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Collective Action, Corruption, and Social Norms: A Roadmap

By Ella Hawkins, Research Assistant, Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program

Corruption In Fragile States Blog, Collective Action, Social Norms: A Roadmap by Ella Hawkins

Over the past decade, collective action (CA) has received considerable attention from the anti-corruption community. Vital as the concept might be to the fight against endemic corruption, its versatility and multifaceted nature has led to conflicting interpretations of how to best apply CA to the field. For anti-corruption professionals to advance their mission, collective action must be fully understood in both theoretical and practical interventions.

Following the launch of the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA)’s first-of-its-kind Anti-Corruption Collective Action Certificate (ACA) program, CJL’s co-Director Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Senior Advisor Peter Woodrow are co-teaching a series of courses on systems thinking, stakeholder analysis, and theories of change. With this recent partnership in mind, I’ve conducted a literature dig (from 2015 to present) on the intersection of collective action, corruption, and social norms. The purpose of this research is to provide practitioners with a useful roadmap on existing CA literature to better understand the ways in which CA can strengthen anti-corruption policy, research, and interventions.

Important Concepts To Know

1. What is collective action theory?

Collective action theory, founded on ideas dating back to the 17th century, was coined in the 1960s by U.S. economist Mancur Olson. Olson’s theory posits that members of a group will often choose not to pursue a collective action to reach a shared objective (e.g., obtain a public good), even though doing so would be in the best interest of the group. Instead, some members prefer to “free-ride” on the efforts of others, or act in their self-interest, resulting in a suboptimal outcome for all. This behavior can be corrected using positive or negative incentives (such as sanctions, social pressure, or loyalties) to restore equilibrium and reach optimal results.

“For anti-corruption professionals to advance their mission, collective action must be fully understood in both theoretical and practical interventions.”

2. How does it relate to corruption?

There are two scenarios where collective action problems apply to corruption. First is the “free-rider” situation, where members of a group leave the burden of fighting corruption for the public good to others and wait to reap the benefits of reformers along the way. Second is the “prisoner’s dilemma,” where individuals choose a collectively inferior outcome (e.g., perpetuation of corruption) because they do not trust that the group will behave in an honest manner (e.g., a belief that others will pay bribes), and therefore are disincentivized to act honestly themselves.

3. How do social norms relate to collective action?

Norms of reciprocity, reputation, and trust are all categories of social norms that constitute the building blocks of collective action theory as it applies to corruption. Individuals in a group are at least partly influenced by the expectations of how others will act. For example, if people expect many others in the group to be corrupt, the potential cost of being honest or fair rises; consequently, those individuals are less willing to discontinue corruption. This speaks to the power of social norms and their influence on people’s expectations of how others will behave.

4. Why is collective action important?

In situations where corruption is systemic, it will take more than a single actor to disrupt the status quo. Creating trust among players and incentivizing concerted effort will be a vital ingredient in the fight against corruption.

Infographic of The Prisoner's Dilemma by Chris Jenson and Greg Riestenberg, EGIP Wikimedia Gallery
Image illustrating The Prisoner's Dilemma in the form of an infographic by Chris Jensen and Greg Riestenberg, EGIP Wikimedia Gallery

Without considering group dynamics, individuals will be stuck in the “prisoner’s dilemma” where the benefit of acting in one’s own interest will continuously outweigh the benefit of the group. As a result, corruption is bound to prevail. Using a collective action approach is essential to uprooting the often hidden and deeply embedded drivers of systemic corruption and finding innovative ways to overcome them.

How To Use Collective Action

There are two methods in which anti-corruption professionals can use collective action: as a tool and as a diagnosis.

1. A tool to combat corruption

A variety of existing practical guides provide practitioners with concrete tips and tricks for setting up collective action initiatives to combat corruption. Below are a few recommendations of publications to read based on your area of interest and profession.

All anti-corruption professionals looking to better understand the relationship between collective action and corruption should refer to these two comprehensive guides that the UN Global Compact published. The 2015 guide has modules that cover theoretical concepts, practical recommendations for undertaking CA initiatives, and multiple in-depth case studies of CA projects around the world.

The 2021 guide provides an easy-to-follow six-step approach on how to develop, implement, and sustain a CA, with respect to the reader’s local corruption landscape and potential stakeholders. The adaptive framework proposed can be used to address corruption challenges, mitigate possible business risks, and achieve optimal results.

In addition, a handful of other guides geared towards specific stakeholders may be of interest. Notably, most of the current literature in this area either directly or indirectly implicates the private sector with a focus on corrupt business practices (e.g., facilitation payments, bribery of public officials, conflict of interest, inadequacies in governance and public procurement).

2. A diagnosis to understand corruption

Collective action is often used as a diagnosis to understand the theoretical underpinnings of corruption and determine why some anti-corruption programs fail or succeed. Among this literature, there’s been a heated debate on how to apply collective action theory to the study of corruption, and how it can advance anti-corruption programs, policies, and/or research. The debate boils down to the following two arguments:

  • Collective action theory should be used instead of the principal-agent theory

Authors like Bo Rothstein, Anna Persson, and Jan Teorell believe that anti-corruption programs and policies have largely been unsuccessful due to their overreliance on the principal-agent theory which focuses on controlling individual behavior. In opposition, the collective action theory provides a more optimal approach to combatting systemic corruption through incentivizing social collaboration. According to this faction, the principal-agent theory “seriously misconstrues the basic nature of the corruption problem” which lies at the heart of the collective; this becomes a problem where people are better off collaborating, but instead choose to pursue their self-interest due to a lack of incentives to do otherwise (prisoner’s dilemma).

  • Collective action theory should be used in complement to the principal-agent theory

Heather Marquette and Caryn Peiffer, among others, assert the value of the principal-agent theory and contend that it must be used in conjunction with the collective action theory. Marquette and Peiffer go one step further by arguing that the failures of anti-corruption efforts are in fact due to a missing third component—the functionality of corruption—as opposed to a flawed theory. Situations in which corruption serves a utility function occur in countries where institutions are weak and social, structural, economic, and political problems are widespread. Anti-corruption interventions, they argue, can only be successful if diagnosed holistically, pulling insights from all three perspectives: 1) corruption as a principal-agent problem; 2) corruption as a collective action problem; and 3) corruption as problem-solving. This argument is supported by and in alignment with CJL’s description of endemic corruption as a complex adaptive system.

“Using a collective action approach is essential to uprooting the often hidden and deeply embedded drivers of systemic corruption and finding innovative ways to overcome them.”

Case Studies To Read

For those who wish to take a deeper dive, I recommend reading the three case studies outlined below. All three publications provide empirical support to the concepts discussed previously, including collective action theory, the role of social norms, and collective action initiatives.

As endemic corruption continues to thrive and undermine efforts to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, anti-corruption professionals should explore and use collective action to disrupt complex systems where corruption prevails. This post provides, I hope, a roadmap to help get you started.


Ella Hawkins is a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University focusing on anti-corruption and global financial crime. She holds a master’s degree in Criminology and has worked six years for a Swiss multinational company specializing in trust and fiduciary services. She has also previously worked at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Her areas of interest include grand corruption and money laundering in Latin America and other fragile states impacted by transnational organized crime.


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