Tocqueville and the Ostroms

Sarah J. Wilford*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although it is commonplace for political scientists to draw upon historical thinkers and the ‘great books’ of the past, the practice of using historical works as reference points for contemporary issues remains under-investigated. To address this practice, this article is positioned at the crossroads of social science and intellectual history. By examining the relationship of political economists Elinor and Vincent Ostrom with Alexis de Tocqueville, the article demonstrates some of the potential risks incurred by social scientists drawing on historical thinkers. After exploring the similarities between the Ostroms and Tocqueville, it identifies three key pitfalls of the Ostroms’ ‘Tocquevillian’ rhetoric. These pitfalls result in obscuring meaning and overlooking philosophical insights, both of which detract from the Ostroms’ project. Insights from the field of intellectual history are offered. A final section presents a key example of Vincent Ostrom overlooking Tocqueville's thought where Tocqueville's insights were directly applicable to his work. The article parses political science's relationship with the past and offers a critique that is applicable beyond Tocqueville and the Ostroms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-54
Number of pages28
JournalHistory of the Human Sciences
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2022.


  • Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Elinor Ostrom
  • intellectual history
  • interdisciplinary methods
  • Vincent Ostrom


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