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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 individual’s 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 defection—is 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.
- 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.
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