The Role of Commitment in Collective Action: Comparing the Organizational Behavior and Rational Choice Perspectives

By Robertson, Peter J.; Tang, Shui-Yan | Public Administration Review, January-February 1995 | Go to article overview

The Role of Commitment in Collective Action: Comparing the Organizational Behavior and Rational Choice Perspectives


Robertson, Peter J., Tang, Shui-Yan, Public Administration Review


Powerful environmental forces are transforming the way organizations operate. In particular, forces such as innovations in information technology, demographic changes, and globalization (Drucker, 1988; Naisbitt, 1982; Peters, 1990; Toffler, 1990) require organizations to reduce their managerial structure, allow greater discretion and responsibility among their front-line employees, and operate more innovatively if they are to survive (Cleveland, 1985; Drucker, 1988; Peters, 1988). The call for such organizational changes is being made for the private as well as the public sector (Barzelay, 1992; DiIulio, Garvey, & Kettl, 1993; National Academy of Public Administration, 1993; Osborne & Gaebler, 1992). As a result, the move is away from more rigid and control-oriented bureaucracies to decentralized and mission-driven organizations that are more responsive to their local constituents and environments. In these organizations, effective collective action depends to a large extent on the active involvement of self-motivated participants. The commitment organizational participants-to each other and to the organization itself - becomes a critical and, at times, even necessary, mechanism for directing their behavior toward collective goal accomplishment.

In recent years, the role of commitment in collective action(1) has received increasing attention from the social sciences. In particular, this attention is apparent in two distinct literatures, namely, literature based in the field of organizational behavior (OB) and the portion of the rational choice literature identified as the new institutionalism.(2) While each of the two perspectives analyzes commitment through different theoretical lenses, both develop similar arguments about how informal social mechanisms affect the pattern of interaction among participants and their commitment to collective action. The common interest in commitment and informal social mechanisms provides a reference point for linking insights from both of these perspectives.

The similarities between the two perspectives are evident when one examines the role of commitment in shaping the effectiveness of public schools, in particular those that have adopted school-based management (SBM). Consistent with the organizational trends noted above, SBM entails a shift in decision-making authority away from a school district's central administration to constituents at the school level (Swanson, 1989). It is a popular reform mechanism that has received considerable public attention over the last decade, as school districts across the country have taken steps to decentralize decision making to their individual schools.

The objective of SBM is to improve school functioning by allowing school-level participants - staff, teachers, and parents - to have greater influence on decisions in selected domains. These participants' commitment to collective objectives becomes a critical factor affecting the outcome of SBM. Hence, school-based management provides a good case for examining the role of commitment in collective action.

We begin this article by first discussing the concept of commitment as addressed from each of the two prospective, organizational behavior and rational choice. Next, we compare the perspectives in terms of their differences in foci and assumptions regarding the role of commitment in collective action. Then we examine several general strategies - social processes, leadership, and structural design - for fostering commitment in organizational settings. Finally, we discuss these strategies as they are used in school-based management, drawing on ideas from the two perspectives to analyze the role of commitment in this situation. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of our analysis for future research on organizations and collective action.

The Concept of Commitment

The field of organizational behavior examines behavior in and of organizational systems. …

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