The Economics Club
Did a female economist just win a Nobel?
It depends on how you define “economist.” Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, describes herself as a political economist. She is a political scientist by training and by official department of employment.
Some economists got huffy about this. Not that it is the first time the economics prize committee has ignored traditional disciplinary boundaries.
But Professor Ostrom’s work covers territory unfamiliar to many economists — the way groups devise institutional rules for themselves. As Steven Levitt pointed out on the Freakonomics blog, “economists want this to be an economists’ prize.”
One thread of discussion at econjobrumors.com, a blog frequented by graduate students seeking jobs in economics, referred to Professor Ostrom disrespectfully as a girl. On the other hand, some women in the profession e-mailed me their concerns that the choice of winners implied that none of our official number merited the prize.
What strikes me is the way Professor Ostrom — an outsider in terms of both disciplinary background and gender — helps us understand the importance of group dynamics, including in the economic profession.
Professor Ostrom’s research on collective efforts to protect common resources by developing rules of access applies to academic disciplines. In this case, the common property is collective reputation — the disciplinary “brand.”
The American Economics Association (like lobstermen’s associations in Maine) sets rules that constrain individual behavior. Its governance shapes participation in the meetings and publication in the journals that influence professional success. The association’s most salutary goal is to maximize research quality, and with good reason: poor quality research spills over on the reputation of the discipline, like a form of pollution.
But the very forms of collective action that help protect the commons can create opportunities for aggrandizement — efforts by in-group members to protect themselves from competition and to reinforce their own priorities (including their own definitions of quality). Successful associations must remain open, flexible and democratic enough to sustain their legitimacy.
The history of debates over gender inequality in the economics discipline provides a fascinating example of institutional evolution.
In 1971, an informal women’s caucus within the American Economics Association actively strategized to overcome opposition to the establishment of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. This group began to move actively to challenge discrimination against women and monitor their participation in the discipline — an effort that continues today.
Professor Ostrom has long taken part in a similar group within the American Political Science Association.
While such efforts met considerable resistance at the time, they are widely regarded today as an important achievement. In 1998, the Nobel laureate and free market advocate Milton Friedman praised the committee’s role in reducing discrimination — before going on to suggest that the pendulum had swung too far in the opposite direction, placing men at a disadvantage.
By that year, another dissident group had emerged: the International Association for Feminist Economics, which publishes the journal Feminist Economics. Its members, myself included, aim to widen the research agenda of the economics discipline by challenging what Barbara Bergmann described as the “attitude still prevalent in the economics profession that there are no aspects of our gender system that are in any way regrettable, that need to be addressed by economic and social policy and that do not result from women’s own incapacities and choices.”
While Professor Ostrom has not (to my knowledge) written about this particular challenge, she has certainly contributed to its study. By revealing the potentially positive impact of collective efforts to improve social institutions, she encourages thoughtful participation in them.
She shows us that economics is a territory whose boundaries can be