Explaining (In) Action: Relational Goods in Pandemics and Protests

Awarded Scholars:
Carole J. Uhlaner, University of California, Irvine
Project Date:
Aug 2020
Award Amount:

Why and when do people act for the common good when they could free-ride instead? Current events spotlight this question. First, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, people have been asked to promote the collective good of public health by wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Why do some people oblige while others object? Second, protesters pursue the collective good of policy change. Yet, the 2020 protests, some addressing racial justice (including some counter protests) and some addressing the pandemic (such as closing/reopening schools and businesses), have drawn many and diverse participants. Why are these people protesting now?  Political scientist Carole Uhlaner suggests that the concept of “relational goods” offers insights. The usual typology includes two categories: private and public goods; relational goods are a third type. Private goods are possessed and consumed only by one person. Public goods are nonexcludable, like smoggy air or national defense, and are shared with all, anonymously, unrestricted, and where the value does not depend upon others. Relational goods, in contrast, cannot be consumed alone but exist as part of some relationship between or among individuals. Unlike private goods, they must be jointly consumed with others and only exist by mutual agreement. Unlike public goods, the identities of the other persons matter. For direct relational goods, the interaction is with known individuals, often in person, while for indirect relational goods, the relationship may be with many others known only as a “type” of person, often at a distance. Friendship is a prototypical direct relational good. Indirect relational goods include acceptance as a member of a group and reinforcement of a social identity. Uhlaner also finds that “relational goods” are correlated with political participation. Uhlaner will use RSF funds to add questions to the 2020 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey (CMPS) that will allow scholars to assess the contribution of relational goods to better understand when people act for collective ends in protests and pandemics. The questions will focus on relational goods and items related to mask use, to leaders and to recruitment.


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