Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

25th Anniversary

Volume XXV Number 1
Fall 2002

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Elinor "Lin" Ostrom
Copyright © 2002 Tyagan Miller

Roger Parks, left, Lin Ostrom, and a student
Roger Parks, left, Lin Ostrom, and a student analyze data on police departments at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in 1977. Research by Ostrom and colleagues eventually helped deter dramatic consolidation of police departments nationwide. This photograph appeared in the first issue of Research & Creative magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1, November 1977.

A Researcher's Tale, Then and Now

by Michael Wilkerson

Elinor Ostrom says she "simply studies" institutions, but her research has had a major impact on understanding how institutions work.

In those precomputer days, the research climate at the university was, to say the least, low-key. The journal Vincent Ostrom edited had no staff, so Lin helped out--in the way that academic wives did then--without compensation. Unlike today, the journal offices had no filing cabinets, no bookshelves. "Absolutely nothing," she recalls. "We have come a remarkably long way from there."

Now the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of political science, co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, and co-director of the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change (CIPEC), Lin Ostrom makes these comments from her own office, surrounded by artwork from all over the world, solid wood furniture, plenty of filing cabinets, and, in another nearby building, advanced computing and communications equipment.

"We simply study institutions. That's what we do," Ostrom says, in her typically straightforward way. "My dissertation was on water resources. Then we began the police studies that put us on the map, but these were just examples of the theories we were testing."

Ostrom got her start on the faculty as a visiting assistant professor, teaching American government at 7:30 in the morning on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. She quickly moved on to become graduate adviser for the Department of Political Science, during the height of the Vietnam War.

"We had 85 new graduate students a year and more than 600 applications each year," she remembers. Some of those political science students were in school in part to avoid the draft, and they were inclined toward activism.

"I had to get kids out of jail and write all sorts of letters for students who were doing well academically but who might not have been the most politick about what they were saying and how they were saying it," Ostrom recalls. "It was an important period in the university's history, and I was glad to be a part of it, but there was no chance to do research." After three years in the position, Ostrom became a "regular" faculty member for the first time.

Graduate students in her first seminar spent the fall semester studying the theory of institutions. In the spring, she combined that group with upper-level undergraduates who wanted hands-on experience and came up with her first research study, on the effectiveness of police departments in Indianapolis. The basic question was whether police departments in urban areas should remain small and autonomous or should merge into mega-units, as had been happening with school districts all over the country.

"In education, this consolidation was done without any research at all," Ostrom says. "We went from 110,000 school districts in 1910 to 15,000 by 1950, just on the belief that they would be more efficient and equitable, and some of the biggest tragedies are in these very large consolidated schools.

"There were theories at the time that if you get large you will get better," she says. "It turned out to be true in some areas, but not at all in many others."

To conduct the police studies, Ostrom and her students devised a survey that would measure the effectiveness of police departments in several different areas. She had no external funding, but she found research support in some surprising places on campus. At the time, IUB housed a Center on Urban Affairs that provided Ostrom's students with 10 days of rented cars to use for surveying in Indianapolis. A research grant of Vincent Ostrom's also paid for secretarial support.

"That was all the research support we had," Ostrom remembers, "but it made a world of difference. The key to what we were doing was not about money, but about being fascinated with the topic, understanding how to do the work, and getting the right kind of support at the right time. That class laid the foundation for the workshop and for my whole research career."

The Indianapolis study refuted the prevalent "one size fits all, and it should be large" theory of the 1960s. For example, response to emergency calls--one of the 10 measures of effectiveness the class studied--slows as police departments increase in size. In that critical area, it pays to have small, nimble units. But in areas like crime laboratories, it pays to consolidate resources, avoid duplication, purchase better equipment, and hire better technicians.

Publication of the results spread the word about Ostrom and her colleagues' approach to policing specifically and to the study of institutions in general. At the suggestion of African-American students, Ostrom turned to Chicago, where the study of police departments achieved similar results.

"We found that with 14 times the resources allocated, the large Chicago Police Department could not do any better than independent, absolutely impoverished departments in small black suburbs," she says.

Although Ostrom herself made no formal attempt to popularize the results or use them to make policy arguments with practitioners, the research ultimately influenced the consolidation of police departments by slowing growth. The projected consolidation--from 40,000 departments to 400--never happened.

"We feel we have had some effect there," Ostrom says. "But our job is not popularization. My concern has always been about research design, theory, and methods, not advertising. It is important to me that research consists of a well-developed theory, a tested, accurate instrument, and good, tight measurements.

"I think there has been a lot of public policy research that has been interested in jazzy topics," Ostrom continues, "and I really think that people who do that kind of work should take an oath to first, do no harm."

Ostrom, Roger Parks (now IU professor of public and environmental affairs), and her colleagues spent 15 years focusing intensively on police issues as exemplar of her theories on institutions. "We've never been casual," she says. Indeed, by the completion of the police project, which wound down "not because there were no more questions to ask but because our own creative impetus was spent on that topic," Ostrom and her colleagues had studied more than 80 metropolitan areas and had discerned patterns of organization that could be applied to many other kinds of organizations and institutions.

"We make a distinction between institutions and organizations," Ostrom points out. "One is the rules that govern the structure; the other is the group. For example, college football is an institution, with its rules for playing the game, for who is allowed to participate, for how ties are resolved, etc. But an individual team would not be an institution--it would represent an organization within the greater institution of college football."

As an expert in the lives and natures of institutions, Ostrom "tries not to put too much of a critical lens on my own campus," but when asked, she says IUB's research support has been among the nation's best for at least the last 20 years, despite the rocky beginnings she experienced in the 1960s.

"I think one of the best things we have going for us is a separate research division," she says. "The College of Arts and Sciences is important, but it's consistent with my research that a little friendly competition--in this case between the College and the Office of Research and the University Graduate School--helps everyone. These offices have made great efforts to support research without becoming vicious competitors. IU has had a culture of great openness and support for the research community."

In fact, the receptive climate toward research is one of the reasons Ostrom and her husband, Vincent--who at 82 remains an active researcher, writer, and presence at the Workshop--have remained at IU despite offers to go elsewhere, including Harvard.

"I have immense respect for the people at Harvard, and of course it was flattering to get an offer from them," Ostrom says, "but the infrastructure and my colleagues here are so important to everything I want to do--I just couldn't walk away from all that."

"All that," according to Ostrom, includes administrators who are responsive on issues such as space, graduate assistantships, faculty hiring, accounting procedures, grants management, and proposal review. Within that infrastructure, Ostrom has built her own research environment, which is among the nation's most significant in its field.

Over 36 years at IU, Ostrom has received nearly continuous funding from the National Science Foundation, had a major impact on the shape and nature of police departments, and created, with Vincent Ostrom and others, an internationally known center for the study of how institutions work. She has generated mountains of published research, including 15 books, and has helped to educate researchers and practitioners all over the world. Along the way, she has served as a department chair and national president of the American Political Science Association. She also has become one of the few women elected to two of the nation's most prestigious honorary academies: the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Ostrom's overall goal is to study institutions and how they affect human behavior, incentives, and consequences. She does field research on existing institutions, such as the police departments, but also laboratory-based experiments. One such exercise discovered that in creating a new organization, the effectiveness of the group will be massively enhanced by facilitating communication and collaboration among the participants. A brilliant director who doesn't communicate with his or her staff, for example, would not have maximum effectiveness. But utilizing game theory and mathematical models, Ostrom found that participants in an organization cannot achieve more than about 65 percent efficiency with communication and collaboration alone.

"It turns out that you need sanctions and rules: 'If you don't do X, or if you violate the system that has been set up, we will do Y to you.' Rule violations are rare in effective organizations, but the existence of possible sanctions causes the output to rise to 95 percent of what is possible," she says.

Because her own research is multi- and interdisciplinary, Ostrom has appointments in political science and SPEA, and the workshop enjoys participation from many departments. In her view, IUB has been one of the best places in the country for interdisciplinary work.

"When we need something," she says, "the mentality is to find out how we can accomplish what we want, not to put up barriers about turf and departmental lines. That's been very beneficial to us and to the faculty as a whole."

Now in its 30th year of hosting a Monday colloquium series in which faculty, graduate students, and visiting scholars present works-in-progress to a tough but amenable audience of their peers, the workshop still relies on person-to-person interaction. But with the campus's assistance, Ostrom and her colleagues are moving into a more high-tech world.

Currently, Ostrom is principal investigator for a major grant to create an elaborate laboratory that will include a variety of new technological tools such as global positioning systems, geographic information systems, remote sensing, and satellite imaging. The lab will aid a number of research projects, including a relatively new one in which Ostrom and her colleagues are trying to understand land use and deforestation around the world. "Here in Indiana," she notes, "we had 80 percent forest cover originally. We fell to 4 percent, and are now back up to about 25 to 30 percent."

This research project is a more ambitious, more global study than Ostrom has ever undertaken. It factors in both topographical and biological factors along with actions taken by institutions. The obvious implications are profound: if Ostrom and her colleagues can identify the factors that lead to deforestation, institutionally, and the ways in which rule changes can promote reforestation, real progress could be made around the world.

Having passed the opportunity for early retirement, Ostrom shows no signs of slowing down. "If I didn't have to write any more grant proposals, I would not be sad," she says. "But I have enough of a research and writing agenda that I could stay happily busy for at least five to 10 more years. I am doing what I love, and I'll continue to do it as long as I remain in good health."

Ostrom does hope to step down from her director positions in 2004, but like her husband, she will continue to write, research, teach, and participate in Monday colloquiums at a university that, she hopes, will continue to foster a supportive climate for significant research.

Michael Wilkerson is communications coordinator and director of the Indiana Retention Research Project in the office of the IU Vice President for Student Development and Diversity. He is a longtime contributor to this magazine.