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Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement is a theoretical study of the dynamics of public-spirited collective action as well as a substantial study of the American civil rights movement and the local and national politics that surrounded it. In this major historical application of rational choice theory to a social movement, Dennis Chong reexamines the problem of organizing collective action by focusing on the social, psychological, and moral incentives of political activism that are often neglected by rational choice theorists. Using game theoretic concepts as well as dynamic models, he explores how rational individuals decide to participate in social movements and how these individual decisions translate into collective outcomes. In addition to applying formal modeling to the puzzling and important social phenomenon of collective action, he offers persuasive insights into the political and psychological dynamics that provoke and sustain public activism. This remarkably accessible study demonstrates how the civil rights movement succeeded against difficult odds by mobilizing community resources, resisting powerful opposition, and winning concessions from the government.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226104416
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/1991
  • Series: American Politics and Political Economy Series Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 261
  • Sales rank: 1,107,712
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Dennis Chong is professor of political science at Northwestern University.

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Read an Excerpt

Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement

By Dennis Chong

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1991 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-22869-3


Public-Spirited Collective Action

Well, in a way everyone's self interested, aren't they? But you must admit there are degrees of it. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

This is a study of the dynamics of public-spirited collective action. By "public-spirited collective action" I am referring to large-scale political activism that is motivated by such public concerns as the environment, peace, civil rights, women's rights, and other moral and ideological issues. I will address two major questions: (1) how do "rational" individuals decide whether or not to participate in such social movements? and (2) how do these individual decisions translate into collective outcomes? In short, what is the relationship between—to use Thomas Schelling's (1978) phrase—"micromotives and macrobehavior"?

Although I will develop a general model of collective action, most of the examples I will cite to illustrate my study are drawn from the postwar civil rights movement in the United States. The modern civil rights movement is probably the quintessential example of public-spirited collective action in our time. Not only did it spark radical changes in American society, it also served in subsequent years as the inspiration and model for a host of new public concerns. The student movement, the peace movement, the women's movement, the homosexual rights movement, and other social movements are all to a significant extent riding on the coattails of the civil rights movement. Moreover, from the standpoint of research, the civil rights movement constitutes an excellent case to use in the testing of hypotheses about collective action because it has been so thoroughly documented. Detailed histories have been written, as well as memoirs and biographies; consequently, we are confident about the facts of this case, a claim that cannot always be made about other episodes of political activism.

The major premise in this study is that people are rational actors whose decisions are guided by rational calculations. A rational person is assumed to be driven by the pursuit of goals. In and of itself, this assumption would not provide us with any leverage to account for individual behavior, since with no great difficulty we could infer the presence of some goal orientation in every action. What gives the rationality premise some explanatory power is the corollary assumption that only goals that are private in nature have any intrinsic value to an individual. Only private goals, in other words, are pursued for their own sake.

Private goals are differentiated from socially defined goals in that the former do not require the consideration of other individuals for their contemplation and enjoyment. On the other hand, socially defined goals such as fame, honor, and power derive their meaning and value only in the context of a social collectivity, since notoriety and esteem necessitate the adulation or respect of an audience, and power requires that there be subjects to be persuaded, influenced, ruled over, or dominated. Fame, honor, power, and other socially defined goals cannot be contemplated without reference to more than a single individual.

Socially defined goals, under the assumptions of the rational choice model, have value only to the extent that they are instrumentally valuable for the attainment of intrinsic goals. In other words, a rational individual never seeks socially defined goals for their own sake but only insofar as they can be used as stepping-stones to private goals.

At first glance, it would seem to follow straightforwardly why a rational individual would participate in a movement. If he valued the goal of the movement more than the cost of his participation, then it would be in his interest to become involved. On the other hand, if the cost of participation was excessive, he would refrain.

But this simple interest-based explanation turns out to be flawed for two reasons. First, it misconceives the nature of the goods that are sought by participants in social movements; and second, it misunderstands how these goods must be produced.

Goals such as civil rights, women's rights, peace, and the like are public rather than private goods. As public goods, they are distinguished by three qualities: (1) they are "jointly supplied"; (2) noncontributors to the production of these goods cannot be excluded from their benefits; and (3) the benefits from these goods are not susceptible to "crowding."

Consider each of these features in turn. First, private and public goods vary in the extent to which their benefits can be partitioned and shared equally among members of a group. Pure public goods are jointly supplied, meaning that whenever the good is produced, all members of a group benefiting from its production do so to an equal degree. In contrast, the benefits of a pure private good can be divided up in any number of ways among the beneficiaries. Every member of the group can receive an equal share; one person can monopolize the entire good; or any intermediate outcome can be instituted. The proverbial pie, for instance, is a private good; it can be cut into any number of equal or unequal slices and distributed, or it can be given whole to one person. On the other hand, the public goods that were pursued over the course of the civil rights movement were close to being pure public goods in this respect. The removal of Jim Crow barriers, the passage of national legislation expanding the rights of blacks, the curtailment of racial prejudice, and other goals achieved by the civil rights movement are all public goods that bring similar benefits to all blacks.

A second difference between private and public goods is the extent to which noncontributors to the production of these goods can be excluded from receiving any benefits. In the case of private goods, noncontributors can be barred entirely from consuming the good. The pie has to be bought from the market before it can be eaten; those who do not pay the price of the private good are denied access to it. Noncontributors to public goods, on the other hand, nonetheless cannot be restricted from consuming them. Whether or not a person participated in the civil rights movement had no bearing on whether he would reap the benefits generated by those who did. The social and legislative changes produced by the movement, in other words, are not enjoyed exclusively by those who made the effort but by all those sympathetic to the cause, including those who did not participate.

A third contrast between private and public goods is the extent to which each is susceptible to crowding. When a person consumes a private good, he uses up the utility or benefit available from that good as he consumes it. His enjoyment of the good "crowds out" the potential enjoyment that others would receive from it. Once the pie is eaten, the benefits of the pie are no longer available to others. Public goods are different. In the pure case, the benefits of a public good are not susceptible to crowding. My use of a public good does not subtract from your enjoyment of it. The accomplishments of the civil rights movement, for example, are not susceptible to crowding. One person's enjoyment of the right to vote, the right to attend desegregated schools, and the right to equal access to public accommodations does not detract from another person's enjoyment of the same freedoms.

Civil rights, women's rights, peace, and other collective goals, moreover, are public goods that can be produced only if large numbers of people work to achieve them. This points to the second weakness in a simple interest-based explanation. Blacks, women, students, and antiwar protesters had to marshal their collective resources to make their demands felt in the political system. No individual could supply the public good for the benefit of the entire group, and, more importantly, no average contributor could significantly affect the likelihood that the public good would be produced; rather, a collective effort was necessary to obtain a group objective.

A Collective Action Problem

It turns out that rational individuals often will have difficulty producing public goods that depend upon collective contributions. Since these goods, if supplied, can be enjoyed equally by everyone, including those who have not contributed their share of the cost, there will be a strong temptation for everyone to let other people pay for them. Small groups sometimes have the ability to overcome this problem. When the group of individuals seeking a public good is sufficiently small that individual decisions to contribute or not contribute are contingent on the willingness of everyone else to contribute (I will contribute if everyone else does, but not otherwise) then each individual will have a determinant impact on whether the public good is produced. Each individual knows that if he refuses to contribute, everyone else will do likewise, and the good will not materialize. Under these circumstances, each individual in deciding whether to contribute only has to ascertain if the value of the public good to him exceeds his share of its cost; if it does, then it is economical for him to contribute.

For many public goods, however, the contribution or noncontribution of any single individual is irrelevant to whether the public good is provided. The question with these goods is not whether any individual contributes but whether enough people overall contribute. Any individual contribution will not make the difference in whether or not the good is generated. Rather, if enough people in the group contribute, the public good will be provided. On the other hand, if not enough members of the group contribute, then the public good will go wanting. From the standpoint of any individual, therefore, it is not what he does that counts; it is what the other members of the group do that will determine the outcome of the process.

In a national oil shortage, for instance, my decision to cut back on the use of my automobile will not prevent a national crisis from developing; such a crisis can be averted only if there is an adequate amount of conservation being practised by the rest of the population. Whether a serious fuel shortage will be averted depends on the behavior of other people and not my behavior alone.

Under these circumstances, what incentive do I have to act as a responsible citizen? My behavior does not matter, so why should I inconvenience myself? If everyone else works to conserve fuel in the public interest, then the crisis will be averted. But if everyone acts only for himself, there will surely be a crisis. Since in the first scenario there is no crisis, I should feel free to drive to my heart's content. In the second scenario there is a crisis, and any attempt I might make to prevent it would be wasted, for I alone cannot change anything; therefore I should still go ahead and drive to my heart's content.

The same logic applies to social movements that seek public goods. The goals sought by the civil rights movement required the wholesale participation of large numbers of concerned citizens. Any average activist could not have any significant impact on the outcome of the movement, yet he would be eligible to share in any of the benefits that resulted from its efforts. For any rational individual in these situations, the temptation will be to save on the cost of contributing to the public good. If others come through and produce the good, he will share in its benefits without having shared in its cost. If the other members of the group do not produce the good, then his single contribution would not have made any difference.

A collective action problem arises when individuals, acting out of pure self-interest, are unable to coordinate their efforts to produce and consume certain public goods they find desirable. Each individual, figuring that he can enjoy with impunity the fruits of the public good without contributing, tries to get a free ride on the efforts of others. Unfortunately, since everyone thinks alike, no public good is produced, and everyone is worse off than he would have been had each contributed his fair share and the public good been provided.

Collective Action as a Prisoner's Dilemma

The collective action problem, as I have characterized it above, can be simply recast in the game-theoretic terminology of a "prisoner's dilemma" game (Hardin 1971). (See figure 1.1.) Not all collective action problems in the provision of public goods, it should be noted, have the preference structure of a prisoner's dilemma. In general, a collective action problem arises whenever individuals arrive at strictly Pareto-inferior outcomes in the pursuit of their self-interest (Taylor 1987, 19). Depending on the case being studied, then, some collective action problems might be more accurately modeled by alternative games such as "chicken" or "assurance," two other staple games in the literature (see Taylor 1987; Taylor and Ward 1982; Hardin 1982; and Hampton 1987). Moreover, different types of collective action problems arising in the course of the same case may call for more than one game structure, or even hybrid game structures. Indeed, I will argue later that public-spirited collective action, when placed in the context of ongoing community interaction, is often transformed from a prisoner's dilemma into an assurance game.

In the original parable of the prisoner's dilemma, two apprehended suspects to a serious crime are detained incommunicado and faced with the following choice: each has been given the opportunity to turn state's witness for the purpose of convicting the other; if one prisoner agrees to confess while the other keeps silent, the confessor will get off scot-free while the other prisoner will be convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. If neither prisoner confesses, both will escape prosecution for the serious crime, but will nevertheless be prosecuted and convicted for a minor crime that carries a one-year prison term. Finally—and herein lies the dilemma—if both prisoners elect to confess to the authorities, both will end up being convicted for the crime, although they will receive a slightly reduced sentence (e.g., five years) for having cooperated with the police.

From the point of view of either prisoner, it turns out that it is better to confess to the police no matter what the other prisoner does. Each reasons that if the other confesses, he would be wise to confess as well, since under this contingency, a confession would amount to a five-year term, whereas holding out would result in a sentence twice as long. Moreover, it is still better for each to confess even if the other stays mum, since that will lead to freedom (i.e., the dropping of all charges) as opposed to a one-year stay in prison for keeping quiet.

Unfortunately, what is reasonable and desirable at the individual level turns out to be collectively disastrous; matched confessions by the prisoners reward them with identical five-year prison terms, a much worse outcome than if they had both refused to cooperate with the authorities.

Mutatis mutandis, political activists face the same collective action problem in contemplating whether or not to participate in a cause (see figure 1.2). Assume that each individual is engaged in a game against all other potential participants in the collective endeavor. Each individual is faced with the choice of either participating or not participating—i.e., cooperating (C) with the group or defecting (D) from it. Similarly, the rest of the group, taken as a whole, can choose either to participate or to abstain. If the rest of the group does not contribute, the public good will not be obtained, and the individual would be wise to conserve his resources. If, on the other hand, the rest of the group does contribute, the public good will be obtained whether or not the individual contributes, so he may as well refrain from contributing under this contingency also. Therefore no matter what the rest of the group decides to do, the individual should not contribute to collective action. But if every individual decides not to contribute, the public good goes unprovided, which is clearly suboptimal, since the lot of every person can be improved if all contribute.

In sum, when collective action is formulated as a prisoner's dilemma, it appears that plans to initiate mass political action are doomed from the start; rational individuals will prefer to be free riders rather than participants in collective efforts to obtain public goods.


The first half of this book explores various ways out of this collective action problem. I consider both "internal" solutions that do not involve changing the payoff structure of the prisoner's dilemma (PD) and "external" solutions that entail changes in individual preferences and expectations (Taylor 1987, 22). One solution, explored in chapter 2, builds on the principle that small groups are more likely to cooperate than large groups. As I suggested above, when the group is small, each member of the group may have a pivotal impact on whether or not the public good is produced. This would be the case, for example, if everyone decided to cooperate only if he could see that every other group member was cooperating. If the group operates with perfect information—everyone knows the nature of the collective good and the critical role that everyone plays in producing it—then every member will contribute with the confidence that the others will follow suit.


Excerpted from Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement by Dennis Chong. Copyright © 1991 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures
1. Public-Spirited Collective Action
A collective action problem
Collective action as a prisoner's dilemma
2. All-Or-Nothing Public Goods
How boycotts can be sustained
Nonviolent protest
The public relations (PR) game
On police brutality
3. Selective Social Incentives and Reputational Concerns
Social incentives
The iterated prisoner's dilemma
Small-scale and large-scale conventions
Reputational concerns
On reputation and cooperation
Reputation and civil rights activism
Commitments in Selma
Private vs. public preferences
Sympathy and moral concerns
4. Narrowly Rational Expressive Benefits
The benefits of participation
Self-serving expressive benefits
Perceptions of costs and benefits
More on the perception of costs and benefits: "As if" preferences
Correlated costs and benefits
5. Creating the Motivation to Participate in Collective Action
Socially instrumental value
Fulfilling obligations
Successful collective action
6. Coordination Problems in Assurance Games
Coordination vs. prisoner's dilemma problems
Lynch mobs
Coordination among political activists
Tipping phenomena
Real assurance games
Political entrepreneurs
Data on the student sit-in participants
Refusing to leave well enough alone
7. A Formal Model of Collective Action
Some properties of the supply-and-demand model
Analysis of the supply-and-demand model
The time path of the system
Summary of deductions from the supply-and-demand model
Analyzing the origins of the civil rights movement
Changes in the strength of the opposition
Coordinating preferences: Leadership and organizations
Changes in government responsiveness
8. Strategies of Collective Action
The Albany and Birmingham campaigns
Modeling the Albany and Birmingham campaigns
9. The Rise and Fall of Collective Action
Changes in the assurance game
Satisfaction and the exhaustion of ideas
Disappointment and backlash
The decline of the civil rights movement
The dynamics of rise and decline
The time path of political mobilization
Solution of the general equation
Stability conditions of the model
The path of the civil rights movement
10. Conclusion

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