AbstractDeveloping a coherent theory of collective action that is also relevant for practice in explaining local development is a major challenge. At the individual level, individuals do take costly actions that effectively take the interests of others into account in many field and experimental settings but this is not consistent with contemporary game theory. We need to move ahead to achieve a more coherent synthesis of theoretical work that posit variables affecting the success or failure diverse forms of collective action. The first section of this paper discusses the growing and extensive theoretical literature positing a large number of structural variables presumed to affect the likelihood of individuals achieving collective action to overcome social dilemmas. None of these structural variables, however, would change predictions if one uses the model of rationality that has proved successful in explaining behavior and outcomes in competitive market settings as a universal theory of human behavior. Thus, the second section examines how a theory of boundedly rational, norm-based human behavior is a better foundation for explaining collective action than a model of maximizing material payoffs to self. The third section examines the linkage between the structural measures first discussed with the individual relationships discussed in the second. The fourth section looks at how changing the rules of a focal dilemma in deeper arenas in efforts to improve the net benefits from collective action by affecting the structural variables of the focal arena. The conclusion reflects on the challenge that social scientists face in testing collective-action theory in light of the large number of variables posited to affect outcomes.
Keywords: collective action, social-ecological systems (SESs), inter-disciplinary research, multi-level development, sustainability.