Meta Collab

General Theories

By explaining more phenomenon, with increased economy, a general theory provides more scientific power. For example, General Theory of Relativity, General Systems Theory etc.

General Theory of Collaboration

Currently there exists no consolidated, general theory of collaboration (GTC). Such a theory could provide a common language and framework for those seeking to better understand and expand the collaborative aspects of any given field of human endeavour. Additionally, a GTC would provide a body of knowledge for those developing collaborative software and other design based enterprises to draw on.

References to Theories of Collaboration

Although there are very few references to a general theories of collaboration online (see External Links below), one such reference [1] claims that any comprehensive theory of collaboration must address:

  • the meaning of collaboration itself;
  • the auspices under which a collaboration is convened and the role of intervention in directing social change;
  • the implications of collaboration for environmental complexity and organizational control over the environment; and
  • the relationship between organizations' self-interests and the collective interests present in a collaborative alliance.

Directions for Inspiration

Collaboration is a subject of research in many diverse and disparate fields. It is possible that through transdisciplinary research (such as Meta Collab) a GTC may emerge simply be bring existing theories to the foreground. In the meantime, inspiration may be drawn from the following bodies and traditions of research.


Perhaps the 'ology' a GTC would most likely to belong to, is sociology. Concerning itself with the social rules and processes that bind and separate people not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, and institutions, research done in this area may shed much light on the process of collaboration.


Ethnography refers to the holistic, qualitative description of human social phenomena, based on fieldwork. Ethnographic studies of collaboration in its context of manifestation, might also provide valuable insights into the process from an 'eye level' perspective.


As a social animal, the human being's behaviour is per definition a form of collaboration according to the standard dictionary definition - 'working together with one or more in order to achieve a common goal'. From this perspective, collaboration is a naturally occurring phenomenon, embedded in our DNA.

It is from this orientation that for a general theory we could look to biology. Collaboration as an evolutionary force runs somewhat counter to traditional Darwinian notions of 'survival of the fittest'. This line of inquirey has been explored in some depth in Robert Wright's book, Nonzero:The Logic of Human Destiny. This view holds that nonzero sum games...

It is all natural (sexual) selection and survival of the fittest, would Darwin argue. Collaboration must have evolved as a evolutionary advantage over other forms. One way to think about the adaptive benefits of collaboration is in terms of the biology concepts niche and diversity. Non-human primates have a limited capacity for specialization within social groups. Most primates are social and have both sex-specific behavioral roles and dominance hierarchies. Human cultural evolution makes possible a diverse set of specialized behavioral niches within complex human societies. Extensive post-natal brain growth and brain plasticity in humans makes it possible for people to become specialists by taking an interest in particular elements of their personal experience. Complex human society can then be constructed by collaboration between individuals each having their own special talents and skills.

The real question, however is, to find similarities and differences in the nature, methods and motivations of collaboration across any and every field of human endeavour. The answer to that not too modest question depends on what exactly is meant by endeavour.

Collaboration may be instinctive and selected-for in evolutionary terms because it succeeds. But we collaborate not because it succeeds, necessarily, but because it's fun. True collaboration, in hunting, in the arts and music, in sports, in raising children, is a joyous experience, and gives you a feeling that you cannot get from any individual pursuit. That feeling is the remarkable sense of collective accomplishment. We did that.


Suppose endeavour is understood as any economic activity, then economics learns us, that:

  • the nature of collaboration is either market transactions or decision making in a hierarchy to coordinate the allocation of scarce resources in production, distribution of income and finally consumption
  • the methods of collaboration are clearing of markets trough price adjustments on the one hand and control of information on the other hand performed by rational acting agents
  • the motivation of collaboration is pursuit of self interest

This line of thought originates in Adam Smith's 18th work "An inquiry in the causes and nature of the wealth of nations", and all subsequent classical and neo-classical economics.

The same can be stated on a more abstract level, which will learn you that all is required is a definition of property rights, or who might own what (not necessarily private property), definition of transaction authority, or who might decide what will happen to the property and ultimately a definition of the method of contract enforcement.

Maybe someone can define a field of human endeavour that is not an economic activity. However, probably some economist might have studied exactly that field of human endeavour as an economic activity.

On a more practical level, let us examine collaboration of a small group of people on a specific time in a specific place. Social psychology will learn you quite a few interesting things of what will happen, group dynamics, including game theory. If you aren't comfortable with that area of study, follow a series of Big Brother broadcasts. A nail that sticks out get hammered down.

Social Network Theory

External Links

References to GTC

Two Kinds of General Theories in Systems Science - an article discussing the merits of different kinds of general theories within the systems science domain.