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Collective Action

Collective Action

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The logic of collective action (Olson 1965), which has proved to be applicable to a broad range of social and economic situations, assumes that cooperation must be explained by the individuals cost-benefit calculus rather than that of the group because the group as a whole is not rational but can only consist of rational individuals. Groups often seek public goods that are available, once they have been generated, to everyone, including those who did not contribute to producing them. Because individuals potentially can receive the benefits of public goods without having contributed to their production, they have an incentive to let others pay for them.

In classic examples of collective action problems, such as preserving the environment, sharing a natural resource, participating in national defense, voting in mass elections, and engaging in social protests, group members gain when all individuals do their share, but for any individual the marginal benefit of contributing exceeds the cost. If each individual follows his or her self-interest, the outcome total defectionis worse for everyone than if all had cooperated in supplying the public good. Studies of collective action using game theory, laboratory experiments, and historical cases have been used to identify the conditions under which rational actors are likely to cooperate when they have a strong incentive to be free riders.

Many groups alter cost-benefit calculations by offering selective incentives in the form of material rewards to cooperators and punishments to free riders. Shame, praise, honor, and ostracism can be viewed in this regard as nonmaterial social selective incentives. The administration of a system of selective incentives by a central authority or by group members, however, usually entails a separate collective action problem that requires further explanation because individuals have an incentive not to contribute to the maintenance of such a system.

Another potential selective incentive is the psychological or expressive benefit inherent in the activity. In this case the motivation for cooperation is not the outcome sought through collective action but the process or experience of participation. For some people, political and organizational activity builds self-esteem and feelings of political efficacy, symbolizes political citizenship, reinforces moral convictions, and constitutes an enthralling experience.

Aside from changing individual incentives, cooperation in groups can be fostered by repeated social interactions that introduce long-term calculations. In iterated social interaction, a person can try to influence the behavior of others by making his or her choices contingent on their earlier choices. Cooperation is therefore possible among self-interested individuals if they care sufficiently about future payoffs to modify their current behavior.

Conditional cooperation is less likely to solve the collective action problem as group size increases because defection is harder to identify and deter when many people are involved. Intuitively the members of small groups are likely to have closer personal bonds, individual contributions will have a greater impact on the likelihood of collective success, and individual defections can be observed more readily. For this reason contingent cooperation in large-scale ventures is facilitated when collective action entails a federated network of community groups and organizations.

There is no reason to suppose that successful collective action can be driven by a single motivation, either coercive or voluntary. Self-interested calculations that are based on selective material incentives and ongoing social exchange often have to be supplemented by moral and psychological considerations and coordinated by political leadership to motivate people to contribute to collective goods. Also it is not necessary to assume that all contributors to collective action will employ the same cost-benefit calculus. Collective action frequently relies on the initiative and sacrifice of committed leaders who supply information, resources, and monitoring and lay the foundation for subsequent conditional cooperation among more narrowly self-interested actors.

SEE ALSO Cooperation; Cost-Benefit Analysis; Free Rider; Groups; Interest Groups and Interests; Mobilization; Public Goods; Rational Choice Theory; Tragedy of the Commons; Transaction Cost

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chong, Dennis. 1991. Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hardin, Russell. 1982. Collective Action. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, Michael. 1987. The Possibility of Cooperation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dennis Chong

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Collective Action Games

Collective Action Games

BIBLIOGRAPHY

A collective action problem arises when two or more individuals have the potential to jointly coordinate on some mutually beneficial action, but do not face the right incentives to act in this manner. Such situations are ubiquitous in economic and social life, and arise in the context of political mobilization, electoral turnout, pollution abatement, common property resource use, and the private provision of public goods such as irrigation systems, parks, and national defense.

Collective action problems are often modeled using the theory of games. A simple example is the public goods game, which has the following structure. Consider a group of n individuals, each of whom can either contribute or not contribute to the provision of a public good. The private cost of contributing is c. Each individuals contribution results in a benefit b to each member of the group, including those who do not contribute. The aggregate benefits resulting from a contribution are therefore equal to nb. If b < c < nb, then the benefit to the group of a contribution exceeds the cost, but the benefits that accrue to the contributor are less than the cost. In this case, individuals who are unconcerned with the effects of their actions on others will fail to contribute, and if the entire group is composed of such individuals, no contributions will be observed. This is a worse outcome from the perspective of each individual than would arise if all were forced to contribute. Each member of the group can therefore benefit if, instead of being allowed to freely make their own choices, they were all subject to mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon (Hardin 1968, p. 1247).

When some individuals behave in a manner that is beneficial to the group while others choose in accordance with their private interests alone, the latter are sometimes referred to as free riders. There are several ways in which collective action problems may be mitigated through the punishment of free-riding behavior. If the group is sufficiently small and stable, and interactions among its members are repeated over a long horizon, actions that benefit the group can be sustained by the fear that an individual deviation will trigger deviations by others, resulting in the complete collapse of prosocial behavior. Alternatively, even if interactions are not repeated, collective action can be sustained if individuals have the ability and the inclination to impose direct punishments on each other for free riding. Experimental evidence suggests that many individuals do indeed have such preferences for altruistic punishment, and that such propensities have played a key role historically in the sustainable management of common property resources.

The most common solution to collective action problems is through the intervention of a centralized authority that can set rules for behavior and impose sanctions on those who fail to comply. Sometimes these sanctions take the form of monetary fines, as in the case of tax evasion or the failure to meet pollution standards. In many instances, however, punishments can take the form of ostracism or expulsion, as in the case of clubs, trade unions, or political parties.

SEE ALSO Common Knowledge Rationality Games; Evolutionary Games; Game Theory; Noncooperative Games; Screening and Signaling Theory Games; Strategic Games

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bergstrom, Ted C., Larry Blume, and Hal Varian. 1986. On the Private Provision of Public Goods. Journal of Public Economics 29: 2549.

Fehr, Ernst, and Simon Gächter. 2000. Cooperation and Punishment in Public Goods Experiments. American Economic Review 90: 980994.

Hardin, Garret. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162: 12431248.

Marwell, Gerald, and Ruth E. Ames. 1981. Economists Free Ride, Does Anyone Else? Journal of Public Economics 15: 295310.

Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Sethi, Rajiv, and E. Somanathan. 1996. The Evolution of Social Norms in Common Property Resource Use. American Economic Review 86: 766788.

Rajiv Sethi

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collective action

collective action Action taken by a group (either directly or on its behalf through an organization) in pursuit of members' perceived shared interests. It seems logical to expect that people who have an interest in common will act on it—for example that pensioners will act for higher pensions, or miners for greater underground safety. Experience shows that this is not always the case, and that many people who stand to benefit from a given collective action will refuse to join in. This seems to run against the assumption of rationality in human behaviour, and presents a particular problem for students of politics and social movements.

In 1965 Mancur Olson offered an explanation in The Logic of Collective Action. Olson argued that rational self-interest often leads to inaction, in so far as individuals will benefit from concessions made to the whole group, whether they themselves have been active or not. If pensions are raised after a campaign by senior citizens, all pensioners will gain, including those who did nothing. Olson called this the free-rider problem, and it is important because it undermines the ability of interest groups and social movements to mobilize large numbers of citizens. If those citizens are poor, the costs of participation are relatively higher for them, and they are even more likely to remain passive. The only answer to the free-rider problem is for the movement to offer extra incentives to participate, beyond the goals themselves. These incentives may take the form of recognition, prestige, or the psychological rewards of participation itself.

The nature of rational choice has been a conundrum for sociology since Max Weber's classical writings on the problem. One attempt to model the process is shown in rational calculus or game theory which tries to show how, in concrete social situations, actors will try to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs. However, few people are so careful, controlled, and well-informed that their actions will fit the rational-choice model (see EXCHANGE THEORY). Acts of bravery and commitment lie outside its explanatory power, as do acts based on ignorance or impulse. Large areas of collective action clearly require explanations of a more complex type. A good overview of the field is given in Russell Hardin's Collective Action (1982). See also CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS; CLASS INTEREST; REBELLION; STRIKE.

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