Collective Action

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Concept description

Wikipedia defines collective action as “action taken together by a group of people whose goal is to enhance their status and achieve a common objective.”

Encyclopedia Britannica (reference below) elaborates on this foundation and poses some of the problems of collective action that have preoccupied sociologists and policy professionals:

“Collective action occurs when a number of people work together to achieve some common objective. However, it has long been recognized that individuals often fail to work together to achieve some group goal or common good. The origin of that problem is the fact that, while each individual in any given group may share common interests with every other member, each also has conflicting interests. If taking part in a collective action is costly, then people would sooner not have to take part. If they believe that the collective act will occur without their individual contributions, then they may try to free ride.

“The problems of collective action were popularized by the American political economist Mancur Olson, who wrote in 1965 that coercion or some other device must be present in order for a group of individuals to act in their common interest. Olson suggested that collective action problems were solved in large groups by the use of selective incentives. These selective incentives might be extra rewards contingent upon taking part in the action or penalties imposed on those who do not. However, in order for positive selective incentives to work, individuals who take part in collective action must be identified; and for negative selective incentives, those who do not take part must be identified. Either way, a good deal of organization is required.

“One aspect of the collective action problem is that posed by collective or public goods. A collective good is one that is economically infeasible to exclude people from using. Hence, if a collective good – such as collective wage bargaining for an industry – is provided by an organization such as a trade union, then the fruits of that bargaining will be enjoyed by all workers, not only the trade unionists. Other workers in the industry who gain the wage increases and better working conditions provided by that bargaining will not have to pay the union dues and will free ride upon the activities of the union. In order to encourage workers to join unions, most also provide a whole host of private excludable services, such as legal advice and help during individual disputes with employers, pension schemes, holiday deals, and other such activities. Of course, setting up a union in the first place is also a collective act, and Olson suggested that setting up such organizations requires the activities of entrepreneurs who also see private benefits (such as paid employment or a political career) from forming the union in the first place. Of course, altruistic individuals may also play a part in collective action.”


Wikipedia, Collective action, at, accessed 25 August 2018.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Collective action problem, at, accessed 25 August 2018.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Interests and the Policy Process (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101.

Page created by: Alec Wreford, last modified by Ian Clark on 25 August 2018.

Image:, at ICYMI: Congress’ Collective Action Problem and Shortage of Legal Brains, Illustration credit:, accessed 25 August 2018.