collective Action

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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 rational choice 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.

Subjects: Sociology — Economic History.

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