Would the Nobelist Elinor Ostrom have agreed that women are naturally more cooperative than men?

Bukidnon women of the Philippines island of Mindanao — Hans Brandeis

Norwegian women:
Minnesota Historical Society

Are women instinctively more cooperative than men?

Annoyingly, post-Gutenberg cannot seem to get off the fence, on that question.

There is no equivalent, for the other gender, of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman — a blood-curdling, too often accurate, book about the scope of this category of unkindness by a respected psychologist, Phyllis Chesler. On the other hand, women have never fashioned whole careers from bludgeoning each other, the way legions of men did for most of human history — serving both noble causes and evil ones.

Nor has highly organised, male-dominated aggression disappeared. Our eyebrows went shooting ceilingward when we discovered, the other day, that in the country proud to think of itself as the land of Gandhi, elite business school students gather as rapturously as American hipster-cultists at Burning Man for a contest in strategic capitalist thinking called the Mahindra War Room. Om mane padme … oh dear, … we thought.

We would like to know whether there is any substance in the idea that women involved in running organisations tend naturally to a more consultative and collaborative style. Should women be encouraged to lead in promoting cooperative ownership as the fairest and most engaging way to organise people working together, wherever coops make sense?

We care about the answer because we have been obsessed by coops for some time. As we explained in a February post, the internet — used as both frame and engine for cooperative organisations — could vaporise many of the handicaps and inefficiencies that plagued failed coops of the recent past. More than once, we have linked to an outline of a scheme for making readers and commenters co-owners of media – a collection of ideas marinated in 2009, then lightly grilled and put on the table in January of 2010.

We could all be witnessing the start of capitalism’s evolution into an array of highly motivated, updated cooperative workplaces. It hardly matters that beady-eyed commenters spotted the questionable logic in one specific comparison in an otherwise accurate Guardian piece, last week, on the growing enthusiasm for cooperatives: ‘Co-operatives and mutuals keep outperforming the UK economy’. A reader, @johnjm, remarked acidly: ‘Comparing co-operatives, which are largely in retailing, with GDP is spurious and arguably financially illiterate.’

If @johnjm is honest, he will concede that some eminent economists find the concept of GDP itself unsatisfactory.  Scrolling down all the reader comments on that article by Greg Rosen does suggest that its premise — that a ‘cooperative renaissance’ is underway — is warranted. Growing numbers of us see coops — warts and all, without any expectation of being led to paradise on earth — as the shrewdest solution to the problem of the 1% that Occupy campaigners turned into high drama. Even if Rosen’s is a flawed comparison, it was intriguing to see these numbers side-by-side – and the next sentence rang deeply true:

While the real level of GDP in the UK in 2011 was 1.7% lower than in 2008, co-operative sector turnover has grown 19.5% over that period.

Some parts of the co-operative economy have been resilient for the past 40 years – but without public recognition.

That said, how are we to get more people to demand cooperative organisations? Could women hold the key to that galvanisation? If forced at gun point to guess either way, a few months ago, post-Gutenberg might have ventured, with cringing reluctance, that females are probably somewhat less adept at friction-free collaboration than men are (see Phyllis Chesler, above).

But lately, these scraps have come floating to the front of our mental screens — on eddies of serendipity:

• Elinor Ostrom, the first and only woman ever to win the Nobel prize for economics (2009), made her name as a specialist in ‘examining the use of collective action, trust, and cooperation in the management of common pool resources’ – such as irrigation networks and fishing grounds — working closely with her husband, Vincent Ostrom.

Our introduction to this radical but self-effacing thinker came from Howard Rheingold’s new book, Net Smart. Like Howard, a cyberspace pioneer and writer, she stood out for putting her ideas into practice in her own life. Shortly after her death in June, he kindly answered our question about their brief acquaintance by explaining that they met at a conference in Bali, through another woman academic interested in the same subject …

… Charlotte Hess, whose work I had been following. In my research on cooperation theory (compiled at http://cooperationcommons.com) I had become familiar with the foundational work of Elinor Ostrom. Hess had co-authored with Ostrom a key paper on information as a common pool resource. […]  Lin Ostrom, as everyone seems to call her, was gracious enough sit down with me and talk about our shared interest in informing policy decisions about common pool resources with real empirical research. Then, as she often did, Ostrom voiced her concern about all the decisions being made at the political level without a shred of knowledge of the significant body of scientific research about what worked and what didn’t work with commons governance issues. […] I came away […] understanding that I had met one of the few great people I had the good fortune to encounter in my lifetime.

• A paper by an economic historian, Beatrice Moring, ‘Female Networks and Cooperation in the Nordic Past’. She delivers an important reminder of how women once excelled at cooperative tasks – ‘[c]ommunal activity without payment, lasting one day or less, aimed at performing tasks needing many participants.’ She argues that after the industrial revolution, the specialisation and commercialisation of work destroyed strong and indispensable female networks which — in Finland, Norway and Sweden — had once milked cows, collaborated in weaving and making clothes, communal baking, and heavy-duty housecleaning.

Elinor Ostrom’s animating spirit, or what can be gleaned of it in an excellent obituary in The Economist, was in close sympathy with those toiling Nordic women:

[C]ollaboration was her watchword. Neighbours thrived if they worked together. The best-laid communal schemes would fall apart once people began to act only as individuals, or formed elites. Born poor herself, to a jobless film-set-maker in Los Angeles who soon left her mother alone, she despaired of people who wanted only a grand house or a fancy car. Her childhood world was coloured by digging a wartime “victory” vegetable garden, knitting scarves for the troops, buying her clothes in a charity store: mutual efforts to a mutual end.

• A light-hearted April 23 column by the science journalist Natalie Angier taking an extreme position also, incidentally, at the furthest extreme from Phyllis Chesler’s – and extended to include non-human females:

In animals as diverse as African elephants and barnyard mice, blue monkeys of Kenya and feral horses of New Zealand, affiliative, longlasting and mutually beneficial relationships between females turn out to be the basic unit of social life, the force that not only binds existing groups together but explains why the animals’ ancestors bothered going herd in the first place.

• A blog post about Elinor Ostrom by the president of the International Cooperative Alliance, founded in 1895 and representing 248 co-operative federations and organisations in 92 countries, according to the Wikipedia. And who did that turn out to be? Yet another woman – Pauline Green.

… Might these scraps amount to dots describing a larger, highly significant pattern – even if they do not quite add up to proving a greater female affinity and aptitude for working in cooperative organisations?

We have no idea. We would like to have asked Elinor Ostrom that question but, sadly, learnt of her existence too late.