Debates on institutions for Collective Action in general

How can we explain the emergence of institutions for collective action in Western Europe?



The more or less simultaneous emergence in North-Western Europe of commons and guilds and other forms of similar institutions must have common causes. In the medieval context, there are several reasons why these forms of collective action were often more advantageous than purely private and public solutions. To analyse this, we distinguish between motives, motors and conditions. Motors are here 'exogenous' elements of change that can lead to collective action, such as population growth or market development. But how people react to such dynamic changes depends to a great deal on the circumstances; these 'conditions' are political – the strength of the state, societal – the degree of openness in human relationships, and legal – the potential for legal recognition of bodies. The specific choice for these forms of collective action is based on an assessment of their advantages (and disadvantages), which we consider as 'motives'.


A. Motives for collective action – potential advantages

What are the motives for a group of people with a common, though basically not yet collective objective to choose for uniting forces and acting together in response to a social dilemma? If there is potential for collective action, if the ‘right’ circumstances are created, what would then convince them that it is worth investing in a joint effort? What could be their motives? I explicitly use the term 'motives' rather than ‘causes’ in relation to collective action, since I start from the premise that – at least in theory – there might have been other options to solve social dilemmas as well. I will discuss here the two most important and relevant motives for choosing for collective action: risk sharing and advantages of scale.


B. Motors of  collective action

Commons and guilds can both be considered as institutions founded with the objective of dealing with problems of collective action in order to profit from the advantages cooperation could offer (such as economies of scale, risk sharing, etc.). The reason for the fact that they are dealing with similar problems (at least in their abstract form) has to do with the similarities in the goods they are trying to protect. Both types of goods – large-scale vulnerable natural resources in the case of the commons and a common pool of knowledge and skills in the case of the guilds – have a rather low degree of excludability, meaning that it is hard to exclude others from using the good that is shared. The natural resources of commons are mostly too vast to be well delimited; the knowledge and skills of the guild members can also be considered as goods that can easily be copied and that are thus hard to exclude others from: once a guild member has shared his knowledge, it is very plausible that someone might share it with another person, who might not even be a guild member.

Guild members possessed a form of expert knowledge, which is quite different from knowledge in general, or "common knowledge". Protection of their knowledge was – at least in the eyes of the guild members – necessary, not exactly because their knowledge could be overexploited – like in the case of the natural resources – but because a more intensive use of their knowledge would basically overexploit the market they were producing for. In other words: the equivalent of the commodifiable goods on the common (such as grass, peat, wood and the agricultural produce that is the result of the use of the common) can be compared to the commodifiable goods as produced by the guild members. In both cases a higher production and consumption of the goods would have negative effects for the members of the corporation: the natural resources on the common would become overexploited, eventually disappear and thus also threaten the future of the common as an institution; the increasing production would in the cases of the guilds lead to lower prices of the goods, too much competition (at least, in the eyes of the guild members), and the eventual collapse of the institutional guild structure.


C. Conditions for collective action: weak families, tolerant states and legal recognition

One hypothesis for the conditions favourable for the choice of these institutions has been suggested by Michael Mitterauer, who in his 'Warum Europa. Mittelalterliche Grundlagen eines Sonderwegs' (2003) stresses the importance of the disappearance of family bonds as an explanatory factor for the so-called European "Sonderweg". This more 'open' form of social organization than systems based on kinship or tribal relations may have played a role in the development of collective action, and in particular the form. Whereas in societies based on strict family bonds (lineage), tribal structures or clans, there may not have been any "room" for the development of collective action. Anthony Black considers the European guilds as "artificial families", which is probably one of the best descriptions of the role played by guilds (Black, 1984). Maybe the term 'surrogate families' would stress the difference with other societies even better. A more explicit link between the development of new family relations as within the emergence of the European Marriage pattern and the emergence of collective action institutions has been made in 'Girlpower' by De Moor and Van Zanden (2008).


> More on the role of family patterns …



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