Research: Critical Mass Theory

Critical Mass Theory and its precursors

  1. Selective Incentives in an Apex Game: An Experiment in Coalition Formation. Pamela Oliver. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 24, No. 1. (Mar., 1980), pp. 113-141.
    Abstract: The effect of a selective incentive system on the likelihood of collective action is tested using an experiment with an Apex Game, a power-imbalanced game in which the weak players choose between competing against each other to form an alliance with the strong player or cooperating with each other in a unanimous alliance of weak players (excluding the strong player). A theoretical introduction analyzes the nature and importance of selective incentives for collective action and demonstrates the relevance of Apex Game experiments for studies of collective action. Results confirm the predictions: Formation of the coalition of weak players rises from 20% in the control condition to 62% when a negative selective incentive system is added.
  2. Rewards and Punishments as Selective Incentives for Collective Action: Theoretical Investigations?  Pamela Oliver. American Journal of Sociology; 1980, 85, 6, May, 1356-1375.
    Abstract: Positive & negative selective incentives are shown to have different structural implications when used to induce collective action. Positive selective incentives are effective for motivating small numbers of cooperators & generate pressures toward smaller, more elite actions, unless the incentives have jointness of supply. Negative selective incentives are effective for motivating unanimous cooperation, but their use is often uneven & cyclical, & may generate hostilities which disrupt the cooperation they enforce. Examples of these dynamics are found in many arenas of collective action & social movements.
  3. Rewards and Punishments as Selective Incentives: An Apex Game. Pamela Oliver. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 28, No. 1. (Mar., 1984), pp. 123-148.
    Abstract: Apex games place weak players in the formal equivalent of a multi-person prisoner’s dilemma in which each weak player must choose between competing against the other weak players for the opportunity to coalesce with the strong player or cooperating with the other weak players to produce a jointly preferable outcome. Punishments, not rewards, are predicted to be effective for enforcing cooperation by the weak players. Fifty-four groups of four subjects each played the weak role in a five-person apex game with a confederate playing the apex (strong) role in a 3× 3 design with factors of low, medium, and high levels of rewards and punishments available as incentives. As predicted, punishments but not rewards had a significant impact on increasing cooperation. Despite this effect, many groups experienced harmful effects of punishment availability that increased the risk of retaliatory spirals. It is concluded that a second-order dilemma may be seen in prisoner’s dilemmas, since punishments are both necessary for enforcing cooperation and detrimental to that cooperation.
  4. A Theory of the Critical Mass. I. Interdependence, Group Heterogeneity, and the Production of Collective Action. Pamela Oliver, Gerald Marwell, Ruy Teixeira, American Journal of Sociology; 1985, 91, 3, Nov, 522-556.
    Abstract: Collective action usually depends on a “critical mass” that behaves differently from typical group members. At times, the critical mass provides some level of the good for others who do nothing, while at other times, it pays the start-up costs & induces widespread collective action. Formal analysis, supplemented by simulations, shows that the first scenario is most likely when the production function relating inputs of resource contributions to outputs of a collective good is decelerating (characterized by diminishing marginal returns), whereas the second scenario is most likely when the production function is accelerating (characterized by increasing marginal returns). Decelerating production functions yield either surpluses of contributors or order effects in which contributions are maximized if the least interested contribute first, thus generating strategic gaming & competition among potential contributors. The start-up costs in accelerating production functions create severe feasibility problems for collective action, & contractual or conventional resolutions to collective dilemmas are most appropriate when the production function is accelerating.
  5. The Paradox of Group Size in Collective Action: A Theory of the Critical Mass. II. Pamela Oliver and Gerald Marwell. American Sociological Review; 1988, 53, 1, Feb, 1-8.
    Abstract: Many sociologists incorrectly believe that larger groups are less likely to support collective action than are smaller ones. Hypothetical simulations are presented to support the argument that the effect of group size, in fact, depends on costs. If the costs of collective goods rise with the number who share in them, larger groups act less frequently than smaller ones. If the costs vary little with group size, larger groups should exhibit more collective action than smaller ones because larger groups have more resources & are more likely to have a critical mass of highly interested & resourceful actors. The positive effects of group size increase with group heterogeneity & nonrandom social ties. Paradoxically, when groups are heterogeneous, fewer contributors may be needed to provide a good to larger groups, making collective action less complex & less expensive.
  6. Social Networks and Collective Action: A Theory of the Critical Mass. III.” (Gerald Marwell, Pamela E. Oliver, and Ralph Prahl). American Journal of Sociology Volume 94, Number 3, pages 502-534. (1988) (NOTE: This contains significant typographical errors which are corrected in an erratum published in Volume 94, Number 4, January 1989, pp. 519-522.)
    Abstract: Most analyses of collective action agree that overcoming the freerider problem requires organizing potential contributors, thus making their decisions interdependent. The potential for organizing depends on the social ties in the group, particularly on the overall density or frequency of ties, on the extent to which they are centralized in a few individuals, & on the costs of communicating & coordinating actions through these ties. Mathematical analysis & computer simulations extend a formal microsocial theory of interdependent collective action to treat social networks & organization costs. As expected, the overall density of social ties in a group improves its prospects for collective action. More significant, because less expected, are the findings that show that the centralization of network ties always has a positive effect on collective action & that the negative effect of costs on collective action declines as the group’s resource or interest heterogeneity increases. These nonobvious results are due to the powerful effects of selectivity, the organizer’s ability to concentrate organizing efforts on those individuals whose potential contributions are the largest.
  7. “A Theory of the Critical Mass, VI. Cliques and Collective Action.” (Gerald Marwell and Pamela Oliver). In Henrik Kreutz and Johann Bacher, eds. Disziplin und Kreativität. Sozialwissenschaftliche Computersimulation: theoretische Experimente und praktische Anwendung. Opladen: Leske + Budrich. 1991.
  8. Reach and Selectivity as Strategies of Recruitment for Collective Action: A Theory of the Critical Mass, V.” Ralph Prahl, Gerald Marwell, and Pamela E. Oliver. Journal of Mathematical Sociology; 1991, 16, 2, 137-164.
    Abstract: A mathematical model is developed to represent the process by which an organizer enacts a strategy to recruit participants for a collective action campaign. Elements of the model include: (1) the reach of the strategy – the sheer number of people recruited; (2) the selectivity of the strategy – the degree to which it focuses recruitment efforts on those with the greatest interest & resource levels; (3) interdependence – how recruits take into account the effect of their actions on those of others; & (4) the production function – the relationship between the total amount recruits contribute to the campaign to the amount of the collective good that is obtained. For the types of campaigns investigated, both reach & selectivity have thresholds that must be achieved if any of the collective good is to be obtained. Once all necessary thresholds are reached, further increases in reach or selectivity for resource are more efficacious than further increases in selectivity for interest. Numerous implications of these findings for real-life recruitment strategies are discussed.
  9. “Modelling the Second Order Problem is Not Easy: Comment on Heckathorn.” Rationality and Society 2: 188-122 (1990).
  10. The Critical Mass in Collective Action : A Micro-social Theory. Gerald Marwell and Pamela Oliver (1993). Cambridge; New York, Cambridge University Press.
    Book description: People who have a common interest in a collective good do not necessarily find it easy to act collectively in pursuit of that interest. There is usually some mismatch between individual and group interests. There may be an efficacy problem, when no individual is able to provide enough common benefit to make acting worthwhile, or a free-rider problem, when most or all individuals hope that someone else will provide the good. Any attempt to overcome these problems through coordination and collaboration entails costs and problems of its own. This book is a formal mathematical analysis of some of the processes whereby groups solve the problems of collective action. The authors break new ground in showing that the problem of collective action requires a model of group process and group heterogeneity and cannot be deduced from simple models of individual behavior. They emphasize the role of small subgroups of especially motivated and resourceful individuals who form the “critical mass” that sets collective action in motion.
    1. The critical mass and the problem of collective action
    2. Building blocks: goods, groups and processes
    3. The paradox of group size
    4. The dynamics of production functions
    5. Social networks: density, centralization and cliques
    6. Selectivity in social networks
    7. Reach and selectivity as strategies of recruitment
    8. Unfinished business
  11. “Theory is Not a Social Dilemma.” (Gerald Marwell and Pamela Oliver). Social Psychology Quarterly 57 (December): 373. 1994.
    Abstract: This paper presents a reply by Gerald Marwell and Pamela Oliver to two reviews of their book, The Critical Mass in Collective Action: A Micro-Social Theory. Theory is a public good. It is non-excludable, in that anyone can use it whether or not she or he contributed to bringing it about. Like all public goods, it has specific properties. It is very high in jointness of supply–use of the theory by one person does not diminish the amount of it available to another. And, more interestingly, despite theory’s character as a public good, authors of theory welcome free riding. In fact, free riders create even more incentive to contribute new theory than would no free riding at all. One of our more strongly held beliefs is that the creation of understanding is a collective effort. The authors of the two reviews, Karen S. Cook, David Karp and Bert Klandermans, are among the ablest colleagues in the task of understanding collective social processes. Marwell and Oliver thank them for their detailed and generous attention to their work. In general, they agree with their comments.
  12. Oliver, Pamela E., and Gerald Marwell. 2001. “Whatever Happened to Critical Mass Theory? A Retrospective and Assessment.” Sociological Theory 19:292-311.
    Abstract: Between 1983 & 1993, the authors published a series of articles & a book promulgating & explicating “Critical Mass Theory,” a theory of public goods provision in groups. In this article, we seek to trace the growth, change, or decline of the theory, primarily through an analysis of all journal citations of the theory. We find that the majority of citations are essentially gratuitous or pick a single point from the theory, which may or may not be central to the theory. However, we identify four lines of theorizing that creatively use substantial parts of Critical Mass Theory in their own development: (1) theories relevant to issues in communication studies such as interaction media & shared databases; (2) Macy’s work on adaptive learning models; (3) Heckathorn’s models of sanctioning systems; & (4) theories that are centrally concerned with issues of influence in collective goods processes. A few additional, less-developed lines of work are also discussed. None of this work identifies itself as being itself “Critical Mass Theory,” but many of the innovations & assertions of the theory are important bases for its development. 2 Tables, 56 References.
  13. “Recent Developments in Critical Mass Theory.” (Pamela E. Oliver and Gerald Marwell). Pp. 172-193 in New Directions in Sociological Theory: Growth of Contemporary Theories, Morris Zelditch and Joseph Berger, editors. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. 2002
    Abstract: Contemporary developments within the critical mass theory research program are investigated. An overview of critical mass theory’s origins emphasizes the perspective’s deviation from Mancur Olson’s (1965) understanding of collective action. Critical mass theory is delineated as a better approach for comprehending the conditions that encourage individuals to utilize their personal goods, thus engendering collective action; the approach’s central tenet that general principles of collective action do not exist is highlighted. The application of critical mass theory in contemporary communications literature & research that has addressed adaptive learning models, sanctioning systems, influence models, & networks is considered. It is concluded that critical mass theory has made scholars realize that multiple forms of collective action exist & that additional empirical research is needed to strengthen the theoretical perspective. 43 References. J. W. Parker