to Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University.  She is not only the first woman to win the economics prize, she’s also the ...

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UNSPECIFIED - UNDATED: In this image provided by Indiana University on October 12, 2009, Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom is pictured. Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences today along with Oliver Williamson, a professor from University of California Berkeley. She is the the first female to win the economic prize since its creation in 1968. (Photo by Indiana University via Getty Images)

Professional economists may be dismayed, but scholars and students of international politics should be delighted by the decision to award this year’s Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences (aka the “Nobel Prize in Economics”) to Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University.  She is not only the first woman to win the economics prize, she’s also the first political scientist.  She holds a Ph.D. in the subject from UCLA and is a past president of the American Political Science Association.

Ostrom’s main research is pretty far from my own concerns, but I did list her book Governing the Commons on one of my “top-ten” lists earlier this year.  She is primarily known for her work on institutional solutions to collective action problems, most notably in the area of resources and environment.  Via a combination of “soft” rational choice theory and careful empirical work, she shows that common resources can be shared and managed through various institutional mechanisms, but also shows that there is nothing inevitable about this outcome, due to familiar dilemmas of collective action (that’s why we call them dilemmas!), and the complex interactions of humans, institutions, and larger ecosystems.

Ostrom (and the co-winner, organization theorist Oliver Williamson) join a group of recent winners chosen more for theoretical insight and real-world relevance than for mathematical scholasticism.  Others in this same group would include economic historians Douglass North and Robert Fogel, behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, game theorist/strategist Thomas Schelling, and economist-philosopher Amartya Sen.  Scholars with an international orientation have been doing pretty well in recent years too: Schelling was awarded for game-theoretic work on international conflict, Paul Krugman for his work on international trade, and Sen’s work on poverty and famines has clear international implications.  Kudos to the prize committee for their eclectic approach to the award–if only more economics departments thought this way.

One more thing: need I mention that Ostrom received the award for work she had already done, as opposed to some other Nobel Prize winners I can think of?

Photo: Indiana University via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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