- Seeing Like a Citizen:The Contributions of Elinor Ostrom to "Civic Studies"
When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that Elinor Ostrom had won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, one of my colleagues wrote, "The first Nobel for Civic Studies!" Here, I argue for the importance of "Civic Studies" and Ostrom's contributions to it.
How we think about politics and society depends on the question that we consider most fundamental. Ideal theorists ask: "What is the best possible society?" Their objective is to point society in the right direction when actual political decisions are made. Among other authors, Stephen Elkin in Reconstructing the Commercial Republic 1 and Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice 2 have criticized ideal theory on the ground that the wisest course to steer today may not be straight toward the best possible society. Perhaps we should concentrate on preventing a decline or avoiding a disaster, checking corruption, experimenting with incremental improvements, or maintaining our community's capacity for self-government. These authors imply that strategy as well as normative theory is essential, and the two are inseparable.
Non-ideal political theory is addressed to some kind of sovereign: a potential author of laws and policies in the real world, a "decider" (as George W. Bush used to call himself). Sen, for example, in his various works, addresses two kinds of audiences: the general public, understood as sovereign because we can vote, or specific authorities, such as the managers of the World Bank. In his work aimed at general readers, he envisions a "global dialogue," rich with "active public agitation, news commentary, and [End Page 3] open discussion," to which he contributes guiding principles and methods.
In turn, that global dialogue will influence the actual decision-makers, whether they are voters and consumers in various countries or powerful leaders. 3
Unfortunately, no reader is really in the position of a sovereign. You and I can vote, but not for elaborate social strategies. We vote for names on a ballot, while hundreds of millions of other people also vote with different goals in mind. Even legislators are not sovereigns, because there are many of them, and the legislature shares power with other branches and levels of government and with private institutions. Thus "What is to be done?" is not a question that will yield practical guidance for individuals.
What then should we do (I who writes these words and you who reads them, along with anyone whom we can enlist for our causes)? That seems to be the pressing question, but not if the answer stops with changes in our personal behavior and immediate circumstances. National and global needs are too important for us only to " be the change" that we want in the world. We must also change the world. Our own actions (yours and mine) must be plausibly connected to grand changes in society and policy.
"Civic Studies" is one possible name for intellectual work that seriously addresses the question, "What should you and I do?" In a statement entitled "The New Civic Politics," Ostrom and six colleagues stated that "the division of intellectual labor into disciplines has [left] scant room" for this question. The statement defined "citizens" as active co-creators of their environments, and the work they do collaboratively as "civic initiatives." "We do find, but only at the margins of various disciplines, efforts to think deeply about the issues that face civic initiatives and about what we must understand, and how we should see the world, in order to support them. We need a civic intellectual community, a discipline, a forum for debates, in which these issues will be central." 4
This intellectual community or discipline would not neglect large institutions or purely private decisions, but it would emphasize the scale of human affairs that lies between. "Civil society" is the name for that scale of human action where the minuscule powers of an individual obtain enough leverage to count but are not lost entirely in the mass. It is the domain of groups that one can choose to join or to leave, that one can tangibly influence through one's own choices and actions...