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I'm trying to brand a product with either the word 'collaborative' or 'collective', but I am having trouble imagining what the well known thematic usage is with either word. I've always seen them used interchangeably.

The definitions seem pretty similar:

  • collaborative: produced or conducted by two or more parties working together.

    • "collaborative research"
  • collective: done by people acting as a group.

    • "a collective protest"

My guess is that someone with a literature or world history background would be able to help me parse the difference or nuance I'm trying to identify.

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    I think the request for an answer to the emotional response is purely opinion based, as are most marketing term requests. This makes it off-topic here. The rest can be gleaned from dictionaries.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 3:48
  • So how about I ask if there are any well known thematic elements... e.g. communism that may be distracting. @PhilSweet Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 4:34
  • @ChristopherJonMankowski It's a bit late, now, and did you notice how trying to brand a product with any term whose well-known thematic usage you have trouble imagining is far from being a recipe for success? Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 23:44
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    @RobbieGoodwin A top down legalistic grammarian approach to creation isn't creation. It's Plinko. I'm flowing with the spirit or a spirit and I will not add words that skew its ask or need. We think differently. Please depart this conversation gracefully. Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 18:19
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    @ChristopherJonMankowski Sorry I didn't guess you were operating on the level of Plinko or flowing with the spirit or a spirit and I will not add words that skew its ask or need. That does cast a new light your OQ, and all subsequent Comments. If only you'd explained… Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 19:08

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Here is one way to explain the difference:

Collaboration is people working together (often with a common goal) to build one thing (think wiki page with one understanding). Collective efforts are the aggregation of people's individual efforts, sometimes in the same service, but do not have common goal or common effort (del.icio.us page for a URL is the collective understanding of individuals tagging of that page for their own use.

                                                                                                                                      (Spinuzzi blog)

For example, the upvoting of questions and answers here on StackExchange is an example of collective effort that is, to good approximation, not collaborative. The upvotes and downvotes are not coordinated between various members. The process results in a collective judgment on the issue of which answers (and questions) are the best. It is mostly an aggregate effect without (too) much mutual feedback. (Of course, in reality, there is some feedback—when an answer gets a lot of upvotes, it becomes more visible, which increases the chance that, other things being equal, even more people will see it and upvote it.) But ideally each vote is a result of an independent consideration on the part of each voting member.

On the other hand, when parents raise a child in a two-parent family, that is an example of collaboration. There is much coordination between the parents; each one is (ideally) aware of what the other has done, is doing, and will do, with the understanding that each action contributes to the common goal. Both parents have some say as far as what the other parent should do.

For a similar explanation which specifically concerns collective understanding vs. collaborative understanding, see here.

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The dictionary definitions allude to but don't make explicit the important nuances that distinguish 'collective' and 'collaborative'.

  • a collective is usual a larger number of entities each doing mostly the same thing (or at least the individual entity is not of concern. An ant colony is a kind of collective. Often the English translation of socialist worker-run farming or light industry groups, like the Russian 'kolkhoz' or Hebrew 'moshav', is given as 'collective'. This this word has the connotations of working class.

  • a collaborative is, well, that's not a very common word, but is not at all strange. It is immediately and unconsciously understood in the way intended as a group that collaborates together. In contrast to 'collective', the use of 'collaborate' at its root implies that there are distinct entities with usually distinct roles. Collaboration usually occurs between two (or a handful) of people writing a paper (each working on and writing distinct parts) or a criminal organization were some steal goods, others resell it, and others launder the money. There are some negative connotations of 'collaborate' and 'collaborator' due to use of the word for locals who worked with Nazis in WWII. 'Collaborative' doesn't share these connotations, but beware of using the term 'collaborators' for the members of your collaborative.

Note that dictionaries give the shortest possible definition that isn't wrong, leaving out all sorts of things that are important like these differences and the multiple contexts it may be used in or decidedly not appropriate for.

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Do those seem to you like all-encompassing - even wide-ranging - definitions?

Collaborative and collective things are indeed both done by groups of people working together.

Broadly, collaborative describes work done; collective, decisions taken or responsibility held together.

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  • You can have a collaborative decision or a collective decision, but the meaning is slightly different: a collective decision is one that everybody is bound by or agrees to accept, while a collaborative decision is one that people work out together. So a vicious squabble followed by a vote could produce a collective decision, but would not be collaborative. This agrees with the main point you make, but is just a note.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 12:27
  • @StuartF I don't think we can have collaborative decisions. A collective decision is not one that everybody is bound by or agrees to accept but simply one that people reached together. It has no specific meaning, except that unanimously or by majority, more than one person must have been involved. That collaboration is working together is itself one reason "collaborative decisions" aren't a thing. Your vicious squabble sounds appealing, and collaboration almost implies good will but broadly, it refers to a continuous process that's not appropriate for decision making. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 23:24
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I think that collective usually implies a higher degree of cooperation than collaborative. For example, as in federation vs. confederation.

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    This is untrue. Collective can refer to a case where people don't collaborate at all but are bound by the outcome (e.g. a vote that everyone agrees to accept even if they disagree). Collaborative means working together and will usually involve accepting each others' viewpoints and compromising.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 12:31
  • I can't guess whose decision-making you guys are following but it's interesting that Stuart denies Felix's argument, then goes on to restate it… I don't see collective implying a higher degree of cooperation but I do see Felix's federation v confederation as exactly what Stuart describes. Federations are broadly bound by the outcome that everyone agrees to accept; confederations are not… Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 23:41

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