Cooperation Commons: Interdisciplinary study of cooperation and collective action.
Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Environment
Summary of: Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Environment
The changing nature of technologies of information and communication has presented a case for reconceptualizing collective action, using the principle of boundary-crossing between private and public domains.
Recent years have seen a series of questions asking the applicability and usefulness of traditional collective action theory to certain contemporary phenomena. To name an example, Olson's (1965) proposition that small groups are more successful than larger ones in his account of collective action theory can now be widely contested with evidence from contemporary networks such as the highly successful Indymedia (a large network of journalists, writers, and everyday people organised around participatory media principles).
The paper first examines traditional collective action theory in relation to two central elements: the problem of free-riding and the importance of formal organisation as one important way to overcome it. The challenges presented by new uses of information and communication technologies address specifically to these fundamental elements.
A number of examples are presented, to drive the point that collective action theory has evolved or departed from its traditional concept especially with respect to free-riding (do I contribute or free-ride) and the role of, and dependence on organisation. Some examples are:
These examples effectively illustrate how the nature of free-riding, organisations, and organising have changed in the contemporary media environment. In the case of the problem of free-riding, the binary decision of whether one contributes or free-ride is no longer apparent. Instead, the individual frequently go back and forth through a process of interaction and negotiation for collective action. In many of these scenarios, decisions to free-ride or contribute can also no longer be easily discerned.
The rise of new technological and participatory media have also made communication methods that used to be exclusive to formal organisations, now available for individuals. Changing structures of organisation that are made possible by communication technologies have also resulted in the ability of social movements and groups to take on certain functions of formal organisations even surpassing the possibilities of formal organisations. Again, the boundaries are blurred, «between traditional hierarchical forms and flexible network structures».
By studying these phenomena, collective action theory is now reframed using the principle of boundary-crossing between private and public. In this context, when an individual cross a boundary between private and public realms, and when this boundary is crossed by two or more people in conjunction with a public good, collective action is said to have occurred. This is a rich frame by which several scenarios in the current contemporary media environment can be accommodated:
The facilitation of private-public boundaries results in exchanges that could arguably advance collective action. Technologies that help to identify, for example, private interests, experiences, and acquaintance once identified as shared between people can prompt collective action. Other than permitting the constitution of pubic spheres around commons interests, this focus would also accommodate the continuum by which individuals and groups can easily move back and forth between private and public realms.
The notion of using the private-public boundary crossing as the principle to explain contemporary types of collective action is a very interesting one, especially in relation to the commons paradigm in the media environment. Such reconceptualization of collective action is also necessary, in light of the various types of convergence that the world is witnessing today. The convergence of technologies and growing interdependence between people and their uses of technologies, converging communities and organisations, and convergence in media as they continuously evolve over time.
Having said this, there is also a number of theories and constructs which I think would be very useful to study along with the work raised by this paper. For example, borrowing the lens of structuration theory (Giddens, 1986) to look at how the nature of technologies in use reflect the structural and agency properties of the private and public realms would enhance understandings around the social processes of these technologies (how technologies influence and are influenced by people). The theoretical constructs of the commons, such as the Prisoner's dilemma and the tragedy as conceived by Hardin (1968) would also be relevant to study with respect to the free-riding problem and the role of organisations raised by traditional collective action theory. And along with this paper, it may also be worthwhile to reframe the commons concept in light of the contemporary scenarios of the commons.
Bimber, B., Flanagin, A. J. and Stohl, C. (2005) Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Environment. Communication Theory, 15 (4), 365-388.
Giddens, A. (1986) The constitution of society: outline of the theory of structuration, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Hardin, G. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 62, 1243-1248
Rheingold, H. (2002) Smart mobs: the next social revolution, Perseus Books Group, Cambridge.
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