Get access

Analyzing collective action


  • Elinor Ostrom

    Search for more papers by this author
    • Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, USA, and Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA.

  • This draws on extensive research undertaken with colleagues at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis and on an earlier chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics, ed. Carles Boix and Susan Stokes (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press). Presentations of earlier drafts were made at Duke University and at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University. The excellent editing of Patty Lezotte and David Price has been of great help.


Collective-action problems pervade all societies as well as ecological systems used by humans. Substantial evidence has accrued during the last several decades that human actors are able to solve some (but definitely not all) collective-action problems on their own without external rules and enforcement imposed from the outside. In this article, I review some of the structural variables that have been found to affect the likelihood of collective action. Then, I address the need to base future work on collective action on a more general theory of human behavior than has been used to model collective action over the last five decades. In the last section, I discuss how structural variables affect the core relationships of reputation, trust, and reciprocity as these affect levels of cooperation.