Debates on institutions for collective action in general

Was Europe’s development of institutions for collective action from the Late Middle ages onwards exceptional?


Recent research indicates that the degree to which Western Europe from the twelfth century onwards (in the wake of the 'legal revolution' of the eleventh-twelfth centuries, Berman, 1983) developed and used the concept of 'a corporate body' (universitas), clearly differed from other parts of Eurasia. There similar concepts and corporatist forms of collective action did not emerge, or the concepts concerned (e.g. the Waqf in the Islamic Middle East) did not have the same kind of flexibility and popularity (Kuran, 2001). De Moor (2006) demonstrates that there were many similarities in the institutional design of various forms of  collective action that started to emerge in town and countryside to a previously unknown extent and intensity in North-Western Europe from the late middle ages onwards. Hypothetically, a combination of factors such as weak family ties, decentralised and weak stately powers and developing labour markets made this 'silent revolution' in North-Western Europe possible (De Moor, 2006 and De Moor and Van Zanden, 2006). See also: 'Conditions for collective action'.

Since the publication of The Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz in 2000, the question why Europe, and in particular the North Sea-region, has been the first to industrialise, and why others such as China or Japan  began to lag behind from the late eighteenth century onwards, has inspired a lot of new and exciting research. Building on earlier results, some economic historians have argued that already many centuries before the Industrial Revolution Europe had started on a very specific trajectory of socio-economic development (Jones, 1987; Landes, 1998; Maddison, 2001; Van Zanden, 2009). One important set of institutions that arguably set Europe apart from other parts of Eurasia, concerns institutions for collective action. The projects linked to this website start from the assumption that the development of institutions for collective action during the Middle Ages has contributed much to the creation of an institutional infrastructure that became characteristic for Western European societies and, in particular, their economies.

This hypothesis is amongst others based on recent work by Avner Greif, who has suggested how the formation of merchant guilds in the late Middle Ages could become a distinguishing moment in European economic development, because guilds underpinned a ‘community responsibility system’ (Greif, 2006b). Merchant guilds helped to overcome impediments of trade during a time of quasi anarchy. Political scientists and sociologists like Elinor Ostrom (Ostrom, 1990) have tried to unravel how institutions for collective action like rural commons have managed to survive over the long run. These two lines of research have so far interacted very little.

Related to studies by Ostrom and Greif, European-wide and global comparisons have suggested that Europe since the late Middle Ages experienced a bottom-up movement of new collective action institutions. With a previously unknown intensity Europeans created social ‘alliances’ not primarily based on kinship, but on other common characteristics such as occupation or domicile. In the urban context, organisations such as craft guilds and fraternities can serve as examples (Reynolds, 2002).

For the countryside, most attention has gone to the communes (Blickle, 2000). It is not so much the actual formation of such types of collective action that is striking. Rather, it is the high density of the new collective action institutions that sets Europe apart from other continents. This ‘silent revolution’ was a bottom-up phenomenon, wherein large numbers of ‘ordinary people’ participated (De Moor, 2008). The movement was primarily based on at first tacit, and later written agreements between princes and their subjects. Most of these agreements were the outcome of peaceful negotiations. Whereas much of the historiography of collective action focuses primarily on short-term demands for change in the form of riots, this proposal draws the attention to the more institutionalised and routine forms of collective action, and thus expands the application of ‘collective action’ as a tool for socio-economic analysis.



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