Institutions for Collective Action

What are institutions for collective action?


This website is dedicated to the study of institutions for collective action, or institutional arrangements that are formed by groups of people in order to overcome certain common problems over an extended period of time by setting certain rules regarding access to the group (membership), use of the resources and services the group owns collectively, and management of these resources and services. Such institutionalised forms of collective action differ from what is usually referred to as collective action, in the sense of large-scale mass movements that often can only make their point via riots, demonstrations or forms of mass violence (e.g. peasant revolts). Currently, this website deals only with types of institutions that originated far back in history, such as guilds, commons, waterboards and beguinages. In the future we will also include more recent examples of institutions for collective action.

Why is it important to study the long-term development of institutions for collective action?


Essential to the approach underlying this website is the fact that we need to look at institutions for collective action from a long term perspective. First of all, an institution needs time to get in shape, to be modeled according to the needs of those involved, and these institutions change slowly: a (semi-)democratic process for the change of rules requires time-consuming consultation of all the stakeholders involved. Secondly, the success of an institution, once well in place, can to a certain extend be measured by its longevity. In many cases such institutions have survived for centuries, and it was mainly by external force or the lack of external recognition that they were dissolved. As such it is only logic to go back in time, even to the early modern history, to follow institutional development over sometimes hundreds of years. By doing this, in combination with an examination of the stimulating and/or threatening factors that these institutions were dealing with we can understand what makes cooperation successful and when it fails. History thus is essential to our understanding of the mechanisms underlying institutions for collective action.


We go back far into history to study these institutions here because – and this is central to the discussion on the importance of institutions world-wide – it proves that it is exactly when institutions manage to survive for a long time – even centuries – that a society can benefit most from them. Europe’s medieval and early modern history provides a wide variety of examples of collective action institutions. Perhaps the craft guilds are the best-known, but they display many similarities with, for instance, water-boards, beguinages, rural commons and urban communes.

Aim of this website


The message underlying this site is that institutions for collective action can be a suitable way to govern resources sustainably and efficiently, depending on the type of resource and the circumstances. We do not advocate that such institutions offer solutions to all problems or that they are “better” than the private or state solution. We simply offer the tools to find out when, why and how institutions for collective action have and can offer the right incentive structure to solve problems. The material that can be found on this site is mainly related to institutions that were created during the pre-industrial period in Europe, but there is also material on guilds in e.g. China and the material on present-day institutions will be expanded.


It is our intention and hope that other researchers will use the material offered – for free – on this site and that they will contribute their own material (datasets, publications, source material etc.) via this site. If you are a scholar studying institutions for collective action, please do also use our contact-form to receive regular updates on the many projects (see also the related projects section) related to this site. 


The material offered via this site has been read by several experts in the field. If you have however the impression that we're wrong on certain issues, or that we've missed important points, do not hesitate to let us know via our contact form.

About the future of this website


For the future we hope and aim to include much more information on other forms of institutions for collective action, particularly those that still function today. The data that are currently available refer mainly to the pre-1900, and in some cases to the pre-1800 period. Understanding how these institutions functioned is very valuable to understand any further developments in society, such as the nineteenth-century formation of labour unions, which was a near to logical consequence of the evolution guilds went through prior to 1800 (see the article by Van der Vleuten and Van Zanden, 2010). We intend to add information on co-operatives in agriculture, banking and various other sectors, on labour unions, etc. The main focus will remain on organisations that have a primarily economic purpose, but we are open to suggestions to include other non-economic institutions. Please fill in our contact form or contact the webmaster if you want to collaborate and/or contribute in the future.



'From a centralistic, technocratic perspective a landscape of local and regional institutions which were set up to deal with local problems are often regarded as “chaotic”. But this labeling is wrong. In fact, the capacity of associations set up by responsible citizens to find solutions for real problems is outstanding and more human.'


Elinor Ostrom, 2009