Thomas's Community Connection
Collective Action and the Inclusion of Diversity
Creating more ideas, more effective problem-solving and greater chances of success.
To begin, collective action is the working together of a group of people who share a common interest to achieve a specific objective.1 To help better understand what collective action is, three examples include: a family; a Parent-Teacher Association (PTA); and, a cooperative (co-op) organization. First, a family is a group of people who often live together to bring stability, love and happiness to one another in various forms. Second, in a PTA parents collaborate and plan actions to better support the functions of their children’s school. Finally, the co-op example is one many people associate with the term collective action; co-ops are member-owned and operated, where members work together, share decision-making power and receive specific benefits as part of their collaboration. In short, any action that involves multiple people coming together trying to accomplish a specific goal is collective action.
People act collectively because working together allows people to do more than if they only worked by themselves. When people work together they can leverage resources and skills.2 An individual person would not need to do everything alone. If each person did everything by themselves, they would essentially be re-creating the wheel every time. Partnering with others allows each to learn from one another and get more done without wasting as much time, resources and energy.
Working together across differences
Working together with people who are different than yourself is critical to having resilient communities and organizations. Simply, this is because including diverse experiences and perspectives leads to the creation of more ideas, more effective problem-solving and greater chances of success.3 People who have similar perspectives are often limited by similar unseen biases. Whereas, a group of people with varied perspectives brings new thought and can help more easily make seen and move beyond unseen biases.4 In short, diversity strengthens the functioning and creation of successful outcomes of communities and organizations.
Imagine a city is trying to prepare for possible likely future disasters. They are doing so in order to best protect their residents and be able to plan the return of normal functioning across all sectors (schools, economic, government, etc.) as soon as possible following likely disasters. Having more and varied perspectives from all parts of the city included in the disaster planning will better prepare for possible ramifications and includes the past strategies that have worked for community members in previous disruptions and disasters.5 Not including diverse perspectives ultimately leads to oversight and greater damage and destruction, almost always most greatly affecting the city’s vulnerable and marginalized populations.6 There are ample examples in the U.S. and across the world where vulnerable and marginalized populations received the brunt of the impact of disasters, that often could have been lessened with more effective planning that included diverse input and perspectives.
The example of common-pool resource communities: Working together to achieve sustainability
Common-pool resource communities are those that use or consume a common-pool resource or good as a staple product for the community. The designation of a common-pool resource is an economic term. It means that this good or resource can be depleted by overconsumption and that people cannot be excluded from consuming it. Common-pool goods differ from public, private and toll goods. Unlike common-pool goods, public goods and toll goods cannot be used-up in the using or consuming of them, and private goods and toll goods can exclude use or consumption to specific people. Seen in Figure 1, some resources that fall into the category of common-pool goods include water, fish stock, and timber
The 2009 Economic Nobel Prize recipient for her work on common-pool resource communities, Dr. Elinor Ostrom, and her colleague, Dr. Amy Poteete, studied how what they call institutional arrangements effectively maintain common resources and goods within communities.8 Ostrom and Poteete found that when institutional arrangements include elements of governance with rules and community relationships that are established or influenced by the communities for which they are intended, these institutional arrangements help to maintain the common-pool resource from overuse and exhaustion.9 These institutional arrangements create a community-based platform of collective action. The members of the community come together to jointly provide decision-making power over preserving, maintaining and regulating their shared common resource.
Their work, demonstrating how local communities can cooperatively regulate the consumption and prevent overuse of common-pool goods, explicitly contradicts the prevailing economic theory known as the tragedy of the commons. This theory originates from the hypothetical example of British economist William F. Lloyd describing the effects of the absence of top-down government enforced grazing regulations from common grazing lands.10 It was expanded on by American biologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin who famously authored the phrase “the tragedy of the commons” in his warnings of the dangers of human overpopulation.11 Hardin argues that humans act in selfish and exploitative practices, where in their individual actions humans will take advantage of communities, essentially sabotaging sustainability efforts, because it is in their short-term self-interest to do so.
Further studies by Ostrom and her colleague, Dr. George Varughese, explore the impacts that community diversity (heterogeneity) has on the collaborative efforts in preserving Nepalese community forests.12 They found that the presence of collective action within communities was related to the diversity found within a single community. Ostrom and Varughese measured collective action as degrees of high, medium and low. These measures are defined as “formally or informally organized collective-action level at the user level. Low—individuals may observe harvesting constraint on their own, no group activities; Moderate—as a group, individuals have harvesting constraints, minimal group activities, little or no monitoring; High—enforced harvesting constraints, organized group activities, monitoring by members.”13 Put simply, collective action is the presence a shared group objective of constraining overuse of the common-pool resource, forest timber.
Ostrom and Varughese discovered that with high social diversity there were also higher rates of collective action, and low social diversity led to lower rates of collective action (Figure 2).14 Out of the 18 community forests as part of their study, five communities had high levels of sociocultural diversity, eight had moderate levels of sociocultural diversity, and five more had low levels of sociocultural diversity. The communities with low levels of sociocultural diversity were homogenous, meaning that everyone shared similar cultures and perspectives. Of the five communities with high levels of sociocultural diversity, four of the them had higher levels of collective action; of the five communities with low sociocultural diversity, only two had higher levels of collective action; and, of the eight communities with moderate sociocultural diversity, Ostrom and Varughese found that half had lower levels and half had higher levels of collective action. In this study, community arrangements of constraining overuse of forest timber (or collective action) were more common in communities with higher sociocultural diversity.
As seen in Figure 3, Ostrom and Varughese also determined that all (five) communities with high levels of collective action had improving forest conditions.15 Whereas, only one of the five communities with moderate collective action had improving forest conditions, and no community with low or no collective action had improving forest conditions. Most communities with moderate collective action had stable forest conditions, and most communities with low or no collective action had worsening forest conditions. Communities with higher levels of sociocultural diversity had higher levels of collective action, and high levels of collective action is directly linked with improving forest conditions
The resilience of community forests in Nepal was linked to the presence of high collective action within the communities – Ostrom and Poteete identify this high collective action (enforced harvesting constraints, organized group activities, monitoring by members) as characteristics of local co-created and maintained institutional arrangements. Forest conditions that are worsening are not sustainable for use by the communities – these communities are not resilient – almost all of which had low or no collective action. Stable forest conditions have the potential to improve, remain stable, or worsen if a disruption or disaster were to occur to the community – at this point these communities are also not resilient as there is uncertainty around how the community forests would fare if an emergency were to strike. The only truly resilient community forests in this study are those that have improving forest conditions. This is because these forests continue to grow and improve while being used and consumed by their communities – high collective action (enforced harvesting constraints, organized group activities, monitoring by members) seems to guarantee resilient community forests.
Ostrom and Varughese determined 1) that communities with higher levels of sociocultural diversity had higher levels of collective action, and 2) that all communities with high levels of collective action also had resilient and sustainable forests. Their study does not determine whether the presence of sociocultural diversity helped to co-create more solutions to constrain overuse resulting in these improving forest conditions. However, more recent research and contemporary school of thought would say that the inclusion of diverse populations and experiences is likely part of the cause of higher collective action found in these Nepalese forest communities.16 In fact, cities and regions all around the world are recognizing the value that including diverse experiences and perspectives aids in building more resilient communities,17 and the inclusion of diverse experiences and perspectives is proving critical to the relevance and resilience of organizations.18
The presence of high collective action – or put another way, the presence of community members working together and accountable to one another – created sustainable and improving community forest conditions. As Stratcolab’s Dave Siburg would say, these community members leveraged their skills, resources, and perspectives, trusting in one another and in the fair and equitable practices they co-created, allowing the forest timber to both be used and preserved.19 Even though it is in their individual short-term self-interest to consume as much of the forest as they want, even to unsustainable levels, they recognize that only by working together, even across differences, can they ensure continued use and consumption of the forest timber.
Working together with people who are different can be challenging and uncomfortable, and it is a common societal practice to steer away from feeling uncomfortable in favor of being comfortable. People prefer familiar surroundings and cultures to different and unfamiliar people and places.20 However, the simple truth is we need each other. Even though it may be easy to only work with people who share a like-mind, solving major problems or desiring the creation of significant outcomes requires diverse and inclusive mindsets, experiences and perspectives. Working together across differences, while valuing, respecting and honoring those same differences, will lead to the creation of more ideas, more effective problem-solving and greater chances of success.
Thomas D. Francis-Siburg
1. Paraphrased definition by Business Dictionary: collective action. Accessed 17 October 2019. <>
2. Siburg, David. Pre-Publication Draft, 2004. “Strengthening Organizational Sustainability in the Water Sector Through Capacity Leveraging: Working Together with Attitude … in a Systems World.”
3. BRE Global. GRESB, 26 August 2019. “Diversity will Enable Climate Innovation and Resilience.” Accessed 23 October 2019. <>
4. Phillips, Dave. The Irish Times, 24 October 2019. “The Race to Remove Unconscious Bias from the Workplace.” Accessed 24 October 2019. <>
Siburg, David. Pre-Publication Draft, 2014.
5. Francis-Siburg, Thomas. The Stratcolab Standard, June 2019. “Local Wisdom in Community Planning.”
NIST. Community Resilience, December 2018. “Community Resilience Planning Guide: Toward a More Resilience Community.” Accessed 16 August 2019. <>
6. NIST. Community Resilience, December 2018.
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. IFRC, June 2012. “The Road to Resilience: Bridging Relief and Development for a More Sustainable Future.”
7. Adapted work by Krugman, Paul and Robin Wells. Microeconomics. Worth Publishers. New York, NY. 2005.
8. Poteete, Amy R. and Elinor Ostrom. Development and Change, 2004. “Heterogeneity, Group Size and Collective Action: The Role in Institutions in Forest Management.”
10. Lloyd, William F. Oxford University, England. 1833. “Two Lectures on the Checks to Population.” Accessed 17 October 2019. <>
11. Hardin, Garrett. Science, vol. 162, December 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Accessed 17 October 2019. <>
12. Varughese, George and Elinor Ostrom. World Development, Vol. 29, No. 5, 2001. “The Contested Role of Heterogeneity in Collective Action: Some Evidence from Community Forestry in Nepal.”
13. Ibid. Pg. 752.
14. Ibid. Table 7. Pg. 759.
15. Ibid. Table 3. Pg. 756.
16. BRE Global. GRESB, 26 August 2019.
17. BRE Global. GRESB, 26 August 2019;
NIST. Community Resilience, December 2018;
Katims, Lauren. Emergency Management, 04 November 2013. “LA Builds Resilience Through Wide-Reaching Relationships.”
18. Stoltz, Paul G. Psychology Today, 17 October 2018. “Inclusivity and Diversity: Three Ways They Forge Resilience Teams and Gritty Cultures.” Accessed 23 October 2019. <>
Llopis, Glenn. Forbes, 02 June 2019. “Without Inclusion, Humankind is Becoming Less Resilient.” Accessed 23 October 2019. <>
19. Siburg, David. Pre-Publication Draft, 2014.
20. Hart, William, Dolores Albarracín, Alice H. Eagly, Inge Brechan, Matthew J. Lindberg, and Lisa Merrill. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 135, No. 4, 2009. “Feeling Validated Versus Being Correct: A Meta-Analysis of Selective Exposure to Information.” Accessed 24 October 2019. <>