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Part 4: Society, Identity, and Culture Why is collective action a problem according to Mancur Olson?

Explore how research on political culture and social movements challenges his view.

Jacob Abeyta March 31, 2010 SIS 672

Introduction The economist Mancur Olson argued in 1965 that collective action is hindered by the free rider problem. He claimed that rational, self-interested individuals will not act in their common interests, in particular because they have incentives not to take action in cases where two conditions are met: (1) an individual cannot reasonably be kept from consuming a good made available by the efforts of others; and (2) an individuals ability to consume the good in question is not affected by (and does not affect) others consumption of the good. Olson asserted that the free rider problem becomes worse as group size increases, since voluntary compliance concomitantly becomes harder to obtain. He maintained that coercion, select incentives available only to active participants, and minimizing group size was necessary in order to resolve the free rider problem (LeVan 2010). Research on political culture1 and social movements2 challenges Olsons view.3 Olson employed rational choice analysis; his collective action theory posited a world inhabited by essentially autonomous, rational, utility-maximizing individuals. He assumed a single logic of formal rationality. Yet, as Ross (2009) notes, [c]ulture violates canons of methodological individualism.In cultural analyses, for example, interests are contextually and intersubjectively defined and the strategies used to pursue them are context dependent (135-136). Research on social movementsand their manifest impact on the 1960s as a decadeleads McAdam et. al. (2009) to observe that Olsons theory, based as it is on ahistorical deductions (269) and
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Ross (2009) observes that Traditional approaches define political culture in terms of attitudes and values, whereas more contemporary approaches view culture in terms of scenarios and discourses (137). 2 McAdam et. al. (2009) define social movements as sustained challenges to power holders in the name of a population living under the jurisdiction of those power holders by means of concerted displays of that populations worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment (277-278). This essay employs their definition, which entails that 3 Ross (2009) maintains that the effects of culture on collective action and political life are generally indirect, and to fully appreciate the role of culture in political life, it is necessary to inquire how culture interacts with, shapes, and is shaped by interests and institutions (134). McAdam et. al. seem to me to generally agree with this proposition.

materialism, seems to dismiss the possibility of immaterial incentives for mobilization, while simultaneously ignoring institutional contexts, historical traditions, and interactions among actors (Ibid.). This essay examines first how research on political culture stressing (1) primordialist identity and (2) civil society in connection with American democracy challenges Olsons view, before exploring second how research on social movementswhich, as we shall see, incorporates insights from the study of political culturedoes likewise. The conclusion provides a summary of the essays salient points as well as implications for our conception of the free rider problem and collective action. Political Culture
Culture links individual and collective identities. Culture offers emotionally significant connections Individual and collection [sic?] action, this view suggests, are motivated, in part, by the sense of a common fate people in a culture share Culture defines group boundaries and organizes actions within and between them (Ross 2009, 139).

Some social scientists have stressed primordialismidentity stemming from givens such as blood, kin, being born into particular languages or communitiesas a motivation for collective action, particularly in societies experiencing modernization. This general thesis contradicts Olsons assumptions of material utility-maximization, and that collective action necessarily becomes more difficult as group size increases. Primordialist motivations are based on identity; and material incentives, largely associated with modernity and individuals lives may be purposefully imperiled or sacrificed in their name. Collective action on account of primordialism may even imply that voluntary compliance (and fervor) increases with group
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size. The anthropologist Geertz (1973) argued that the development of civil society4 in postcolonial new states, was (and often still is) problematic because considered as societies, the new states are abnormally susceptible to serious disaffection based on primordial attachments (259).5 Primordial attachments were awakened in these fledgling nation-states, he asserted, by peoples psychic longing for a secure identity as autonomous personsbased, paradoxically, on collective attachments or affinity. He believed that groups resisted consolidation under a single national identity out of a yearning for recognition.6 The political scientist Huntingtons (1993) clash of civilizations thesis asserts that the world could be divided into roughly seven or eight distinct civilizations7 that are different in basic ways, including political culture.8 As the world becomes smaller and modernizes, he suggests, nation-states lose the allegiance of their citizens, civilizational identities will become more pronounced (via the revival of religion, particularly), and inter-civilizational conflict (notably between the West and the rest) will increase (84-86). Huntington holds that civilizational loyalty increasingly is the principal basis for cooperation and coalitions among groups and states, replacing even traditional, more structural-materialist considerations like the balance-of-

Civil society is the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated (LSE 2004). 5 Geertz notes that that these include assumed blood ties, race, language, region, religion and custom (261). 6 Geertz explains that it is a desire for recognition as responsible agents whose wishes, acts, hopes, and opinions matter (258). We should note here also, however, that the perception of political exclusion and/or domination also is held responsible for such disaffection . 7 Huntington defines a civilization as the highest cultural grouping of peopledefined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people (85). 8 Huntington subscribes to a seemingly outmoded, monolithic view of culture as basic values and beliefs (92).

power (91).9 He maintains that shared, identity-based (psychological and emotional) commitments lead people to make common causes, particularly in war, including internationally. Civil Society De Tocqueville (1945) and Putnam (1995) argue that historically contingent political culture qua civil society largely explains, via socialization and the associated cultivation of mutual trust and values (or lack thereof), both the solutions and problems of collective action in connection with American democracy. Their scholarship contradicts Olsons ahistorical, egoistic theory by emphasizing historically contingent political culture and social bonds. In his nineteenth century study, De Tocqueville posited that mores and beliefs facilitated and tempered democracy in America by way of a then vibrant civil society. He attributed Americans remarkable egalitarianism and affinity for voluntary associational life to their countrys lack of a legacy of feudalism and a landed aristocracy, such as existed in France, where democracy was dangerously excited. De Tocqueville further underlined the role of religion in engendering, via the associational benefits of church life (and Christian doctrine, it seems), habits of the heart conducive to the collective action and the provision of public goods that democracy seems to require (LeVan 2010). Echoing De Tocqueville, Putnam argued more recently that it is social capitalfeatures of social lifenetworks, norms, and trust--that enables participants to act together more effectively to pursue their shared objectives (1995, 171). He suggests that a decline in trust and solidarity amongst Americans may be due to a decline in civic engagement and voluntary associational lifeincluding precipitous falls rates of church attendance (1995,
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Contra Huntington, Ajami (1993) argued that primordial, civilizational attachments probably will not mobilize people as Huntington proposes. To wit, civilizations are not nearly as unified and coherent as Huntington suggests, and individuals in the developing world likely will opt for the material trappings of modernity and secularism (97101); they want Sony, not soil (99). We can note here that Posners (2004) research convincingly shows that structural factorsnot primordialist considerationsmay at times be determinative of the political salience of ethnicity. Nevertheless, the purpose of the present essay is only to explain how Olsons arguments are challenged by our literature on political culture and social movements.

171). Putnam and De Tocquevilles appreciation of historically contingent political culture in connection with capacities for collective action is evident in recent research on social movements, the subject to which we now turn. Social Movements
Different conjunctions of regimes, political opportunity structures, and repertoires underlie differences [in the form and frequency of social movements] (McAdam et. al. 2009, 278).

McAdam et. al., argue that collective action qua social movements is influenced, if not determined, by regime capability and the extent of democracy, as well as by the unique histories and cultures of different regimes (278-279).10 They agree with Olson that material incentives are important, and perhaps necessary, for collective political action, yet they use culturalist insights to build an integrated framework to study how structural-material factors are interpreted intersubjectively, principally as opportunities or threats, in an effort to explain the nature of social movements. The authors explain that with shifts in the political environment, dynamically and contingently constituted groups11 coalesce and articulate claims via culturally available intersubjective interpretive frames. The groups then draw on culturally provided, and largely government-structure-delimited, repertoires in order to make concerted public performances12 in pursuit of their goals. With these elements of McAdam et. al.s framework in hand, we see how nationalism a la Hobsbawm (1962) burst into existence: increasing literacy among European
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The authors observe, for instance, that revolutions occur more frequently in authoritarian regimes with high capacity governments, whereas civil wars are more common in regimes with medium to low capacity governments. Similarly, elections have served in the West as cultural focal points for the proliferation of special-purpose associations (Ibid.). 11 McAdam et. al., write that, Collective identity formation, in other words, is relational (264). This formulation clearly implies that identities are not static. Indeed, Interaction matters because it builds on, establishes, and transforms relations among political actors (261). 12 These include marches, rallies, demonstrations, public meetings, petitions, etc. (Ibid., 278). Note that these performances are learned, shared behaviors that depend on intersubjective cultural understandings. If necessary, see fn. 2 for the authors analytically precise definition of social movements.

middle-classes (a structural factor) gave them a new consciousness of themselves as a group (71)the frame of an imagined [national] community (Anderson 1990)with which to mobilize and make claims on their governments (literally), which at the time it seems were becoming more open to new actors (an important element of the political opportunity structure). Conclusion Olsons theory of collective action flagged the potential for a free rider problem in connection with the provision of non-excludable and non-rival public goods. As McAdam et. al. (2009) explain, [He] argued that rational people guided by individual interest, might very well avoid taking action when they see that others are willing to act on their behalf (268). He maintained that collective action thus becomes more difficult in larger groups, and he prescribed coercion, select incentives, and minimization of group size. As we have observed, research on political culture and social movements challenges his view. Primordialist arguments posit that social-psychological needs or concerns(collective-) identity and recognition, and emotions more generallymay motivate people to mobilize in masse, often sacrificing material incentives, or the potential for them in connection with modernizationor even their own lives. Nationalist movements, like movements perhaps spawned by primordialism, need not depend on select incentives or coercion for collective action, and voluntary compliance often seems to increase with group size.13 Studies of civil society and democracy in America stress that the strength of social bonds, rather than cold strategic calculations, largely determines the extent of collective action therein. Research on social movements more generally emphasizes how culture, especially as intersubjective meanings, and historical traditions and institutional contexts influenceand often facilitate-collective action. In closing, I would argue that Olsons free
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Particularly, for instance, as movements are born and initially rise.

rider problem is potentially a real concern; some people it seems almost inevitably will shirk. But his theory basically posits coldly calculating, autonomous individuals in some static, presumably universal structural and institutional context. As I hope this essay has shown, research argues that we humans and our social-institutional world are far more complex than that; indeed, to an extent that makes his theory of limited use for our conception of collective action. And this appears to be why his theory cannot account for social movements such as those of the 1960s (see McAdam et. al. 2009), or, according to De Tocqueville, a well-functioning democracywhich, it can be argued, is a public good in its own right; and may be our best known mechanism for their provision generally.

Works Cited Ajami, Fouad. 1993. The Summoning. in Essential Readings in Comparative Politics, 3rd. ed. eds. Patrick H. ONeil and Ronald Rogowski. New York and London: W.W. Norton.
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De Tocqueville, Alexis. 1945. Authors Introduction. in Essential Readings in Comparative Politics, 3rd. ed. eds. Patrick H. ONeil and Ronald Rogowski. New York and London: W.W. Norton. Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Integrative Revolution. In Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books: 255-79; 306-10. Hobsbawm, Eric. 1962. Nationalism. in Essential Readings in Comparative Politics, 3rd. ed. eds. Patrick H. ONeil and Ronald Rogowski. New York and London: W.W. Norton. Huntington, Samuel. 1993. The Clash of Civiizations? in Essential Readings in Comparative Politics, 3rd. ed. eds. Patrick H. ONeil and Ronald Rogowski. New York and London: W.W. Norton. LeVan, Carl. 2010. Civil Society and Social Movements. Slides for SIS 672. LSE Centre for Civil Society. 2004. What is Civil Society? Available at http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/CCS/what_is_civil_society.htm. Accessed March 30, 2010. McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly. 2009. Comparative Perspectives on Contentious Politics. in Comparative Politics, eds. Mark Irving Lichbach and Alan S. Zuckerman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Posner, Daniel. 2004. The Political Salience of Cultural Difference: Why Chewas and Tunbukas are Allies in Zambia and Adversaries in Malawi. American Political Science Review 98 (November): 529-545. Putnam, Robert. 1995. Turning In, Tuning Out. in Essential Readings in Comparative Politics, 3rd. ed. eds. Patrick H. ONeil and Ronald Rogowski. New York and London: W.W. Norton. Ross, Marc Howard. 2009. Culture in Comparative Political Analysis. in Comparative Politics, eds. Mark Irving Lichbach and Alan S. Zuckerman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.