Elinor Ostrom on choice, collective action and rationality: a Senian analysis

Paul Lewis, Matias Petersen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper explores Elinor Ostrom's account of practical reason through the conceptual lens provided by a typology of dimensions of rational conduct advanced by Amartya Sen. On Sen's view, self-interested behaviour has three independent, and separable, features: self-centred welfare, self-welfare goal and self-goal choice. We suggest that Ostrom is committed to a version of rational choice theory that retains the assumptions of self-welfare goal and self-goal choice but, by acknowledging that people's welfare is affected by factors beyond their material consumption, departs from the assumption of self-welfare goal. We argue that this departure is not necessarily driven by an acknowledgement, along Senian lines, that people may have reasons for action other than the single-minded pursuit of their own goals, but rather by Ostrom's belief that the decision problem people face is so complex that maximising behaviour is rendered impossible. We illustrate this argument by analysing how Elinor Ostrom's position differs not only from Sen's but also from that of her husband and long-time collaborator Vincent Ostrom, who in his analysis of the covenantal aspects of rule-making seems to depart from the assumptions of instrumental rationality and preference-satisfaction.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)852-867
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Institutional Economics
Issue number6
StatePublished - 7 Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Millennium Economics Ltd.


  • Amartya Sen
  • Elinor Ostrom
  • collective rationality
  • rational choice theory
  • rule-making


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