Collective Action

views updated May 29 2018


Charles Tilly

Collective action applies pooled resources to shared interests. In European social history, collective action has ranged from communal bread baking to electoral campaigns, from idol-smashing to revolution. Much collective action actually consists of conflict or cooperation, which imply two or more interacting parties. To treat an episode as "collective action" is therefore an analytic simplification; it singles out the perspective and behavior of just one participant in complex interactions. Collective actors sometimes include corporate bodies such as craft guilds and religious confraternities, but on occasion they also include friendship networks, neighbors, and participants in local markets. Collective action rarely involves all members of such ongoing social structures at the same time, but often draws currently active participants disproportionately from one or more existing structures.

Participants in collective action, furthermore, regularly claim to speak in the name of such structures—our guild, our confraternity, our lineage, our neighborhood, and so on—or in the name of more abstract collectivities such as workers, women, Huguenots, pacifists, or environmentalists. Some of European social history's most vivid moments centered on this sort of claim making: Florentine workers rising against the oligarchy in the name of crafts excluded from municipal power; newly converted mountaineers resisting demands of their Catholic lords in the name of Protestant sects; Parisian residents attacking the Bastille in the name of the whole citizenry. Over that same history, nevertheless, the great bulk of collective action took less spectacular forms such as local celebrations, jury deliberations, or the everyday production of goods or services by households and workshops.


Social historians and social scientists often reserve the term "collective action" for episodes engaging participants who do not routinely act together or who employ means of action other than those they adopt for day-to-day interaction. Collective action in this narrow sense resembles what other analysts call protest, rebellion, or disturbance. It differs from other collective action in being discontinuous and contentious: not built into daily routines, and having implications for interests of people outside the acting group as well as for the actors' own shared interests. When those implications are negative we can speak of conflict, whereas when they are positive we can speak of cooperation. The narrower definition of collective action refers to discontinuous but collective contention, whether conflict-bearing or cooperative.

No one should adopt the narrower definition without recognizing four important qualifications. First, no sharp dividing line exists between "routine" and "extraordinary"; demonstrating and attacking ethnic rivals, for example, sometimes become everyday activities. Second, exceptional bodies of participants and unusual modes of action always depend in part on previously existing social relations and known models of making claims. In old-regime Europe, for instance, the unauthorized popular courts that repeatedly formed to judge violators of the public interest always drew their members from previously established political networks and regularly mimicked routines of royal courts. Third, even in apparently repetitive, everyday forms of collective action such as tending a village's common lands or establishing defenses against infectious diseases, participants were incessantly negotiating, improvising, and applying group pressure to reluctant contributors. Fourth, both exceptional and everyday episodes of collective action therefore pose essentially the same problems of explanation.

Nevertheless, social historians who have adopted the narrower definition of collective action have rightly sensed that something sets off discontinuous, contentious collective action from its continuous and noncontentious forms. Discontinuous, contentious collective action always involves third parties, often poses threats to existing distributions of power, and usually incites surveillance, intervention, and/or repression by political authorities. As a consequence, it also generates more historical evidence in the form of chronicles, memoirs, administrative correspondence, judicial proceedings, military reports, and police records than do continuous and noncontentious varieties of collective action. Accordingly, social historians who seek to reconstruct collective action can generally do so much more easily for its discontinuous, contentious forms. The following discussion therefore draws disproportionately on studies of discontinuous collective contention. It also deals primarily with popular collective action rather than collaboration among the rich and powerful. Finally, because historians of northern, central, and western Europe have so far done the bulk of European research on popular collective action, the arguments and conclusions that follow qualify as no more than working hypotheses for southern and eastern Europe.


From the perspective of individual self-interest, collective action (especially its narrower form) presents a logical puzzle. Much collective action produces goods from which all members of a group benefit whether or not they participate in the action. Cleaning up a local water supply, building a new market, and raising the minimum wage for a whole category of workers provide obvious examples. Since participation takes effort and often exposes participants to risks, any particular member of the beneficiary category therefore has an interest in standing by while others do the essential work and take the crucial risks. To the extent that collective action is discontinuous and contentious, furthermore, costs and risks generally increase. In such circumstances, individual costs loom large compared with likely individual benefits. If everyone stands by, however, nothing gets done. This collective-action problem helps explain why many populations that would have been collectively better off if they had coordinated their action to produce shared benefits—for example, most women in cottage textile production—rarely acted together on a large scale. One of the most important findings of social history, early on, was the necessity of existing community structures and goals for protests, which means also that the poorest sectors of the population can rarely mount collective action.

Yet Europeans frequently did manage collective action. Some special circumstances reduced collective-action problems. If the number of potential participants and beneficiaries in a collective action was quite small, for example, each member would gain a substantial share of the benefits, could easily gauge whether others would contribute their shares of the effort, and could readily put pressure on would-be slackers. In the presence of shared interests, small numbers thus promoted collective action. At times one of the potential beneficiaries (for example, a merchant household contemplating construction of a bridge across a forbidding river) had so much to gain from collective action that it invested a large share of the resources to produce the collective good and to reward other people's participation in production of the good. Other favorable circumstances for collective action included serious, simultaneous threats to group survival, extensive communication among parties to a shared interest, and opportunities to make substantial individual gains (for example, through looting or acquisition of inside information) while serving collective ends.

Europeans still repeatedly acted collectively in the absence of such favorable circumstances. Why? Like other peoples, Europeans accomplished most of their collective action through institutions and practices they invented, borrowed, or adapted in the course of historical experience. Some of those institutions and practices emerged from more or less deliberate attempts to coordinate collective action; labor unions and revolutionary associations qualify in this regard. But many came into being as by-products of local, routine social interaction, as when unmarried village males who drank, fought, and played sports together formed organized bands that also collected wood for holiday bonfires, conducted shaming ceremonies outside the houses of cuckolds, and ritually barred the way to wedding processions for local brides who were marrying men from other parishes.

Institutions and practices promoting collective action varied significantly in their mixes of coercive, material, and solidary incentives. States, for example, generally employed significant coercion to produce collective action; they conscripted soldiers, forced reluctant taxpayers to contribute their shares to collective endeavors, and seized privately held land for public purposes. In contrast, although workshops and factories used plenty of coercion, they generally organized much more directly around quid pro quo material rewards than states did. Meanwhile, kin groups, religious congregations, sewing circles, and similar institutions offered substantial solidary incentives to their participants in addition to whatever coercion and material reward they dispensed. They provided opportunities for intimacy, affirmation of identity, mutual aid, social insurance, information, and participation itself—backed by the threat of shaming, shunning, or utter exclusion for those who violated their fellows' expectations.

For most of European history, most Europeans carried on risky, emotionally engaging, and delayed-payoff activities such as procreation, cohabitation, long-distance trade, and pursuit of the afterlife by means of institutions and practices centering on solidary incentives, with coercion and material reward playing a lesser part. Kinship groups, neighborhood networks, and religious congregations figured importantly in these institutions and practices, but so did more specialized organizations such as devotional and penitential confraternities, lodges, and mutual-aid societies. On the whole, Europeans insulated such structures from interference by outsiders and public authorities; they did so either by keeping the structures inconspicuous or by relying on protection from powerful members of the same structures.


One of European history's greatest changes was a massive shift from such solidarity-bound structures toward governments, firms, unions, specialized associations, and other organizations emphasizing coercion and material rewards as sites of high-risk, emotionally engaging, long-term activities. The shift occurred in most of Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To be sure, it did not obliterate institutions and practices centering on solidary incentives. Europeans still find their sexual and marriage partners, for example, chiefly through networks of friendship, kinship, and neighborhood that are typically homogeneous with respect to class, religion, and/or ethnicity. Some groups, like poor housewives and working women, continued to find it easier to mobilize through these kinds of daily networks. Still, as compared to the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the average twentieth-century European conducted a much wider range of risky, important business through institutions and practices centered on coercive and material incentives.

That large transformation of institutions and practices interacted with substantial shifts in collective action. To understand these shifts, we must recognize four profound features of collective action, wherever it occurs. First, it always takes place as part of interaction among persons and groups rather than as solitary performance. Second, it operates within limits set by existing institutions, practices, and shared understandings. Third, participants learn, innovate, and construct stories in the very course of collective action. Fourth, precisely because historically situated interaction creates agreements, memories, stories, precedents, practices, and social relations, each form of collective action has a history that channels and transforms subsequent uses of that form. The form of collective action we call a strike has a distinctive history, as do the forms we call coup d'état, feud, and sacred procession. For these reasons, collective action falls into limited and well-defined repertoires that are particular to different actors, objects of action, times, places, and strategic circumstances.

Any collective actor employs a far smaller range of collective performances than it could in principle manage, and than all actors of its kind have sometimes managed somewhere. Yet the performances that make up a given repertoire remain flexible, subject to bargaining and innovation. Indeed, precisely repetitive performances tend to lose effectiveness because they make action predictable and thereby reduce its strategic impact. The theatrical term "repertoire" captures the combination of historical scripting and improvisation that generally characterizes collective action.

Europe's collective-action performances changed incrementally as a result of three classes of influences: shifts produced by learning, innovation, and negotiation in the course of collective action itself; alterations of the institutional environment; and interactions between the first two. In the first category, eighteenth-century Britain's petition march mutated from the humble presentation of a signed request borne by a few dignified representatives of the petition's many signers to the clamorous march of thousands through streets to confront authorities with their demands. The campaigns of John Wilkes on behalf of rights to public dissent during the 1760s figured centrally in that change.

Alterations of the institutional environment—notably suppression of civic militias as national armies formed—lay behind the widespread disappearance in western Europe during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries of collective action by means of armed local bands marching under elected captains marching in military order. (The century beginning in 1789, however, saw widespread revival of similar performances by centrally authorized but sometimes independent militias such as the French National Guard.)

Examples of interaction are more common. An instructive case is the legalization of strikes in most western European countries during the nineteenth century. That legalization typically protected rights of workers to assemble, deliberate, and withdraw from work collectively, but simultaneously declared a wide range of previously common worker actions (such as coercion of nonstrikers and attacks on employers' houses) illegal. It also subjected strikers to scrutiny of governmental specialists in industrial relations. Similarly, governmental interventions in public health, education, water control, and other local production of collective goods generally standardized organization from place to place, reduced the autonomy of local institutions, and subordinated local efforts to top-down control.

The shift from eighteenth- to nineteenth-century repertoires. Although incremental change in repertoires never ceased, in some periods interaction between internal alterations of performances and transformations of their institutional environments accelerated. In those periods, massive transformations of repertoires occurred. The best-documented transformation of this sort affected much of western Europe during the century or so after 1780. At least in Great Britain, the Low Countries, France, Germany, and Italy, a large net shift in popular collective action occurred. At the shift's beginning, we might characterize prevailing repertoires as parochial, particular, and bifurcated: parochial in orienting chiefly to local targets and issues rather than national concerns; particular in varying significantly with respect to format from setting to setting, group to group, and issue to issue; and bifurcated in dividing sharply between direct action in regard to local targets and requests for intervention by established authorities (chiefly priests, landlords, and officeholders) when it came to national questions. In contrast, we might call the repertoire that came to prevail during the nineteenth century cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous: cosmopolitan because it covered a wide range of targets and issues, emphatically including national ones; modular because people used essentially the same forms of action (such the public meeting) over a broad range of issues; and autonomous because participants addressed objects of their claims in their own names via interlocutors from their own ranks.

The last observation requires qualification. The very changes that produced the new nineteeth-century repertoire also opened unprecedented opportunities for a variety of brokers who spoke, or claimed to speak, for popular constituencies. Those brokers included labor leaders, organizers of popular societies, and substantial peasants, but they also sometimes included alliance-making priests, officeholders, and bourgeois. Such brokers often played significant parts in popular collective action, especially in connecting interactions of disparate groups. They also frequently competed with each other for recognition as valid representatives of their claimed constituencies.

Table 1 summarizes contrasting principles in the earlier and later western European repertoires. We may call them "eighteenth-century" and "nineteenth-century" with the warnings that transitions from one to the other took decades everywhere and occurred at different times in different regions, that each collective-action performance had a somewhat different history and timing from the others, and that various segments of the population moved from "eighteenth-century" to "nineteenth-century" repertoires at their own paces. Powerful people and local authorities, for example, typically assembled at their own initiative long before the nineteenth century. Some of the repertoire change, indeed, consisted of generalizing just such elite privileges to ordinary people. Gender also shaped available repertoires of protest, since rights available to women expanded on different timetables than those of men, and expectations of female and male behavior differed as well.

With these provisos, note how closely western Europe's eighteenth-century collective-action repertoires adapted to local conditions. They depended heavily on prior daily connections among participants in collective claim making. They also drew heavily on local knowledge of personalities, symbols, and sites. Well-documented examples include shaming ceremonies (such as "rough music"), popular interventions in public executions (to attack a maladroit hangman, to jeer at the victim, or sometimes to rescue him), sacking of houses occupied by persons accused of wrongdoing, and invasions of enclosed common fields. In less overtly conflict-filled domains, local celebrations, water control systems, and use of communal ovens likewise depended heavily on dense personal connections and local knowledge. The exact forms, personnel, and circumstances of these performances varied greatly from place to place. Later repertoires sacrificed some of that local knowledge and connection but offered the possibility of coordination among multiple sites and ready transfer of learning from one site to another. The public meeting, the demonstration, the voluntary special-purpose association, and the electoral campaign all generalized easily from one place or occasion to another.

As they created the new repertoire, Europeans were inventing what later generations called social movements. Although historians sometimes apply the term indiscriminately to all sorts of popular collective action regardless of time and place, it refers especially to sustained challenges of constituted authorities in the name of wronged populations, challenges backed by public displays of activists' worthiness, unity, numbers,

Eighteenth Century Nineteenth Century
Frequent employment of authorities' normal means of action, either as caricature or as a deliberate, if temporary, assumption of authorities' prerogatives in the name of a local communityUse of relatively autonomous means of action, of kinds rarely or never employed by authorities
Convergence on residences of wrongdoers and sites of wrongdoing, as opposed to seats and symbols of public powerPreference for previously planned action in visible public places
Extensive use of authorized public celebrations and assemblies for presentation of grievances and demandsDeliberate organization of assemblies for the articulation of claims
Common appearance of participants as members or representatives of constituted corporate groups and communities rather than of special interestsParticipation as members or representatives of special interests, constituted public bodies, and named associations
Tendency to act directly against local enemies but to appeal to powerful patrons for redress of wrongs beyond the reach of the local community and, especially, for representation vis-à-vis outside authoritiesDirect challenges to rivals or authorities, especially national authorities and their representatives
Repeated adoption of rich, irreverent symbolism in the form of effigies, dumb show, and ritual objects to state grievances and demandsDisplay of programs, slogans, and symbols of common membership such as flags, colors, and lettered banners
Shaping of action to particular circumstances and localitiesPreference for forms of action easily transferred from one circumstance or locality to another
Summary: parochial, particular, and bifurcatedSummary: cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous

and commitment. The social movement's preferred performances were (and still are) demonstrations, processions, public meetings, petition drives, print pronouncements, and interventions in electoral campaigns. Social-movement activists commonly formed special-purpose associations devoted to promotion of their causes. They also typically created identifying names, banners, badges, and slogans.

Little of the social movement repertoire would have been possible without extensive interaction between internal changes in collective action performances and transformations of their institutional contexts. Social-movement activists pushed accepted boundaries of association and assembly but also took advantage of changes in legal controls brought about by others. Thus popular associations proliferated in French cities after the Prussian victory, and the very bourgeois revolution of 1870 brought down Louis Napoleon's empire. Those popular associations then coupled with National Guard units as frames for activism in the 1871 insurrectionary Communes of Paris, Lyon, and other cities.

Regimes and regime changes exerted significant influence over collective-action repertoires. At any given moment each regime made rough, implicit, but often effective distinctions among performances that it promoted (such as participation in public ceremonies), tolerated (petitioning), or forbade (sacking of toll gates). Regimes backed these distinctions by means of rewards and punishments for potential and actual collective actors: honors, entertainment, food, and drink for promoted performances; imprisonment, execution, shaming routines, or military attack for forbidden performances. Generally speaking, democratic regimes tolerated a wider range of collective-action performances. That toleration actually sharpened the distinction between tolerated and forbidden performances, made forbidden performances the province of political outcasts, and encouraged a wide range of actors to make their claims by means of tolerated or promoted performances. Undemocratic regimes, on the average, drew sharper lines between promoted performances and all others, with the paradoxical effect that collective action frequently consisted either of subverting promoted performances (for example, shouting antiregime slogans during official ceremonies) or adopting clearly forbidden means (for example, assassinating public officials or collaborators). Undemocratic regimes narrowed the tolerated middle.

While the transition from eighteenth- to nineteenth-century protest forms is most studied, other points of change in the history of European collective action deserve attention. These include the decline of the great rural revolt against landlord and manorial controls, which began in the late Middle Ages and tapered off after the great risings of 1648. The decline of strikes and unions in the later twentieth century raises questions about changes in protest goals and participants.


Social historians know much more about the detail of popular collective action in western Europe because students of that region have more often studied popular collective action systematically. Elsewhere, most published information on the subject comes either as illustrative material in general political histories or as documentation of major conflicts. Whatever their region and period of specialization, however, serious students of European collective action generally adopt a combination of three rather different procedures: collection and analysis of relatively homogeneous catalogs of events; reconstruction of one or a few crucial or characteristic episodes; and recasting of previous political narratives by inclusion of popular collective action, often as seen through experiences of one or a few localities or groups.

Systematic catalogs of collective action episodes require extensive effort but offer significant rewards for social history. Because many European governments started collecting comprehensive reports of strikes during the nineteenth century, students of industrial conflict have often concentrated on systematic catalogs of strikes and lockouts. Other historians, however, have used administrative correspondence, periodicals, and other sources to construct catalogs of events they have called riots, protests, or contentious gatherings. Catalogs of this kind have the advantage of facilitating comparison and detecting change, but they remain vulnerable to reporting biases.

Closely studied episodes offer the possibility of attaching participants and actions more firmly to their social settings than most catalogs do. They have therefore attracted many students of crises, revolutions, and rebellions. Pursued alone, they have the drawbacks of extracting the event from its broader historical context (including its relation to previous, subsequent, and even simultaneous collective action) and of making comparison more difficult.

The augmented narrative has two signal advantages. First, it makes clear what bearing the study of collective action has on conventional interpretations of the political history in question. Second, it provides direct answers to the question: why should historians care about these sorts of events? All too easily, however, it lends itself to the supposition that the questions built into previous narratives were valid. Since the questions addressed by existing narratives (for example, did people support the regime or not?) often actually mislead investigators (for example, where participants in collective action are strongly attached to local leaders who maintain only contingent commitment to the regime), it is always prudent to undertake close examination of collective action for its own sake.


We can see the advantages of synthesizing catalogs, specific episodes, and augmented narratives by looking at popular collective action in the Low Countries from about 1650 to 1900. During those two and a half centuries, the regions now known as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg underwent major changes of regime and of popular politics. Seen from the top, the Low Countries moved from dynastic struggles to intermittently revolutionary politics mobilizing substantial blocs of the general population in bids for control over central governments.

Suppose we recognize as revolutionary situations those instances when for a month or more at least two blocs of people backed by armed force and receiving support from a substantial part of the general population exercised control over important segments of state organization. By that rough test, likely candidates for revolutionary situations in the Low Countries between 1650 and 1900 include the following events:

1650Failed coup of William II
1672Orangist seizures of power in many towns
1702Displacement of Orangist clients in Gelderland and Overijssel
1747–1750Orange revolt in United Provinces, after French invasion precipitates naming of William IV of Orange as Stadhouder
1785–1787Dutch Patriot Revolution, terminated by Prussian invasion
1789–1790Brabant Revolution in south
1790–1791Revolution in principality of Liège, terminated by Austrian troops
1792–1795French-Austrian wars, culminating in French conquest of Low Countries, installation of variants of French and French-style rule
1795–1798Batavian Revolution in north
1830–1833Belgian Revolution against Holland, with French and British intervention

In detail, to be sure, these clustered events consisted of much meeting, marching, petitioning, confronting, fighting, sacking, arguing, and organizing. The largest changes in texture consisted of shifts from the mobilization of aristocratic military clienteles and burgher militias to the sustained integration of ordinary householders into national struggles for power. In conformity with our general argument, increases in state capacity promoted shifts toward mobilization on the basis of detached identities and by means of nationally standardized repertoires.

Cataloging "eighteenth-century" repertoires in Holland. Seen from a local perspective, collective contention occurred far more frequently, and changed character even more dramatically. Rudolf Dekker has cataloged dozens of "revolts"—events during which at least twenty people gathered publicly, voiced complaints against others, and harmed persons or property—in the province of Holland during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By comparison with all of Europe's contentious repertoires from 1650 to the present, the events in question generally qualify as small, local, variable in form from one place or group to another, and bifurcated between (many) direct attacks on local targets and (few) mediated appeals to higher authorities. Concretely, Dekker's catalog emphasizes four sorts of events: forcible seizures of marketed food or attacks on its sellers; resistance to newly imposed taxes; attacks by members of one religious category on persons, property, or symbols of another; and attempts to displace political authorities.

By and large, qualifying events falling outside those four categories involved a fifth category: collective vengeance—for example, sacking of houses—on figures who had outraged public morality. Sacking of houses also often accompanied protests against tax farmers and other public figures targeted in the first four categories of violent events. In that regard, Dutch eighteenth-century popular actions greatly resembled their French, British, and North American counterparts. Like students of old-regime contention in these other areas, Dekker calls attention to the festival atmosphere of many such rituals: "A participant in an Orangist disturbance of 1787 declared," he reports, "'I've never had so much fun at a fair as in tearing down that sacked house'" (Dekker, 1982, p. 92). More generally, Dekker's events conformed recognizably to prevailing old-regime repertoires of popular contention in western Europe as a whole. Along the standard range from petitions and parodies through local vengeance, feuds, and resistance to mass rebellion, they clustered at the edges of prescribed and tolerated forms of public politics. Nevertheless, in such times of general political struggle as the Orange revolt of 1747–1750, they merged into open rebellion.

So far as Dekker's catalog indicates, Holland's struggles over food concentrated from 1693 to 1768 in market towns and in periods of rising prices when local authorities failed to guarantee affordable supplies to the local poor. His catalog's tax rebellions (which Dekker worries may only have been "the tip of the iceberg") focused on farmed-out excise taxes rather than direct taxation, and clustered in times of general struggle over political authority such as 1747–1750. In a Holland where about half the population belonged to the established Dutch Reformed Church, perhaps 10 percent to other Protestant denominations, 40 percent to the Roman Catholic church, and a small number to Jewish congregations, ostensibly religious conflicts often included struggles for voice in local affairs as well as responses to religiously identified external events—for example, the duke of Savoy's persecution of Protestants in 1655. Like tax rebellion, however, religious contention appears to have surged in times of general political struggle such as 1747–1750. At such times, every political actor's stake in the polity faces risk. As a result, a wide range of place-holding and place-taking action occurs, regardless of how the cycle of contention began.

Events that Dekker classifies as openly political pivoted on the house of Orange. Under Habsburg rule, the absent king had typically delegated power within each province of the Netherlands to a Stadhouder (state-holder = lieu-tenant = lieutenant or deputy). From their sixteenth-century revolt against Habsburg Spain onward, Dutch provinces had commonly (although by no means always or automatically) named the current prince of the Orange line their Stadhouder, their provisional holder of state power; that happened especially in time of war. Whether or not a prince of Orange was currently Stadhouder, his clientele always constituted a major faction in regional politics, and opposition to it often formed around an alliance of people outside the Reformed church, organized artisans, and exploited rural people. During the struggles of 1747–1750, contention over the Stadhouder's claims to rule merged with opposition to tax farmers and demands for popular representation in provincial politics. Such events underwent greater transformation between 1650 and 1800 than did food-, tax-, and religion-centered events.

Defining the emergence of "nineteenth-century" repertoires in Holland. During the later eighteenth century, we see emerging concerted demands for broad participation in local and provincial government, so much so that R.R. Palmer's Age of the Democratic Revolution (1959–1964) bracketed the Dutch Patriot Revolt of the 1780s with the American Revolution (1775–1783) as significant representatives of the revolutionary current. Wayne te Brake's systematic analysis of the Dutch revolution in the province of Overijssel identifies the 1780s as a historical pivot in popular claim making. Public meetings, petitioning, and militia marches did much of the day-to-day political work, but in company with older forms of vengeance and intimidation. In the small city of Zwolle, te Brake reports, for example, that in November 1786,

A gathering of more than 1,000 persons in the Grote Kerk produced a declaration that a scheduled election to fill a vacancy on the Sworn Council by the old method of co-optation would not be recognized as legitimate. When the government nevertheless proceeded with the election in mid-December, the chosen candidate was intimidated by Patriot crowds and forced to resign immediately. (te Brake, 1989, p. 108)

When Prussian troops ended the revolution with an invasion in September 1787, however, the Patriots' Orangist opponents took their own vengeance by sacking the houses of Patriot activists. Speaking of nearby Deventer, te Brake concludes that

the "People" of Deventer had entered politics to stay. Not simply the rhetorical invention of self-serving Patriot pamphleteers or constitution-writers, "het Volk" had in the course of the 1780s become an armed and organized reality which proved to be easily capable, when united, of breaking into the urban political space. As unity gave way to division and conflict at all levels of society, however, the force and significance of the new popular politics was by no means extinguished. Thus, as we have seen, the counter-revolution in Deventer represented the victory of one segment of a newly politicized and activated "People" over another—not simply a restoration of aristocratic politics as usual. Indeed, the Orangist counter-revolution in Deventer unwittingly consolidated two momentous changes in the politics of this provincial city, the combination of which suggests that the character of urban politics was forever transformed: the private, aristocratic politics of the past had been shattered and the foundation had been laid for the public, participatory politics of the future. (te Brake, 1989, p. 168)

In public politics at a regional and national scale, both repertoire and participation in contention were changing noticeably.

During the later eighteenth century, organized workers and their strikes also became more prominent in Dutch political struggles. A significant transformation of contentious repertoires was under way even before French conquest so profoundly altered the Low Countries' contentious politics. On balance, newer performances in the Low Countries' repertoires mobilized more people from more different settings, built on detached rather than embedded identities, targeted more regional and national figures and issues, adopted forms that were more standardized across the whole region, and involved direct rather than mediated presentation of claims. Specialized political entrepreneurs (as opposed to established local and regional authorities) were emerging as critical actors in popular contention.

Cataloging collective action in early Belgium. In a parallel study to Dekker's, Karin van Honacker has cataloged about 115 "collective actions" directed against central authorities farther south, in Brabant—more precisely, in Brussels, Antwerp, and Louvain—from 1601 to 1784. Some actions took place in a single outing, but many consisted of clusters spread over several days or weeks. Honacker classifies her events under four headings: resistance to violation of local political rights, fiscal conflicts, civil-military struggles, and fights over food supply. The first two categories overlap considerably, since in Brussels the dominant guilds (the Nine Nations) frequently resisted taxes on the basis of what they claimed to be their chartered rights. Religious struggles of the sort that figured prominently in Holland escape Honacker's net because they did not typically set members of the urban population against authorities. With Brabant under Spanish, then Austrian, control, struggles of civilians with royal soldiers, disputes over their quartering or payment, freeing of captured military deserters, and competition of urban militias with royal troops for jurisdiction all loomed much larger than in Holland. Fights over food supply, however, greatly resembled each other in north and south; repeatedly city dwellers attacked merchants who raised their prices and outsiders who sought to buy in local markets.

On the whole, Honacker's catalog of events from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Brabant reveals less change in the character of popular demands than Dekker's findings from Holland. In the three southern cities we see repeated resistance to royal centralization in the name of established privilege, but no obvious swelling of demands for popular sovereignty. Claim making followed western Europe's characteristic old-regime repertoire; in Honacker's account it featured frequent employment or parody of authorities' own political means and symbols; participation of people as members of established communities and corporate groups; concentration of claim making in holidays and authorized gatherings; rich symbolism, often including shaming ceremonies; and orientation of avenging actions to dwellings of perpetrators and to places where alleged offenses occurred.

Defining the emergence of the new repertoire in nineteenth-century Belgium. The eighteenth-century repertoire did not last much longer. Gita Deneckere has assembled a catalog of "collective actions" in Belgium as a whole from 1831 through 1918 from a wide range of archives, official publications, periodicals, and historical works. Her catalog includes about 440 occasions on which people gathered and made collective demands "in the socio-economic field of conflict," which means largely workers' actions and actions concerning work. Within that field, her evidence demonstrates a significant alteration in Belgian repertoires of contention.

Or, rather, two alterations. Up to the revolution of 1848, Deneckere's contentious events feature workers' assemblies and marches to present petitions, attacks on the goods or persons of high-priced food merchants, and work stoppages by people in multiple shops of the same craft. Workers' actions frequently took the form of turnouts: occasions on which a small number of initiators from a local craft went from shop to shop demanding that fellow craft workers leave their employment to join the swelling crowd. The round completed, turnout participants assembled in some safe place (often a field at the edge of town), aired their grievances, formulated demands, and presented those demands to masters in the trade (often through a meeting of delegations from both sides), staying away from work until the masters had replied satisfactorily or forced them to return.

Between the revolution of 1848 and the 1890s, turnouts practically disappeared as demonstrations and large-firm strikes became much more frequent and prominent. Although strikes and demonstrations continued apace into the twentieth century, from the 1890s onward regionally and nationally coordinated general strikes emerged as major forms of contentious action. As Deneckere says, workers and socialist leaders designed general strikes to be large, standard in form, coordinated across multiple localities, and oriented toward national holders of power. These new actions built on public identities as socialists or as workers at large. They represented a significant shift of repertoire.

Of course these changes reflected major nineteenth-century social changes such as rapid urbanization and expansion of capital-intensive industry. But the changing repertoire of contention also had a political history. Deneckere sees increasingly tight interdependence between popular contention and national politics. In the 1890s,

The correspondence between successive socialist mass actions and the parliamentary breakthrough to universal suffrage is too striking for anyone to miss the causal connection. On the basis of published and unpublished correspondence from ruling circles one can conclude that the general strike had a genuine impact, in fact more significant than contemporary socialists themselves realized. Time after time socialist workers' protests confronted power-holders with a revolutionary threat that lay the foundation for abrupt expansion of democracy. (Deneckere, 1997, p. 384)

Thus, in Belgium, street politics and parliamentary politics came to depend on each other. Deneckere's analysis indicates that both before and during democratization, major alterations of repertoires interact with deep transformations of political power. It identifies confrontation as a spur to democratization.

However, this interaction between protest repertoires and political transformation was also powerfully gendered, since both sides of the equation affected largely male citizens. That is, the breakthrough to universal suffrage in the 1890s in fact applied only to men, just as the majority of socialist workers in the streets were also men. Thus a masculine-dominated form of collective action spurred gendered forms of political transformation.

Evaluating the catalogs. Methodologically, the analyses of Dekker, Honacker, and Deneckere offer us both hope and caution. All three use catalogs of contentious events to gauge political trends and variations in the character of conflict. Clearly, such catalogs discipline the search for variation and change in contentious politics. But comparison of the three catalogs also establishes how sensitive such enumerations are to the definitions and sources adopted. Dekker's search of Dutch archives for events involving at least twenty people in violent encounters, regardless of issues, brings him a wide range of actions and some evidence of change, but it excludes smaller-scale and nonviolent making of claims. Honacker's combing of similar Belgian archives for collective challenges to public authorities nets her plenty of smaller-scale and nonviolent episodes but omits industrial and inter-group conflicts. Deneckere's sources and methods, in contrast, concentrate her catalog on industrial events.

None of the three choices is intrinsically superior to the others, but each makes a difference to the evidence at hand. When trying to make comparisons over time, space, and type of setting, we must make allowance for the selectivity of all such catalogs. We are, nevertheless, far better off with the catalogs than without them. The Low Countries are among the few regions where scholars have inventoried contentious events on a substantial scale before the twentieth century. France and Great Britain are two of the others. For most of the rest of Europe we must settle for pickings from general histories and for occasional specialized studies of particular localities, issues, and populations.


Significant historical questions are at issue in such investigations. As figure 1 indicates, historians' descriptions and explanations of popular collective action vary significantly along two dimensions: intentionality and precipitating social processes. With respect to intentions, some authors emphasize impulse: hunger, rage, or fear. In such a view, ordinary people burst into public politics only when driven by irrepressible emotions. Other authors argue that various available agencies and programs impose consciousness on ordinary people, as when churches, political parties, or local power holders dominate popular views. More populist or radical historians commonly counter impulse and imposition accounts with the assertion that popular collective action arises from shared understandings of social situations—whether those shared understandings develop from daily experience or result in part from exposure to new ideas.

Along the dimension of precipitating social processes, historians sometimes emphasize social stress (for example, famine, epidemic, war, or geographic mobility) as the chief precipitant of popular collective action. Their investigations typically explain collective action as response to crisis. Others single out political mobilization by organizations committed to change or by local consultation within dissenting segments of the population. Their investigations center more directly on organization and consultation among aggrieved people A third group of historians treat popular collective action chiefly as an expression of group conflict. Such conflict may align class against class, but it also forms along religious, ethnic, linguistic, kinship, gender, or local cleavages. Although the third group of historians resembles the second in examining organization and consultation, they also study inter-group relations in daily contacts.

The two dimensions correlate. Where direct impulse and social stress coincide, we have historians' analyses of collective action as disorder—as temporary disruption of the political order maintained by established authorities. Imposed consciousness and political mobilization likewise pair with each other in analyses of social change, where competing movements and leaders articulate changing popular interests more or less effectively. Finally, historians who see struggle as history's motor characteristically attribute shared understandings to ordinary actors and portray group conflict as the motive force. Rarely, in contrast, do historians who consider social stress to be the chief precipitant of popular collective action also impute shared understandings—except perhaps in the form of wild beliefs—to its participants. Similarly rare are historians who explain collective action as a consequence of group conflict, yet read the consciousness of participants as unmediated impulse; the largest exception to this rule is the explanation (almost always wrong) of intergroup struggle as direct venting of age-old hatreds.

More is at stake in disputes over the description and explanation of collective action than mere differences in opinion among historians. On the whole, analyses in the disorder zone deny historical effectiveness to ordinary people; instead, they treat history as the product of great individuals, slowly changing mentalities, or impersonal forces. They also treat attributes of individuals (rather than, say, their social locations or their relations to other individuals) as the fundamental causes of their behavior, including their participation in collective action. Within the zone of social change, historians typically consider large-scale social processes such as secularization, urbanization, or the development of capitalism to cause a wide range of effects, including transformation of incentives and opportunities for collective action. Here reorganization of everyday social life and of politics plays a significant part in explanations of collective action. Historians who emphasize struggle commit themselves to views of individual social life as inextricably embedded in relations among individuals and groups. In classic marxist analyses the crucial relations form within the organization of production, but nonmarxist social historians have also studied relations of conflict and cooperation based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and locality.

A dwindling number of social historians treat Europe's popular collective action as the expression of direct impulses incited by social stress. Social historians have contributed significantly to moving prevailing historical explanations of popular collective action toward social change and struggle. As they have done so, they have uncovered increasing evidence of the influence of existing institutions on the form, frequency, and outcome of collective action. One significant contribution of European social historians, indeed, has been to show how extensively local institutions mediate between people's individual impulses, on one side, and collective action, on the other. Here the histories of conflict, of cooperation, and of social institutions converge.

See also other articles in this section.


Birnbaum, Pierre. States and Collective Action: The European Experience. Cambridge, U.K., 1988. Lucid, energetic essays on connections between collective action and states' organization.

Blickle, Peter, ed. Resistance, Representation, and Community. Oxford, 1997. The bottom-up experience of state formation in early modern Europe.

Bonnell, Victoria. Roots of Rebellion: Workers' Politics and Organizations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900–1914. Berkeley, Calif., 1983. Bonnell establishes the importance of trade unions, artisans, and skilled workers, thus increasing the similarity between Russian and western European workers' collective action.

Charlesworth, Andrew, et al., eds. An Atlas of Industrial Protest in Britain 1750–1990. London, 1996. Historically informed mapping of workers' collective action and strike activity.

Dekker, Rudolf. Holland in beroering: Oproeren in de 17de en 18de Eeuw. Baarn, Netherlands, 1982. Careful documentation of rebellious activity in Holland before 1800.

Deneckere, Gita. Sire, het volk mort: Sociaal protest in België, 1831–1918. Antwerp, Belgium, 1997. Similar in conception to Dekker's study, but concentrating on work-related conflicts in Belgium.

Franzosi, Roberto. The Puzzle of Strikes: Class and State Strategies in Postwar Italy. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. Perhaps the most successful marriage of econometric analysis and historical treatment of industrial conflict ever consummated.

Goldstone, Jack A. Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. Berkeley, Calif., 1991. Sweeping comparison and connection of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century revolutions, with glances forward to our own time.

Hanagan, Michael P., Leslie Page Moch, Wayne te Brake, eds. Challenging Authority:The Historical Study of Contentious Politics. Minneapolis, Minn., 1998. What happens when scholars take time, place, and social process seriously.

Honacker, Karin, van. Lokaal Verzet en Oproer in de 17de en 18de Eeuw: CollectieveActies tegen het centraal gezag in Brussel, Antwerpen, en Leuven. Heule, Belgium, 1994. Popular collective action in cities of the southern Netherlands during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, closely documented.

Jarman, Neil. Material Conflicts: Parades and Visual Displays in Northern Ireland. Oxford, 1997. How competing militants have acted out their claims to priority since the seventeenth century.

Koenker, Diane P., and William G. Rosenberg. Strikes and Revolution in Russia,1917. Princeton, N.J., 1989. Built around a statistical collection, the book provides a detailed history of workers' collective action during a revolutionary year.

Levi, Margaret. Consent, Dissent, and Patriotism. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. How senses of a regime's fairness or unfairness affect citizens' collaboration with military conscription.

Lis, Catharina, Jan Lucassen, and Hugo Soly, eds. "Before the Unions: Wage Earners and Collective Action in Europe, 1300–1850." International Review of Social History 39 (1994), supplement 2, entire issue. Journeymen associations, seamen's organizations, miners, and much more.

Nicolas, Jean, ed. Mouvements populaires et conscience sociale, XVIe–XIXe siècles. Paris, 1985. Sixty-three reports of work in progress on popular contention, mainly in France.

Olzak, Susan. "Analysis of Events in the Study of Collective Action." Annual Review of Sociology 15 (1989): 119–141.

Ostrom, Elinor. "A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action." American Political Science Review 92 (1998): 1–22. Compact, if complex, introduction to general theories and methods.

Palmer, R. R. The Age of the Democratic Revolution. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1959–1964. A classic synthesis.

Rucht, Dieter, Ruud Koopmans, Friedhelm Neidhardt, eds. Acts of Dissent: NewDevelopments in the Study of Protest. Berlin, 1998. "New developments" refer especially to methodological and conceptual innovations.

Tarrow, Sidney. Power in Movement. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1998. Powerful synthesis of ideas and materials concerning social movements and related forms of collective contention.

te Brake, Wayne. Regents and Rebels: The Revolutionary World of the Eighteenth-Century Dutch City. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.Another eighteenth-century revolution, less well known than its French cousin, firmly seated on its social base.

te Brake, Wayne. Shaping History: Ordinary People in European Politics, 1500–1700. Berkeley, Calif., 1998. Synthetic, sweeping, smart analysis of regional and social variation.

Tilly, Charles. Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758–1834. Cambridge, Mass., 1995. Analysis of social change and collective action centering on a large catalog of contentious episodes.

Traugott, Mark, ed. Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action. Durham, N.C., 1995. Theoretically informed analyses, both historical and contemporary.

Collective Action Games

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Collective Action Games


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


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

Collective Action

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Collective Action


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


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

collective action

views updated May 14 2018

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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