Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Understanding participation dilemmas in community mobilisation: can collective action theory help?
  1. Lu Gram1,
  2. Nayreen Daruwalla2,
  3. David Osrin1
  1. 1 Institute for Global Health, University College London, London, UK
  2. 2 SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action), Mumbai, India
  1. Correspondence to Dr Lu Gram, Institute for Global Health, University College London, London WC1N 1EH, UK; lu.gram.13{at}


Community mobilisation interventions have been used to promote health in many low-income and middle-income settings. They frequently involve collective action to address shared determinants of ill-health, which often requires high levels of participation to be effective. However, the non-excludable nature of benefits produced often generates participation dilemmas: community members have an individual interest in abstaining from collective action and free riding on others’ contributions, but no benefit is produced if nobody participates. For example, marches, rallies or other awareness-raising activities to change entrenched social norms affect the social environment shared by community members whether they participate or not. This creates a temptation to let other community members invest time and effort. Collective action theory provides a rich, principled framework for analysing such participation dilemmas. Over the past 50 years, political scientists, economists, sociologists and psychologists have proposed a plethora of incentive mechanisms to solve participation dilemmas: selective incentives, intrinsic benefits, social incentives, outsize stakes, intermediate goals, interdependency and critical mass theory. We discuss how such incentive mechanisms might be used by global health researchers to produce new questions about how community mobilisation works and conclude with theoretical predictions to be explored in future quantitative or qualitative research.

  • empowerment pr
  • health behaviour
  • health promotion
  • social epidemiology
  • social science

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See:

View Full Text

Statistics from


  • Contributors All authors made substantial contributions to study design. LG conceived of the original idea, reviewed the literature and drafted the original manuscript. DO and ND critically reviewed the manuscript for important intellectual content. All authors have given approval of this final version to be published and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work. No others fulfill the criteria for authorship.

  • Funding This work was funded by Wellcome Trust (206417/Z/17/Z).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.