Face-to-Face Communication and the Unexplored Potential of Cooperation

A Report With Speculations from the Front Lines of Collective Action[1]

By Michael Johnson

My Intent

Elinor Ostrom and the Institutional Analysis and Development research network (IAD) has made a profound breakthrough in many of the basic individualist assumptions from which economic and political sciences tend to operate. Not only have they demonstrated that collective action is alive and well across the globe, but that 1) it has been doing well for centuries, and 2) it is a constituent part of ordinary, everyday life as well.

Even more remarkable is that they have also pinpointed and verified the power of face-to-face communication to engender and sustain such cooperation and collective action.[2] In doing this they have blunted the reach of the homo economicus doctrine.[3] For all of these achievements their work was justly crowned by Dr. Ostrom's 2009 Nobel Prize in economics.

The main focus of my activism is to further and deepen cooperation and collective action, and my intent in this article is to expand our current notions of what is possible and practical in these efforts. I believe strongly that this expansion of our awareness is crucial to making the most of the foundational gift coming from Dr. Ostrom and the IAD community as well as the recent emergence of solidarity and cooperative economies grounded in a revitalized appreciation of our commons.

I am addressing, then, the whole collective action community - researchers and practitioners. I have three primary concerns:

  • how we define "self" and "self-interest"
  • how we tend to keep behavior and experience separate in theory and practice, and
  • how we tend to keep our thinking about cooperation and collective action grounded in individualism.

The scientific research of cooperation and collective action

We practitioners need to know that Ostrom's Nobel prize represents a major breakthrough for a legion of researchers in both the social and life sciences, who are working vigorously to understand the nature and importance of cooperation in human life. She isvery clear about the goal of this research, and I think she speaks in many ways for this cross-discipline group. In her presidential address to the Association of Political Scientists she argued that it is "essential" to coherently explain such "basic questions as why face-to-face communication so consistently enhances cooperation in social dilemmas [and] how structural variables facilitate or impede effective collective action."[4]

Contributors from the Ostrom Workshop collaborated in creating supplementary information to assist readers with some of the technical language, basic tools, and key concepts they work with. They include the following three sections:



    This is a remarkable goal for anyone deeply committed to cooperation and democracy, and I think the primacy she gives to face-to-face communication is even more remarkable. However, it is precisely here that I see an important set of problems. My direct experience in practicing collective action and developing a small cooperative culture[5] leads me to think this goal (that focuses only on behavior and institutions) and the powerful research tools these scientists use are too limited for expanding and deepening our practice of cooperation and collective action. Specifically, they do not enable us to:

    1. develop an understanding of how our actual face-to-face communication both enhances and inhibits cooperation
    2. adequately envision our undeveloped potential for cooperation and collaborative power
    3. recognize how important it is for both researchers and practitioners themselves to learn to cooperate beyond the current norms of our culture, and
    4. re-frame how we think of "self" and "self-interest" so that we can see and think beyond the pervasive individualism of our given culture.

    Although I am not going to treat all of this in any exhaustive way here, I do hope to flesh out and highlight the importance of these four unmet needs. In doing this I will first summarize Dr. Ostrom's working model of the role of face-to-face communication in cooperative action, which is used to research these dynamics. Then I will give an abbreviated account of one living experiment - 32 years and counting - in learning how to cooperate and collectively manage an intentional community of 75 people, eight houses, three retail stores, and five commercial buildings in the Staten Island borough of New York City. I will try to give an experiential account that also includes behavioral and institutional elements. Finally, I will outline my concerns that grow out of this comparison.

    A scenario for successful collective action

    The IAD team, with Ostrom at the helm, has disclosed the unrecognized, game-changing power of the interactive dynamic between trust, reciprocity, reputation and transparency that can emerge through face-to-face communication.[6] First, as a point of reference for this account, let's look at a key scenario that Ostrom and the IAD network use to understand the role of face-to-face communication in collective action. At the center of Ostrom's call for "a behavioral theory of collective action" is a model of how face-to-face communication can produce cooperation in the face of shared problems (what researchers usually call "social dilemmas"). Here is their graphic of that scenario[7]

    This is my understanding of the process the scenario is depicting:

    1. Cultural norms of reciprocity, building on biological tendencies - maybe drives - dispose many people to want to work together when they face shared problems. This can be in experimental game labs, in neighborhoods, and in complex projects such as economic cooperatives and intentional communities.
    2. Through face-to-face communication such people in small groups can get to know each other in ways that are relevant to the collective action they share. Members of worker co-operatives, staffs of community change projects, and work teams are examples of this.
    3. When this communication works well, it can produce
      • information about how trustworthy each person involved is (that is "reputations"), and
      • shared norms that develop out of shared interests, common resources, and the process of all involved negotiating and making their own assessments of the costs and benefits involved.
    4. These products and their shared experience overtime will or will not produce enough knowledge of each other that can generate satisfactory levels of trust and a sufficient number of trustworthy reputations necessary for starting or sustaining their collective action project.
    5. All of the above can lead to a powerful dynamic between the key elements of reputation, trust, and reciprocity that can produce/sustain an adequate level of cooperation that will lead to net benefits that are worth the time, energy, and effort (costs) the participants must invest in their shared project.

    Based on my practical experience I find Ostrom's scenario a great tool for thinking about and working through issues of face-to-face communication.

    Learning deep cooperation through face-to-face communication

    I approach understanding the dynamics of cooperation from a different vantage point that is primarily shaped by 32 years of experience in building and sustaining a cooperative culture in the Ganas Community in Staten Island, NY.[8] It is a collective action site where people live and work together, usually referred to as an "intentional community." Here I will describe some of the practices and accomplishments in learning cooperation by a particular group within this community, the Ganas core group, of which I have been a member from the beginning. We are not people with unusual innate talents. However, I believe what we have learned is highly unusual, but that it can be learned, with sufficient motivation, by ordinary people.[9]

    The "core group" founded Ganas. Over its 31 years our number has ranged from seven to fourteen. Currently there are eleven members - six who have been together for 30 years, three for 20, and two for 10. One retired founder also lives at Ganas. We came together in 1980 with the shared intention to set up a living situation in which we could learn to cooperate. Each of us in our own way had come to the conclusion that for the most part people simply could not generate enough cooperation to solve problems together well enough to even come close to realizing the potential of important relationships and joint projects. And that the more exciting possibilities usually ended in painful failures. We included ourselves as good examples of the problem.

    So we became a live research laboratory in which we were both the "mice" and the "lab coats" exploring why we and others have so much difficulty talking honestly with each other. This was virtually a 24/7 commitment for 20 years. There was no intention to become a cooperative or solidarity institution of any kind. However, during those years and the following ten an intentional community of multi-leveled membership did evolve around us, which we, along with some others, have managed and sustained.

    A planning meeting at Ganas

    From the outset the core group embraced a radical notion of cooperation: sharing virtually everything we had - time, energy, income, physical resources, mindspace, knowledge, information about each other and ourselves, problems, heartspace, etc. - with due consideration for individuality and privacy. And doing all of that by living simply. Without fully realizing what we were doing, we were making a big bet: that human nature is such that cooperation can go far enough to virtually make individual, other, and collective welfare so interconnected that participants, for example, would begin to strongly challenge their feelings about needing "to count" in the giving and receiving transactions of daily life - that is, am I getting back how much I am putting in. Rather, we explored how far one could move beyond this fair exchange thinking to ask "how much is it costing me to be doing this "counting.?"

    The breadth of our vision of sharing required that we not just learn to cooperate, but that we learn to cooperate deeply. This learning has been intensely challenging and difficult as well as incredibly enriching personally and collectively. And there are no indications of how deep is deep enough. If there is someone you love, how do you determine how much is enough? When one of my partners ask me for something, I want to say "yes- unless I have to say "no-. Sometimes, it's not clear whether I really need to say "no-, or whether I am wanting to say "no- out of old protective conditioning. To get the most self-awareness I can from such situations, I need to reflect out of genuine inquiry, not out of guilt. This kind of inquiry is about analyzing one's experience of one's motivation to understand one's behavior.

    I don't see much room for this kind of research in Ostrom's scenario. If this is so, then I don't see how the behavioral approach Ostrom and many others use can help collective action groups push their envelopes on these kinds of nitty-gritty problems.

    Our learning project has required encountering our basic assumptions about life and our self-identities, notions that we didn't even know we were holding, assumptions and notions grounded in basic fears of just plain not being "good enough" as human beings[10], convictions and beliefs learned in growing up that posed major obstacles to becoming transparent, trusting, empathetic, and compassionate enough to learn how to cooperate to the degree we wanted. The pay-offs have been significant in terms of lessening of anxiety, quality relationships, self-empowerment, economic freedom and security, emotional and social support, and very unusual opportunities to make life choices in keeping with our personal values and desires. In a word, personal and collective abundance.

    All of this learning occurs in the context of constant flows of varied face-to-face communication about daily logistics, policy-making, personal experience, relationship issues, work projects - that is, everything in our shared life. In our formal conversations the power dynamics in our relationships can always be made the focus, shifting from the content of an issue to how it is being discussed and the "hidden" dynamics going on. This work involves ordinary people building unordinary capacities to doubt their perceptions of reality and use that as a source of self-confidence.

    How can this kind of experiential learning be used in the vast range of collective action projects?

    Early on we recognized that we could not sustain ourselves as a cohesive group, if we remained stuck in the blame and punish reactions to what people did that we did not like. Slowly we evolved an awareness that inter-personal problems - actually almost all problems - are also opportunities to learn about ourselves and others, opportunities to find out what is wrong so that we can fix them. From here we developed what we call "compassionate inquiry" as our basic approach to solving problems and conflicts. The "inquiry" is summed up in three questions: what is happening, what is wanted, and what can we do about it. The "compassion" comes in because to deeply understand what is happening with people and what they truly want requires that you get as close as possible to their experience with a positive disposition toward them:

    Two members of Ganas seeking deeper understanding of each other

    We have not plumbed the depths of the potential that face-to-face communication has for generating trust, transparency, reciprocity, empathy, compassion, and cooperation in our collective enterprise. It seems that the deeper we go, we keep getting a sense that all of this stuff is deeper than we can comprehend. And the legacy of our negative conditioning stays with tenacity.

    Much of our transformative learning has had to do with deep re-definitions of personal identity and expanding our sense of what constitutes "self-interest." For example, any change in how I define "self" will change my thinking of who I am, and that change will lead to changes in what I perceive to be "in my self interest."[11] Each of us has discovered to some degree that it is possible for people to know a lot about me and be deeply committed to using that information to help me, not to take advantage of me. This kind of discovery is a game-changer. Trust and transparency soars. I begin to sense that I can allow my welfare to be so deeply tied up with the welfare of these significant others, and that the boundaries between my "self-interest" and theirs begin to move and loosen up. This is profoundly self-empowering. This kind of experiential learning has enabled us to self-determine our behavior and thinking in substantial ways. How do we design institutions like the core group in different kinds of collective action situations?

    My three concerns[12]

    I am impressed and inspired from my limited readings of Ostrom and her network, and of other work rooted in game theory. Yet, I am left with some strong discomforts. In part this discomfort centers on their narrow concepts of "self" and "self-interest." They simply fall short in helping me understand my personal experiences in the evolution of the core group at Ganas and in the larger field of collective action. From this experience, cooperation either improved or floundered depending on the group's ability to process their interpersonal experiences enough to generate the necessary trust and transparency. I do not see how experience cannot be as central to collective action research as behavior. Further, my Ganas experience points to an enormous potential for the evolution of deeper and broader cooperation. I see little awareness of this potential among practitioners, and game theory doesn't seem to be able to envision such possibilities. And it is this potential that I think should inspire collective action research and practice across the board.

    1. Defining the "self" and "self interest"

    It seems to me that in the IAD approach (and game theory in general) the idea of "self," begins and ends at the boundary of the "individual". As a result their notion of 'self-interest' only maximizes the cooperative possibilities of Homo economicus. In other words, the question ends up being about how a rational, self-interested individual (who is also cooperative, social, etc.) can (and does) create effective cooperative action with others. This notion of self and self-interest, however, does not recognize the extent to which deep, committed and sustained practices of compassionate cooperation (such as those enacted at Ganas) may actually transform the very subject of cooperation itself - the people cooperating. By pursuing the implications of Ostrom's work in deeper, face-to-face ways, individuals may be transformed in such a way that the very "essence" of self-interest is also transformed, and thus the ground of cooperation becomes substantially more solid. So the danger of the IAD and game theory approach, as I see it, is that it risks establishing a relatively old and fixed notion of self (that identifies itself primarily as not being the others), when a much more flexible and transformable sense of self is possible. In so doing, the possibilities of cooperation are imaginatively limited.

    This is a problem for practitioners in general as well. In my view, the usual norms of reciprocity tend to be the ground for a minimal level of trust, transparency, and cooperation that is just a step beyond the standard kind of marketplace bargaining games - albeit, a huge step.[13] This simply is not enough to make the world work as well as we need it to. I believe the Ganas core group is an example of how much deeper our possibilities can go. Our research, theory, and practice needs to take such examples much more seriously, if we are to develop a more transformative approach to human cooperative action.

    2. The problem of studying behavior and experience

    The emerging science of cooperation has done some brilliant work analyzing and understanding behavior and institutions, but they seem too limited in reaching the experience side of the human equation. This is quite evident in studying face-to-face communication, even though Ostrom's discovery of the power of face-to-face communication to spur and sustain cooperation is a major contribution to collective action. It seems that the behavioral approach can only identify that honest face-to-face communication needs to happen to generate trust, transparency, etc. It doesn't seem to have anything to say on how we can enrich and deepen our communication so as to make the most of our potential for cooperation and empower our members.

    Our behavior and experience are inseparable. I see your behavior, and you see mine, but your experience is invisible to me, and mine to you.[14]Cooperation is grounded in shared meaning and shared intentions. We have mastered the level of cooperation that enables us to fly across the Atlantic together in peace and harmony.[15] Collective action requires so much more, however. I believe that the Ganas core group experience indicates that we have to get to each other's experience in order to get that sharing. Transparency makes this possible, and trust makes it possible for us to risk personal disclosure. The farther this transparency goes and the deeper the trust goes, the greater our cooperative power and the benefits that can bring. It seems to me that the Ostrom/IAD scenario basically frames the underlying dynamic of my claim, and in doing this it also supports it. However, I don't see it pointing to how we could use this dynamic to develop our capacity for cooperation and the power that brings.

    Critical feedback is a vital example of my concern with including experience in our study of collective action. In all of my very limited readings in game theory and the IAD work, interpersonal feedback is treated as a form of punishment, "tongue lashings."[16] That is also the way it is experienced by practitioners and by a vast majority of people in our culture, in spite of the fact that systems thinking and a lot of many people's personal experience show that useful information can improve performance. The assumption is so widespread that giving and receiving interpersonal feedback is extremely limited because it is too costly. It doesn't have to be that way. Our assumptions generate our experiences (not totally, of course). If the Ganas core group history is indicative of anything, it shows that changing this assumption about critical feedback being primarily a form of punishment can be liberating and empowering for both individuals and the collective.[17]

    3. Going beyond sacrifice

    In searching for help in understanding my experience of cooperation, I found Michael Tomasello's argument that "mutualism" and "mutuality" play a much greater role in cooperation than altruism which involves benefiting another at a sacrifice to oneself.[18] In contrast game theorists tend to focus on explaining human cooperation as altruistic - that is, that cooperation happens when one is willing to sacrifice self-interest in some way for the sake of someone else's interest.

    For me "sacrifice" is the enclosing word in the game theorist definition of cooperation. But the potential of the cooperative dynamics I witness as a practitioner goes beyond sacrifice, and is much closer to a sense that our individual interests can be so aligned that they are shared - or mutual. I think we should be reaching for a new plane of thinking. A plane in which it is the individual-connected-and-related that is assumed from the beginning, not the stand-alone individual of our given culture. A plane on which research, theory, and practice could move toward a new mode of collective action that isn't "individuals cooperating" but rather a mutual collaboration of community.

    David Sloan Wilson's work supports the claim that we are collective beings who always exist together. For example, he highlights the power of bonding in his new book, which I review in this issue:

    Evolutionary theory tells us unequivocally that single organisms are extremely cooperative groups - not just metaphorically but literally. You and I are groups of groups of groups - and - bodies can transcend the skins of single individuals, making them part of something larger than themselves.[19]

    Genevieve Vaughan's thinking around gift-giving suggests the same thing.[20] Think of nurturing as in mothering and enjoying a very meaningful conversation with others where attention-giving and listening are strong and intense, not meeting social obligations. She claims that we are gift-giving beings because bonding is such an elementary drive, and we build those bonds through this basic kind of gift-giving.

    If "bodies can transcend the skins of single individuals," and if gift-giving, in the fundamental sense that Vaughan uses it, is an act of bonding, then sacrificing self-interest need not be the dominating concern it tends to be in both in practice and research. Giving and even ethical exchange[21] are other-oriented acts of self-interest in and of themselves that tend to expand our sense of self to include others. It is fulfilling to experience the need satisfied by the giving, or the pleasure received from pleasuring the other, or the fruition of a project conceived and undertaken out of self-interest and for the sake of the whole one is a part of.

    If there is value in any of the above, then its study needs to have a central role in our study of the nature of cooperation.

    So I end with a conviction and a hope, rather than any proof or solution. The culture we have received need not and should not define how we practice and think about human cooperation and collective action. The defining factor should be our transcending those imposed limits.

    The permanent link to this article is http://geo.coop/node/677

    About the author

    Michael Johnson

    1. Born in the panhandle of Texas in 1942 of an Irish lass and a Mississippi gentleman...Grew up deeply Catholic in a bible belt with a nurse, a doctor and three brothers, on land as flat and rolling as the ocean, under an enormous vault of sky either full of sun or moon, and in the face of constant wind...Got the message at 16 that "the world doesn't work."

    2. Entered a Kansas monastery in '63, left in '66; entered law school in NYC in fall of '67 and left in winter of '67; became an 'outside agitator at Columbia in April of '68 and discovered that the far left can be as top/down as the middle and right...deeply involved in group dynamics and community organizing in NYC '68-'73...bottomed out in Phoenix '73-'76. A member of the desegregation unit of Austin school system '76-'80.

    3. Co-founded an intentional community in Staten Island, NY in '80, in part an experiential research center in democratic culture...still there 30 years later...immersed in the worker co-op and solidarity economy movements since 2007 with the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (New England), GEO, and the Community Economies Collective.

    His email address is michael@geo.coop.  


    When citing this article, please use the following format:

    Michael Johnson (2011).Face-to-Face Communication and the Unexplored Potential of Cooperation: A report with speculations from the front lines of collective action.
    Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 9.


    [1] To Mildred, for helping us learn so much.

    [2] Ostrom, E (1997). A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action: Presidential Address, American Political Science Association. Am Pol Sc Review, 92 (1), 1-22. Retrieved from <http://www.apsanet.org/media/PDFs/PresidentialAddresses/1997AddrOSTROM.pdf

    The bulk of my article will refer to this work, but it is based on the study of about 12 papers by Ostrom and other writers in the IAD network, in particular, Ostrom E (1999). Social capital: a fad or a fundamental concept? In Ismail Serageldin and Partha Dasgupta (Eds), Social Capital: A Multifaceted Perspective, (pp. 172-214). Retrieved from http://www.exclusion.net/images/pdf/778_latuk_ostrom.pdf

    [3] Wikepedia explains this concept rather succinctly: "Homo economicus" is the concept in some economic theories of humans as rational and narrowly self-interested actors who have the ability to make judgments toward their subjectively defined ends. This theory stands in contrast to the concept of Homo reciprocans, which states that human beings are primarily motivated by the desire to be cooperative, and improve their environment.?

    [4] Ostrom, E (1997), p1.

    [5] Our web site is at http://www.ganas.org/

    [6] See Ostrom, E (1997) for a thorough discussion of IAD?s discoveries.

    [7] Ostrom, E (1997), p15.

    [8] The Ganas web site http://www.ganas.org/

    [9] These claims are also grounded in the accomplishments of two other intense, long-term social experiments in collective action in Germany and Portugal. ZEGG Community English web site at http://www.zegg.de/english.html?Itemid=112 and Tamera - Healing Biotope http://www.tamera.org/index.html Tamera was started by a group that branched off from ZEGG about 20 years ago.

    [10] Brenee Brown (2010). Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability. TEDxHouston, filmed June 2010 and Posted December 2010. A powerful presentation of this core human issue by a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Retrieved from


    [11] Thandie Newton (2011). Thandie Newton: Embracing otherness, embracing myself. TEDxHoustonGlobal, filmed July 2011 and Posted July 2010. An intricate and intense exploration of identity, experience, and relationship by an actress and African activist. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/thandie_newton_embracing_otherness_embracing_myself.html

    [12] I am especially thankful for the help that my GEO colleague, Ethan Miller, gave me in thinking through the issues in this section.

    [13] See Ostrom E (1999) for a discussion of reciprocity. She uses a typical kind of situation facing irrigation farmers trying to cooperate in developing an irrigation system to illustrate the complexity of the negotiations.

    [14] R. D. Laing (1967). The Politics of Experience. New York: Ballantine Books. P 17. The first chapter in which Laing expands on this observation, is online at http://thehealingproject.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/R.D.-Laing.-The-Politics-of-Experience.pdf . See also R. D. Laing (1982). The Voice of Experience. New York: Pantheon Books.

    [15] Martin a Nowack with Roger Highfield (2011). Super Cooperators: altruism, evolution, and why we need each other to succeed. (Free Press: New York. 2011, pxiv.

    [16] Ostrom, E (1997)

    [17] The Ganas core group and others developed and used a rather precise feedback tool, "The Problem Book," for gathering information regarding internal experiences of personal problems that could be used in identifying deep patterns of conditioned behavior and the thinking supporting those patterns. See the Problem Book pdf files http://www.ganas.org/resources/problembook.pdf and http://www.ganas.org/resources/pbinstructions.pdf

    [18] Tomasello, M (2009). Why we cooperate. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 52-3 In the same volume Joan Silk offers an expanded notion of altruism - "altruistic social preferences" - that works better at explaining human cooperation than Tomasello's mutualism.

    [19] Wilson D S (2011). The neighborhood project: Using evolution to improve my city, one block at a time. New York: Little, Brown, and Company. pp. 364-5

    [20] Vaughan, V (1997). For-Giving: A feminist exchange. Produced by Plain View Press in collaboration with the Foundation for a Compassionate Society.

    [21] The possibility of "ethical exchange" is my reading of these dynamics, not Vaughan's.

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