Well, actually it’s the Nobel Prize in Economics, but half of the 2009 prize goes to Elinor Ostrom, a professor of public policy at Indiana University (and a political scientist who considers herself a “political economist”), in part for her work on managing common-pool resources. The Nobel Committee specifically cited her work on how people avoid the tragedy of the commons: we make collective decisions (“commons constitutions”) that offer many mechanisms for enforcing rules that govern these resources. These include institutions, regulations, social networks, and other ways of interacting. Among other things, she argued that voluntary agreements can be more effective than when an external centralized authority imposes rules.
Unlike many Economics prize winners, her work is based largely on empirical research, including Swiss grazing pastures, Japanese forests, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines, rather than pure modeling. She argues that three dominant models of collective action — the tragedy of the commons, the prisoner’s dilemma, and the logic of collective action — aren’t necessarily wrong but they apply only in special and unusual conditions. When independent actors share some trust, can communicate and enter into binding agreements, and can create monitoring and enforcement mechanisms (especially important: members’ commitment to follow the rules if others do), they can create management regimes that are effective in governing common-pool resources such as fisheries, groundwater basins, etc.
Ostrom is the first woman to win the Economics prize. She’s had a significant impact on both social sciences and policy practice. Those of you interested in open and participatory governance should take special note — and take courses from Norton, Noonan, Matisoff (an Indiana/Ostrom product), Kingsley, Knox-Hayes, Kirkman, Barke, Baer, etc.