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date: 16 December 2017

Collective Action

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines collective action, focusing on the role of social interactions, conflict, and the dynamics of interpersonal influence in shaping collective identities and interests. The discussion is based on the co-occurrence of individuals’ interest and group identity through a consistent course of action and begins with an overview of analytical models used to investigate extraordinary forms of collective action. The article then describes formal models and the problem of cooperation between self-interested actors, along with the notion of free-riding and the origin of shared interests and collective identities, paying attention to the importance of conflict, social networks, and interpersonal influence. It also explores the role of multiple levels of decision-making and actors’ consciousness in collective action before proposing a formal approach to collective action that is simultaneously less and more rational than the one currently employed in analytical sociology.

Keywords: collective action, social interaction, conflict, interpersonal influence, collective identities, cooperation, free-riding, shared interests, social networks, decision-making

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. … But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain.

(Pascal, Pensées)


The notion of collective action comprises the broad range of social phenomena in which social actors engage in common activities for demanding and/or providing collective goods. Some social phenomena—e.g. grass-root activism, social movements, or revolutions—strongly denote this concept, others belong to a more extensive understanding of what collective action is about—e.g. orchestra concerts, (p. 392) soccer games, open-source software. Some forms of collective action are rare, others very common; some arise in the context of social conflicts, others simply require cooperation. A collective good is something that, by definition, a single individual cannot produce relying exclusively on his own means. Its achievement is instead possible through the independent, interdependent, or coordinated contribution of many people.

Analytical models

In the analytical-sociology tradition, the problem of collective action lies in ‘the disparity between individual optimization and collective optimality’ (Coleman 1989: 5), of which the free-rider problem (Olson 1965) and the tragedy of the commons (Hardin 1968; Ostrom 1990) are two popular incarnations. Accordingly, over the last fifty years most analytical research has focused on the cognitive, dispositional, and structural conditions under which cooperation becomes the preferred strategy for rational, self-interested individuals whose ‘primitive’ strategy would instead be free-riding. Like the many philosophers who devoted their intellect to the demonstration of the existence of God in a world where religion could not be stronger, analytical-sociology scholars have provided various insightful explanations of how cooperation can arise from self-interested actors in a world where cooperation appears to be common in several domains of human life.

Behavioral experiments

Although scholars recognized long ago that cooperation occurs more often than a rational-choice approach would suggest, observational evidence was not considered sufficient to assess between egoistic and altruistic models of human behavior, because in real life (seemingly) altruistic/nonselfish behavior can always be explained as covertly oriented to increase one’s reputation or psychological wellbeing or as being enforced by internalized social norms and fear of social sanctions. In contrast, in more recent years experimental evidence has put in jeopardy the micro foundation of the rational-choice approach by documenting people’s predisposition to reciprocity, cooperation, and punishment of defectors, as well as recognizing the distinctive role of communication, face-to-face interaction, and personal(ized) relationships in fostering and maintaining cooperation (Ostrom 1998, 2000; Fehr and Gintis 2007). Consequently, the contextual and institutional dynamics that favor reciprocity, reputation, and trust have gained more prominence, shifting the explanatory focus from the psychological dispositions of the actors to the relational dynamics and institutional settings that affect human behavior.

(p. 393) Empirical research

While the analytical tradition has pursued the study of collective action by modeling actors’ interdependent behavior in abstract, highly simplified scenarios, other scholars have dedicated themselves to the empirical study of collective action, social movements, and contentious politics, casting a new light on the role of the masses in social change (Tilly 1978; McAdam [1982] 1999; della Porta and Diani 2006). Their work was crucial in many ways. First, they contributed to finally overthrowing the old belief that crowds and gatherings are nothing more than irrational (or hysterical) expressions of collective behavior (LeBon[1895] 1896; Park 1930; Blumer 1951). Second, they also moved away from explanations according to which social movements erupt as a response to disruptive psychological states (e.g. deprivation, frustration, alienation, or normative ambiguity) induced by the structural strains of contemporary societies (Kornhauser 1959; Smelser 1962; McAdam [1982] 1999; McPhail 1991).

Instead of digging into psychological states, social-movements scholars shifted the explanation of collective action to the political level, analyzing the political process and political-opportunities structure (Tilly 1978; McAdam [1982] 1999; Tarrow 1994). Rather than being viewed as an irrational or emotional outbreak, collective action was understood, especially by proponents of the resource-mobilization theory (McCarthy and Zald 1973, 1977), as a goal-seeking activity strategically deployed by social actors—individuals or groups. The collection of events catalogues and the classification of different mobilization repertoires were used to understand the alternative deployment of diverse political strategies (Tilly 1978, 2007). Research extended to the study of mobilizing structures, formal and informal organizations, networks, forms of recruitment, and interorganizational coordination (McAdam 1988; Obershall 1993; Diani 1995, 2003). Finally, framing analysis and the cultural approach were used to capture the cognitive and affective aspects fundamental to the construction of shared meanings and collective identities (Snow et al. 1986; Melucci 1989).

It is from this copious, if not always coherent, research that the empirical field of collective action and social movements took form. Over the years it has hosted structural, rational, and cultural approaches as well as some attempts to overcome or integrate such diverse standpoints (Lofland 1996; McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996), the most recent of which, contentious politics, calls for mechanisms-based explanations (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001). Although not exactly of the kind advocated by the current generation of analytical sociologists (Hedström and Swedberg 1998; Hedström 2005), the social-mechanisms program that scholars of contentious politics have embraced is similarly critical of ‘correlational analysis’ and variable-based explanations, and interested in causal explanations and in the link between different levels of analysis.

Nonetheless, the analytical-sociology (AS) and contentious-politics (CP) perspectives diverge broadly. Methodologically, while AS refuses the search for general (p. 394) laws but maintains its faith in statistical inference, CP opts instead for few-cases comparisons. Substantively, while CP concentrates mainly on historical dynamics, macro phenomena, and processes of identity formation and transformation that take place during the unfolding of collective action episodes, the AS micro-founded approach has a good grasp on individual attitudes and purposes, but hardly accounts for institutional changes and structural dynamics, because macro-level states are generally considered exogenous to the model (Baldassarri 2006).

Not surprisingly, the analytical and empirical research traditions have grown apart, estranged from each other. As a by-product, formal models of collective action have focused on a narrow range of problems concerning the cognitive and structural conditions that enable self-interested actors to overcome the free-rider problem, while collective-action and social-movements scholars have pursued the broader task of providing comprehensive accounts of actual collective-action phenomena, taking little advantage of the methodological insights and analytical tools provided by formal theory.

In sum, while most of the research on formal models has revolved around the disparity between individual interest and collective optimality, both experimental and empirical research have consistently shown that such incongruence is not the rule. Moreover, actors’ levels of cooperation are contingent on relational dynamics and contextual factors that favor the emergence of social norms and sanctioning systems. Therefore, to capture the distinctive nature of collective action, we need to start from a model of human action that goes beyond the give-and-take of individual and collective interest and captures the interplay between these two dimensions. Class in se becomes class per se when individual interest and group consciousness combine (Marx [1852] 1963): any consistent course of (collective) action ultimately depends on the availability of a shared representation of what constitutes the collective good (Pizzorno 1983).

Accordingly, the basic understanding that inspires this chapter is that collective action is made possible by the co-occurrence of individuals’ interest and group identity, by, first, producing a shared representation of the collective good, and, second, inducing a consistent course of action. While scholars have mostly focused on the latter aspect, debating the consequentiality (or lack thereof) between common interest and collective action, this chapter shifts the focus to the first aspect, questioning what is usually taken for granted, namely the definition of the collective good, and discusses the role of social interactions, interpersonal influence, and conflict in shaping the formation and transformation of collective identities and interests. This shift will contribute to reducing the gap between analytical and empirical research.

In the next section I argue in favor of a synergy between formal models and empirical knowledge, with a specific focus on rare and conflictual forms of collective action (Sect. 17.1). I then summarize the scholarship on formal models of (p. 395) collective action and its main achievements in addressing the problem of cooperation among self-interested actors (Sect. 17.2). In the light of the most recent experimental findings and the legacy of empirical research, I sketch the lines of an understanding of collective-action phenomena that goes beyond the classical free-rider problem (Sect. 17.3) to account for the emergence of shared interests and collective identities (Sect. 17.4), by focusing on the role of conflict, social networks, and interpersonal influence, (Sects. 17.5 and 17.6), and of multiple levels of decision-making and actors’ consciousness (Sect. 17.7).

17.1 Analytical Models for the Study of Extraordinary Forms of Collective Action

Collective action is a quite heterogeneous concept, which entails a wide range of social phenomena. If asked to name cases of collective action, people usually refer to such rare cases as riots, revolutions, or coups d’état, while more frequent events, like blood donations or petitions, or examples from their everyday life, such as participation in voluntary associations, are less likely to come to mind.

This holds also for social scientists. Empirical research on collective action is disproportionately concerned with extraordinary events, usually involving a large and diverse pool of political actors, contentious issues, and some threat to the extant sociopolitical order.1 There are good reasons to concentrate on singular, exceptional events that make the newspapers, among which is the fact that they have the potential to induce drastic rather than incremental changes, and have larger consequences on social and political assets.

Nonetheless, we should be aware of the difficulties entailed in the study of exceptional social phenomena. In fact, the regularity and predictability of events have an important role in guiding people’s behavior as well as social research. Our capacity of inferring regularities from empirical data varies according to the frequency and predictability of the phenomena under investigation. There are two main reasons for this. The first is ‘statistical’: If the probability of observing a given event is low, it is extremely difficult to investigate the explicative factors that make such a phenomenon more or less likely to happen (Lieberson 1997). In other words, one needs a certain number of cases in order to disentangle regularity from contingency.

While this aspect concerns frequency, a second argument refers to the predictability of individuals’ behavior. If actors have already engaged in a certain form of collective action, their behavior will be more predictable than the behavior (p. 396) of others acting under conditions they have never experienced before. Actors in ordinary cases of collective action can better select their means, and anticipate others’ reactions and the consequences of their own action. In contrast, actors involved in nonordinary cases, such as revolutions, are less likely to know the outcome of their action, as very few of them have taken part in a revolution before (Kiser and Welser 2005). Actually, they do not even know that they are part of a revolutionary movement, or a revolt, or just a riot. It follows that in nonordinary cases contingency is higher than in ordinary cases, and therefore it is harder to discern robust mechanisms from case-specific factors.

In sum, it appears that those singular cases that are of greater interest to scholars are also more difficult to study empirically. Formal modeling, when informed by theoretical speculation and empirical evidence, can help. In general, the use of formal modeling is commendable in many fields of sociology (White 1963; Coleman 1973; Gilbert 1999; Edling 2002; Macy and Willer 2002; Baldassarri 2005; Hedström 2005; and in this book Breen; Macy and Flache), but there are additional, specific reasons for which it is crucial in advancing our understanding of collective-action phenomena. Among them is the fact that while empirical reality is, by definition, the single realization of a set of possible outcomes, formal modeling—especially when pursued through computer simulations—allows the exploration of the entire range of alternative outcomes. Traditionally this is achieved through ‘computational experiments’ in which researchers manipulate initial parameters and speculate about the necessary conditions that bring about a certain outcome. Alternatively, one can keep the initial set of parameters fixed and rely on stochastic processes to produce a multiplicity of outcomes and then study the source of such variability.2 In both cases the advantage of an analytic approach is that social dynamics that are rarely observed in reality can be reproduced as many times as scholars want.

Granted that a formal model is useful as long as the assumptions on which it is based are simplifications but not complete distortions of reality,3 collective-action research can greatly profit from the level of generalization that formal models require. By abstracting the behavior of individuals from their specific ideologies and other contextual factors, the analytical approach forces scholars to step away from case-specific and ad hoc explanations, test the robustness of their explanatory schemes, and define the scope conditions of their deployment. At the same time, formal models are informative to the extent that they capture the key features of those rare but denotative cases. There is little value in coming up with a highly formalized explanation of why people dress up for carnivals and parades, sing in choruses, or join the Elks (it will always remain a mystery anyway), while it is worth investigating through analytical tools those aspects of collective action—e.g. interpersonal influence and large-scale cascades of activism, conflict escalation and structural polarization, ideological commitment and shifting alliances—that are difficult to map empirically.

(p. 397) 17.2 Formal Models of Collective Action and the Problem of Coordination

Analytical sociologists have mainly thought of collective action as a problem of coordination between self-interested actors (Elster 1989). In this framework, collective action has the characteristics of a social dilemma—which is ‘a situation in which actions that are individually rational can lead to outcomes that are collectively irrational’ (Heckathorn 1996: 250)4—and researchers’ goal is to reveal the conditions under which rational, self-interested actors can overcome this dilemma.

The study of collective action was originally framed in these terms by Olson in The Logic of Collective Action (1965). Breaking with the previous research tradition based on the assumption that the presence of a common interest would (unproblematically) lead actors to mobilize, Olson argued that

unless the number of individuals is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.

(1965: 2)

This is for the reason that, in a context in which public goods are nonexcludable, rational, self-interested actors would rather free-ride on others’ contribution (Olson 1965; see also Hardin 1982; Oliver 1993). For years to follow, the main puzzle for collective-action scholars—and not only rational-choice ones5—became to explain under which conditions cooperation can emerge among self-interested actors. Olson himself offered a first solution to the problem, suggesting that rational actors are induced to contribute to the provision of public goods by the presence of ‘selective incentives’—exclusive, private incentives that either reward participants or punish noncooperators. This solution, however, was shown to be tautological: since someone has to pay for selective incentives, their provision is a collective good itself, and thus subject to the free-rider problem.6

Indeed, very few aspects of Olson’s seminal work were exempt from criticism. (For a summary see Oliver 1993; Ostrom 2003; Baldassarri 2005.) Nonetheless, virtually all subsequent formal models of collective action took on the free-rider problem while introducing important modifications to Olson’s basic assumptions. First of all, scholars included interdependence between actors. To this goal, game theory provided a parsimonious framework for investigating the strategic choices of interdependent agents (Hardin 1982; Axelrod 1984, 1997; Coleman 1990; Ostrom 1990; Lomborg 1996). While an exhaustive account of this research can be found elsewhere (see Breen’s chapter in this volume), here it is worth mentioning the influential contribution of Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation (1984), in which (p. 398) he showed how in a two-person iterated prisoner’s dilemma cooperation among self-interested actors can eventually emerge.7 Subsequently, Heckathorn extended the application of game theory to other social dilemmas8 and studied the dynamics of these games in a two-dimensional game space, thus providing a comprehensive and elegant way to frame collective-action problems in game-theoretical terms (1996, 1998). Finally, Macy proposed a stochastic learning model of iterated prisoner’s dilemma in which players adopt adaptive, backward-looking—instead of purposive, forward-looking—strategies, thus relaxing some of the strong rationality assumptions of previous models (Macy 1991a).

Analytically speaking, these are remarkable achievements. Nonetheless, one might ask to what extent our understanding of collective-action phenomena has been improved by referring to a ‘situation between two individuals, … in which two people hurt each other more than they help themselves in making self-serving choices and could both be better off if obliged to choose the opposite’ (Schelling 1978: 110). In other words, beside its elegance and power in framing the problem of cooperation in a two-actors system, one has to recognize the limitations of this analysis of strategic interaction when applied to events that unfold over time and involve large heterogeneous groups (Abbott 2001; Oliver and Myers 2002). According to Abbott,

[g]ame theory won’t get us far, because it is ignorant, except in the most general terms, of a serious concern with structure and with complex temporal effects. But simulation may help us understand the limits and possibilities of certain kinds of interactional fields, and that would be profoundly sociological knowledge.

(2001: 124)

Indeed, game theory is not the only formal approach to the study of collective action. Several scholars have used decision equations to further investigate individual dispositions and structural features that induce social actors to contribute to the provision of public goods.9 Scholars working in this vein have strongly relaxed Olson’s rational-choice assumptions and, generally, moved away from conceiving collective action as the mere by-product of the pursuit of private interest. Research has developed in many different directions (see Oliver 1993 for a summary). Extant formal models of collective action consider a range of foci including: the effect of compliance norms, group sanctions, and mutual influence (Obershall 1973; Heckathorn 1990, 1993; Gould 1993); population heterogeneity in resources, interest, and power and the shape of the production function (Marwell and Oliver 1993); processes of stochastic, adaptive-learning decision-making (Macy 1990, 1991b); threshold models and cascades (Granovetter 1978; Schelling 1978; Chwe 1999;Watts and Dodds 2007); network structure and actor’s position (Macy 1990; Gould 1993; Marwell and Oliver 1993; Kim and Bearman 1997).

It is now common understanding among scholars that there is no ‘single and simple’ solution to the problem of collective action, and that substantial theoretical advances are more likely to occur when scholars break it down into more specific (p. 399) research issues. In general, distinct features of the collective-action phenomena give rise to different problems and related solutions. For instance, while free-riding is arguably the central problem in the provision of public goods—goods that are characterized by nonexcludability and jointness in consumption—we should also consider problems of over appropriation and over crowding if considering the provision of common-pool resources—situations in which one person’s use reduces the amount of good available to others (Ostrom 1990, 2002). Another example in which the nature of the good affects the solution of the collective-action problem is Marwell and Oliver’s finding (1993) that the role of early contributors depends on the shape of the production function:10 a critical mass of original contributors is likely to trigger the participation of other people in a context in which the production function is accelerating, while when the production function is decelerating, early contributors are likely to provide enough good to induce everyone else to free-ride.

In all these studies collective action has been treated primarily as a problem of coordination. Despite the variety of arguments provided, the common explanatory strategy is to show how it is that individuals whose nonstrategic rationality suggests inaction are induced to adopt some sort of strategic view in which individual and collective interest come to coincide. Cooperation from self-interested actors is therefore induced through a modification of their cost/benefit calculus. In other words, the ‘trick’ is to show that the course of action induced by individuals’ private interest is an action that leads toward the achievement of the collective good.

Durkheimians and functionalists, as well as lay observers, might be willing to question the fact that private and public interests can be told apart in the first place and label the conceptual distinction between individual interest and public good as purely fictional. But even scholars, like us, willing to ground our explanation in individuals’ beliefs, actions, and interactions, might have something to gain from a proper understanding of the relation between individual and collective interests.

17.3 Beyond the Free Rider

While, on the one hand, the mere presence of shared interest is not sufficient condition for collective action (Marx [1852] 1963; Olson 1965), we do see collective action more often than suggested by the Olsonian model of self-interested actor. In recent years experimental research has accumulated consistent evidence of the fact that free-riding is not the default option for a large part of the population, even in the absence of selective incentives, normative pressure, or relational history.

(p. 400) For instance, let’s consider the main findings of a classical public-goods game, where players are free to decide what part (if any) of their given endowment to contribute to the public good in a context in which when someone makes a contribution each player receives a proportion (i.e. 50 percent) of such a contribution. While the optimal group outcome would be for everyone to give their entire endowment, the optimal strategy for rational egoists is to contribute nothing. Ostrom, reviewing numerous experimental replications of this game, listed seven general findings:

  1. (1) Subjects contribute between 40 and 60 percent of their endowments to the public good in a one-shot game as well as in the first round of finitely repeated games.

  2. (2) After the first round, contribution levels tend to decay downward, but remain well above zero. …

  3. (3) Those who believe others will cooperate in social dilemmas are more likely to cooperate themselves. …

  4. (4) In general, learning the game better tends to lead to more cooperation, not less. …

  5. (5) Face-to-face communication in a public good game—as well as in other types of social dilemmas—produces substantial increases in cooperation that are sustained across all periods including the last period. …

  6. (6) When the structure of the game allows it, subjects will expend personal resources to punish those who make below-average contributions to a collective benefit, including the last period of a finitely repeated game. …

  7. (7) The rate of contribution to a public good is affected by various contextual factors including the framing of the situation and the rules used for assigning participants, increasing competition among them, allowing communication, authorizing sanctioning mechanisms, or allocating benefits.

(2000: 140–1)

These findings require a theory of micro behavior based on something different from the fictional antagonism between actors’ selfishness and group interest. In fact, a consistent proportion of individuals act in favor of the collective interest, sacrificing their own in order to contribute to the common good and/or punish defectors, even in contexts lacking selective incentives of any sort. In other words, the collective interest is shown to be an inherent—perhaps ancestral—part of individuals’ choice. At present, most scholars have opted for assuming the existence of different types of individuals: according to Ostrom, in addition to rational egoists, there are conditional cooperators and willing punishers. Similarly, Fehr and Gintis (2007) came to the conclusion that

self-regarding and norm-regarding actors coexist and that the available action opportunities determine which of these actors types dominate the aggregate level of social cooperation.

(p. 43)

Strong reciprocity, which is the predisposition to cooperate conditionally on others’ cooperation and to punish defectors (Fehr and Gintis 2007), has become the alternative to selfishness as a basic building block of human behavior.11

(p. 401) Nonetheless, the fact that rational-choice theory is in troubled waters does not mean that an alternative is already available. In search of a new theoretical framework, some scholars have turned to evolutionary theories. Ironically, in the Darwinian tradition based on the idea of individual selection, altruism was viewed as an aberrant behavior. In contrast, more recent developments in evolutionary biology based on kin or group selection argue that the presence of some altruists might favor the survival of genes or group (Hamilton 1963; Price 1970; Trivers 1971; Dawkins 1976). Similarly, evolutionary psychologists suggest that different personality traits have developed over time and such phenotypic variation produces selective advantages at the group level (Sober and Wilson 1998). Finally, empirical evidence has been provided in favor of the ‘social-brain hypothesis,’ according to which primates’ brains evolved to handle the complexity of their social system (Dumbar 1998) and to perform social functions like tactical deception (Whiten and Byrne 1988) and coalition formation (Harcourt 1989), rather than, as generally believed, to process ecological information.

Ostrom adopts an ‘indirect evolutionary approach’ to explain how norm-regarding actors have emerged and survived in a world of rational egoists, and assumes that (a) ‘modern humans have inherited a propensity to learn social norms’ (p. 143) and (b) actors evolve and adapt their preferences to material rewards.12 The key idea here is that ‘social norms may lead individuals to behave differently in the same objective situation depending on how strongly they value conformance with a norm’ (Ostrom 2000: 144). While self-interested actors respond exclusively to objective payoff structures and are indifferent to the context, conditional cooperators value norms of reciprocity and change their intrinsic preferences according to their experiences. In this perspective, the study of the contextual and institutional aspects that favor the emergence and maintenance of social norms becomes central to the collective-action research agenda (Ostrom 1990, 1998, 2000).

While evolutionary theory can provide a systemic account for the existence of a basic tendency toward altruistic behavior, it is ill suited to capture the fine-grained contextual differences that determine the occurrence of collective action in certain settings rather than others, or to enlighten the specific mechanisms through which social norms are created, diffused, and internalized. In more general terms, evolutionary theory does not provide an alternative micro foundation for collective-action phenomena; it simply provides a framework that allows scholar to bypass the free-rider problem, without having to find a real alternative to the assumption of self-regarding actors.13

In contrast, a promising alternative comes from the empirical research that does not take individual interest and social norms as given, but rather investigates the process of their emergence and transformation. In a nutshell, according to this perspective, the distinctive feature of collective-action phenomena lies in the co-occurrence of identity and interest (Gamson 1990; Bearman 1993; Gould 1995). Without rejecting the idea that actors mobilize to pursue their interest, scholars (p. 402) working in this vein assume that ‘most individuals act routinely to safeguard and sustain the central sources of meaning and identities in their lives’ (McAdam [1982] 1999: xiii). Instrumental behavior occurs within the boundaries of what is admitted and considered possible in the social contexts to which individuals belong. Instead of assuming social norms or pre-existing identities as given, interstitial entities useful to explain deviations from selfish behavior, this approach regards dynamics of identity construction and group identification as part of the process that leads to the definition of both the individual and group interest.

The overlap between individual and collective interest that makes collective action possible is therefore the by-product of the emergence of collective identities from patterns of social interaction. Any consistent course of (collective) action ultimately depends on the availability of a shared representation of the collective good, and only the presence of a collective identity can generate a confidence in the individual that s/he will be capable of fulfilling her/his own interest in the long as well as in the short run (Pizzorno 1983).

A collective identity is a function of both the patterns of social relations experienced by the actors and its salience in the current political circumstances. Individuals lie at the intersection of multiple, even alternative, social spheres that contribute to shape their interests and define what is politically salient to them. Here is where we need an approach capable of accounting not only for people’s willingness to cooperate, but also for dynamics of interest formation. What becomes politically salient to individuals emerges from the interplay of their own preferences and the patterns of relations in which they are embedded. At the macro level, ‘participation identities,’ which are identities capable of mobilizing collective action,

are those that optimize on the trade-off between comprehensiveness (offering the advantage of a broad-band constituency) and social integration (ensuring sufficient levels of internal social linkage to make mobilization possible).

(Gould 1995: 202–3)

Formal organizations boost the scale of collective action by linking local collectivities and organizing multiple grievances into coherent narratives.

In this perspective, there is no need to assume norms or ideology (or some other metaphysical entity) as the driving force of people’s commitment; the specific interest that becomes relevant to the individual and shared among group members is elicited through interaction and the experience of group affiliation. The local context—the proximate others—functions to activate certain interests and reduce the significance of others.

So far, formal models of collective action have assumed the public good, the common goal for which people mobilize, as an aspect exogenous to the model, something given, and nonproblematic. While for ordinary forms of collective action this is a plausible assumption, in the case of extraordinary forms the definition of what becomes the public good is likely to be the endogenous product (p. 403) of the collective action itself (Calhoun 1991; Loveman 1998).14 This, as we will see, has consequences not only for the definition of the collective interest but also for shaping the structural and ideational preconditions that lead to collective action.

17.4 The Origin of Shared Interests and Collective Identities

When they first started in October 1989, street demonstrations in Berlin were dominated by the hope of political reforms. East Germans wanted the reestablishment of the original socialist values. One of the most popular slogans was ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (We are the people). A Few weeks later the slogan changed into ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ (We are one citizenry/country) and the call for the reunification of East and West Germany overcame all the other demands (Corni 1995: 437–8). What happened in those few weeks? How is it possible that from a call for social reforms the movement shifted toward the request for reunification?

Quite often, during the earlier stages of collective action the definition of what is the common good—what it is that people are mobilizing for—is far from clear. From rebellious movements to the rise of new parties, the formation and transformation of public opinion, the political arena, and institutional settings are due to complex dynamics (e.g. group solidarity and political alignment, conflict escalation, cascades of activism) that simultaneously alter both the micro conditions and the macro contexts in which social actors operate. Individuals’ hold composite and often alternative sets of preferences about social assets, and their primary interest and allegiance is shaped during the unfolding of the collective enterprise: actors’ desires and preferences are modified, new issues substitute for old ones, and different sets of people enter the public arena eventually changing overall patterns of alliances (Tilly 1978; Kuran 1989; Lindemberg 1989). This makes collective action different from market situations. In pure economic transactions individuals’ interest can be taken as given. In contrast, in phenomena of collective action what constitutes interest, the goal for which people mobilize, is a by-product of the mobilization itself (Calhoun 1991).

Questions like ‘How does a collective good become collective?’ ‘How does a social identity emerge as a distinctive trait of a group of individuals?’ can be addressed, allowing changes in the macrostructural configuration of people’s preferences, and modeling local patterns of interaction as generative processes that affect and modify both micro behaviors and the emergent macrostructure. In doing so, formal modelers will be able to treat as endogenous aspects that are usually assumed (p. 404) as exogenous, such as the selection of the public good, the overall distribution of actors’ interest and preferences, and the structural properties of the relational network in which people are embedded.

Scholars who have posed collective interest and identity as something that has to be explained have quite often stressed the importance of tangible relations—the network of multiple ties in which individuals are embedded—in determining collective identities and actors’ sense of commitment (McAdam 1988; Calhoun 1991; Bearman 1993; Gould 1995). For instance, in his study of Parisians’ protests Gould describes the interplay between actors’ interaction and the construction of a collective identity in this way:

the collective identity of workers as workers only emerges if the social networks in which they are embedded are patterned in such a way that the people in them can plausibly be partitioned into ‘workers’ and ‘non workers’; but once this is possible, social conflict between collective actors who are defined in terms of this partition will heighten the salience and plausibility of the partition itself. The intensification of the boundary’s cognitive significance for individuals will, in other words, align social relations so that becomes even more real.

(1995: 15)

Shared interest and collective identity arise from the interplay of patterns of micro relations and the alignments they generate at the macro level. Consequently, neither individual dispositions nor structural features can be assumed as stable properties, because their changes are constitutive aspects of collective-action phenomena. The next section speculates on some specific aspects of potential interest for modeling the emergence of collective interest and group identity. The goal here is not to come up with a generic ‘wish list’ of realistic elements that would be realistically impossible to translate into formal language or, even if that were technically possible, would end up changing the nature of the problem itself. Instead the intention is to elicit ideas for extending existing models, as well as inspiring new ones. Their formalization is only one step away.

17.5 Conflict, Interpersonal Influence, and Network Structure

Models of collective action usually assume a pool of actors who will gain from the production of a certain good. Nonetheless, in a nontrivial part of collective-action phenomena there are also actors who could lose from its production, gain more from the pursuit of alternative goods, or who are initially truly indifferentto (p. 405) its provision. In studying such contentious cases we should start by assuming a set of potentially attainable goods (e.g. a park, free Internet access, and a new electoral law) and actors who hold different preferences on each of them. That is, actors can be for or against a certain good, or they can prefer an alternative good, like a parking area instead of a park. Indeed, many have argued that the essence of politics lies in the bipolar and inherently conflictual nature of the issues at stake (Schmitt [1927] 1996; Downs 1957; Hinich and Munger 1994), and more often than not collective decisions are dictated by the trade-off between alternative social choices. This is even more true for contentious episodes such as rebellions, popular uprisings, or revolutions, where mobilization presents itself as an alternative to the status quo.

Assuming actors that hold multiple and alternative views seems therefore a commendable strategy, as well as modeling social interactions and dynamics of interpersonal influence that affect and simultaneously are affected by such a multifaceted set of interests. Olson aside, virtually all formal models of collective action have assumed some form of interdependence among actors and some have already explicitly included social networks and influence dynamics (Gould 1993; Kim and Bearman 1997). In addition, several scholars have investigated the dynamics of interpersonal influence to model group consensus and social cohesion (French 1956; Harary 1959; Abelson 1964; Friedkin and Johnsen 1990; Friedkin 1999), dynamics of ideological polarization (Abelson 1979; Nowak, Szamrej, and Latané 1990; Hegselmann and Krause 2002; Macy et al. 2003), collective decision-making (Marsden 1981), diffusion of fads (Watts and Dodds 2007), and the persistence of cultural differences (Axelrod 1997) and political disagreement (Huckfeld, Johnson, and Sprague 2004).

In modeling interpersonal relations and influence dynamics, two factors deserve close consideration: the selection of interaction partners which determines the structure of the actors’ social network, and the process of interpersonal influence which determines the directionality of opinion change. Let us consider the first aspect. Structural differences (differences in the distribution of social relations) can induce populations with similar interest distributions at the individual level but very different collective behaviors because

actors subject to cross-pressures of one kind or another are less likely to participate in collective decisions than people who receive consistent signals from their social environments.

(Marsden 1981: 1216)

For instance, if actors’ likelihood to join a movement is a function of the number of activists they personally know, then the distribution of movement activists across the population is extremely important. In general, while empirical research seems to suggest that dense social networks (Obershall 1973; Tilly 1978; McAdam 1988; Gould 1995; Diani 1995) and closely interconnected niches of activists (Pfaff1996; (p. 406) Osa 2001) facilitate collective action, the results from formal models lead to discordant conclusions with respect to the impact of different network structures and the structural position of core activists on collective-action outcomes. Marwell and Oliver (1993) have found that network density and, under certain conditions, centrality favor collective action; Gould (1993) has suggested instead a complex relation between network centrality and mobilization that depends on the structural position of early initiators. According to Macy (1991a), collective action has more chance in sparse networks, because random defection is less likely to spread through the population. For Kim and Bearman, instead, social-network density always facilitates collective action; nonetheless, fundamental to mobilization ‘is the organization of motivated actors into a densely linked activist core that is insulated from counter-pressures encouraging defection’ (1997: 90). While most of the discordance derives from substantial differences in their core assumptions, all these models share the limit of relying on a static relational structure.

A promising alternative is to model dynamic networks as they emerge from the unfolding of social interactions (see Moody’s chapter in this volume). In real life, people have some freedom in choosing their interaction partners, and even greater liberty in deciding what they want to talk about; in sum, actors adapt their behavior to the characteristics of their interactants. This ‘ability to tell people apart’ (Macy 1991a: 833) can be modeled by giving people the option of ‘exit’ or remaining ‘loyal’ to an interaction partner (or probabilistically, becoming more or less likely to interact with a certain actor) depending on the outcome of previous interactions (Macy 1991a), and on their similarities (Macy et al. 2003; Baldassarri and Bearman 2007). This has the double effect of introducing an element of historicity and human agency into the model.

A similar sensitivity to the relational dimension of social phenomena should be introduced when modeling processes of interpersonal influence. Social influence is not an accidental phenomenon, like a sneeze, or an unintentional one, like a yawn. While the diffusion of a disease occurs through physical contact, the modification or reinforcement of someone’s interest or identity implies sustained forms of interaction. Many models of diffusion are mechanic (either deterministic or probabilistic) consequences of actors’ contact: encounters induce changes in status. Such models are of limited use for collective-action dynamics. Most empirical studies of group dynamics and persuasive communication suggest that while interaction with similar (or liked) others reduces distance, interaction with dissimilar others may increase distance leading to group polarization (Kitts 2006). The direction of opinion changes should be modeled as contingent on interactants’ relative position. Mechanisms of dissonance reduction (Festinger 1957) might in fact both work in favor of compromise and feed conflict, depending on whether individuals will be more balanced by reducing or exacerbating the differences between them.

(p. 407) 17.6 From Conflict, Cooperation

To give a suggestion of how these ideas can be implemented, I adapt to our discussion of the origin of collective goods results from a model of interpersonal influence over political attitudes that Peter Bearman and I have developed to study the simultaneous evolution of interest and social relations in a context in which people hold preferences on multiple issues.15 Let us assume a context in which people have preferences on four different public goods, such as use of public spaces, provision of public services, security, and so on. For each good, actors’ preferences range from a strong interest in one outcome to a strong interest in the alternative outcome (e.g. use a public space to build a park versus a parking area). Preferences are originally normally distributed, which means that at the outset the majority of people have only very mild preferences for the one or the other outcome.

In general, actor a’s likelihood of getting into a discussion with actor b depends both on his personal level of interest in public goods and on the affinity of interests between them. Specifically, the mechanisms that govern interaction are:

  • for each actor, the frequency of interaction is proportional to the overall level of interest in public goods

  • actors tend to interact with others that have preferences similar to their own

  • actors can change interlocutors from time to time

  • actors retain information about others’ preferences and adjust their future behavior accordingly

  • actors are likely to discuss the public good that is most salient to them

These interactions provide the foundation for personal influence, which might operate to bring people closer together or induce greater distance. That is, when interlocutors share the same view, interaction leads to a reinforcement of their belief. Where discussants differ, either compromise or conflict can result. If they have contrasting views on the focal good, but share similar opinions on the remaining goods, they compromise by reducing their interest on the focal good. In contrast, if disagreement is across the board, their interest on the focal issue is reinforced and their respective positions diverge further.

Influence is bidirectional, opinion change is incremental, and its magnitude is inversely related to actor’s interest. In sum, we model opinion change as an interpersonal process, where the intensity and direction of the change depends on the relative position of discussion partners. Intensity is a function of the difference in the level of interest of the two interlocutors. Direction is determined by the signs of their preferences.

We studied the model through computer simulations. Due to stochastic processes, the model generates qualitatively different outcomes. In a large majority (p. 408) of cases goods are discussed at comparable rates and interactions give rise to a cohesive discussion network. In contrast, in some rare cases we observe a very different dynamic. Discussions disproportionally focus on a single public good (e.g. use of a public space), people’s interest in that good grows, the interest distribution becomes bipolar (i.e. people are either strongly for the park or strongly for the parking area), and their patterns of relation crystallize into a polarized network. When a single good dominates public discourse, actors segregate themselves into homogeneous niches of dense interaction, reinforcing each other’s commitment and reducing the chances to get in touch with actors that have an alternative view on the focal good.

As interest grows, of course, actors’ likelihood of mobilizing will rise as well. According to this model, the attitudinal and social polarization associated with the takeoff of a single good is a precondition to collective action. That is, the emergence of a collective interest—an interest that dominates the public discussion—and the formation of social identities, in the form of sustained niches of social interaction,16 occur together. These two dimensions are interdependent. Meaningful social partitions are less likely to arise in the absence of polarizing goods. At the same time, interest polarization on a specific good is of little consequence if it is not encoded into crystallized relational patterns. In sum, the model shows that collective action is made possible by the simultaneity of collective identity and interest.

At the micro level, the model reveals an interesting irony. The emergent relational network tends to minimize individual exposure to disagreement, independent of its overall macrostructural features. This induces a selective perception of the external reality—individuals are disproportionately exposed to people who share their attitudes—that can transform, in the context of the action over the long run, otherwise negligible changes into tangible achievements. In other words, actors interacting on the basis of their individual interest in public goods are capable of self-segregating into homogeneous ‘ideological enclaves’ where collective action is nurtured. This is, of course, exactly why shared interests and identities play such a strong role in fostering actors’ commitment to their political beliefs and consequent action.

Finally, this model provides a basic intuition of the role played by contentious dynamics in shaping collective interest. Collective-action scholars, ‘chasing’ cooperation, never thought of finding its roots in social conflict. But by allowing actors to have multiple and alternative preferences it is possible to show how a distinct collective interest can coalesce from dynamics of social interaction and interpersonal influence in which people learn to ‘tell each other apart’ and split into opposite camps, thus producing the motivational and structural preconditions for local cooperation. In the next section I speculate on the dynamics through which these niches of local cooperation can cumulate in large-scale-collective-action phenomena.

(p. 409) 17.7 Groups, Multiple Levels of Decision-Making, and Actors’ Consciousness

By definition, collective action is characterized by noncentralized decision-making: while a strong leader or institution can be very effective in forcing individuals to contribute to the provision of public goods, phenomena characterized by such binding decisions do not belong to the collective-action domain. Nonetheless, noncentralized decision-making processes do not necessarily imply ‘disorganized’ choices, although this seems to be standard for formal modelers.

This is in sharp contrast with empirical reality. Granted that macro outcomes emerge from the composition of individuals’ behavior, such composition does not necessarily occur as the ‘algebraic’ sum of individuals’ decisions. Common strategies, selection of means, timing, division of labor, leadership, are all aspects of collective action that imply organization and harmonization of multiple actors. Organizations, associations, and groups, regardless of their grade of institutionalization and bureaucratization, are the critical movers between single actors and their common goal. On the one hand, they satisfy members and shape their attitudes, on the other, they introduce discontinuity between micro and macro dimensions—they solve problems of coordination. In sum, organizations mediate, translate, and synchronize individuals’ efforts.

Formal models of collective action seldom consider the role of groups and other agencies of intermediation. This is a limitation, especially in modeling high-risk, large-scale phenomena for which it is necessary to take into account the scale and temporal discontinuities induced by multiple layers of decision-making. While collective action problems of the kind: ‘the residents of Maple Street generally agree that they would like it to be cleaner than the city keeps it’ (Gould 1993: 183) can be properly modeled by questioning the behavior of other neighbors if Betty volunteers an hour picking up refuse, this simple focus on the action and reaction of individual actors is not sufficient when referring to nonordinary forms of collective action.

Organized groups might have a nonlinear impact on the aggregation of individual participants, thus leading to qualitatively different collective-action outcomes. Social-movement organizations not only provide people with a reason to believe that their small contribution would not be wasted, but also create the preconditions for the incremental cumulation of mobilizing efforts—if nobody has written a petition, it is not possible to sign one (Gould 1993). Moreover, in many contexts the group’s rationality is higher than the individuals’ and therefore decision-making processes at the organizational level can be modeled in purely instrumental terms (McAdam [1982] 1999). Finally, if we adopt Coleman’s dynamic view of ‘long-termsocial (p. 410) change’ as a process ‘in which social organization comes to be the creation of human intelligence’ (Coleman 1989: 9), civil-society and social-movement groups should be regarded as corporate actors that have an autonomous impact on social outcomes, by mediating between individuals’ desires and common interest.

Of course, when introducing new features into a model, it is not sufficient to evaluate their realism, one should ask to what extent they might lead to new results. The explicit consideration of multiple levels of decision-making can help reformulate the debate on the effectiveness of small and large groups (Oliver 1980; Ostrom 2003) by showing how intermediate actors are able to bring together the narrow interest of small, relatively homogeneous groups and generate significantly larger and more heterogeneous mobilizing collectives (cf. Hedström, Sandell, and Stern’s concept (2000) of meso-level networks). Along this line, coalition theories, cooperative games, and public-choice models can be used to model dynamics of group formation, intergroup alliances, and interest realignment (Neumann and Morgenstern 1944; Gamson 1961; Riker 1962; Axelrod 1970; Laver and Schofield 1998; Bandyopadhyay and Chatterjee 2006).

A second reason why collective action cannot be reduced to the aggregation of individual choices concerns the consciousness collective actors have of the necessity to be ‘many.’ Too often, explanatory models of cooperative behavior

assume that the process leading to collective action occurs behind actors’ backs, i.e., that actors’ understanding of how collective action works is less accurate than the modelers’ understanding.

(Gould 1993: 194)

Instead of purposive actors (Weber 1922; Coleman 1990), formal models are often populated by interest-driven automata with limited or no agency. In contrast, empirical research and experimental evidence have suggested that persuading other actors and sanctioning defectors are constituent parts of individuals’ behavior that should be modeled in their individual-interest function. This has consequences not only for actors’ mobilization but also for the definition of the collective good itself. Consider a trivial example: three friends want to spend the entire week-end sailing, but at least six people are needed in order to handle the boat. Our three friends invite other acquaintances to join them. While the organizers are strongly interested and motivated, the pool of other potential participants is less enthusiastic and their participation is contingent on the weather, alternative schedules, etc. Likely, to recruit others, the three organizers will limit their sail to Sunday afternoon.

Quite often, the number of earliest actors available for mobilization does not reach the number needed to produce the collective good. To facilitate the participation of others, earliest actors are likely to change their immediate goals. But the pool of new joiners might differ from the original set of activists with respect to their attitudes and desires, and this change in the composition of the overall-attributes distribution might have consequences on the group strategy and eventually modify the ultimate goal of the collective enterprise.

(p. 411) In problems of aggregation, changes in the size and composition of the pool of potential joiners are often unimportant. A market transaction is a market transaction and it does not matter to the buyer and seller whether thousands of others are exchanging goods or not.17 The exchanges made by other people need simply to be ‘parameterized’ in the individual-decision function. In contrast, when actions are not only interdependent—in the sense that they have consequences on other actors’ utility functions—but the goal of a specific action is collective, the pool characteristics—the characteristics and desires of potential activists—become relevant in defining the action itself. It follows that at the aggregate level we do not observe the simple composition of individual actions, or of interdependent actions. At the aggregate level we observe an outcome that is somehow consciously drifted by a—more or less explicit—bargaining process. While people buying and selling, or neighbors moving in and out (Schelling 1971) do not feel responsible for the construction of markets or the process of shaping the class or ethnic characteristics of a neighborhood, people involved in collective action do act consciously toward a goal that is reached together or not reached at all. This makes the macro outcome less likely to be a by-product of individual choices than a deliberate decision that is based on actors’ rational understanding of the situation.


The formal approach to collective action sketched in these pages builds on a theory of action according to which instrumental action occurs within the boundaries of what is defined as meaningful and worth pursuing by the situation and social context in which actors are embedded. Such an approach is simultaneously less and more rational than the one currently in use among analytical sociologists. It is less rational—better, differently rational—in the sense that individual interest cannot be disentangled from group interest and is partly defined by group expectations. In this perspective, the collective good is neither a social construction, in the sense that it is based on real, material interests, nor the mere consequence of objective conditions. What comes to be perceived as a collective good is the by-product of individual preferences and patterns of social relations.

At the same time, this approach implies higher rationality in the sense that individuals are assumed capable of foreseeing the benefit of collective action and consciously acting to achieve it. Collective action among purposive actors who hold multiple and often alternative sets of preferences involves dynamics of persuasion, alignment, and coalition-building. To fully capture these aspects of human agency, we needed a model in which individuals’ attitudes, social structure, and the (p. 412) collective interest itself are not fixed, predefined aspects exogenous to the model; rather, they are shaped in interaction sequences.

Overall, this framing shifts the analytical focus from coordination problems to key features of collective-action phenomena that have been, so far, largely neglected; namely, the origin of collective goods, the role of conflict, the interplay between individual attitudes and social networks, multiple levels of decision-making, actors’ consciousness, and the incorporation of collective interest into the definition of individual interest. This shift has the potential to enrich analytical sociology’s repertoire of explanatory mechanisms.


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(*) I thank Mario Diani, Charles Tilly, Michael Macy, Matthew Salganik, and the editors for helpful comments.

(1.) Empirical research is also subject to a second bias, concerning the specific content of collective-action phenomena. In the last few decades scholars have devoted disproportionate attention to mobilization on progressive issues; e.g. civil-rights, minority, antiglobalization, and peace movements, compared to the rare scholarship on army recruitment, pro-war movements, and traditional religious groups. Similarly, scholars have privileged topics concerning different aspects of globalization, shifting their research attention away from the myriads of ordinary activities that (still) take place at the local level and are local in scope.

(2.) See e.g. Medina (2005) for an innovative use of evolutionary game theory to generate probabilistic predictions, such as ‘the relative likelihoods of cooperation and defection’ (p. 425).

(3.) In this regard, the ‘as if’ condition, according to which a model is useful as long as it produces accurate predictions, without necessarily being based on ‘realistic’ assumptions (Friedman 1953), is not an acceptable standard. Since we are in the business of revealing the social mechanisms that underlie certain social phenomena, we need to make sure that not only the results but also the building blocks of our models are reasonable.

(4.) For a more rigorous (and restrictive) definition of the concept of social dilemma see Van de Rijt and Macy, working paper.

(5.) As Oliver observes (1993), the influence of Olson’s argument was not limited to rational-choice scholars. Even resource-mobilization and political-opportunity theories (McCarthy and Zald 1973; McAdam [1982] 1999) did not assume collective action as a natural consequence of collective interest, but rather as something that is hard to achieve.

(6.) This is commonly known as the second-order free-rider problem (Frohlich and Oppenheimer 1970; Oliver 1980; Heckathorn 1989).

(7.) ‘What the Prisoner’s Dilemma captures so well is the tension between the advantages of selfishness in the short run versus the need to elicit cooperation from the other player to be successful in the longer run’ (Axelrod 1997: 6).

(8.) Specifically, he linked the problem of trust to the prisoner’s dilemma, coordination to the assurance game, bargaining to the chicken game, and overcooperation to the altruist’s dilemma.

(9.) It is worth noticing that the two analytical strategies have often been combined.

(10.) The production function is a function that relates individual contributions to group outcomes. A linear function implies that each individual contribution translates into a constant unit of public good (and therefore that the effect of an individual contribution does not depend on the level of public good that has already been provided). Instead we would use an accelerative production function if initial contributions are assumed to provide disproportionately more collective benefit than later contributions, while if the reverse is true, a decelerative production function is appropriate.

(11.) Similar conclusions have been reached with respect to the study of empathy (Davis, Luce, and Kraus 1994; Sautter, Littvay, and Bearnes 2007) and altruism (Andreoni, Harbaugh, and Vesterlund 2007) in prisoner’s-dilemma games.

(12.) Under these assumptions, if actors were to have complete information about the other players, conditional cooperators would get the higher payoff, while with no information only rational egoists would survive. In the (real) world of incomplete information, cooperative types will survive in substantial numbers.

(13.) Similarly, looking at the empirical and historical research on collective action, structuralists and culturalists have moved numerous critiques to the rational-choice approach, but they have not yet elaborated real alternatives (McAdam [1982] 1999).

(14.) Indeed, to explain social revolutions, even rational-choice theorists had to recognize the socially constructed nature of individuals’ preferences; that is, the fact that actors’ perception of their own influence on the production of a collective good is larger than the actual influence (Klandermans 1984; Muller and Opp 1986; Lindenberg 1989).

(15.) The model and its results are extensively described elsewhere (Baldassarri and Bearman 2007).

(16.) Such niches are the necessary context in which collective sanctions and compliance norms, norms of fairness, or selective incentives can effectively operate.

(17.) Although the size of the market has to be large enough to guarantee exchangeability of actors.