David Kirchner wrote a reply to Cynthia Van Ness' post on what she called the consumer mentality in contra dancing. This is an edited version he provided when I asked if I could publish it on these pages. [Go to original post]


Hi Cynthia,

Very nice mini-essay, which has prompted the following musings. If I may offer a perspective from the world of social science...

Social scientists (and political scientists in particular) refer to the "collective action problem." Once upon a time, we all used to think that whenever a group of people wanted something for the whole community, they would generally form themselves into a organization of some sort and work to make it happen. This common wisdom was challenged back in the 1960s by an economist named Mancur Olson, who argued that as a matter of fact, most potential groups are never formed at all. He suggested that most individuals, given the chance to participate, instead choose to "free-ride" on the efforts of others. Thus it's very hard to create lasting, effective organizations to provide benefits available to all.

When groups do manage to organize, Olson proposed, it is because they manage to find a solution to the collective action problem. He suggested three possible solutions:

  1. require participation by force — such as union membership in a closed-shop workplace,
  2. offer participants incentives that they cannot get without participating — such as the insurance that farmers can get through the Farm Bureau, and
  3. find one or more individuals that value the collective benefits so highly that they are willing to put in vastly disproportionate amounts of resources to ensure that they are attained.

Not that Olson is the last word on collective action theory, but I'd say most dances get by on a mixture of (2) and (3). Dancers have to pay to be able to dance, so they have to participate in the organization to that extent in order to get the benefit of dancing. But most dance organizations do not ask dancers for anything more than money — all of the other tasks are completed through method (3).

Dance organizers are putting in many more of their own resources than the dancers around them, which can be hard to justify to oneself indefinitely. So they get "burned-out" and eventually move on to other things. Of course, some wonderful organizers continue to put in their time year after year, to the amazement of all around them — these are the folks who still find the trade-off worthwhile.

[On the other hand, for some organizers the benefit is not just creating a dance for all, but the much more personal incentives of accumulating power and getting an ego-boost from being in charge. But I digress...]

Perhaps the "consumer mentality" is, to some extent, our own creation. By not asking dancers to participate more fully in the community in order to take part in the dancing, we teach them that the simple act of forking over their five dollars at the door is all they need to do to make the dance possible.

Two preliminary thoughts from this chain of reasoning: one way to decrease the consumer mentality might be to ask dancers to do more than just pay at the door. Ask regular dancers to do some small tasks once in a while (a little like churches asking regular congregation members to serve as ushers now and then).

Second, it's important to try to provide specific incentives for people to take on leadership roles and to stay in them. Then the disproportionate amount of energy they put into producing the dances will seem more worthwhile.

— David Kirchner

P.S. For those who are interested, Olson's book is The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1965). Another excellent book dealing with similar issues is Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York: Cambridge Univ Press, 1990). Both of these use the economics-based "rational choice" approach to behavior. Social psychologists and others differ.