Be Neutral
A Publication of the Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution


Theory to Practice:  A Recipe for Collective Action

Most of us, somewhere back in the receding memories of our education, were exposed to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, that iconic game-theory formulation that introduced us to the idea of a public good.  If we learned this in an economics class, we were led to believe that cooperation was not possible in the long-term and that life was “red in tooth and claw” and necessarily “nasty, brutish, and short,” at least without the intervention of privatization or external regulation.  But many of us looked around with worried looks and whispered amongst ourselves because we knew that this was not consistent with how we saw people behave in the real world.

Now, we didn’t remain idealistic for long.  You don’t have to look very far to find plenty of uncooperative, selfish, out-only-for-themselves people living amongst us who nevertheless know the wisdom of prosociality.  And in our most honest moments, we could admit that we are sometimes guilty of selfishness ourselves. But we clung to the hope that we might be able to create conditions under which the best of people might emerge, where their natural tendency to cooperate would be promoted.  After all, if we didn’t believe this, we wouldn’t have become mediators and facilitators, right?

Recently, we have found redemption.  In 2009, Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist at Indiana University, became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics.  She has devoted her career to studying the conditions under which the “tragedy of the commons” (where shared resources are destroyed due to an unwillingness to coordinate behavior) is averted; conditions that allow groups to manage shared resources for themselves; conditions, in short, that promote collective action.  Lin’s scholarship is daunting by itself, and the broader literature on collective action and public goods is larger still. But at a recent conference, I had the good fortune to spend time with David Sloan Wilson, the prominent evolutionary biologist, who has taken notice of Lin’s work and is integrating it with his own.  As David pointed out in our discussions, Lin’s decades of field work, in many different contexts, can be boiled down to eight essential ingredients, a “recipe,” if you will, for collective action:

1. Clearly Defined Boundaries.  The identity of the group and its rights to the common resource must be clearly delineated.  We need to clearly know who enjoys the benefit of the resource and who does not, so as to support the expectation that group members will contribute to its members.

2. Proportional Equivalence between Benefits and Costs.  Group members must negotiate a system that rewards members for their contributions.  High status and other disproportionate benefits must be earned.  A sense of fairness is crucial.

3. Collective-Choice Arrangements.  Group members must be able to create their own rules and make their own decisions by consensus.  People hate being told what to do, but will work hard for group goals that they have agreed upon.

4. Monitoring.  Managing a shared resource is inherently vulnerable to those who take the benefit without contributing to its maintenance.  Unless the group can monitor members’ exploitive behavior easily and inexpensively, cooperation will collapse and the common resource will be lost.

5. Graduated Sanctions.  Transgressions need not require heavy-handed punishment, at least initially. Often gossip or a gentle reminder is sufficient, but more severe forms of punishment must also be waiting in the wings for use when necessary.  Warnings should precede expulsion from the group.

6. Conflict Resolution Mechanisms.  It must be possible to resolve conflicts quickly and in ways that are perceived as fair by group members.  In other words, there should be an ample supply of talented conflict resolution professionals!

7. Minimal Recognition of Rights to Organize.  Groups must have the authority to manage their own affairs.  Externally imposed rules are unlikely to be adapted to local circumstances and violate Ingredient 3.  Local knowledge should be leveraged.

8. Small, Multi-Layer Groups. The previous ingredients work best in relatively small groups. Society at a larger scale must have groups interacting with groups, often in multiple layers.  For example, a small group of neighbors can form an effective association, and a small group of neighbor associations can form a community.

(Adapted from David’s blog, Evolution for Everyone, at

There is overwhelming research literature that demonstrates that these “ingredients” apply to all sorts of groups, and some careful thought will reveal that they apply to most, if not all, of the groups that dispute resolution practitioners encounter.  But don’t take my word for it, David is putting Lin’s recipe into action.

In the Binghamton Neighborhood Project, (, David is putting social science theory to work, collaborating with community partners to improve human welfare, one neighborhood at a time.  The collaboration helps community groups coalesce around Lin’s principles in a way that greatly enhances the likelihood that neighborhoods will develop a sense of shared destiny and will work together to make life better for everyone.  The possibilities are numerous, but their current focus is on what they call the “Design Your Own Park” project, which is empowering neighborhood groups to turn vacant lots and neglected spaces into public parks of their own design.

Beyond the project’s obvious benefits – safe, outdoor play spaces and venues for neighborhood events – the planning process requires broad-scale interaction and on-going shared responsibility within a framework that produces the social capital so critical for collective action, but is so often missing from our neighborhoods. Nobel-Prize quality theory meets boots-on-the-ground practice.  Imagine that.

In closing, I’d like to support Tim Hedeen’s recent claim in this column, that “More Knowledge is Good,” along with a broadening of its mandate.  Tim is right that there are significant challenges in overcoming the differences in language spoken by researchers and by practitioners, but that the benefit to the field is worth the effort.  Both academics and practitioners share responsibility for meeting in the middle.  But I caution that we can’t stop with the dispute resolution literature.  There is a convergence underway that is leading virtually all social research to scientific methods.  And it is science that will ultimately inform our field, a notion that has been at the core of our work at the Consortium for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution for many years.  It may not be possible for all of us to become scientists, but it is clear that many scientists will become conflict resolvers.  Welcoming Lin, David, and many, many others, embracing their science, and explicitly making it part of our practice, will be nothing short of the key to the field’s survival.


Gregory Todd Jones, M.B.A., M.P.A., J.D., Ph.D., is Director of Research at the Interuniversity Consortium for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution and Faculty Research Fellow at the Georgia State University College of Law. He has been a regular visitor to the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods and a frequent contributor to the literature at the intersection of science and conflict resolution, in dispute resolution journals, law reviews and journals, and peer-reviewed science journals.