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Conceptual work on the political origins of large-scale collective action

Research project

Short description

The overall objective of this project is to produce a conceptual paper on how to understand the origins of successful large-scale collective action.

First, the paper argues that although the conventional wisdom holds large-scale collective action to be a highly unlikely phenomenon, it is far more common than usually assumed. In fact, most interpersonal exchange and interaction occur under circumstances held to be inimical to collective action, yet coordination and cooperation are frequently sustained. While the standard prediction from collective-action theory would hold that human exchange primarily would take place on a face-to-face basis – and that contractual relations would be restricted to close friends and relatives – people’s networks of interdependence usually extend far beyond their immediate vicinity.

While acknowledging the severe challenges posed to the success of large-scale collective action, this paper hence focuses on the complex set of institutions that regularly lower uncertainty and shape and constrain human interaction, in turn facilitating large-scale collective action. Nobel laureate Douglass North has described this movement from personal to impersonal exchange – and its institutional underpinnings – as the essence of the process of economic development.

Second, the paper focuses on the emergence of this set of complex institutions. More specifically, the paper argues that the emergence of modern states and societies is in fact a story about collective action. More specifically, the displacement of tribal level of organization (where exchange and interaction are guided by kin or friendship) with state-level organization (characterized by impersonal exchange) should be seen as a move from small-scale collective action to institutional arrangements facilitating large-scale cooperation and coordination. Ideally, states and societies are hence vehicles for large-scale collective action. Yet, although many societies managed to craft states that could facilitate the transition from small-scale to large-scale collective action, most developing states still sorely lack such “infrastructural power” or the institutional capacity to implement their political objectives.

Third, this paper therefore sets out to address why some societies managed while others did not. How come some states are able to foster and sustain compliance and collective action while others have proven incapable of performing virtually every virtuous task that modern states ostensibly exist to fulfill? In many cases, these states have even failed to develop and coordinate the kind of coercive apparatus necessary to lay effective claim to what Max Weber considered the defining trait of stateness – a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.

Researcher (länkas till ny katalog)

Martin Sjöstedt, Department of Political Science