The emergence of collective agency in non-hierarchical groups is a puzzling phenomenon. Groups of individuals or of corporate members are frequently treated as actors even in the absence of a formal hierarchy. ‘The jury finds man guilty of...’, ‘the Committee proposed to …’, or ‘Parliament adopted’. Such expressions are ubiquitous in public discourse and academic research. However, it is highly disputed in the social sciences whether these expressions are more than mere metaphors. From a perspective of methodological individualism, it seems puzzling that interaction among group members might gradually produce collective agency. The projects of this coordinated application and the associated projects commonly address emerging collective agency of international and transnational institutions and networks, committees of international organizations; parliaments and their committees, as well as local intergovernmental associations (e.g. the Association of German Cities [Deutscher Städtetag]).
The projects share a focus on institutionalized groups, which are not primarily structured through formal hierarchy (henceforth non-hierarchical group actors). Such groups can acquire collective agency, i.e. the ability to act in their own right and influence their environment in meaningful ways distinct from the individual preferences and actions of their members. Ideally, such group actors are composed of members that operate at a formally equal level. Formal equality of their members does not exclude some role differentiation, such as the election of a parliamentary president or a committee chair, or informal power asymmetries, so that some members may exert stronger influence on the content of collective decisions than others. However, it implies the absence of a formal hierarchy as the dominant organizational form.
Following Vanberg (1982) and Coleman (1974), non-hierarchical group actors may be seen as organizations. They share many characteristics with (other forms of) organizations, e.g. a membership that is clearly defined at any point in time and collective decision-making procedures. They are clearly distinguished from hierarchically structured organizations, such as state bureaucracies and agencies (March/Simon 1958, 35-112), secretariats of international organizations (Barnett/Finnemore 2004), political parties (Michels 1911), and business firms.
Unlike non-hierarchical group actors, such monocratically structured organizations are not composed of formally equal members, but their members (e.g. civil servants, business employees) are typically hired by contract and are subject to orders by their superiors (Ahrne/Brunsson 2008). Ideally, they integrate their members in a formal hierarchy and concentrate decision-making power at the top of this hierarchy. Whereas elements of these diametrically opposed organizing principles may be combined in real-world organizations, we concentrate in our projects on non-hierarchical sources of collective agency. In the absence of hierarchy, non-hierarchical collective agency arises from processes of self-organization of group members.
Non-hierarchical group actors are particularly well suited to explore fundamental issues of collective agency. They draw attention to self-organization processes within groups and to the mechanisms through which collective agency emerges from interaction among group members, because these groups must solve collective action problems from the bottom up. This contrasts with hierarchically structured organizations that can solve such problems by assigning collective decisions to one or more individuals at the top of the hierarchy.