Collective Actor

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In sociology , the term collective actors describes individuals ( actors ) who jointly undertake a social action in order to pursue common interests, to achieve a goal or to produce something. The common interests connect the individual individuals to a collective , the act itself is called collective act.

A collective action can take various forms and forms. The designation ranges from social movements for the implementation of particular rights or reforms , to revolutionary processes of transformation by a violent mass. The collective actors are relevant for the microsociological analysis. Their joint action is the core of the collective action and each individual actor contributes in varying degrees to the overall dynamics, the course and the result of the collective action. Goals set together can shift, change or be replaced by new goals through permanent social interaction . The sociality of the actors does not allow a standstill. This also applies when cost-benefit considerations or the constitution of norms and values ​​within an action collective come into play.

Some sociological actor models have neglected this fact. This is especially true for theories that justify social action rationally , such as the rational choice model. The sociology of Émile Durkheim plays an important role in explaining collective action . In his school there are explanations for “non-rational collective formations of anti-individualistic solidarity relationships ” that are not explained by Weber's theory of action or Dahrendorf's theory of roles . The loss of a part of individuality in the course of collectivity does not lead to a loss of identity , but on the contrary: the individual identity is interactively formed and strengthened through the emergence of a collective identity.

This perspective is therefore important if we want to explain sociologically why social actors join together to form an acting collective.


Collective actors can be divided into four types of actors: associations , coalitions , social movements and clubs .

A distinguishing feature of collective actors is the extent to which rights of disposal over the action resources are in the possession of the individual members or have been "collectivized" and are subject to the control of the collective actor. In the latter case, internal bureaucratic structures and defined hierarchies are required .

Associations and clubs are characterized by such a collectivization of action resources, while social movements or coalitions depend on the voluntary cooperation of all their members. In the latter case, decisions can only be made through negotiation (coalitions) and consensus (social movement), while majority decisions are possible in associations and clubs .

Another distinguishing feature is whether the members of a collective actor pursue common or separate goals. In principle it applies to all collective actors that their goals depend on the preferences of the members. However, these can either refer to the separate intentions of the members (clubs or coalitions) or to goals that are only defined at the level of the collective ( social movements and associations).

Social movements

A social movement is an association of social actors who act collectively outside of the socially established area in order to achieve a common goal. They differ from the formal organization in their non-institutional positioning . The boundaries between social movements and formal organizations, however, are not clearly separated because they often merge into one another in historical processes. A good example of this is the trade union movement , which began as an illegal labor movement with wildcat strikes and has now become a formal institution in many industrialized societies. Social movements can be small groups or mass movements. They can be short-lived or very long-lived. They are successful when they achieve their goals and bring about reforms, or when they are institutionalized as a whole.

Collective and corporate actors

Not every form of collective action is carried out by collective actors. There is a distinction to corporate actors . They also act as a group, but their actions are based on different motives and framework conditions. Collective actors refer to social movements, corporate actors are formal organizations. Not every social movement (collective) or organization (corporate) is assigned a sociological concept of actors. In some definitions, which are more based on individual actor models, the common objective is not yet seen as sufficient to speak of an action. Nevertheless, even in these models, collective and corporate actors are viewed as socially acting and sociologically relevant because they act at least in part according to role expectations.

Unlike the corporate actor, the collective actor is dependent on the preferences and interests of the members; decisions cannot be dictated from above.

Collective actors and emotions

Emotions can be an important drive for collective actors to act. A common goal can be tied to individual emotions that have collective overlaps. In addition, the collective action can lead to new emotions. For example, fighting together for a common cause can create a sense of solidarity between the collective actors. In contrast to this, in an acting collective, the hatred of a common enemy image can develop or intensify. The research focus in sociology with regard to the collective constitution of emotions has so far mainly been on religious communities .

Collective awareness

A collective identity of the actors is necessary for collective action. A prerequisite for identity is awareness , which can be asserted for collectives as well as for individuals. Since Emile Durkheim, social order has been explained in terms of collectivity in sociology . Thanks to him, norms and values ​​are traced back to collective ideas.

Durkheim defines a collective consciousness that results from solidarity . Solidarity in Durkheim's sense means an interaction of the individual psyches , which leads to a common system of values ​​and feelings that can no longer be traced back to the individual actors. This collective consciousness is not only a binding agent for every form of society and the cornerstone of social order, but can also be viewed as a prerequisite for the existence of collective actors.

Collective memory

Part of the collective consciousness is the collective memory . It serves the collective actors - especially with longer lasting connections - for orientation. It is particularly important in political movements, as it conveys ideological values ​​and attitudes to historical events. The theory of collective memory was developed by Maurice Halbwachs . Like collective identity, collective memory is not the sum of individual perceptions, but the result of their amalgamation, which takes on a new autonomous form that can no longer be traced back to individual individual memories. In contrast to biographical, personal memory, collective memory only retains that part of the past that is contained in the collective consciousness of the respective group. The collective actors look at each other in their collective memory from within the collective and during a certain period of time. The personal memories are thus a social construct and only acquire their subjective meaning in the context of the collective memories.

The collective memory as a component of the collective consciousness is thus an effective example of the fact that collective actors are formed by individual actors and can therefore not be viewed separately from one another.

Individual evidence

  1. cf. Giddens 1989: 548
  2. cf. Joas, Knöbl 2004: 717 f.
  3. cf. Moebius 2009: 60
  4. cf. Moebius 2009: 69
  5. cf. Giddens 1989: 551 ff.
  6. cf. Schimank 2007: 54 f.
  7. cf. Schimank 2001: 117 ff.
  8. cf. Schimank 2007: 127
  9. cf. Mikl-Horke 2001: 396 f.
  10. cf. Mikl-Horke 2001: 70 f.
  11. cf. Half wax 1991: 39


  • Maurice Halbwachs (1991): The collective memory. Unabridged edition, 4th - 5th thousand, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag.
  • Hans Joas , Wolfgang Knöbl (2004): Social Theory. Twenty introductory lectures. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
  • Stephan Moebius (2009): Culture . Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
  • Uwe Schimank (2007): Action and Structures. Introduction to actor-theoretical sociology. 3rd edition, Weinheim-Munich: Juventa Verlag.
  • Fritz W. Scharpf : Forms of interaction. Actor-centered institutionalism in political research , Leske + Budrich, Opladen 2000, p. 100 ff.
  • Anthony Giddens : Sociology . Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989, ISBN 9780745605463 .
  • Gertraude Mikl-Horke : Sociology: Historical Context and Sociological Theory Drafts Hardcover . Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, September 19, 2001, ISBN 978-3486256604 .

Literature on special topics

  • Ulrich Dolata / Jan-Felix Schrape (2013): Between Individual and Organization. New collective actors and constellations of action on the Internet . Stuttgart contributions to the sociology of organization and innovation 2013-02. Full text online (PDF file; 1117 kB)