The Logic of Expressive Collective Action: When will Individuals ‘Nail their Colours to the Mast’?

AuthorPhilip Jones
Publication Date01 Nov 2007
The Logic of Expressive Collective
Action: When will Individuals
‘Nail their Colours to the Mast’?
Philip Jones
Individuals do not act collectively simply because they recognise common interests; collective interests
can be def‌ined as collective goods and collective goods are non-excludable. In ‘large’ groups
instrumental individuals have no incentive to act because individual action is imperceptible. But
are individuals always this instrumental? If it is a mistake to assume that collective action occurs
‘naturally’ when common interests are recognised, it is a mistake to ignore awareness of common
interests. Individuals derive satisfaction from expressing identity with common interests but when
will individuals choose to ‘nail their colours to the mast’?
Keywords: expressive; instrumental; collective action
Mancur Olson (1965) rejected the supposition that awareness of common interests
is suff‌icient to explain collective action. He predicted that a member of a ‘large’
group would not voluntarily support an association even if the association had the
potential to advance a group’s common interests (e.g. by lobbying for legislative
change). Each member of the group would recognise that a common goal is freely
available; benef‌its derived from collective action are not contingent on providing
support. Contribution to an association is tantamount to revealing demand for a
collective good. A collective good is non-rival in consumption and non-excludable;
consumption by one individual does not reduce availability to others. If it is
irrational to reveal demand for a non-excludable good, why incur costs to support
an association? The dominant strategy is to free-ride but if all behave ‘rationally’
nothing is achieved (there is no free ride).
Olson’s analysis does not rely on the assumption that individuals are self-interested.
‘Even if the member of a large group were to neglect his own interests entirely, he
still would not rationally contribute toward the provision of any collective or public
good since his own contribution would not be perceptible’ (Olson 1965, 64). The
critical assumption is that behaviour is instrumental (to change outcome). Why act
if action ‘would not be perceptible’? Olson’s distinction between ‘small’ and ‘large’
groups is premised on this consideration. In large groups individual action is
imperceptible; in small groups individual action can exert an impact on outcome
(Buchanan 1968). Members of a small group might act collectively but large groups
remain ‘latent’ (Olson 1965).
While Olson distinguished between ‘market groups’ and ‘non-market groups’ (e.g.
between f‌irms acting as cartels and groups pressing for legislative change to advan-
doi: 10.1111/j.1467-856x.2006.00262.x BJPIR: 2007 VOL 9, 564–581
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 Political Studies Association
tage the community as a whole), the focus was on instrumental motivation. Patrick
Dunleavy (1991, 77) suggests that associations can be structured to increase per-
ceptions that individual action might be signif‌icant. ‘Size manipulation’ is possible
if inf‌luence exerted in a small subset of the association would imply inf‌luence in the
association as a whole. Again the emphasis is on action to change outcome. But
surely motivation depends on more than ability to inf‌luence outcome? The archi-
tects of utility theory identif‌ied many sources of utility but ‘the evolution of the
utility concept during our century has been characterised by a progressive stripping
away of psychology’ (Lowenstein 1999, 315). Bentham (1948 [1789]) argued that
utility is derived from action, quite apart from outcome contingent on action. Is it
really suff‌icient to assume that the only motivation to act is to change outcome?
There is already more than a hint of another dimension. Collective action is far
more prevalent than predicted (Johansen 1977; Ledyard 1995); empirical studies
insist that perceptions of the intrinsic value of action are relevant (e.g. Andreoni
1988 and 2001; Frey 1997). An individual is ‘intrinsically motivated to perform an
activity when one receives no apparent reward except the activity itself’ (Deci 1971,
105). Olson focused on action as an ‘investment’ (to change outcome). What if
individuals also derive ‘consumption’ from action (Lee 1988)?
Intrinsic value is derived in different ways. Individuals may feel better about
themselves if they act with dignity. Self-esteem might depend on the signal emitted
(to oneself and to others). In behavioural experiments, individuals derive a ‘warm
glow’ from philanthropic action (Andreoni 1988 and 2001). Action can also yield
intrinsic interest; ‘the difference between liking and disliking work may well be
more important’ than remuneration (Scitovsky 1976, 103). While all sources of
intrinsic value are relevant the focus in this article falls on action to express identity.
The ‘term identity is used to describe a person’s social category’ (Akerlof and
Kranton 2005, 12, emphasis original). Individuals choose action that creates iden-
tity; John Wallis (2003, 227) notes that ‘people def‌ine who they are in terms of the
people they interact with and how they interact’. Even when identity is preor-
dained (e.g. by race, nationality, etc.) individuals still choose whether to emphasise
identity. George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton (2005, 12) argue that ‘[i]n a model of
utility ... a person’s identity describes gains and losses in utility from behaviour that
conforms or departs from the norms for particular social categories in particular
To explain collective action as a predilection to act collectively ‘explains everything
merely by re-describing it’ (Barry 1970, 33). Olson’s lesson is well taken; his
critique of existing explanations (e.g. by Bentley 1908; Truman 1951) reveals that
individuals do not act collectively just ‘because they [have] similar feelings and
ideals’ (Dougherty 2003, 29). There is a distinction between common interests and
individual interests. Individuals might be aware of common interests but have no
incentive to act to express identity with common interests. Individuals might derive
utility from action that signals identity with common interests but remain unwilling
to incur the costs. But, does this imply that awareness of common interests should
simply be ignored? If it is a mistake to ‘explain’ action as recognition of common
interests, it is a mistake to ignore awareness of common interests. Individuals derive
intrinsic value from expressing identity with common interests. The challenge is to
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 Political Studies Association
BJPIR, 2007, 9(4)

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