Overcoming Collective Action

Revolutions require collective action.  This simple activity, used during the week on revolutions, demonstrates the difficulty of carrying out collective action.

This activity is used in a class on comparative politics, during the unit on revolutions.  It is meant for a seminar-sized class.  

It addresses the concept of collective action, which is an important idea in the social sciences.  "Collective action" is an action taken together by a group of people.  A protest is an example of collective action.  Collective action occurs when "the collective action problem" is overcome.  This is the dilemma an individual faces when deciding whether to join a group in some activity - she could spend the time, money and effort to join, or she could not join and potentially still reap the benefits the group achieves.  This inclination to refrain from joining because it is cheaper in terms of money and effort is called "free riding."

Revolution is an example of an activity that requires collective action - it requires many people to participate to be successful.  This activity is a simple game that gets at the logic of the collective action problem and the incentive to free ride, showing that collective action is difficult when you don’t know how other people are going to behave. 

In this activity, students are faced with the options of leaving either 5 or 10 minutes early.  10 minutes is the best scenario for students, but achieving this outcome requires that students assume other students are also going to go for 10 minutes, since the more students that choose this option, the more likely it will occur.  This would be an example of collective action.  However, at the same time, there is an incentive to choose the 5 minute option because even if some students choose the 5 minute option, it is still possible that the 10 minute option might be successful, allowing the 5 minute choosers to reap the benefit without having risked staying the entire period (which would have occurred if they had gambled for 10 minutes but failed).  If a student chooses the 5 minutes option, they get to leave early no matter what happens.  This is an example of free-riding, since the individual gets the benefit without participating in collective action.

The instructor's directions will clarify the activity.  Upon entering class, students are told:

"Take out a small piece of paper, and put your name on it. You have two options for how section will end this week. Your first option is that you may leave five minutes early, no questions asked. I will not be covering any material in the last five minutes, so students who remain in class will gain no advantage either from substantive discussion or from participation. To take this option, write '5 min' on your sheet of paper. The second option you have is to gamble for the opportunity to leave 10 minutes early. If you choose to gamble, write 'gamble' on your sheet of paper. After everyone has made a decision, I will collect all of the sheets of paper. I will count the number of people who chose to gamble, and I will roll a die that many times. If I roll a 6 in any of those tries, EVERYONE may leave 10 minutes early.  As should be obvious, the more students who choose to gamble, the better your probability of leaving 10 minutes early. If I do not roll a 6, those who gambled must stay the entire section, while those who chose to leave 5 minutes early may do so.

Consider your decision, and write it on the piece of paper. There are no consequences for your grade or participation to your decision."

After making their choices, the class compares the outcome to the situation of peasants in a revolution, which was the topic of the reading that week.   They discuss the incentives they faced in the activity and how this might apply to the peasants in Russia and China that came together to revolt.  Through this activity, they should come away with a better understanding of the collective action problem, free riding, and why collective action matters for revolution.

This activity could be used in any class addressing the concept of collective action.