University of Gothenburg
Professor Will Steffen, The Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre, holds a lecture with the title "The Anthropocene: Challenges for Collective Action".
Photo: Johan Wingborg

Research Agenda and Research Themes

The overarching question guiding CeCAR is simple: Under which conditions does successful Large Scale Collective Action (LSCA) occur? To address this question, it is not possible to rely exclusively on previous research primarily occupied with small-scale collective action. These studies correspond poorly with situations where the number of actors is large and where several types of actors, ranging from consumers to nations, organizations and firms, are involved.

Small-scale collective action

Research on small-scale collective action holds that users of a common pool resource can overcome collective action problems, typically by setting up self-governed regulatory systems. Key to these systems is a number of factors that are not present in large-scale settings, for example a small number of resource users, opportunities for face-to-face communication, repeated interactions, and information about other actors’ compliance with the governance system.

Large-scale settings

In large-scale settings, the underlying conditions are thus very different. For example, agreement and enforcement will be more difficult with a large number of participants; cultural diversity makes it less likely that one can find shared interests and understanding; and the requirement of unanimous agreement in international treaties restricts the types of policies that can be adopted, because national governments can hold out for special privileges. From this list of differences, we can already identify a number of factors that may affect prospects for successful LSCA.

Voluntary and regulated collective action

In those large-scale contexts, it is also important to distinguish between voluntary and regulated collective action. Voluntary collective action implies action without coercion from a third party (for example a state or some other formal authority) and is something that constantly occurs in small-scale contexts. However, since larger groups of rational and self-interested actors will seldom voluntarily cooperate “without coercion or some other special device” in place, a third party typically needs to be introduced to develop measures aimed at creating collective action through the introduction of policies and policy instruments or through active support of coordination. Whether or not any such regulated collective action will emerge depends on the degree to which the involved actors comply with these policies and actions. Thus, due to the apparent risk of free-riding behaviour, compliance with policies should also be seen as a type of collective action.


1. What factors determine successful voluntary LSCA?

2. How do these factors interact and what is the effect of such interactions on voluntary LSCA?

3. What factors determine successful regulated LSCA, for example compliance with policies?

4. How do these factors interact and what is the interaction effect on regulated LSCA?

Research themes

We have identified a set of factors that research suggests may affect actors’ propensity for both voluntary and regulated Large Scale Collective Action (LSCA). We have divided these factors into five groups.

Large-scale coordination problems differ in many respects, for example with regard to the nature of the good, who will be affected when cooperation does not occur, and also the awareness of the problem.

A theory of successful LSCA needs to take these various differences into account, something that is rarely done in current research. Examples of relevant factors are the degree of excludability and rivalry, resource dependence, the number of actors and types of actors, the magnitude of the coordination problem and the potential impact on society and prospects for substitutability. However, initially we will focus on the following three factors:

Awareness of the problem, which depends on a) scientific knowledge (including feedback) and b) successful communication of this knowledge

Who will be affected and when, for example will actors
themselves be affected if they fail to cooperate or will distant foreigners (geographical separation) or future generations (time lag) mainly be affected.

The severity of consequences in case of failure to cooperate (for example what are the estimated costs for the actors of adopting a cooperative behaviour, or of failing to cooperate).

The variety of actors potentially involved in LSCA is very large and includes nations, politicians, stakeholders, NGOs, resource users, consumers and firms. Clearly, the prospect of successful LSCA is dependent on the characteristics of these actors and the interactions among them. The characteristics of actors that facilitate successful small-scale collective action include small group sizes, clearly defined boundaries, shared norms, social capital, appropriate leadership and interdependence among group members.

As we have discussed, many of these prerequisites are not satisfied for global challenges. For example, the group size will by definition be large. This means that some of the other characteristics will be even more important. Therefore, a major task for the centre is to assess the importance of these and other factors or characteristics also for actors other than individuals, for example states, firms, and international organizations.

Here we only address a set of factors that we initially hypothesize to be important for successful LSCA, particularily among individuals. These are:

Trust. There are strong reasons to expect that political and institutional trust are important for shaping acceptance of policy measures that address highly complex and contested issues, such as CO2 emissions. In such cases, the public has to rely heavily on political elites and experts to accurately evaluate the need for, implementation of and enforcement of the policies.

Fairness. One important aspect of acceptance of policies is the perceived fairness of the policy, the best example perhaps being burden-sharing in relation to international climate agreements. Here, a major dilemma is how to distribute the responsibilities of reducing CO2 emissions among different countries with different levels of economic development. Another is to determine who should bear the costs.

Policy-specific beliefs. Attitude formation toward – and compliance with – a policy measure are dependent upon the perceived characteristics of the policy measure itself. Several attempts have therefore been made to incorporate policy-specific beliefs into models of environmental policy support, for example by capturing their effectiveness, effects on actors’ personal freedom and effects on actors’ personal outcome expectations.

Values. It is commonly argued that values, beliefs, and personal norms of behaviour (the VBN theory) are crucial determinants of both voluntary LSCA and policy support and compliance. The VBN theory is supported by a range of empirical evidence demonstrating how values-driven moral-normative concerns contribute significantly to the prediction of collective action.

Successful collective action is also determined by a variety of contextual factors, including social norms, political culture, economic development and third party characteristics (the latter being particularly important in the case of regulated LSCA).

These factors vary depending on which actor we have in mind; for example, a contextual factor affecting the behaviour of a firm or an individual, for example the presence of a corrupt government, may simultaneously be an actor-specific characteristic of a state. For states, contextual factors affecting their behaviour include, for example global markets, various types of international regimes, and the presence of a political authority beyond the state, for example the European Union. For individuals and firms, examples of contextual factors that will be included in the analyses are initially:

Type of political system. Research on actors’ cooperation behaviour, such as sustainable use of natural resources, usually distinguishes among different types of political systems (democratic vs. authoritarian rule). Yet, it is also crucial to take into account regime stability (for example, people are more likely to violate rules during periods of transition and consolidation) and the large variations within these systems (for instance, democracies vary in the degree of popular control).

Quality of the political system. While the “input” side of the political system concerns decision-making processes and access to public authority (for example participation and lobbying), the “output” side refers to the way in which authority is exercised and decisions are implemented (for example the degree of impartiality or corruption). For instance, people are less likely to obey regulations when corruption is widespread.

In short, there are many factors that have an impact on successful LSCA. Moreover, these factors interact in a number of different ways. For example, a corrupt political system decrease actors’ levels of institutional trust, which in turn decreases support for market-based instruments relative to command and control instruments. Another example is that perceived distributive fairness has been shown to affect cooperation, but people favour different distributive principles for private versus public goods. The section on synthesis and research strategy further elaborates on examples of interdependencies to be studied within the centre.

What is the nature and characteristics of large-scale collective action compared with collective action more in general and small-scale in particular?