This website is dedicated to the study of institutions for collective action (ICAs), which we define as follows:
Institutions for collective action are governance regimes of natural or man-made resources, shared and managed groups of users according to collectively set agreements.
More comprehensively, ICAs are 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.
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.
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.
For Tilly collective action ‘consists of all occasions on which sets of people commit pooled resources, including their own efforts, to common efforts’ (Tilly and Tilly, 1981). The forms of collective action that are central to this website are of a less ad-hoc and more long-lasting type. It is, however, not unusual for members of those organisations to also have been involved in protest movements, as for example in many urban and rural revolts in the late medieval Low Countries (see e.g. the Flemish Battle of Spurs (1302)), but many more examples can be found.
Though they were composed of more than just guilds members, many revolts in cities (e.g. the Bürgerkämpfe) during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries led to the establishment of their formal representation in city councils, albeit not everywhere as effectively. These revolts were concentrated especially in the German areas and in the Southern Netherlands (Dumolyn & Haemers, 2005); they only sporadically appeared in the Northern Netherlands and were completely absent from England and France. According to Prak, the degree of urbanization cannot explain these differences (Prak, 1994); the specialization in labor seems to be a more satisfying explanation. In a similar fashion many commoners (the word ‘commoner’ used here as a reference to a person who has use-rights on a common, not as a reference to ‘common folk’) were actively involved in protests and riots against enclosures, in England, France and elsewhere (see for example Te Brake, 1981). In those collective (re)actions, as in the aforementioned urban revolts, the participants fought for rights of political representation, self-government, and political power. Mostly, these revolts failed in achieving their goals, but in some cases, craft guilds succeeded in obtaining political power in the governmental bodies of their community. In short: varieties of collective action often reinforce each other.
We can also refer to institutions for collective action as “corporate collective action”, which refers to the idea that a group of people could form a legal body, a Universitas, a ‘body of people sharing common legal functions and acting as a legal entity’ (Berman 1983) an idea developed during the ‘legal revolution’ of the twelfth/thirteenth century. For a further elaboration on the importance of the idea of universitas for economic development, see the article of Jan Luiten van Zanden about economic growth in a period of fragmentation (Van Zanden 2007).
Typically, such institutions are set-up by the members themselves – although recognition from higher authorities is a condition sine qua non – and are managed by the members themselves. They are self-governing and self-enforced, which means that members set the rules they have to obey themselves and that they control – and if necessary punish their own behaviour and that of others, whether members or not, regarding the use of the resources and services that are offered by the institution.
Self-government and self-enforcement
Institutions for collective action were – and are – (mostly) self-enforced. Instead of relying on external bodies for relief, they provided for their own needs, by forming rather autonomous, self-governed interest groups often enjoying good relations with local authorities. The fact that people formed groups is in itself not striking, but that they actually regulated and controlled the execution of these rules (including punishment) themselves, is a less obvious practice. In order to make their collective project work, guilds and commons both relied heavily on group norms, as opposed to formal legal enactments, as enforcement mechanisms. They designed most of the rules themselves, with or without the involvement of the local powers. This should not be surprising: involvement in the design of the rules has in sociological research proven to offer a better guarantee of success (Jager, Janssen, De Vries et al, 2000). The members supplemented these rules with impressive sets of ‘instruments’ to make their alliance work.
These institutions also frequently developed methods to protect their organization from the functioning of the free market. It has often been assumed – but likewise highly contested – that they tried to achieve a complete monopoly. But in practice it did not necessarily turn out as such (see for example the critique of Hickson and Thompson (1991). Notwithstanding the strict regulation in writing, in practice there were many and often rather radical exceptions to the guilds regulation that prevented any form of monopoly from being established (Panhuysen, 1997).
Exclusiveness of institutions for collective action
Apart from setting rules to regulate the use of resources, access to the institution can be strictly regulated. Whereas collective action in the broad sense can involve large masses of anonymous individuals, institutions for collective action are characterized by exclusiveness: only those that meet certain conditions can become a member.
The individuals taking part in guilds and commons could not remain anonymous; in most cases they even had to swear an oath before they could become a member, which also made them visible and identifiable to the rest of the group. Nowadays, membership of e.g. bread funds – mutual insurance institutions for the self-employed – is regulated along similar lines.
It is known from sociological research that the degree to which participants in collective action know each other influences the potential success (in terms of reciprocity) of that group (Jager, Janssen, De Vries et al, 2000). The practice of swearing an oath when becoming a member of a guild, thus constitutes a fundamental difference between such members and those simply participating in revolts and riots, where the group was often very diverse and anonymous. Their willingness to cooperate in the future lies in the potential benefits participants may obtain and the security this provides. Jager et al (2000) state that ‘Jorgerson and Papciak (1981) found that cooperative behaviour is promoted if the other people can observe one’s personal choice behaviour. This effect only occurs when there is no communication’. This suggests that identifiability has essentially the same effect as communication, namely the promotion of ‘social control’ to exercise personal restraint.
This ‘social control’ mechanism may be responsible for the fact that people are more willing to work hard under conditions of high visibility than in more anonymous settings. Group size also plays a role in the identifiability of behaviour: the larger the group, the more anonymous one is’ (this has in sociological literature also been referred to as a ‘temporal dilemma’ or the choice between investing in today’s personal advantage or safeguarding future generations’ survival (See Jager et al, 2000). This ‘willingness’ has been at the centre of sociological/behavioural research on collective action (e.g. the works of Olson, Ostrom).
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 contact us. 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.
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, Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems (Nobel Prize Lecture), 2009.