Testing Collective Action Theory

  • Ronald A. Francisco


The goal of this book is to attempt to extend, expand and test empirically the implications of the Collective Action Research Program. This set of rational theories began with Mancur Olson (Olson 1965). It broke with the prevailing theory of pluralism, which posited that groups would form around the interests of citizens. Yet, empirical research showed that, instead of knitting, bird-watching, and classic auto clubs, 90% of the organizations comprised only labor and management. Clearly, pluralism was wrong. Olson put his creative thinking toward the process of mobilization. In other words, how would one recruitmembers of an interest group to lobby Congress? Olson thought through the problem systematically: first, it would be necessary to have a public good, that is, some goal that could not diminish with use and would be available to everyone in a region. Economists call these nonrival or noncompetitive goods. Examples of such objectives are clean air, defense, clean water, lower taxes, or more tax subsidies. Given that this is the case, a second conclusion is necessary: no particular person would have to participate to receive the public good. Thus, he reasoned, most people would not participate. And indeed, 95% of people do not participate (Lichbach 1995). These non-participants are called free-riders. They gain the benefit of a new public policy, but do nothing toward its implementation. This conclusion created yet another problem: how would one be able to recruit members to lobby? Given that success would benefit everyone in a class, the incentive to participate would necessarily be larger for active members. Olson (Olson 1965) called these selective incentives, special payments in favors, goods or money to active members that were unavailable to free-riders. Suddenly the empirical world of labor and management groups and the absence of bird-watching groups made sense: pluralism was wrong, but collective action theory worked. And this theory differed from its predecessors in a fundamental way: it assumed that people think. Structural models force people to act by conditions, but Olson focused on individuals.


Public Good Game Theory Collective Action Rational Choice Theoretical Implication 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dept. Political ScienceUniversity of KansasLawrenceUSA

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