Bruce Bimber: Collective Action within Organizations in the Age of Digital Media

Notes from the research seminar Organizations and Political Participation in the Age of Digital Media held at the Open University of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain, on January 18th, 2010.

Collective Action within Organizations in the Age of Digital Media
Bruce Bimber

This seminar is based on a project by Bruce Bimber, Cynthia Stohl and Andrew Flanagin.

We find new ways to organize people around causes, like Immigration Reform on Facebook. The question is: under what circumstances do we need these new ways of organization, and under which do we need traditional ways of organization (i.e. around institutions and gathering in brick and mortar buildings). What does it mean to be a traditional organization? What does it mean to be a member of a traditional organization in a digital environment?

What does organization-based collective action look like today in the US? People in the US belong to 1.98 organizations on average (twice the average in Europe, 5 times the average in Spain). Thus, we cannot (only) look at memberships, as “everyone” is a member of an organization.

Literature on participation tells who is more likely — depending on personal attributes — to participate in an organization, but not which organization is more likely to be more popular or have more members. So, we should focus on organization-specific attributes:

  • Goal agreement: people will participate more in organizations whose goals are more in line with theirs
  • Value agreement: people will participate more in organizations whose values are more in line with theirs
  • Civic & social motivation: reasons why you join a community (complaint, meet kindred souls, etc.)

On the other hand, we can also find literature on the impact of digital media on participation. But, again, over time the Internet will be less likely to discriminate behaviour as time and frequency of being online, or digital skills become generalized across socio-economic statuses.

Last, traditionally organizations have been classified in discrete categories: civic associations vs. interest groups, centralized/bureaucratic vs. decentralised/horizontal vs. networks, online vs. not-online. Our perspective is different: interaction is impersonal vs. personal, engagement with goals and activities of the organization is institutional vs. entrepreneurial. Combination of these:

  • Entrepreneurial + Impersonal
  • Entrepreneurial + Personal: e.g. support group, where members decide what to do and on a very personal basis
  • Institutional + Personal: e.g. institutions that open chat groups, send personal mail
  • Institutional + Impersonal: e.g. World Wildlife Fund, where the institution mainly tells their members what to do

Amnesty International spreads over all categories (skewed towards Institutional + Impersonal), like Greenpeace (more centred than Amnesty International).

To test the hypothesis, surveys run on three organizations, different amongst them in their typology: American Legion, People’s Lobby and The Voters.

Dependent variables: participation in pursuit of group goals via writing, volunteering, donating; identification with the group.
Independent variables: standard predictors of participation, controls for level of participation in other activities, interaction and engagement, organization-specific attributes, technology use.

A first result, though very week, is that being on an entrepreneurial+personal organization makes you more participative in comparison with being in other organizations. Civic and social motivation is also a good explanation for people being more participative. But, in general, results are not very strong (R2 below 0.4 for participation, below 0.5. for identification).

Regarding the relationship between engagement and interaction, the extent of within-group variation in interaction and engagement is comparable to that of across-group variation.

The predictors of participation in collective action vary by quadrant across collective action space.

  • Entrepreneurial + Impersonal organizations have individualists: people hard to predict, motivated people but with no specific profile
  • Entrepreneurial + Personal organizations hold embeddeds, people with high motivation and faithful to the organization, and with high(er) levels of education
  • Institutional + Personal organizations have traditionalists, people with high motivation and that are faithful to the organization
  • Institutional + Impersonal collect instrumentalists, lowest level of trust with the organization and the values, and the members are involved in many activities for several and different reasons


  • The four quadrants of collective action space are associated with four reasonably distinct collective action types
  • Civic and social motivation is the most important predictor
  • People’s involvement in other civic activities translates into contributions to collective action mainly for individualists
  • Technology use is associated consistently with participation for all four types
  • Technology use matters chiefly when it is tied to the organization itself, rather than in the form of general computer skills or time online
  • Membership looks somewhat different for different people, as a function of interaction and engagement
  • What matters about organiztions is how hey facilitate interaction and engagement, not just their objective structure
  • People are less similar than commonly assumed, while organizations are more similar, but to see this we need to look at both together.
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Q: Can people have different profiles depending on the organization they’re in? Bimber: (we don’t have time series but, so we don’t know, but) it is probable that this happens and, indeed, that people change profile over time. Nevertheless, we do not know and it can be true that what really happens is that people have a specific way of doing things.

Ana Sofía Cardenal: how is motivation measured? Isn’t it “suspicious” that motivation always comes so strong? Bimber: motivation is measured in different ways so to avoid cheating. But there might be some degree of endogenous relationships between variables. But people have different reasons for joining in and these reasons matter.

Michael Jensen: How do we cope with people being that different and nevertheless joining “similar” organizations? Bimber: More dynamic organizations engage in conversations with their members and adapt to their needs/requirements, so there is a feedback that redefines the organization. But still, technology is only a context, there is no core technology.

Derrick de Kerckhove: how are the four categories related with people’s lifestyles? Bimber: It would be interesting to know how an individual evolves through categories as his own personal lifestyle varies.

See also

Bimber, B., Stohl, C. & Flanagin, A. J. (2008). “Technological change and the shifting nature of political organization”. In Chadwick, A. & Howard, P. N., Routledge Handbook of Internet Politics, 72-85. New York: Routledge.