Skip to main content

Interest Groups

Interest Groups

Functions of interest groups




Problems of analysis and research


Interaction between the polity and organized interests has taken place in all periods of history. Estates, guilds, trading companies, and the like are the more immediate antecedents of the modern interest group, which may be defined as a voluntary association of individuals who band together for the defense of an “interest.” The definition of an interest as a "conscious desire to have public policy, or the authoritative allocation of values, move in a particular general or specific direction” (LaPalombara 1964, p. 16) may be controversial, but it usefully limits the concept by excluding the numerous groups whose members share certain attitudes but are not concerned with public policy. Once it is determined that only those organizations which have a stake in the political process belong to the interest group universe, the term may be used interchangeably with “pressure groups,” “organized interests,” “lobbies,” “political groups,” or “power groups.”

Groups represent the interest of the sections into which a society divides; with advanced specialization groups will be more numerous and specialized. Invariably management, labor, and agriculture will appear as federated organizations on the markets where their interests are at stake. They are not only recognized by international organizations but occasionally form groupings across national borders, for example, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions or the Council of European Federations of Industry. Within almost every country there is also a web of more specialized trade associations, trade unions, and farmers’ organizations extending in a vertical as well as a horizontal direction. In Western societies the organizations of the professions, such as medicine or law, are usually among the oldest interest groups.

In addition to sectional interests, the promotion of causes also gives rise to the formation of political interest groups. The Anti-Corn Law League, the Anti-Saloon League, societies devoted to the purification of air or of manners, movements for penal reform or for civil liberties, peacemongers or warmongers—in every society there is an inexhaustible supply of causes which find their spokesmen, who form organizations and mount campaigns.

Functions of interest groups

To manage the flow of influence between government and the governed is the main function of interest groups in a wide variety of contemporary political systems. The mere fact that groups participate in the political competition of a given system and seek to obtain and maintain power does not distinguish them from other social structures such as parties. In the past the dividing line between parties and interest groups was often drawn by pointing to a difference in functions. Groups were expected to convey to the political apparatus the total claims of a supposedly homogeneous clientele, while parties were to select, aggregate, and thereby transform the raw demands of an electorate. This is no longer true. Most modern interest groups, and especially the elaborate structures which many of them form for effective action, are so complex that they are compelled to sift claims and establish preferences. Indeed, the legitimization of their activities may depend on it.

This does not mean that all differences between parties and groups have disappeared. Except in extraordinary circumstances interest groups do not seek responsibility for direct management of government. When their officers or members win elective office (which is considered improper only in some countries), the formal responsibility of the groups to which they belong is not involved. On the other hand, if the role of groups in recruiting decision makers for the system is less conspicuous than that of parties, their influence in the selection process is often considerable and can be decisive. [See Political Recruitment and Careers.]

What is most distinctive about a great many interest groups is the place which they hold in society. The interests which they represent link their membership with community values. Hence, groups are likely to reflect more accurately than do other bodies the concerns of the society in which they operate. In fully developed as well as in developing countries, certain critical conflicts will, for a variety of reasons, never enter the party-political realm. Yet any conflict that has been taken into the public domain will invariably affect group activities. Where the formal system of representation proves inadequate, interest groups represent community values more realistically than do parties.

In the nexus between economic, social, and political power (Neumann 1957) interest groups translate economic power into social power and share with parties the function of transforming social power into political decisions. Groups which defend noneconomic interests play a similar role in the broad context of social and cultural change.

Historically it has been the task of organized interests in many systems to function as agents of innovation. In the modern service state, however, where public authorities—possibly in conjunction with political parties—have become an important source of innovation, interest groups are more likely to defend the status quo and an established position. The struggle over values in which groups engage and the claims they lay to scarce resources sometimes prevent, sometimes promote, change. They may destroy an existing consensus as well as prepare for a new one. Their part in providing a balance between stability and change within a governmental system remains important.

Groups not only articulate the demands of their potential or actual membership, they also serve as an outlet for the social energies of their members. Both the compulsory mass organizations of totalitarian states and the voluntary associations of representative regimes facilitate identification of the individual with the political system.

Compared with the intermittence of party activities and the sometimes abstract generalities of party propaganda, group campaigns appear concrete and continuous. Thus the socialization of the citizen by interest groups often proves more effective and lasting. Where they provide a framework for the social life of their members, groups fulfill, or at least supplement, the functions of political parties, e.g., the large labor and Catholic parties of western Europe, which had, in their turn, replaced the network of traditional social relations.

The organizational structure of a group determines whether its rank and file, in fact, is able to overcome isolation and possibly achieve identification with political authority. Group leadership, no less than party leadership, provides an opportunity for acquiring and exercising political skills and, possibly, an avenue to social promotion. In many of the new nations the task of training the citizenry in the art of rational political calculations falls to the groups at least as much as to parties.


Groups must come to terms with their environment by meeting conflicting claims and provoking favorable government decisions. Success or failure will be related directly to the assets which a group can command. The most crucial of these assets is a group’s position in society, which may, but need not, depend on such variables as leadership capability, wealth, and size and cohesion of the membership. Most important is an assessment of the opinion which competitors, the public, and decision makers have formed about the group. Hence, many of the publicity campaigns in which modern interest groups engage are designed to create a legitimizing image.

The less confident a group is that it can secure benefits or ward off threats through other channels, the more energy it will devote to public relations activities. Typically, promotional or attitude groups which require little immediate administrative consideration, such as an association for the abolition of the death penalty, will give major emphasis to the molding of public opinion. Others are more effective in cultivating discreet relationships. But even for groups pursuing similar ends in different societies, e.g., business organizations, the amount of publicity and of secrefiveness will vary from one political culture to another.

Similarly, the style of appeal which groups address to their own membership or to the general public does not depend solely on the nature of the interests involved; more frequently the temper that pervades all political behavior in a society will determine whether an impassioned or a factual, a radical or a moderate, an ideological or a pragmatic approach is in order.

The structure and activities of interest groups must be adjusted to the distribution of effective power within the political system. Hence, where there is power there will be pressure, although pressure—the continuation of bargaining by other means (Wootton 1963, p. 7)—denotes only one form of group influence. Conversely, the high or low density of group activity can serve as a gauge of the flow of influence in a given system and at various periods.

At least in representative regimes the relationship between interest groups and the party system is of critical importance to the process of transforming power. In their formative stage, many parties have to rely on the support of groups in order to make their appeal to the electorate effective, indeed to insure survival and growth. Once a party is established in the political process, the relationship becomes more interdependent. Interlocking leadership and membership, a common policy orientation expressed in party platforms, and the groups’ action programs may lead to a frank participation of the groups in the electoral process through subsidies and the nomination of candidates. Yet, the nonpartisan stance which many political regimes forced upon interest groups in the nineteenth century is usually not entirely abandoned. Very few groups consider a complete identification with a single political party compatible with their mission. On the other hand, political organizations which appeal to an audience representing a single interest are parties in name only, even if temporarily they win seats in parliament.

Conjectures about the respective strength or weakness of parties and pressure groups abound. The thesis that where party organization is decentralized and party discipline feeble, interest groups will be vigorous and successful can be substantiated in some countries but is contrary to fact in most. The characteristics of the legislative process and of the administrative process, social stratification, and public attitudes toward authority are among the many factors that affect the distribution of power and function between parties and interest groups.

The decline of ideological conflict, especially in the parties of western Europe, and the waning of meaningful opposition in European parliaments appear to have made organized interests preeminent over parties and to have created a situation long prevalent in the United States. What has happened, in fact, is that in a highly organized pluralist state the parliamentary representative is no longer inclined to defend individual and local interests but instead feels called upon to express the views of the large modern pressure groups. Interest groups are indeed participating in the parliamentary stage of decision making, but the importance of political parties for the defense of organized interests has increased rather than diminished.

In many systems the major group effort has shifted to the bureaucracy. The expansion of governmental activities and the dispersion of governmental powers in the modern state, the delegation of rule making to the civil service, and the technical difficulties of rational rule application all invite intimate collaboration between groups and administration. Not all groups can count on being consulted. But those groups to which the bureaucracy turns regularly for expert advice are deemed to possess information which is indispensable for the proper discharge of administrative functions. Groups are expected to exercise enough control over their members to insure the acceptance of government regulation or, alternatively, to warn the bureaucracy about obstacles in the way of policy implementation.

Most modern interest groups boast staffs whose qualifications supplement the training and knowledge of the public administrator. Moreover, group officials may have been selected because they share with their counterparts in the bureaucracy social background, education, and, frequently, an affinity of views. Where the administrators of functionally specialized agencies and group executives feel responsible to an identical clientele, the symbiosis of officialdom and private interests is bound to grow. Where, as in the modern welfare state, bureaucracy and large economic interests emerge as the best organized forces in the nation, both groups and officials can hope to draw increased strength from mutual support.

Under such conditions it is formalistic to insist that, except in a rare corporatist regime, the advice offered by even the most powerful interest group does not bind the official. Legally this may be so, and the defense of public interest against particularistic demands remains a condition of survival for pluralistic democracy.

But civil servants and group officials interact in a political “subsystem"; in some countries, among them the United States, the chairmen or the staff members of parliamentary committees also participate. These subsystems function with such regularity that they generally become the source of important official decision making. The advice offered by the groups is easily incorporated in the decisions, and organized interests assume a direct and sometimes acknowledged responsibility for the formation of public policy and occasionally even for its execution.

Collaboration between bureaucracy and groups may be based on either formal or informal contacts. The degree to which it becomes institutionalized is usually of secondary importance. In many regimes advisory committees and councils, on which interest groups of all kinds are statutorily represented, may be counted by the hundreds and be concerned with a wide range of activities. They may give a voice to interests which have failed to win regular access to administration. However, for the major groups, such committees only buttress the informal and useful contacts which they have long enjoyed.

In some countries indispensable collaboration has turned into “colonization” of the bureaucracy by the groups. These interest groups are in a position to veto the appointment (or the promotion) of civil servants to administrative positions of importance to the groups. A ministry might thus in fact become the fief of organized interests. Although open exercise of such a veto right is still generally frowned upon, subtle influences, possibly exercised through parliamentary channels, sometimes yield the same results.

Even in totalitarian regimes contact between administration and agencies representing special interests is an everyday occurrence. However, existing political controls are designed to keep the interaction between bureaucracy and interests from resulting in decentralized policy determination.

The group activities that have been described are considered typical in a wide variety of regimes at different stages of development. Normally, interest groups make demands on an existing political system and will therefore move within the rules set by that system. This does not preclude an occasional show of violence. But when interest groups proceed to challenge the existing order, anomic activities become frequent and the function of the group changes. Disgruntled ex-servicemen may storm the parliamentary building; small businessmen or property owners, threatened by bankruptcy or foreclosures, may assault tax inspectors and court officials. The representatives they elect may correctly believe that their mandate is absolute obstruction rather than reformatory legislation. But such movements transcend their role as interest groups and become revolutionary. It is nonetheless true that certain revolutionary organizations may try to appear, at least for a time, as pressure groups.


Highly structured, bureaucratized interest organizations often exist in the same society as functionally diffuse movements, with a minimum of interaction between the membership of both. When modern interest groups began to form, most of them wished to acquire an image different from that of guilds and feudal corporations. Hence they laid emphasis on the purely voluntary association and a subjectively experienced community of views providing common ground for their adherents. Moreover, police regulations often restricted their activities to single localities.

The multiplication of services which the membership expects at present from interest groups has contributed more than anything else to organizational expansion. There is, of course, a connection between the services a group provides and its operation as a pressure group. But in general, far more effort is expended on assisting the membership than on influencing the environment in which the group moves.

In all modern and in many developing societies, interest groups organize a more numerous clientele than do political parties. A well-filled treasury, specialized and general publications, and a highly trained staff are among the usual assets, at least of those groups which represent sectional interests of the population. Other organizations, such as cause groups or civic groups, might decide that the prestige which they too wish to acquire depends on factors other than an impressive hierarchical structure.

The heterogeneity of any pluralistic society, and particularly the divisions in its social structure, are reflected in the multiplicity of groups. Ideological differences, or divergent interests clothed in ideological terms, frequently lead to further fragmentation (e.g., of labor unions, of youth organizations, etc.). When they are threatened by a dissipation of power, groups may enter into federations, coalitions, or broad fronts of either permanent or ephemeral design. Everywhere the number of units interacting in the realm of interest representation lends special characteristics to the entire system.

The bureaucratization of decision making within groups and the attendant stultification of internal group life pose a number of special problems. If groups have the function of furthering the socialization of the individual, there must be room for an active participation of the members in group processes. Actually, such participation is often minimal. The fact that in modern society the most active citizens belong to several groups rather than to a single interest group has been considered a significant modifier of group activities (especially by Truman 1951, pp. 159-164 and passim). But the possible effects of multiple membership are nullified where the membership has little or no leverage in determining group policies. Oligarchic tendencies in interest groups are not checked by popular suffrage, and the opposition of parliamentary representatives, which party leadership frequently encounters, is absent from groups.

Only detailed research probing intragroup conflict, leadership recruitment and turnover, and membership involvement and cohesion can determine whether the democratic structure which most interest groups exhibit corresponds to actual power distribution. Group tyranny over the individual, never envisaged by the European pluralists, can be as oppressive as that of other authoritarian structures. Behind the facade of collective group life the individual may remain isolated and unable to alter the way in which the leadership perceives his interests and values.

The realities of group structures assume particular importance where membership is, in fact if not in law, compulsory for those engaged in a given activity. When this happens, the recoil from contract to status, generally observed in modern society, is accelerated, and interest groups will invariably be instrumental in such a development. Then the state might encourage the organizational completeness of the groups and sanction it by awarding to them quasi-fiscal powers. This creates for the modern interest groups duties and privileges similar to those of the Zwangsverband (Max Weber) in patriarchical and patrimonial societies. Among the advantages which public authorities derive at present from such a use of a trade association, a lawyers’ “guild,” or a growers’ federation is the promise of decentralized, efficient rule enforcement. In a representative system, such arrangements are most frequent in a war economy; but they have often outlasted the emergency. It is likely that they provide increased security for both the administration and the administered, but in the process interest groups must lose the characteristics of the voluntary association.


With the exception of the old Whig theory, there was no place for interest groups in any of the classical theories of democracy. Rousseau considered all forms of interest representation as a manifestation of the volontés particulières inimical to the general will. Madison denounced “faction … actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest” as a threat “to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (Hamilton et al. [1787-1788] 1961, “Federalist Paper No. 10,” p. 57). The liberal and radical traditions in both Great Britain and the United States were equally unsympathetic to “special interests”: the investigations by the Temporary National Economic Committee during the New Deal and the voluminous reports by the House Committee on Lobbying Activities reflect such continuing hostility.

However, animosity toward interest groups is in no way confined to concepts which have an atomistic or individualistic bias. The theories of the Obrigkeitsstaat too, as they emerged in early modern times, have never sanctioned interest group activities. Totalitarian regimes and many of the emerging nations deny to groups any right to autonomous action and often do so in Rousseauist or Jacobin terms. This does not prevent some of their constitutions from affirming the right of citizens to unite in vocational or other interest groups (cf. the “public organizations” enumerated in article 126 of the Soviet constitution). A different and new development has taken place in eastern Europe, where in the 1960s the extent of legitimate group action and its impact on political decisions have become the subject of searching discussions.

In the pluralistic democracies of the West, the groups are regarded as a nonpathological and ubiquitous phenomenon. But although the heterogeneous pluralistic society refuses to suppress interest group representation or to press it into the mold of governmental directives (the Gleichschaltung of the authoritarian state), it nevertheless suffers constant tension between particularistic group demands and the public interest. In concrete decisions, according to the democratic ethos, the public interest will be found and elaborated not in overcoming the fragmenting effects of group activities but in giving their spokesmen a full hearing (Herring 1936 passim; Fraenkel 1964). Groups derive their legitimacy from an assumed compatibility of their claims with community values. They will therefore formulate their demands in such a manner as to correspond to commonly held concepts of justice. But they must adhere to the limits which preservation of the common good sets for the defense of special interests, not only in their programs and policy statements but in actual practice. The notion of the public interest may remain as controversial as that of natural law, fraught as it is with epistemological and ontological difficulties. [See Public Interest.] It is nonetheless true that, at least in all Western democracies, discussions concerned with the legitimacy of group activities do weigh the effect of group pressures on the commonweal.

Whether groups contribute to the operation of the political system or undermine it cannot be determined in the abstract. Not only the nature of their claims and the means by which they assert them are important but so is the total relationship between organized interests and governmental organs. Some authors speak of a “new feudalism” whenever governmental functions are parceled out to economic organizations which then appropriate them and use them as their private property (Morgenthau 1960). At that point authoritative decisions merely sanction a determination of policy that has been reached in a subsystem. The pluralistic objectives which are the very reason for the legitimization of group action in a democratic society are, in fact, endangered when certain groups succeed in destroying the position of the government as an umpire between conflicting claims.

Both the recognition that interest groups are indispensable for the functioning of a modern democracy and the distrust that they might abuse the power derived from the exercise of legitimate functions have led in many countries to statutory or constitutional enactments. They try either to police group activities or to integrate them directly into the decision-making process.

Legislation dealing with lobbying by interest groups has, however, encountered similar and perennial difficulties everywhere. It has tended to treat symptoms rather than cause. An uncertain diagnosis of the evils to combat has led to uncertainties about available and potentially successful remedies. Nowhere has it been easy to distinguish between the legitimate exercise of the right to petition and of the freedom of association on the one hand, and corrupt practices, deception, or coercion on the other. [See Lobbying.]

In the United States, more than half of the states have imposed criminal sanctions or civil penalties on certain lobbying activities. The Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 attempts to draw conclusions from more than a century of experience with state regulation. The underlying principle of this legislation is its insistence on disclosure, a belief that if group activities are open to public scrutiny they can have no ill effect on the democratic process. This legitimizes all group behavior which does not fall under the terms of the law. Moreover, American courts have construed the legislation quite narrowly, so as to protect fundamental rights. Altogether, the American example has not been deemed successful enough to warrant direct imitation in other countries. Legislation concerning election expenses, business concentration, etc., frequently aims in similar fashion at disclosure of dealings between groups, legislature, and administration. [See also Political Financing.] Even if it were possible to enact strict standards for an operational code for interest groups, legislation of this nature would still remain unsatisfactory; it would not adequately insure to public authorities the latitude needed to deal with a coalition of organized interests.

Functional representation is a more ambitious attempt to give to groups a legitimate place in the constitutional framework. The economic councils that existed in the Weimar Republic and that have survived in the French Fifth Republic seek to institutionalize the advisory role of the major interest groups. This orderly and seemingly rational scheme of interest representation has disappointed the expectations of its promoters, and not only because of the difficulty of deciding how such institutions should be constituted. Economic councils are generally unable to monopolize the flow of expert advice, of predictions and warnings, between groups and governments. The influence which organized interests bring to bear on public policy has continued to utilize other, long-established channels, circumventing the open debates and the balloting in the councils. Proposals to make the decisions of economic councils binding rather than advisory involve more than the mere legitimization of interest group activities; such schemes would give constitutional sanction to a corporatist structure which so far exists only de facto in certain of the subsystems of representative democracy. By seeking to assure to the groups a high and official place in the decision-making process these proposals invariably neglect and misconstrue the roles of both political parties and groups in the governmental process.

Problems of analysis and research

Scholarly investigations of interest groups have often been prompted by the same impulse of demys-tification which has motivated muckraking descriptions of lobbying. The desire to see politics in the round, to understand better the evident discrepancies between constitutional structure and political reality, and to analyze the values and beliefs underlying political conduct has drawn attention to the study of interest groups.

Interest groups are by no means an American invention; their growth was equally luxuriant in imperial Germany, in republican France, and elsewhere. But it was easier to discover them in a political system where party programs remained inconsequential and where a tight net of nonparty groups surrounds and penetrates the parties at all times. When after World War II pressure group studies also became the research vogue in Europe, and soon thereafter in most parts of the world, they acknowledged their debt to the earlier American findings. But they also inherited much of the confusion which had characterized previous group analysis.

For all its impressive descriptive wealth, American research has in the past provided little systematic reflection on the general role which interest groups play in political and social change. If any theoretial insights have emerged from the empirical studies, they are far from coherent and often accommodate conflicting concepts of representative government (Eldersveld 1958). Even exercises in group taxonomy, indispensable for systematic and especially for comparative studies, have not been too successful. Classification according to the interests which the groups represent (especially the frequent distinction between the defenders of sectional interests and the promoters of causes) often prove too simplistic even for the description of single systems. The division into institutional, non-associational, associational, and anomic groups, which Almond and Coleman have developed for comparative purposes (1960, pp. 33-45), is useful but seems to broaden the group universe unduly.

The complex relationship between the so-called group theory of politics, an American version of analytical pluralism, and empirical group studies, is discussed elsewhere [see Political group analysis]. The question whether or not an updated and refined group approach, supported by empirical research, can serve as a general theory of the political process has been debated hotly, albeit inconclusively. Demands for better definitions, for a more elaborate conceptual framework, and for more systematic observations have come from all sides; but as yet there have been no appreciable results, even while monographic and comparative studies have added much to the realistic knowledge of politics in many countries.

The studies which Jean Meynaud (1962) has devoted to the French and other interest group systems excel by their combination of descriptive analysis and methodological and theoretical considerations. The writer not only warns against a mechanistic view of the political process which may result from all too exclusive a preoccupation with interest groups, he also points to the difficulties still in the way of satisfactory group research.

Frequently these difficulties result from insufficient evidence. Some case studies have been successful in isolating group influences among the multiple factors that determine policy. Such studies have also described, although never measured exactly, the intensity and the scope of pressures applied in a particular situation. Yet generalizations about the actual effectiveness of pressures remain hazardous. Not only sociological but also political analysis calls for a precise understanding of internal group processes. Formal group structure may hide more than it reveals about actual power relationships. Yet any probing beneath the surface will in general be impeded by the impossibility of penetrating inside the groups with a scholarly and replicable research design. In the past, institutional economists have sometimes investigated, if only marginally, the positive or negative role which interest groups have played in innovation. Now that political scientists also wish to scrutinize this question, they are often hampered by a lack of historical evidence.

For these and other reasons, probabilistic statements abound in both one-country and multicountry group research; comparisons of group impact have been less rigorous than is desirable. However, even at present the dimension which group research has added to the study of politics permits testing the validity of some hypotheses about political organization and behavior in different political cultures.

Henry W. Ehrmann

[Directly related are the entries Parties, political; Pluralism; Political group analysis; Voluntary associations. Other relevant material may be found in Organizations; Political participation; Political process; Representation; Social movements.]


Almond, Gabriel A.; and Coleman, James S. (editors) 1960 The Politics of the Developing Areas. Princeton Univ. Press.

American Academy of Political and Social Science 1958 Unofficial Government: Pressure Groups and Lobbies. Edited by Donald C. Blaisdell. Annals, Vol. 319. Philadelphia: The Academy.

Bentley, Arthur F. (1908) 1949 The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures. Introduction by H. T. Davis. Bloomington, Ind.: Principia Press.

Blaisdell, Donald C. 1957 American Democracy Under Pressure. New York: Ronald Press.

Breitling, Rupert 1960 Die zentralen Begriffe der Verbandsforschung. Politische Vierteljahresschrift 1:47-73.

Eckstein, Harry H. 1960 Pressure Group Politics: The Case of the British Medical Association. London: Allen & Unwin; Stanford Univ. Press.

Ehrmann, Henry W. 1957 Organized Business in France. Princeton Univ. Press.

Eldersveld, Samuel J. 1958 American Interest Groups: A Survey of Research and Some Implications for Theory and Method. Pages 173-196 in International Political Science Association, Interest Groups on Four Continents. Edited by Henry W. Ehrmann. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

Finer, Samuel E. 1958 Anonymous Empire: A Study of the Lobby in Great Britain. London: Pall Mall.

Fraenkel, Ernst 1964 Deutschland und die westlichen Demokratien. Stuttgart (Germany): Kohlhammer. → See especially pages 32-47.

Hamilton, Alexander; Madison, James; and jay, john (1787-1788) 1961 The Federalist. Edited with introduction and notes by Jacob E. Cooke. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press.

Herring, E. Pendleton 1929 Group Representation Before Congress. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Herring, E. Pendleton 1936 Public Administration and the Public Interest. New York: McGraw-Hill.

International Political Science Association 1958 Interest Groups on Four Continents. Edited by Henry W. Ehrmann. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

Kaiser, Joseph H. 1956 Die Repräsentation organisierter Interessen. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Key, Valdimer O. (1942) 1964 Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. 5th ed. New York: Crowell.

Lapalombara, Joseph G. 1964 Interest Groups in Italian Politics. Princeton Univ. Press.

Mackenzie, William J. M. 1955 Pressure Groups: The Conceptual Framework. Political Studies 3:247-255.

Meynaud, Jean 1962 Nouvelles Etudes sur les groupes de pression en France. Paris: Colin.

Morgenthau, Hans J. (1960) 1964 The Purpose of American Politics. New York: Random House. → See especially pages 274-292 on “The New Feudalism: The Paradox of Thwarted Government.”

Neumann, Franz L. 1957 The Democratic and the Authoritarian State: Essays in Political and Legal Theory. Edited by Herbert Marcuse. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → See especially pages 3-21 on “Approaches to the Study of Political Power.”

Potter, Allen M. 1961 Organized Groups in British National Politics. London: Faber.

Truman, David B. (1951) 1962 The Governmental Process: Political Interests and Public Opinion. New York: Knopf.

Wootton, Graham 1963 The Politics of Influence: British Ex-servicemen, Cabinet Decisions and Cultural Change, 1917-1957. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Interest Groups." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 26 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Interest Groups." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (March 26, 2017).

"Interest Groups." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved March 26, 2017 from

Interest Groups


INTEREST GROUPS are organizations that seek to influence public policy. When defined in this manner, an enormous variety of organizations can be thought of as interest groups. Interest groups range from large, mass-membership organizations, such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), to labor unions, such as the United Auto Workers (UAW), to large corporations, such as Exxon Mobil. Because of the enormous variety of interest groups, it is useful to divide them into several categories. One obvious distinction is between interest groups that are membership organizations; their future depends to an important degree on persuading individuals to become and remain members. At the other extreme are organizations such as corporations that are often very active in influencing public policy but that have no "members" as such; interest group activity is something in which they engage in order to protect their primary activities, such as making and selling a product or service. Another distinction that can be made is between interest groups that exist to promote a particular cause (such as the National Rifle Association, which exists primarily to oppose gun control) and interest groups such as corporations that may become involved in a wide range of public policies such as taxation, environmental protection, and trade policy that affects their interests.

Interest groups have long been thought to be central to American politics. The writers of the Federalist Papers (especially in Numbers 10 and 51) cast their arguments in favor of the Constitution in large part on how it would both facilitate and restrain interest-group activity. Alexis de Tocqueville's famous description of the United States in the Jacksonian era, Democracy in America, began the tradition of describing Americans as more likely to form and join interest groups than people in other countries. Whether or not this is the case depends on how the question is framed. It is true that Americans claim to be members of more interest groups than are the citizens of other advanced democracies such as Britain. However, certain types of interest groups, particularly those that are de-fined in terms of economic role, are often weaker than those in other democracies. For example, labor unions in the United States are much less successful in recruiting potential members than are unions in Germany, Britain, or above all, the Scandinavian democracies. American interest groups also tend to be fragmented. In many advanced democracies, a single interest group speaks for a broad sector of society, such as labor, farmers, or business. In the United States, however, there are generally numerous competing interest groups that claim to represent a sector of society. The National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the Chamber of Commerce have all claimed to be the voice of business; a similar competitive situation could be described among farmers' organizations (the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau, the National Farmers' Organization, plus numerous organizations representing producers of a single commodity) and environmental groups (the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, and many others).

Throughout American history, different types of interest groups have been brought to prominence as the products of socioeconomic changes, social movements, and government policies. The recurring economic crises of American agriculture from the late nineteenth century onward prompted the creation of a succession of agricultural interest groups—the Grange, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the National Farmers' Union. Craft unions representing skilled workers became established in the late nineteenth century; not until the 1930s did industrial unions representing less skilled workers reach a secure footing, largely through the help of the federal government. The major social movements of the late twentieth century also left an impact. Civil rights groups came to prominence in the 1960s, followed by groups representing women (especially the National Organization for Women [NOW]), consumers, and environmentalists. Business interest groups, seeking to counter the influence of unions and public-interest groups, set the pace in terms of fund-raising and organization in the 1980s and 1990s. While some of these interest groups have since seen their influence decline, all retain an important presence in American politics today. The interest-group landscape thus reflects a complex geology in which, like different rocks, different interest groups are created by a variety of forces.

Interest groups have used a wide array of tactics over the years, ranging from campaigning in elections to bribery. The most obvious tactics used today are lobbying and making campaign contributions. All major interest groups—such as the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the Business Roundtable, and individual companies such as Exxon Mobil or DuPont—employ professionals whose job is to persuade legislators and executive-branch officials of the wisdom and justice of the group's case. Most studies of lobbyists have concluded that the most effective lobbyists are those who have established a long-term relationship of trust and confidence between themselves and the legislators with whom they deal. Most lobbyists feel that they are more likely to gain a hearing for their arguments if their interest group makes campaign contributions to the politicians with whom they deal. Since 1974, campaign contributions made directly to candidates (known as hard money) must be made through political action committees (PACS) that are linked to the interest group but legally separated from its general funds. Contributions are limited to a maximum of $5,000 for each election (primary and general) and must be reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC.) It was hoped that the combination of limiting contributions considerably and publicizing them would prevent abuses. In the late twentieth century, however, interest groups were allowed to make unlimited contributions through parties to candidates. This "soft money" could come directly from the interest group's general funds and need not have been raised explicitly for political purposes. In 2002, federal legislation was passed to block soft money contributions to candidates in federal elections. Whether the legislation would survive the inevitable constitutional challenge in the courts remained to be seen. It also was likely that the legislation contained enough large loopholes by which its purpose could be circumvented, for example, by funneling soft money through state parties.

Interest groups also use other tactics. It has been very common for interest groups to go to court to challenge the constitutionality of legislation. The cases brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to undermine segregation, most notably Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, are among the most influential. Almost equally famous is the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, establishing the right of women to choose to have an abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy. The case was supported and the precedent defended in subsequent cases by feminist organizations such as NOW. Business interest groups, environmental groups, and unions also go to court frequently to challenge regulations that they dislike.

Interest groups have also become more active in campaigns to change public opinion. Individual companies such as Exxon Mobil have run many advertisements to both enhance their general image and to project their opinions of issues such as environmental regulation. The AFL-CIO and individual unions have also tried to mobilize their members and their families in support of both labor and more general policy issues. Interest groups were very zealous in both supporting and opposing the nomination of controversial figures to the Supreme Court, such as Justice Clarence Thomas.

In spite of their ubiquity, a debate has raged throughout American history about whether interest groups are an aid or a barrier to the practice of democracy. Defenders of interest groups argue that they are both a central aspect of democratic politics and an aid to good government. The Bill of Rights protects the right of the people to petition their government, and interest groups exist to do just that. The clash of interests between interest groups aids policymakers by providing more and better information for making policy decisions. However, interest groups have also generated considerable concern. First, it is often feared that instead of policymakers being aided by a clash of opinions and interests, in practice there will be a single interest group that dominates a policy area to the disadvantage of the public as a whole. Second, it is feared that the interest group system distorts democracy because the resources required to be effective are distributed unequally. Environmental or consumer protection groups must struggle hard to attract members and money; the large corporations that they confront can easily command the resources they need to staff a Washington office for their lobbyists, to create a PAC, or to make soft money contributions.

These defects in the interest group system are real and important. The dilemma set out by Madison in the Federalist Papers remains. Attempts to restrain the power of interest groups by restricting their activities may cure some of the "mischiefs" of the interest group system but at the cost of liberty. Madison's solution was to set interest against interest in what was later called a pluralist interest group system. Interest groups have experienced considerable growth in number and range during the beginning of the twenty-first century. For example, corporations are now opposed by public interest groups, and the National Rifle Association by Handgun Control. While the inequality of resources between these groups is still disturbing, this proliferation of interest groups creates a system that is more varied, inclusive, and representative of American society than in the past.


Goldstein, Kenneth M. Interest Groups, Lobbying, and Participation in America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. Edited by Isaac Kramnick. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Edited by J.P. Mayer. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Wilson, Graham K. Interest Groups. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Graham K.Wilson

See alsoLobbies .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Interest Groups." Dictionary of American History. . 26 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Interest Groups." Dictionary of American History. . (March 26, 2017).

"Interest Groups." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved March 26, 2017 from

interest groups

interest groups A valuable element of democracy is the ability and willingness of citizens to organize on their own behalf, and to seek to influence legislatures, government agencies, and public opinion. Citizens so organized are often termed interest groups (a label which can also be synonymous with the terms pressure group, lobby, party, political action committee, and social movement).

Interest groups are voluntary associations with specific and narrowly defined goals, which may be moderate or radical, local or international in scope. Professional and trade associations work as interest groups, as do activist groups like the ecology movement. Interest groups may represent one segment of the public (such as pensioners or students), or they may represent a value (for example anti-abortion), at which point they shade into ideological or moral crusades.

From the democratic point of view, the limitation of interest groups is that they tend to represent mainly the wealthier and better-educated sections of the public, leaving the poor and minorities largely unrepresented. In Washington DC, for example, some 11,000 interest-group organizations compete for the attention of 535 legislators. Almost all these organizations represent business, financial, and professional interests.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"interest groups." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 26 Mar. 2017 <>.

"interest groups." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (March 26, 2017).

"interest groups." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved March 26, 2017 from