Vincent Ostrom

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Vincent Ostrom
Vincent Alfred Ostrom

September 25, 1919
DiedJune 29, 2012[1] (aged 92)
NationalityUnited States
InstitutionIndiana University
FieldPublic economics
Political economics
School or
Polycentric political economy
Alma materUniversity of California, Los Angeles (B.A., M.A., Ph.D)
Contributions120+ peer-reviewed publications

Vincent Alfred Ostrom (September 25, 1919 – June 29, 2012) was an American political economist and the Founding Director of the Ostrom Workshop based at Indiana University[2] and the Arthur F. Bentley Professor Emeritus of Political Science.[3] He and his wife, the economist Elinor Ostrom, made numerous contributions to the field of political science, political economy, and public choice.

The Ostroms made particular study of fragmentation theory, rational choice theory, federalism, common-pool resources and polycentrism in government. The Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization published a special issue, "Polycentric Political Economy: A Festschrift for Elinor and Vincent Ostrom", as the proceedings of a 2003 conference held in their honor, at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.[4]

Education and personal life[edit]

Vincent Ostrom graduated from Mount Baker High School in Deming, Washington (1937), and attended Los Angeles City College (1938–1940). He received a B.A. in political science (1942) and a M.A (1945) from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He received his Ph.D from UCLA in political science in 1950. He was married to Nobel Laureate and political scientist Elinor Ostrom (1933–2012) from 1963 until her death, which occurred shortly before his own.[5]


Ostrom began working at Indiana University in 1964 as a Professor of Political Science and co-founded the university's Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis[2] with his wife and colleague, Elinor Ostrom. The Ostrom Workshop is committed to the collaborative engagement of faculty, students, and scholars, with a mission of advancing "the interdisciplinary study of institutions, incentives, and behavior as they relate to policy-relevant applications."[6] The Ostrom Workshop research focuses on polycentrism, common-pool resources, and the roles of self-governance and collective action.[7] Earlier in his career, Ostrom had held faculty positions at the University of Wyoming, the University of Oregon, and UCLA. He was a key consultant to the Alaska Constitutional Convention (1955–56) in the drafting of the Natural Resource Article[8] of the Constitution of Alaska (Article VIII), which mandated that the state's resources were to be a public trust.[9]

Ostrom served on the editorial board for journals such as American Political Science Review (1957–1960), Public Administration Review (Editor-in-Chief, 1963–1966), Publius: The Journal of Federalism (1972–2005), Constitutional Political Economy (1989–present), and International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior (1997–2006).[10]


Ostrom's work can be summarized as seeking to understand the decision-making process of individuals and the balance between group and individual interests. This study involves attention to what drives human behavior (altruism or self-interest), the effect of institutions and rules on individual and group behavior, and how institutions transform and are transformed by individuals.[11]

Ostrom co-developed (with Charles Tiebout and Robert Warren) and refined the concept of polycentricity in public administration – or multiple, formally independent decision-making centers within a system of government.[12] He proposed that quasi-market conditions (i.e. competition) between decision centers would increase flexibility and responsiveness. In contrast to hierarchical frameworks, polycentrism removes government from the focal point of ultimate knowledge and authority.[13]

Ostrom was recognized for advancing rational choice theory and democratic administration not only as a means for understanding bureaucratic behavior and the provision of public services, but as a distinct theory of public administration.[14] Rational choice theory of administration, Ostrom argued, provides a balance and foundation for public administration based on the democratic principles of the U.S. Constitution. In his 1973 book, The Intellectual Crisis in Public Administration,[15] Ostrom outlines his observation of a breaking down of the intellectual foundation of public administration as formulated by Woodrow Wilson,[16] concisely, the concentration of power centers in government and the separation of the will of the state (policy) from administration. He noted increases in citizen involvement in decision processes and the broad diffusion of power. A democratic administration has a more heterogeneous, "bottom, up" character in contrast with ordered, trickle-down hierarchies. Ostrom considered the hierarchical order, accountable to a single center of power, less capable of serving the diverse needs among citizens and coping with diverse conditions, and less cost efficient than a polycentric administration. Fragmentation of authority among decision centers within a jurisdiction and the overlapping of jurisdictional authority are key to advancing human welfare and a stable political order.[17][18]


Ostrom was honored for his excellence and contributions to the field of public policy:


Ostrom has written extensively on topics such as water usage policy, political economy, federalism, metropolitan government, and public choice. His list of publications include greater than 120 journal articles, chapters in books and proceedings, monographs, and books. A selection is noted below:

  • Water and Politics: A Study of Water Policies and Administration in the Development of Los Angeles. Los Angeles: The Haynes Foundation, 1953
  • "A Behavioral Approach to the Study of Intergovernmental Relations" with Elinor Ostrom. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 359 (May 1965), pp. 137–46
  • Understanding Urban Government: Metropolitan Reform Reconsidered with Robert Bish. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1973
  • "Religion and the Constitution of the American Political System". Emory Law Journal 39(1) (Winter 1990), pp. 165–90
  • The Meaning of American Federalism: Constituting a Self-Governing Society. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, 1991
  • "Epistemic Choice and Public Choice." Public Choice 77(1) (September 1993), pp. 163–76
  • "The Quest for Meaning in Public Choice," with Elinor Ostrom. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 63(1) (January 2004): pp. 105–47 Online
  • The Political Theory of a Compound Republic: Designing the American Experiment. 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008 [1st ed. 1971; 2nd ed. 1987]
  • The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration ([1973] 2008)
  • The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (1997)
  • Rethinking Institutional Analysis and Development ([1988] 1993, with David Feeny and Hartmut Picht)
  • Local Government in the United States (1988, with Robert Bish and Elinor Ostrom)
  • The Quest to Understand Human Affairs: Natural Resources Policy and Essays on Community and Collective Choice, vol. 1 (2011, edited by Barbara Allen)
  • The Quest to Understand Human Affairs: Essays on Collective, Constitutional, and Epistemic Choice, vol. 2 (2012, edited by Barbara Allen)


  1. ^ New, Jake. "Shortly after death of wife, Vincent Ostrom dies". Indiana Daily Student. Retrieved 2012-07-06.
  2. ^ a b Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis
  3. ^ "Vincent A. Ostrom". Retrieved 2012-07-06.
  4. ^ (2005) Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol. 57 (2)
  5. ^ Telegraph obituary of Elinor Ostrom
  6. ^ "The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis". Retrieved 2012-07-06.
  7. ^ (2005) P. J. Boettke and C. J. Coyne. Methodological individualism, spontaneous order and the research program of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol. 57 (2), pp. 145–58.
  8. ^ Section 8: Natural Resource Article
  9. ^ Elizabeth Bluemink. "Pioneering Nobel Prize winner influenced Alaska". Retrieved 2012-07-06.
  10. ^ Vincent Ostrom profile at Indiana University website
  11. ^ C. C. Gibson. In pursuit of better policy outcomes. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol. 57 (2), pp. 227–30. (2005)
  12. ^ (1961) V. Ostrom, C. M. Tiebout, and R. Warren. The organization of government in metropolitan areas: a theoretical inquiry. American Political Science Review, Vol. 55, pp. 831–42.
  13. ^ (2005) R. E. Wagner. "Self-governance, polycentrism, and federalism: recurring themes in Vincent Ostrom's scholarly oeuvre." Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol. 57 (2), pp. 173–88.
  14. ^ (2003) H. G. Frederickson and K. B. Smith. The Public Administration Theory Primer. Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 279p.
  15. ^ (1973) V. Ostrom. The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration. University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
  16. ^ (1887) W. Wilson. The study of administration. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 2 (2), pp. 197–222.
  17. ^ (1973) V. Ostrom. The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration. University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
  18. ^ (1977) R.T. Golembiewski. A critique of "Democratic Organization" and its supporting ideation. The American Political Science Review. Vol. 71 (4), pp. 1488–507.

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