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Rudolf Agricola School for Sustainable Development
Bringing sustainability science forward

Evolution of social organizations: multi-level interdependencies

Societal risks and crises often occur when a group or population fails to produce a collective good, either because of internal struggles or because of external social or ecological pressures.

Examples include: failure to prepare for natural disaster risks, failure to preserve security for the group members, failure to maintain a financial-economic system, etcetera.

What can be done to mitigate these risks and crises, and to optimize the prospects for collective goods? To answer these questions, this research group uses a truly interdisciplinary approach to the emergence, functioning and decline of social organizations. The research group aims at developing fundamental theory that will help us to understand practical, social problems in a wide variety of settings. 

Collective - Individuals

Many problems faced by both human and non-human societies can be logically reduced to social dilemmas where the collective benefits when enough members contribute to the public good(s), yet individuals themselves benefit most if everyone contributes while the individual themselves do not.

In other words, any species with some form of social organization confronts a problem of cooperation – to elicit enough contributions from enough members to maintain its public good(s), and to reduce free-riding. Some but not all forms of social organization also confront individuals with a problem of coordination – who contributes what and when. 

What often escapes the analysis is that social organization structures populations in multi-level interdependencies, where individuals (Level 1) are nested in groups with public goods (or in the parlance of economic theory: ‘club goods’) (Level 2), and multiple groups being spatially dispersed and (non)dependent (Level 3).

Within these structures, issues of cooperation and coordination are solved – with varying levels of success – through, for example, vertically organized hierarchies, horizontal role specializations, and through the creation of institutions.

This requires interdisciplinary collaboration

Understanding the development of social organization within and across species, and understanding its drivers in terms of ecological and social pressures, will help in creating social structures that are resilient to external shocks and in protecting vital structures and ecosystems against dissolution and collapse.

We believe that this requires interdisciplinary collaboration among, e.g., computational (social) science and sociology, behavioural economics and organizational behaviour, and evolutionary biology and animal behaviour. On each of these and related fields, the University of Groningen has the people and facilities to take a leading role in this endeavour.


prof. dr. Bernard Nijstad (Faculty of Economics and Business)

prof. dr. Kees Aarts (Faculty of Behavioral and Social Sciences)

prof. dr. Martijn Egas (Faculty of Science and Engineering) 

Last modified:06 February 2024 09.53 a.m.
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