Ostrom's work challenged and rebutted fundamental economic beliefs, particularly free market and neo-classical economic paradigms. Ostrom was particularly concerned with relational aspects of economic activity — the ways in which people interact and negotiate with each other to forge rules and informal social understandings.
Ostrom's early work focused on what she called co-production.
Co-production describes the relationship that exist between ‘regular producers’, like health workers, police, and schoolteachers and their ‘clients’ who may be transformed by the services into safer, better educated and/or healthier persons.
Ostrom defined co-production as
“…the mix of activities that both public service agents and citizens contribute to the provision of public services. The former are involved as professionals, or ‘regular producers’, while ‘citizen production’ is based on voluntary efforts by individuals and groups to enhance the quality and/or quantity of the services they use”
One implication is that privatization of public services and the turning over of services to the market fundamentally transforms the relationship between provider and service user, hampering the development of co-production and democratic governance.
Her later work examined how people and communities collaborate and organize themselves to manage collective shared resources like forests, fisheries and natural and social resources. The research overturned the conventional wisdom about government regulation and challenged the idea that private ownership of public resources is better and more effective than the public and collective sphere.
Ostrom's work provides clear evidence that the commons-based traditions of cooperation and communal management of resources is not a violation of basic economic common sense.
Her work undermines political conservatives and mainstream economists who denigrate collectively managed property and government and who argue that only private property and the "free market" can responsibly manage resources. Her work also directly challenges current ideas that privatization and private ownership and expert management of resources is a more effective strategy than collective and public management
Ostrom advocated a “polycentric” approach to managing shared or common resources involving oversight “at multiple levels with autonomy at each level. She argued that shared management of resources helps to establish rules that “tend to encourage the growth of trust and reciprocity” among people who use and care for a particular commons.
Ostrim argued that key management decisions should be made as close to the scene of events and the people and groups involved as possible. Her work showed that the people most affected by or with a stake in shared or common resources are the ones best able to collaborate to use and manage those shared resources effectively and sustainably.
Her work demonstrates that ordinary people are able to create rules, institutions and systems that ensure the equitable and sustainable management of shared and common resources, what is often called our 'common wealth'.
She demonstrated the importance of shared (collective) rather than expert or private management of resources and knowledge and emphasises the importance of active citizen participation. She cited a comprehensive study of 100 forests in 14 countries that detailed how the involvement of local people in decision making is more important to successfully sustaining healthy forests than who is actually in charge of the forests.
David Bollier writes of the significance of Ostrom's work:
In the 1970s, economics was quickly veering into a kind of religious fundamentalism. It was a discipline obsessed with “rational individualism,” private property rights and markets even though the universe of meaningful human activity is much broader and complex. Lin Ostrom pioneered a different, more humanistic way of thinking about “the economy” and resource management. She originally focused on property rights and “common-pool resources,” collective resources over which no one has private property rights or exclusive control, such as fishers, grazing lands and groundwater. This work later evolved into a broader study of the commons as a rich, cross-cultural socio-ecological paradigm. Working within the social sciences, Ostrom proceeded to build a new school of thought within the standard economic narrative while extending it in vital ways.
Ostrom's work also has direct relevance to the current economic and environment crises. She wrote:
"We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: the oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways, and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life, including seven billion humans, to thrive.....Success will hinge on developing many overlapping policies to achieve the goals,.......We have a decade to act before the economic cost of current viable solutions becomes too high. Without action, we risk catastrophic and perhaps irreversible changes to our life-support system.”
Articles written in memory of her work are here, here, here and here.
A reading list of her work is here.
The last article she wrote before she died is here
Her last book, published just before her death was titled Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice, and describes the advantages of using several different research methods to study a problem.