Second Annual Grinnell Lecture

Conceptualizing Human Interaction Through the Lens of Collective-Action Problems

Bill Ferguson ’75 headshotBill Ferguson ’75, Gertrude B. Austin Professor of Economics, gave the second annual Grinnell Lecture to his fellow faculty members Feb. 5. Collective-action problems arise whenever individuals pursuing their own interests cause undesirable outcomes for a group. This relatively simple notion applies to a huge array of problems, Ferguson says.

Large-scale examples are global climate change and the war in Syria, while a small-scale example is who does the cooking in a household. “Collective-action problems can focus our thoughts on social, political, and economic interactions that are extraordinarily complicated,” he says. “If we can separate the important pieces from the details, they might help us theorize about these problems, generate hypotheses, and test the hypotheses with data.” 

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