Debates on institutions for collective acton in general

What is the effect of community homogeneity on institutions for collective action?



At first glance, the relationship between homogeneity and cooperation seems pretty obvious. If all individuals within a community – or, at least, most of them – share common economic, social or cultural traits, high levels of collective action intuitively appear as an evident outcome. Several scholars (Ostrom and Poteete 2004; Fearon and Laitin 1996) have acknowledged this point. According to them, the subsequent higher number of interactions between individuals and, therefore, the higher levels of trust would come to explain the existence of a positive relationship between homogenous communities and pursuance of common goals.


Both empirical studies and theoretical developments have come, eventually, to challenge this apparently uncontroversial assumption. For example, the works by Varughese (1999) and Gautam (2002) on forest communities in Nepal, within the efforts of the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) Research Program, cast serious doubts on the detrimental effects of community heterogeneity in collective forest management. According to these scholars, socio-cultural heterogeneity (measured as the proportion of members of a user group from different castes and ethnic groups) or individuals’ locational differences (measured as the distance to the forest from users’ households) would not have had any significant impact either on the level of collective action (organisation of group activities, monitoring forest use, enforcing restrictions on harvesting) or on forest conditions. Moreover, according to Varughese (1999), heterogeneity seems to be taken into account by the institutional configuration of these communities: once having realized that substantial heterogeneity could threaten collective action, communities themselves would have minimised this threat by designing and implementing specific rules.


In the theoretical front, the beneficial effects of heterogeneity have also been highlighted. Oliver and Marwell (1988) consider that, contrasting with the seminal Olson’s insights (Olson 1965), the larger the group, the higher the probability of the provision of a collective good. Since a larger group may exhibit higher economic heterogeneity (differences in wealth, income, purchasing power) among its members, the number of contributors both willing and able to contribute to the provision of the good may be also higher. When the collective good presents large fixed costs, this means that the number of people necessary to provide it will be lower. According to these authors, then, the more heterogeneous a group is, the lower the ‘critical mass’ or ‘efficacious group size’ and, eventually, the higher the probability of successful collective action.


All these recent developments have eventually forced scholars to question the age-old independent, linear relationship between homogeneity and collective action. As Ostrom and Poteete (2004) pointed out, the new insights offer us a relationship which is both contigent and non-linear. The radical importance of the context, the different forms of the collective dilemmas, and the mediating role of institutions make now the link between homogenous communities and higher levels of collective actions much less clear than before: 'How size and homogeneity affect predictability of social interactions and the distribution of interests appears to be contextually driven' (Ostrom and Poteete 2004, 453).



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