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Collective action is the pursuit of a goal or set of goals by more than one person. It is a term which has formulations and theories in many areas of the social sciences.
As an explanation of social movements, an inquiry into collective action involves examining those factors that cause the setting of standards of social integration, as well as those factors which lead to standards of deviance and conflict. An explanation of a collective action in sociology will involve the explanation of those things which are similar or dissimilar to collective actions at different times and in different places. Theories of collective action emphasise how group behavior can, in some sense, be linked to social institutions.
In political science and economics
The economic theory of collective action is concerned with the provision of public goods (and other collective consumption) through the collaboration of two or more individuals, and the impact of externalities on group behavior. It is more commonly referred to as Public Choice. The foundational work in collective action in the economic sense was Mancur Olson's 1965 book The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups.
The theory explores the market failures where individual consumer rationality and firms' profit-seeking do not lead to efficient provision of the public goods, i.e. where another level of provision would provide a higher utility at a lower cost.
Note, however, that the theory is not necessarily a challenge to the invisible hand principle of Adam Smith. It only limits the domain in which that principle applies: for purely private goods in ideal competitive markets, the pursuit of self-interest is still efficient.
Exploitation of the great by the small
Mancur Olson made the highly controversial claim that individual rational choice leads to situations where individuals with more resources will carry a higher burden in the provision of the public good than poorer ones. Poorer individuals will usually have little choice but to opt for the free rider strategy, i.e. they will attempt to benefit from the public good without contributing to its provision. This also encourages the under-production (inefficient production) of the public good.
However, further theoretical analysis showed that this is not the case when individuals have widely-differing perceptions of the utility of the public good.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
While public goods are often provided by governments, this is not always the case. Various institutional designs have been studied with the aim of reducing the collaborative failure. The best design for a given situation depends on the production costs, the utility function, and the collaborative effects, amongst other things. Here are only some examples:
A joint-product model analyzes the collaborative effect of joining a private good to a public good. For example, a tax deduction (private good) can be tied to a donation to a charity (public good).
It can be shown that the provision of the public good increases when tied to the private good, as long as the private good is provided by a monopoly (otherwise the private good would be provided by competitors without the link to the public good).
If the costs of the exclusion mechanism are not higher than the gain from the collaboration, clubs can emerge. James M. Buchanan showed in his seminal paper that clubs can be an efficient alternative to government interventions.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Wikipedia is another example, where collaboration is fostered at the level of individual pages; this involves fewer participants than collaboration on the encyclopedia as a whole. Collaboration on wikibooks is more difficult for the same reason.
Over the past twenty years or so analytic philosophers have been exploring the nature of collective action in the sense of acting together, as when people paint a house together, go for a walk together, or together execute a pass play. These particular examples have been central for three of the philosophers who have made well known contributions to this literature:Michael Bratman, Margaret Gilbert, and John Searle, respectively.
In Gilbert(1989) and subsequent articles and book chapters including Gilbert (2006, chapter 7) Gilbert argues for an account of collective action according to which this rests on a special kind of interpersonal commitment, what Gilbert calls a "joint commitment". A joint commitment in Gilbert's sense is not a matter of a set of personal commitments independently created by each of the participants, as when each makes a personal decision to do something. Rather, it is a single commitment to whose creation each participant makes a contribution. Thus suppose that one person says "Shall we go for a walk?" and the other says "Yes, let's". Gilbert proposes that as a result of this exchange the parties are jointly committed to go for a walk, and thereby obligated to one another to act as if they were parts of a single person taking a walk. Joint commitments can be created less explicitly and through processes that are more extended in time. One merit of a joint commitment account of collective action, in Gilbert's view, is that it explains the fact that those who are out on a walk together, for instance, understand that each of them is in a position to demand corrective action of the other if he or she acts in ways that affect negatively the completion of their walk. In Gilbert (2005) she discusses the pertinence of joint commitment to collective actions in the sense of the theory of rational choice.
In Searle (1990) Searle argues that what lies at the heart of a collective action is the presence in the mind of each participant of a "we-intention". Searle does not give an account of we-intentions or, as he also puts it, "collective intentionality", but insists that they are distinct from the "I-intentions" that animate the actions of persons acting alone.
In Bratman (1993) Bratman proposed that, roughly, two people "share an intention" to paint a house together when each intends that the house is painted by virtue of the activity of each, and also intends that it is so painted by virtue of the intention of each that it is so painted. That these conditions obtain must also be "common knowledge" between the participants.
Discussion in this area continues to expand, and has influenced discussions in other disciplines including anthropology, developmental psychology, and economics. One general question is whether it is necessary to think in terms that go beyond the personal intentions of individual human beings properly to characterize what it is to act together. Bratman's account does not go beyond such personal intentions. Gilbert's account, with its invocation of joint commitment, does go beyond them. Searle's account does also, with its invocation of collective intentionality. The question of whether and how one must account for the existence of mutual obligations when there is a collective intention is another of the issues in this area of inquiry.
- Prisoner's dilemma
- Pareto efficiency
- Nash equilibrium
- Tragedy of the Commons
- Common Property Resource
- Tragedy of the anticommons
- Mass collaboration
- Bratman, Michael (1993). 'Shared Intention'. Ethics.
- Gilbert, Margaret (1989). On Social Facts. Princeton University Press.
- Gilbert, Margaret (2005). 'Rationality in Collective Action'. Philosophy of the Social Sciences.
- Gilbert, Margaret (2006). A Theory of Political Obligation: Membership, Commitment, and the Bonds of Society, Oxford University Press.
- Hardin, Russell (1982). Collective Action. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore. ISBN 0-8018-2818-8
- Olson, Mancur (1971). The Logic of Collective Action. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-53751-3
- Ostrom, Elinor. (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.ISBN-13 978-0-521-40599-7
- Sandler Todd (1992) Collective action: Theory and applications. University of Michigan Press.
- Searle, John (1990). 'Collective Intentions and Actions'.
- Meinzen-Dick, R. and M. di Gregorio, eds. (2004) Collective Action and Property Rights for Sustainable Development. 2020 Focus No. 11. International Food Policy Research Institute: Washington, DC. http://www.ifpri.org/2020/focus/focus11.asp
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