Debates on institutions for collective action in general

What role do institutions for collective action play in social capital formation?


Interest in flowering of ‘ bodies’ in western Europe since the eleventh and twelfth centuries has also been growing as a result of new insights from the social sciences. This is linked to the concept of 'social capital', developed by Robert Putnam in his seminal  'Making Democracy Work' (Putnam, 1993). He suggested a strong link between the medieval presence of guilds and communes and social capital formation in the long run. Where, in the North of Italy, these  bodies emerged during the Middle Ages, he sees a tradition of high levels of social capital continuing into the twentieth century. By contrast, the South did not participate in the corporatist movement of the Middle Ages, and in his view still lacks the social capital that makes a democracy work.

One of the reasons for hypothesizing about these relationships is that  bodies are in principle governed by the members themselves, through meetings, elections, councils, and forms of delegated authority (that is, delegated from below), and therefore act as schools for ‘democratic’ skills and rules. Moreover, these organisations also formed the institutional infrastructure for collective action by interest groups such as merchants (who dominated the communes and often had their own guilds), craftsmen, peasants, journeymen and other social groups.

The emergence of a variety of forms of collective action during the late Middle Ages and in the Low Countries (see De Moor, 2006) suggests that this kind of collective action may have been essential for the advanced political and economic development of Europe, in particular in the northwest part of Europe. Other forms of organisations, such as the trade-unions and cooperatives, might also be linked to the above debate, in order to refine and develop these arguments.


See also the website of the IUAP-project.



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