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Voluntary Associations

Voluntary Associations






An association is a group organized for the pursuit of one interest or of several interests in common. Associations are usually contrasted with involuntary groupings serving a greater variety of ends, such as kin groups, castes, social classes, and communities.

Attention was first drawn to the characteristics and significance of associations in the context of the evolutionary approach to social phenomena. Although the earlier writers took little interest in particular associational forms (a general study made by Heinrich Schurtz in 1902 was an exception), they attributed great importance to the shift from involuntary to voluntary kinds of grouping. Sir Henry Maine stressed the movement from relations based upon status as determined by birth to relations of contract deriving from the free agreement of individuals. Maine thought of early society not only as being based upon kinship but as lacking settled residence. He said that “when a tribal community settles down finally upon a definite space of land, the Land begins to be the basis of society in place of the Kinship” (Maine [1875] 1897, p. 72). According to this view (later reiterated by Morgan), territorial association is a new principle of human grouping that makes possible the emergence of the state. Ferdinand Tonnies made a similar distinction when he contrasted Gemeinschaft with Gesellschaft; Émile Durkheim and others continued in the same tradition.

Insofar as the concept “association” differentiates certain forms of grouping from others (e.g., castes from clans) its theoretical value lies in the analysis of social evolution. Voluntary associations become more common and significant as societies advance in technology, complexity, and scale; hence, their study is part of the study of social change.

A good illustration of the point at which associations first emerge is provided by the Blackfoot Indians of the North American plains. The Black-foot’s existence was formerly based on hunting the buffalo: as the feeding habits of the buffalo changed from season to season, so Indian life had to change correspondingly. In the autumn and winter when pasture was poor, the buffalo wandered about in small herds. The Blackfoot also traveled about in small bands of kinfolk led by a man chosen for skill in hunting and fairness in his dealings. In late spring the buffalo congregated in enormous herds, fattening on the fresh and abundant grass. The Blackfoot bands also combined, forming social and economic units that could most efficiently hunt the great herds. Most men were members of societies that included men of similar age. These societies organized the encampments, maintained order, and coordinated hunting operations during the summer migrations. The societies also performed dances and ceremonies. Quite apart from the explicit ends served by these associations, they brought men from different bands into relations of solidarity. Although a young man might choose which society he would join, it was hardly conceivable that he should belong to none. In this case the principle of association was compounded with that of age-grouping, and membership was voluntary only in a restricted sense.

In the comparative analysis of social organization it seems preferable to keep the two principles of grouping separate. Lowie, who did not press this distinction, concluded that the distribution and form of associations were so irregular that they defied logical classification ([1948] 1960, p. 295). Nevertheless, a very loose pattern can be observed: among relatively small and technologically primitive groups, associations tend to be organized for recreation and the expression of distinctions of rank; in larger tribal societies they may exercise important governmental functions, and with an increasing division of labor they tend to be founded for the pursuit or defense of economic interests.

Among the Crow Indians, there was a cult organized as an association to undertake the ceremonial planting of tobacco; this was believed to promote the welfare of the tribe. Membership in the Tobacco society conferred prestige and was acquired by paying a substantial fee to a sponsor. Members performed special songs and dances. The various chapters shared the fees of novices. Both men and women might belong, and it was common to initiate a man and his wife at the same time (Lowie 1935). Another example can be taken from the culture of the Banks Islands (Melanesia), in which there were two distinct sets of associations, one secular and one ceremonial. A young man at puberty was initiated into a young man’s club (sukwe) if he or his kinsmen paid the required entrance fee. He could afterwards advance to higher ranks within the club by giving costly presents. Initiation could take place at any age, and recruits did not have to start in the lowest rank. The principal functions of these sukwe seem to have been those of fostering sociability and fixing rank. The other associations (tamate) were ritualistic and secret; masks were worn and the meeting places were taboo to women and uninitiated males. No one could pass above a certain rank within sukwe unless he had been initiated into the most important of the tamate societies, but neither society had any direct part in government.

The Ariori society of the Society Islands (Polynesia) included both male and female members. It was numerically strong and divided into a series of ranks. The principal function of the Ariori was to provide public entertainment, but it seems in addition to have been a powerful integrative force in the community. The religious aspect of the ceremonials was also important; members were obliged to kill any new children they might bear, apparently to avoid obligations that might interfere with their Ariori responsibilities (Williamson 1939, pp. 113-153).

Associations have been highly developed in west Africa, where they play an explicit part in the process of government (for example, see Brown 1951).

Among the Yakö in eastern Nigeria there is a pattern of dense settlement with authority concentrated at the level of the local group. Associations of varying kinds were based on both the ward, including about three thousand people, and the village, which could have a population of up to ten thousand. Neither within nor between them was there any explicit hierarchy of authority, although the plurality of associations was remarkable. The maintenance of order ultimately depended on the common understanding and coincident interests of the associations, but because they were based on different groupings and their membership overlapped, consensus was more easily obtained. In each ward there was an association of “leaders,” the head of which had moral authority over other men’s associations: the “fighters,” the “hunters,” and a graded ritual association into which most males were initiated. Within each ward there was also an independent association that offered supernatural protection to its members and regarded itself as a means of defense against any abuse of power by the “leaders” it had become a reluctantly tolerated opposition.

The village was a larger unit than the ward and had a cult association with about fifty members, to which ward leaders usually belonged. The head of this village association belonged to a council of priests, which appeared to have begun as a combination of diverse cults associated with matrilineal clans but had become a corporation of considerable solidarity. This council had judicial and deliberative capacities supported by ritual powers and moral authority, but it could not enforce its views. Other village associations had police powers, such as “the body of men” concerned with trespass and the stealing of crops. A body with more prestige, consisting of forty men, was concerned chiefly with land disputes and trading relations. The members were pledged to divulge information on alleged offenses to the association and to keep them secret from outsiders. Admission to this association was by succession on the death of a close patrilineal kinsman. The radical decentralization of authority among the Yakö is dependent upon the extensive use of associational grouping in conjunction with double unilineal descent and influential spirit cults (Forde 1961, pp. 309-323).

In west Africa, associations also play an important part in the government of some societies with centralized, statelike, authority, such as the Yoruba in western Nigeria and the Mende in Sierra Leone. In parts of Yorubaland, the Ogboni association of elders was a judicial body, which in Abeokuta elected and could remove the principal political chief. The Ogboni had at its disposal a society of hunters and scouts who would seize the property of an uncooperative minor offender and a ritual association that carried out executions of criminals. Among the Mende, the Poro society used to be the most powerful organ of government. The functions of the Mende chief were of a secular character, concerned with military and administrative duties; he could be deposed or reproved by the Poro, which controlled all important ritual activities and met in secret. All youths were initiated into the Poro and received training in masculine tasks and morals, but actual authority was limited to the senior members. Other Mende associations exercised authority over particular realms of activity: the Humui supervised sexual behavior, the Njayei treated insanity, and the Kpa dealt with minor physical disorders. The Sande was a women’s society paralleling the Poro, and as the voice of organized feminine opinion it too could be of political importance (Little 1951).

Among other peoples, such as the Ashanti in Ghana, the Dahomey, and the Nupe in northern Nigeria, the central government controlled the use of force and state rituals. For example, among the Ashanti young men’s military organizations had a voice in the election of a chief, but in general no important spheres of authority in these societies were left to independent bodies such as associations. Where found, associations usually organized mutual aid and recreation. Savings clubs, widespread in this region, often had power to regulate the behavior of their members.

The appearance of associations seems to be linked with new forms of economic activity. Among the Temne in Sierra Leone, for example, the introduction of swamp-rice cultivation created new labor demands for the initial clearing of the swamps and for the annual farming cycle. A secret society was formed for clearing the swamps, and young men’s associations were founded to help with the farming. Traveling from farm to farm and working collectively, the young men were able to earn extra money and productivity was much higher (Banton 1957, pp. 20-21, 193-195). Among the Yoruba, at one time the craft industries (blacksmithing, weaving, wood carving, etc.) were organized on the model of the lineage structure, but in recent times guilds have been created to train apprentices and to regulate the activity of such new craftsmen as the goldsmith, tinker, gunsmith, sawyer, carpenter, tailor, barber, builder, leatherworker, shoemaker, and bicycle repairer. These guilds are organized on a contractual basis independent of kinship (Lloyd 1953, pp. 30-44).

In situations of rapid social change, voluntary associations are important as a means of organizing people in order to achieve new ends, such as the raising of capital, the regulation of prices, and the provision of extra labor. They are also of great significance to the social scientist in that they reveal cultural values and goals that the participants themselves are unable to formulate. One aspect that has impressed outside observers is the plethora of honorific titles and apparently gratuitous ceremonials. These are found, for example, in Haitian work societies (Métraux 1951, pp. 73-86) and Melanesian cargo cults (Worsley 1957, p. 241), as well as in various African associations (Banton 1957, pp. 181-182). Some writers have seen in such associations a clue to the motivations of the participants and an explanation of the popularity of associations. Discussing some modern urban associations in Nigeria, one anthropologist described “the realism with which this playing at society à la Européenne is enacted” and stated that “psychologically, it has the significance of a substitute for thrills and achievements which normal life cannot offer” (Nadel 1942, p. 391). Analyzing entertainment societies in a Northern Rhodesian town, another writer held that in the 1920s the appeal of this play acting was the vicarious participation in European society, but that by the 1950s the participants’ reference group had become the African national elite of professionals and white-collar employees (Mitchell 1956, pp. 12-15). By wearing smart European clothes in a particular style, the members of a dancing group identified themselves with Africans who had advanced further up the modern scale of social status.

Another important aspect of rapid social change is the way new forms of organization create new roles and relationships. Innovation of this kind is usually a trial-and-error procedure in which the motivations of the participants are influenced by circumstances they only partly understand. For example, in eastern Nigeria during the middle and late 1940s, numerous associations were developed on the basis of lineage, clan, village, village-group, division, and tribe. Their aim was to carry out various economic, educational, political, social, and general reforms directly related to changing cultural conditions. Ottenberg (1955) reported that by 1953 almost half the villages of the Afikpo Ibo had such associations. They subscribed loans to help members needing capital for developing trade or farming. They made bicycle paths, improved water supplies, and gave scholarships to promising students. These associations expressed the interests of the young men who, partly because of the war, had learned more about the outside world. These men could not work effectively for modern goals through the traditional institutions, so they formed and supported new associations. The success of voluntary associations in the rural villages often reflects increasing consciousness of the outer world. The villagers resent the scorn of outsiders about their backward condition and come together more closely to compete with other villages for new prizes.

Voluntary associations in the cities have many features similar to those in villages, but they differ in that initially they serve only as substitutes for the traditional institutions with which the migrant has lost touch. The first kind of urban association to appear, therefore, is the bereavement benefit society, which takes over the kin group’s responsibilities in the event of death. If a member who has no kinfolk within easy reach should die, the society arranges the funeral. If a member has to arrange the funeral of one of his relatives, the society contributes money and attends the ceremonies to support the colleague by honoring his dead. In Abidjan, Ivory Coast, there is some intermarriage between immigrants from the strongly patrilineal societies of the far interior savanna zone and women from matrilineal societies of the western coastal zone. Since both parents claim offspring for their own lineages, marital unions are frequently short-lived and often conclude with neither kin group assuming full responsibility for the child. These “lost children” join together in mutual aid societies that play the part of a kin group in helping members learn a trade and in presiding over marriages (Rouch 1963).

It is in the sphere of economic activity that urban associations most evidently create relationships on a new pattern. Among male workers in industrial occupations, the employment situation has forced workers’ associations to develop quite rapidly into trade unions. Initially, the workers formed multipurpose societies to meet the whole range of their needs. The first Sudanese trade union, for example, included in its aims mutual help in times of illness, death, and unemployment; the establishment of savings schemes and cooperative societies; and the organization of “literary and scientific lectures” (Hodgkin 1956, p. 127). The case of the copper mines of Northern Rhodesia is particularly instructive. In the early 1930s, the mine managers introduced a system of tribal representation in order to open channels of worker-management consultation with African employees. It was soon found that in situations of industrial tension, tribal affiliation was rendered irrelevant by the dominant cleavage between employers and mine workers. The Africans’ common occupational role was the critical one, and they had to organize on an industrial basis if they were to advance their interests. In the process, they learned new relationships and norms (Epstein 1958). Among nonindustrial male workers, such as fishermen, truck drivers, and other self-employed persons, occupational associations tend to remain on a multipurpose level. Women’s occupational associations show similar features, although in southern Nigeria there are women’s societies that run a bakery, a laundry, a calabash workshop, and a gari mill (Little 1965, p. 127).

The formulation of new roles and relationships is also apparent in the features of voluntary associations that seem to have no useful purpose. As has been mentioned, many of these associations support a much greater variety of ranks and titles than is necessary to the functioning of the organization. The traditional norms for ascribing social status are in conflict with the new social patterns dictated by the world economy into which the societies are rapidly being propelled.

Voluntary associations, therefore, develop ways of honoring the people they think worthy; the over-elaborate system of ranks serves as a means of differentiating the relative merits of members and of giving an indigenous character to values obtained from the new influences. Because members are not always firmly committed to the new ways and treasurers are all too likely to abscond, the associations have to experiment with varying forms of organization. The proliferation of titled officers provides a justification for involving several members in money matters and other areas important to the society, while the enjoyment of a special title increases the individual member’s loyalty. The representation of minor European ceremonials in the conduct of meetings, the use of European languages by some groups, and similar features may be seen as part of a process in which young men brought up in traditional societies based on ascribed status learn instead the principles of conduct important in an achievement-oriented society. As one writer has commented:

in using English at their meetings, the Africans were learning to handle one of the most important tools of the new culture. When Africans conversed together in English, they showed that they had interests in common which cut across tribal divisions. Furthermore, in the handling of novel concepts they were broadening their intellectual horizons, and making possible closer contact and acquaintance with the world outside. (Epstein 1958, p. 84)

Further support for an interpretation stressing how African urban associations institutionalize new roles and buttress new standards of general conduct may be found in the way associations in a particular town can often be ranked in terms of prestige. At the bottom come the simplest associations, which arrange entertainment for holidays and appeal to the least sophisticated immigrants; the members could not make a success of a more elaborate organization. Above them come the permanent recreational groups and friendly societies supported by the more ambitious young people. Then come the social clubs of the elite, whose aims are more narrowly defined and whose organizational structure is less complicated. Thus, at the bottom of this scale people are not concerned with innovation; at the top, the new values have been fairly securely established and are supported by other institutions; it is in the middle that the process of adaptation is most in evidence. It should also be mentioned that in emphasizing particular standards—whether or not they are new— the members of such bodies reinforce processes of social control. In rapidly changing circumstances of social control, problems of delinquency, crime, and dereliction of customary obligations become pressing. Modernist associations reward those people who respond in the approved way and withhold approval from others; in addition to such sanctions, the associations sometimes take direct action against those they see as wrongdoers who are not punished by other institutions. Thus, as several writers have stressed, voluntary associations in African cities have both adaptive and integrative functions (e.g., Banton 1957; Little 1965).

Association as a principle of social grouping is more general, however, than a consideration of friendly societies and clubs might imply. The evidence in Africa makes clear that a variety of new institutions have been obliged by the course of social change to organize on associational lines. The case of trade unions has been touched upon. Political parties are another instance. They have often developed out of the “welfare societies” and similar bodies organized by the more educated Africans. In the early phases the tendency was toward loose political alliances of the “Congress” type that represented the opposition to colonial rule. With the extension of the franchise, party organizations were needed to marshal supporters, have them registered as electors, explain voting symbols and procedures, spread propaganda, and ascertain public opinion (Hodgkin 1956, pp. 139-168). The organizational basis of parties had to be associational. In most cases, however, majority parties, after independence, have insisted that they serve the widest range of interests and are rebuilding the very structure of society; this has limited the scope for any association that is, or can be represented as, an opposition party.

A similar sequence can be detected in independent religious groups under colonial rule. In the earlier phases of contact, an all-embracing prophetic movement may express the resentments and aspirations of the people, but the independent church later becomes the characteristic institution. The church has a more limited field of action, and the loyalty of its members is maintained by a complex infrastructure of prayer guilds, social clubs, etc., which, like a friendly society, may support members in bereavement. Because their potential members have similar needs and are accustomed to similar social arrangements, trade unions, political parties, independent churches, and friendly societies are obliged to organize in similar ways.

It is unusual for research to be designed to investigate the characteristics of associations in preliterate or developing societies, although frequently the significance of associational activity is revealed in the course of inquiries into other matters. This trend will probably continue. Associations are of interest to the social scientist only if examined from a particular standpoint, which usually entails study of a wider range of institutions. This discussion may have shown some of the merits and limitations of a bird’s-eye evolutionary approach to the topic and may have indicated that it is more fruitful to study the significance of associations in particular phases of social change. The present need is for the formulation of theories that can be tested cross-culturally; this may result in the substitution of other concepts for the term “association” if they will permit the diversity of phenomena to be classified in a manner that relates them more directly to a theory of social organization.

Michael Banton


Banton, Michael 1957 West African City: A Study of Tribal Life in Freetown. Oxford Univ. Press.

Banton, Michael 1965 Roles: An Introduction to the Study of Social Relations. London: Tavistock.

Brown, Paula 1951 Patterns of Authority in West Africa. Africa 21:261-278.

Epstein, Arnold L. 1958 Politics in an Urban African Community. Manchester (England) Univ. Press; New York: Humanities Press.

Forde, C Daryll 1961 The Governmental Roles of Associations Among the Yakö. Africa 31:309-323.

Hodgkin, Thomas L. 1956 Nationalism in Colonial Africa. London: Muller.

Little, Kenneth L. 1951 The Mende of Sierra Leone: A West African People in Transition. London: Rout-ledge.

Little, Kenneth L. 1965 West African Urbanization: A Study of Voluntary Associations in Social Change. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Lloyd, Peter 1953 Craft Organization in Yoruba Towns. Africa 23:30-44.

Lowie, Robert H. (1935)1956 The Crow Indians. New York: Rinehart.

Lowie, Robert H. (1948) 1960 Social Organization. New York: Holt.

Maine, Henry S. (1875) 1897 Lectures on the Early History of Institutions. 7th ed. London: Murray. → A sequel to the author’s Ancient Law.

MÉtraux, Alfred 1951 Making a Living in the Marbial Valley, Haiti. A report prepared by Alfred Métraux in collaboration with E. Berrouet and Dr. and Mrs. Jean Comhaire-Sylvain. Occasional Papers in Education, No. 10. Paris: UNESCO.

Mitchell, James C. 1956 The Kalela Dance: Aspects of Social Relationships Among Urban Africans in Northern Rhodesia. Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, Papers, No. 27. Manchester (England) Univ. Press.

Nadel, Siegfried F. 1942 A Black Byzantium: The Kingdom of Nupe in Nigeria. Published for the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures. Oxford Univ. Press.

Ottenberg, S. 1955 Improvement Associations Among the Afikpo Ibo. Africa 25:1-28.

Rouch, Jean 1963 Second Generation Migrants in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Pages 300-304 in International African Seminar, First, Makerere College, 1959, Social Change in Modern Africa. Oxford Univ. Press.

Schurtz, Heinrich 1902 Altersklassen und Männer-bunde: Eine Darstellung der Grundformen der Gesell-schaft. Berlin: Reimer.

Williamson, Robert W. 1939 Essays in Polynesian Ethnology. Edited by Ralph Piddington. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Worsley, Peter 1957 The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of “Cargo” Cults in Melanesia. London: Mac-Gibbon & Kee.


Definitions of the term “voluntary association,” as it applies to organizations in modern societies, differ widely, but they generally contain three key elements. A voluntary association is an organized group of persons (1) that is formed in order to further some common interest of its members; (2) in which membership is voluntary in the sense that it is neither mandatory nor acquired through birth; and (3) that exists independently of the state. Even this broad definition admits some exceptions. Membership in such voluntary associations as labor unions or professional societies may be a condition of employment or professional practice, and thus may not be truly voluntary. Membership in a church or in a family society may be “inherited” from one’s parents and, in that sense, not voluntary. Many voluntary associations are subject to state control to the extent that they must be registered, and agencies of the state often create or sponsor voluntary associations in order to achieve their own ends. (This occurs in both totalitarian and democratic societies: the 4-H Clubs of America, for example, are voluntary associations that direct vocational and other activities for more than two million farm youths, yet they are sponsored by the Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ) In spite of the exceptions, however, these three characteristics provide a framework for a consideration of the distinctly sociological importance of voluntary associations.

Defined in these broad terms, voluntary associations include all nonstate organizations—churches, business firms, labor unions, foundations, private schools and universities, cooperatives, and political parties. In most of the writings on voluntary associations (including the present article), a much narrower definition is used. The broad definition is of great interest historically, however, since it is central to the principle of the freedom of association upon which all voluntary associations depend for their existence. It is also relevant to studies of contemporary associations, since it forces the researcher to pay attention to what he is actually studying when he seeks to study the extent of membership in voluntary associations or the functions which voluntary associations serve for their members or for society.

The history of the principle of freedom of association, defined by Laski as “a recognized legal right on the part of all persons to combine for the promotion of purposes in which they are interested” (1931, p. 447), is extremely complex. Briefly, although both guilds (or “gilds") of artisans and corporations existed in antiquity, their existence was defined by the state as a convenience or privilege, not as a right [see Corporation; Gilds]. This tolerance has led to the notion that corporations originated as creatures of the state —which is how they are regarded in American legal theory—and to the stipulation in some definitions of voluntary associations that they be unincorporated (Mishnun 1934, p. 283). But the distinction is quite meaningless as far as contemporary voluntary associations (at least in the United States) are concerned: whether a voluntary association is incorporated or not is largely a practical question decided by the officers and has few consequences for its activities or its function in society.

There is a fine but clear distinction between the willingness of the state to tolerate the existence of voluntary associations and the right of individuals to create and join associations, provided only that they do not disturb law and order. This right was first won in Europe by guilds and Protestant religious groups; according to Laski (1931, p. 449), in its modern form the right had its origin in Locke’s treatment of the churches in his Letter Concerning Toleration. The acceptance by the state of this right is obviously fundamental to the maintenance of civil liberties. It is also central to the most significant role that voluntary associations play in society: since they are created by individuals and are independent of the state, they can serve to mediate between the individual and society (as well as between the individual and such groupings as the professions). Accordingly, the study of voluntary associations can do much to illuminate what is probably the most general problem in all the social sciences: the relationship of the individual, with his needs, to society, with its requirements.

Although all nonstate, common-purpose organizations with voluntary memberships are voluntary associations, that is, organizations whose existence is dependent upon freedom of association, the present article will focus upon organizations that meet both of two additional criteria. First, the major activity of the organization is not related to the business of making a living, that is, to the economic activities of its members (as in the case of professional associations, trade unions, or cooperatives). Second, the volunteer (i.e., nonsalaried) members constitute a majority of the participants (as they do not in corporations, universities, or foundations, in which the directors or trustees are in a minority vis-à-vis the employees, faculty, or students). “Spare-time, participatory associations” might be the best description of the associations most frequently referred to in this article.

Voluntary associations that do not meet these criteria are described in detail elsewhere in the encyclopedia. “Making-a-living” associations include business firms [see Business Management; Corporation; Industry, Small], trade associations [see Cartels and Trade Associations], production, marketing, and consumer cooperatives [seeCooperatives], professional associations [see Professions], and labor unions [see Labor Unions]. “Minority membership” associations include philanthropic foundations [see Foundations; Philanthropy], private schools and universities [see Education; Universities], and lobbies [see Interest Groups; Lobbying]. These organizations have many of the characteristics of spare-time participatory associations, but they are sufficiently different in their internal characteristics and in the functions they serve, both for their members and for society, to warrant separate discussion.

Churches and political parties are voluntary associations that also are not discussed in detail in this article, on the grounds that the research literature upon which the article is based generally does not include them and that they are discussed in detail elsewhere in the encyclopedia [see Parties, Political; Political clubs; Religious organization; Sects and cults]. The rationale for excluding them is rather weak, however, since they are spare-time participatory organizations that are independent of the state. Both Figgis (1913) and Lindsay (1943) based their distinctions between the state and society upon the assumption that both churches and political parties are voluntary associations.

The plan of this article is as follows. First comes a brief review of the research evidence on the distribution of voluntary associations in modern societies and on the extent of participation in them. This is followed by a description of some of the classifications that sociologists have developed in order to construct typologies of voluntary associations. Then comes a discussion of the organizational processes that are most characteristic of voluntary associations. Finally, there is a summary of the major assertions that have been made about the functions which voluntary associations serve for individuals and for society, together with some discussion of the evidence that either exists or is needed to demonstrate that these functions are in fact performed.

Extent and membership

The data on the number of spare-time, participatory voluntary associations (hereafter called voluntary associations) in modern societies and on the proportion of the population that belongs to them are scattered, and comparisons between studies are made difficult by differences in definitions and in research objectives. What is badly needed—and what has not as yet even been approximated—is a definition of a voluntary association that can be applied cross-culturally and that would permit a count of the number of voluntary associations which exist in various societies and in a sample of communities within societies. Such a count should be reported both as a total and on a per capita basis. Membership in different kinds of voluntary associations should be determined by sample surveys, and the extent of membership participation should be ascertained by studies of the organizations themselves. Finally, measures should be obtained of the importance of this activity to the life of the society.

In the absence of these ideal data, something can be learned from an examination of the handful of studies that do exist.

These studies have found voluntary associations to be characteristic of urban societies and the most urbanized areas of all societies. Why is this so? Population density is certainly a major reason: the more people there are in a community, the more forms of interaction of all kinds exist. The higher socioeconomic status of urban residents is another explanation: urban residents belong to voluntary associations not only because they are urbanites but also because they tend to be educated, socially active people. In a classic essay, Louis Wirth cited the weakness of kinship, family, and neighborhood ties in the city as an explanation: “Being reduced to a stage of virtual impotence as an individual, the urbanite is bound to exert himself by joining with others of similar interests into organized groups to obtain his ends” (1938, p. 22).

Even sharper differences than rural-urban ones are found between different rural societies. Rural Japanese communities, for example, have many voluntary associations (Norbeck 1962), while towns in southern Italy have none or very few (Banfield 1958). A possible explanation, based on studies of rural Denmark (Anderson & Anderson 1958) and west Africa (Little 1965), is that voluntary associations are both numerous and influential in rural communities undergoing rapid urbanization.

Since Tocqueville made his famous observation in Democracy in America—"In no country of the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America” ([1835] 1945, vol. 1, p. 198)—and Bryce made his in The American Commonwealth—"[They are] created, extended, and worked in the United States more quickly and effectively than in any other country” ([1888] 1933, vol. 2, pp. 281-282)—the United States has often been described by observers as “a nation of joiners.” Max Weber also expressed this opinion: “What is, in qualitative terms, the association-land par excellence? Without doubt America …” (1911, p. 53). It is not clear whether he was influenced by Tocqueville or Bryce, or by his own observations on his visit to the United States in 1905.

In spite of the number of such remarks in the literature of commentary upon American society, and without denying the central importance of voluntary associations in American life, it should be noted that perhaps too much emphasis has been placed upon the scope and uniqueness of the American pattern. The research of Warner and his associates (Warner & Lunt 1941) uncovered 357 associations in Yankee City (pop. 17,000), and Bushee (1945) found 245 associations in Boulder, Colorado (pop. 12,000); but Max Weber (1911) found some three hundred associations in a German city of 30,000 merely by consulting the city directory. The observation is frequently made that voluntary associations are most common in America and the Protestant countries of Europe, and indeed the contrast between the Protestant countries and the Roman Catholic countries is quite marked; but the prevalence of voluntary associations in such different countries as Japan (Norbeck 1962), Nigeria (Little 1965), Ghana (Wallerstein 1964), Thailand (Riggs 1962a), and Israel (Eisenstadt 1956) indicates that the pattern is by no means confined to Protestant countries. The research evidence is scattered, and contradictory claims are common. In France, for example, Rose found that voluntary associations are both few in number and of limited influence (1954b, pp. 50-115), while Gallagher found over three hundred associations in a provincial town of 50,000 (1957).

Only in America has sufficient research been undertaken to provide a reasonably accurate picture of the extent of participation in voluntary associations. Alfred O. Hero has summarized much of this research, as follows:

The proportion of the population affiliated with organizations varies considerably with the type of community. For example, … [a National Opinion Research Center] study of Denver [Colorado] in 1949 reported that 64 per cent said they belonged either to voluntary organizations or to labor unions. Elimination of those who were members of unions probably would have lowered the figure to around 50-55 per cent. Morris Axelrod …[1956, pp. 13-18] reported that 37 per cent of Detroit [Michigan] adults were affiliated with neither voluntary associations nor labor unions, that half of the 63 per cent who were affiliated were members of only one, and that a large number of those with only one affiliation were members of unions…. When trade unions, religious bodies, and parent-teacher associations were excepted, Basil G. Zimmer and Amos H. Hawley [1959, p. 198] reported that only 43 per cent of adults in Flint, Michigan, and 25 per cent in its suburbs and urban fringe areas were affiliated with organizations. Percentages of adults unaffiliated with organizations (typically including trade unions) reported in other locales have been as follows: Bennington [Vermont]—35 per cent …[Scott 1957, pp. 315-326]; Chicago—35 per cent …[Goldhamer 1942, p. 20]; Muncie [Indiana]—42 per cent …[Lynd & Lynd 1929, p. 308]; Boulder [Colorado]—48 per cent …[Bushee 1945, p. 218]; a rural-urban fringe in Oregon—49 per cent …[Martin 1952, p. 689]; a small city and environs in Ohio—50 per cent …[Lazarsfeld et al. 1944, p. 173]; among employed adults in New York City—52 per cent …[Komarovsky 1946, pp. 689-690]; Newburyport [Massachusetts] —59 per cent …[Warner & Lunt 1941, p. 329]; Westchester [county in New York]—60 per cent …[Lundberg et al. 1934, pp. 129, 136]; and among Mary-landers ages 16-25—74 per cent …[Bell 1938, p. 168]. (1960, pp. 115-116)

The summary has been presented in full in order to demonstrate the difficulties of obtaining comparable data on this topic; in fact, the noncomparability of the data probably accounts for more of the variation from study to study than do the differences in date, location, or type of community. This noncomparability stems in part from variations in the definition of a voluntary association that is explicitly or implicitly used, and in part from the household-interview method used in these studies. Respondents may both fail to recall and seek to impress; thus, interview data underestimate the proportion of American adults who are at least inactive members in associations (which is probably over 75 per cent) and overestimate the proportion who are active members (which is probably somewhat less than 20 per cent). Although this is only an informed guess, it is not without empirical foundation. Babchuk and Edwards, for example, reported that the “Detroit area study” found that 63 per cent of the adult population belonged to voluntary associations, but that of these only 28 per cent had contributed any time to an association in the previous three months (1965, pp. 150-151).

Membership in American voluntary associations (and presumably in those in other industrialized countries as well) is not random: some segments of the population are much more likely to participate than are others. Whites are more likely to participate than are Negroes, Jews more likely than Protestants, and Protestants more likely than Roman Catholics; urban and rural nonfarm residents more likely than farm residents; parents more likely than nonparents; frequent voters more likely than nonvoters. The largest and most consistent differences in participation are those in socioeconomic status, whether measured by income, occupation, home ownership, or educational level. A majority of Americans of higher status belong to voluntary associations, and a majority of people of lower status do not (Wright & Hyman 1958; Hausknecht 1962).

Explanations for these patterns of differential membership are not hard to find. Membership in a voluntary association is a form of social interaction, and people who are deprived of a broad range of social interaction (farmers, Negroes, immigrant Roman Catholics, widows) are almost by definition less likely to belong to voluntary associations. More difficult to explain are variations that appear to exist—both in the number of associations and in the proportion of the population that participates—from one society to another. A number of plausible hypotheses have been advanced; they derive from the functions which voluntary associations seem to serve for the individual, for subgroups in society, and for the society as a whole, and they are reviewed in later sections of this article.

Classification into types

Although it is necessary to discuss spare-time, participatory voluntary associations as a generic type, it must not be assumed that the thousands of such associations which exist in a society are all of one type. On the contrary, the range of variation is probably greater than that which exists among government and business organizations.

A variety of typologies has been developed, each useful for a particular purpose. For many purposes a simple classification based upon the stated program or the manifest purpose of the association is sufficient. Hausknecht, for example, in a further analysis of the American data used by Wright and Hyman (1958), developed the eight classifications shown in Table 1.

Although the typology in Table 1 gives a broad picture of the patterns of membership, it provides no information about the structure of the associations or the latent functions that they perform; in fact, little is told even about their manifest functions, since there is a great deal of overlap in their activities. Community service activities, for example, are a major part of the program not only of civic associations but also of lodges, church organizations, and veterans’ groups.

Table 1 - Distribution of voluntary association members by type of association
Type of associationPer cent belonging
* Percentages add to more than 100, since some individuals belong to more than one type of association.
Source: Adapted from Hausknecht 1962, p. 84.
Civic and service38
Lodges and fraternal31
Church and religious25
Social and recreational16
Veterans, military, patriotic14
Economic, occupational, professional9
Cultural, educational, alumni4
Political and pressure4

Other classifications which utilize either structure or function as a variable have been developed. Sherwood Fox (1953), for example, examined the functions performed by some five thousand associations and based a classification upon the distinction between majoral, minoral, and medial organizations. Majoral associations are those which serve the interests of the major institutions of society: business, professional, scientific, educational, labor, and agricultural associations. Minoral associations serve the interests of significant minorities in the population: women’s clubs, church organizations, hobby clubs, and, above all, ethnic associations. Medial associations mediate between major segments or institutions in the society. For example, parent-teacher associations mediate between the family and the school system; social welfare organizations mediate between those who provide financial or other aid and the underprivileged population; veterans’ groups mediate between war veterans and the government; and voluntary health associations mediate between scientists and the public, as well as between individuals suffering from a particular disease and the medical profession.

A structural distinction, that between “corporate-type” and “federation-type” organizations, was developed by Sills (1957) to analyze problems of organizational structure and control in national organizations. This distinction has many parallels. Some national states are loose federations of semi-autonomous component units, while others are highly centralized [see Centralization and decentralization]. Churches may also be classified in a similar way. At one extreme are “congregational” churches, in which each parish is responsible for its own affairs; at the other extreme are “episcopal” churches, in which ultimate authority resides in the parent organization [see Religious organization].

A typology of voluntary associations based upon a structural variable ("accessibility,” or who is eligible for membership) and two functional variables ("status-conferring capacity,” or the extent to which membership bestows prestige, and “instrumental-expressive,” or whether activities are directed toward the behavior of nonmembers or of members) has been developed by Babchuk and Gordon (1962, p. 38). “Instrumental” associations are generally termed “interest groups” by political scientists [see Interest groups].

Organizational processes

Since voluntary associations are a type of formal organization, they exhibit some of the same social processes and social pathologies as do other organizations. The present article will focus upon four processes that are of fundamental importance to an understanding of voluntary associations: institution alization, minority rule, goal displacement, and goal succession.

Institutionalization. In its broadest meaning, institutionalization is the process through which patterns of behavior and expectations of behavior on the part of others become established. Marriage, the market place, and the burying of the dead are all examples of institutions. One feature of an institution in this sense is that it is unplanned: only after it has been established is a pattern termed an institution. As Walton H. Hamilton said of the institution we call feudalism:

The feudal regime was an empirical sort of an affair; men of iron lorded it over underlings as they could, yielded to their betters as they were compelled and maintained such law and order as the times allowed; but with its passing its sprawling arrangements and befuddled functions were turned into office and estate ordained of God. (1932, p. 87)

As it applies to organizations, institutionalization means the unplanned process that turns a loosely organized group of adherents to an idea or a goal into a formal organization [see Social institutions, article on The concept]. Since it is a social process, institutionalization may be studied at any point on the time continuum that runs from the emergence of an idea to the death of an organization through strangulation by its own rules of procedure. John E. Tsouderos, for example, has studied what he called the formalization process in established organizations. He selected ten voluntary associations and applied time series analysis to five quantitative variables: number of members, total annual income, total annual expenditures, value of organizational property, and number of administrative employees. This analysis revealed two cycles in the history of the associations: a “cycle of growth” and a “cycle of formalization.” Membership started to decline at the point that separated these two cycles, annual income started to decline midway in the cycle of formalization, and the other three variables increased slowly through both cycles. As used by Tsouderos, “institutionalization” means essentially “bureaucratization.” [See Tsouderos 1955; Chapin & Tsouderos 1956; see also Organizations, article on Theories of organizations.]

Institutionalization may also be studied by examining the processes through which voluntary associations become established as the institutional expressions of social movements. Wendell King (1956), for example, has identified three phases in the “life cycle” of social movements: the incipient phase, in which a handful of believers works toward a goal established by the founder (often a charismatic leader); the organizational phase, in which voluntary associations are established; and the stable phase, in which the voluntary associations (if they survive) become increasingly professionalized, bureaucratic, and conservative. [See Charisma; Social movements.]

In spite of analyses such as those of Tsouderos and King, systematic study of the institutionalization process has hardly begun. Much of the interest in the impact of institutionalization and formalization centers on the transformation of organizational goals over time (see “Goal succession,” below). What is badly needed is historical research that is guided by organizational theory. A beginning has been made in such research as Sheldon Messinger’s study of the growth and decline of the Townsend Movement, a depression-born scheme to restore prosperity in the United States by the government’s making monthly payments to the aged (1955); Gusfield’s study of the history of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (1955; 1957); and Zald and Denton’s study of the transformation of the YMCA from evangelism to general service (1963). Awaiting similar historical analysis are such organizations as the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence, two voluntary associations in the early history of the United States that were dissolved when the anti-British purposes for which they were established were achieved through the American Revolution and the establishment of the Continental Congress; the American Anti-Slavery Society, which split through internal dissension and controversy over policy matters some twenty years before the Emancipation Proclamation; and the Indian National Congress, which after India achieved independence became the increasingly conservative Congress party.

A third use of the concept of institutionalization regards it not necessarily as a process that develops over time but, rather, as a characteristic that distinguishes between voluntary associations at one point in time. Some voluntary associations have goals and programs that are oriented toward the gradual improvement of the existing order. Their

members therefore bring a relatively low degree of affect to their participation, and the organizational structure is relatively formal and matter-of-fact. Such highly institutionalized organizations may be called formal organization-like associations. Other voluntary associations have goals and programs that are much more radical and ideological, and are more at variance with what the participants believe to be the norms of society; their members bring a relatively high degree of affect to their participation, and the organizational structure is likely to be informal and fluid. These less institutionalized organizations may be called social movement-like associations. Figure 1 presents a two-dimensional scheme for classifying voluntary associations; institutionalization in the sense of “formal organization-like” is one of the dimensions, and the lay-versus-professional base of the membership is the other. Since the associations given as examples in Figure 1 were selected rather arbitrarily and for illustrative purposes, there is no attempt to show that there is an absence of correlation between the two dimensions. What is apparent is that a membership base of professionals does not necessarily result in a formal organization-like association, although examples in the upper left-hand quadrant of the figure are relatively hard to find. The scheme shown in Figure 1 is given not as a definite finding of research but, rather, as a heuristic device to demonstrate the potentialities of typologies for generating research hypotheses.

Minority rule. Since voluntary associations can exist only in societies in which freedom of association exists, and since such societies are more or less democratic in their ethos and political structure, there is an expectation that members will take an active part in the affairs of the association and that democratic procedures will govern its conduct. This expectation often is not met; although most voluntary associations have constitutions, bylaws, or oral traditions that call for full participation by the members, the “iron law of oligarchy” formulated by Robert Michels generally has greater weight:

Organization implies the tendency to oligarchy. In every organization, whether it be a political party, a professional union, or any other association of the kind, the aristocratic tendency manifests itself very clearly. The mechanism of the organization, while conferring a solidarity of structure, induces serious changes in the organized mass, completely inverting the respective position of the leaders and the led. As a result of organization, every party or professional union becomes divided into a minority of directors and a majority of directed. ([1911] 1959, p. 32)

Michels was not the first social scientist to comment upon the oligarchic nature of voluntary associations; in fact, by what presumably is merely an interesting coincidence, in the year that Michels’ Political Parties was published, Max Weber made a very similar observation:

In every …organization, whether it be called a party, a society, a club, or whatever, authority in effect always takes the form of minority rule—sometimes the dictatorship of an individual. It is the rule of one or more persons who are qualified by a process of selection or by virtue of their competence to assume the tasks of leadership and who have de facto authority in the organization. (1911, p. 56)

It was perhaps Michels’ good fortune in adapting Ricardo’s striking phrase “the iron law of wages” to his purposes that has made his analysis better known than Weber’s. Neither carried his analysis of the determinants of minority rule very far. In a crucial phrase, Michels said it came about “as a result of organization,” and Weber wrote of the dominance of “professional personnel.” [See the biography of Michels.]

Critics of minority rule in voluntary associations have often invoked “membership apathy” as an explanation for it. Barber (1950), however, has pointed out that these critics offer no evidence for the existence of apathy as a psychological trait; rather, the sociologist can demonstrate that the social structure of role obligations and the structural needs of the organizations themselves together militate against “complete” participation. Many other social scientists have contributed observations and research findings toward an understanding of the related phenomena of membership inactivity and minority rule; Table 2 summarizes much of this literature.

The array of determinants listed in Table 2 is very similar to the array that might be developed to demonstrate the impossibility of the full participation of all citizens in any democracy. Since it is impossible for all citizens to play active roles, governments are established; through the process of elections, representatives are selected who are empowered to speak for their constituencies. In many democracies, however, full participation in even the basic activity of voting for representatives is not even approximated. Voluntary associations should be different from national societies, it is often claimed, since their members join of their own free will, and in many instances they do have higher participation rates than national states. But similar social-structural determinants serve to depress full participation.

Table 2 - Some determinants of membership inactivity and minority rule in voluntary associations
Locus of the determinantIllustrative citations
Organizational structure 
Representative governmentBarber 1950, pp. 490-491
Large number of membersMichels (1911) 1959, p.26
 Truman 1951, p. 141
 Tsouderos 1955, p. 209
Functional specializationBarber 1950, pp. 490-491
 Michels(l9ll), 1959, p. 400
Membership heterogeneity and absence of consensusBendix 1947, p. 494
 Selznickl952, p. 308
 Simon 1947, p. 114
Institutionalization and formalizationStarbuck 1965, pp. 477-480
 Tsouderos 1955, p. 209
 Weber 1911
Leadership requirements Specialized skillsBarber 1950, pp. 490-491
 Sills 1957, p. 34
Availability of timeBarber 1950, pp. 492-493
 Garceau 1941, p. 54
TemperamentRiesman & Glazer 1950
 Selznickl943, p. 52
Organizational activities 
Absence of concrete tasksSills 1957, pp. 36-42
Conflicts with other interests;Barber 1950, p. 486
segmentalparticipationSelznick 1952, pp. 286-268
 Truman 1951, pp. 157-167
Disparity between reasons for joining and organizational activitiesCartwright 1951 Lewin 1948 Rose 1954b, p. 64

Goal displacement. Since voluntary associations —like all organizations—are established for the purpose of realizing some short-term or long-term goal, the study of the relationship of these goals to other aspects of an organization’s existence has occupied the attention of many researchers. How goals are established, how decisions are made concerning what activities will serve to realize a goal, how goals are interpreted to the community—these and many other questions are implicit or explicit in research on voluntary associations [see Organizations, article on Organizational goals].

The fact that an organization’s charter or statement of purpose contains an explicit description of the goals it is to pursue is no guarantee that the organization’s procedures will be single-mindedly directed toward these ends. In fact, it is the procedures themselves that often serve to deflect the organization from its goals:

The generic problem of goal preservation may be stated as follows: In order to accomplish their goals, organizations establish a set of procedures or means. In the course of following these procedures, however, the subordinates or members to whom authority and functions have been delegated often come to regard them as ends in themselves, rather than as means toward the achievement of organizational goals. As a result of this process, the actual activities of the organization become centered around the proper functioning of organization procedures, rather than upon the achievement of the initial goals. (Sills 1957, p. 62)

The analysis of the phenomenon called goal displacement has occupied the attention of many sociologists—from Michels and Weber to Blau, Gouldner, Lipset, Merton, and Selznick; a summary of this research tradition is given elsewhere (Sills 1957, pp. 62-77) and need not be repeated in detail here. One source of goal displacement is the desire of active participants to retain high status positions in the organization; in order to do this, they tend to focus their activities upon self-serving rather than goal-directed activities. Perhaps the most striking example is that of leaders of labor unions, who are understandably reluctant to forfeit their status and income in order to “go back to the bench.”

A second source of goal displacement lies in the strict enforcement of organizational rules and the slavish carrying out of organizational procedures. The sentiments that are developed to buttress the rules and perform the procedures often become more intense than is technically necessary; following the rules and carrying out the procedures become ends in themselves.

The informal structures that develop within organizations are a third source of goal displacement. Hundreds of studies, starting with the famous research at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company in Chicago in the years 1927 to 1932 (Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939), have demonstrated that informally created groups within organizations are not only crucial to goal achievement but are also—for example, through the informal establishment of production norms that are lower than those desired by management—responsible for a certain amount of goal displacement. [See Groups, article on The study of groups; Industrial relations, article on Human Relations.]

Goal succession. The literature on the two major pathologies of voluntary associations, the tendency toward oligarchy and the displacement of goals, leads to fundamentally pessimistic conclusions. In spite of the best of intentions, these writers say, the inherent nature of the process of organization is such that minorities will gain control in order to serve their own ends; as a result, the purposes for which the organization is established will be blunted. The two major landmarks in this literature illustrate the point. Michels’ Political Parties (1911) concludes that the prospects for democracy in social democratic parties and labor unions are dim. Selznick’s TV A and the Grass Roots (1949) concludes that the TVA’s delegation of certain phases of its agricultural program to local organizations led to these organizations’ being “co-opted” into the policy-making apparatus of the TVA itself, which in turn caused the TVA to be deflected from some of its major goals.

These pessimistic conclusions have not gone unchallenged. For instance, Bendix has pointed out that if the supposed iron law of oligarchy is to prevail in an organization, there must be dissensus among its members:

It is …misleading to assume that a ruling clique can deliberately prevent the “success” of an organization, while everybody else agrees on the methods and desirability of achieving it. Rather, an organized minority can maintain its power and it can make its idea of success prevail, as long as disagreement is widespread both with regard to the meaning of “success” and to the methods by which it is to be achieved. (1947, p. 494)

And Lipset, while concluding on the basis of his study of a “deviant case” (a democratically controlled labor union) that “the functional requirements for democracy cannot be met most of the time in most unions” (1954, p. 121), also concluded that democracy is not a functional prerequisite of effectiveness: “Even the most dictatorial union is a better protector of workers’ economic interests and of political democracy within the larger society, than no union, provided that the union is not a tool either of the state or of the employer” (ibid., p. 122).

The recurrent theme in the vast commentary upon the “iron law of oligarchy” is that the law holds true only under certain circumstances, and even when it does hold true, other democratic values may nevertheless be furthered. In a frontal attack upon those who see only tragedy in the processes of organization, Gouldner asserted that “there is every reason to assume that ’the underlying tendencies which are likely to inhibit the democratic process’ are just as likely to impair authoritarian

Table 3 - Selected aspects of the organizational adaptation of four voluntary associations*
* An analysis of these four associations may be found in Sills 1957, pp.258-264.
Source: Woman’s Christian Temperance Union: Gusfield 1955; 1957; Townsend Organization: Messinger 1955; Young Men’s Christian Association: Pence 1939; Zald & Denton 1963; American National RedCross: Dulles 1950.
 Woman’s Christian Temperance UnionTownsend OrganizationYoung Men’s Christian AssociationAmerican National Red Cross
Initial goalEncourage abstinence, particularly among lower-class peopleNational pensions for the agedto alleviate economic dislocationImprove thespiritual, mental, and social condition of young menMitigate sufferingduring wars and other calamities
Additional or secondary goalImprove the welfare of lower-class peopleNonePhysical educationServe as chartered agency of the government, directing voluntary aid tosick and wounded during time of war
Characteristics of original membershipUpper-middle-and middle-class womenMostly elderly men and womenLay leadership Middle-class, Protestant membership of young menLargely upper-and upper-middle-class men and women
Environmental changes requiring adaptationIncreased permissiveness of drinking norms in middle-class groupsEnd of the depression Private pension plansSecularization of society Emergence of new concepts concerningpersonality development and character developmentEnd of World War 1 and World War II Organizational structure andfinancing too great for disaster relief only Increased governmentaldisaster relief
New or added goalsExpress moral indignation Censure the new middle classProvide recreation for the aged Maintain the organization by retailsalesIncreased emphasis upon social and athletic activities Less emphasisupon evangelical activitiesPublic health activities Blood donor program
Consequences for the organizationLower-middle-and lower-class membership No change in size“Anorganization in retreat”End of effective recruiting Sharp decline in membershipMembership broadened to include boys, women, non-ProtestantsProfessional leadership Emphasis upon buildingsIncreased size and influence More successful peacetime fund raising

rule…. There cannot be an iron law of oligarchy …unless there is an iron law of democracy” ([1955] 1961, p. 80). Similarly, the literature of criticism of the concept of goal displacement admits the existence of the pathology but points out that the new goals may be an improvement upon the old ones.

Peter Blau’s study of bureaucracy in two government agencies is the first landmark in this revisionist literature. He observed that the agencies did not necessarily behave in a rigid, “bureaucratic” way when their goals were achieved or made irrelevant by events; rather, they shifted toward new goals. Blau called this process the “succession of goals,” and described it as follows:

The attainment of organizational objectives generates a strain toward finding new objectives. To provide incentives for its members and to justify its existence, an organization has to adopt new goals as its old ones are realized. (1955, p. 243 in the 1964 edition)

The attainment of an organization’s objectives— in any clear-cut sense—is a relatively rare event; consequently, there have been few studies of the consequences of success for an organization. An exception is Sills’ study of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, carried out on the eve of the elimination of infantile paralysis as a threatening disease because of the development of the Salk vaccine. His conclusion, that “the Foundation will in the future make a successful adjustment to the achievement of its major goal …[because] the organization has in fact already been transformed, in large part by its Volunteers, into something other than a special purpose association” (1957, p. 270) has been borne out by events. In 1967 the foundation was still a successful voluntary health association, concentrating upon research into and treatment of birth defects.

More commonly—although there have been very few studies of such situations—an organization’s environment changes in such a way as to make its goals irrelevant or unobtainable. Table 3 summarizes the relevant findings of studies of four organizations that have had to cope with such changes: two unsuccessful organizations (the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Townsend Organization) and two successful organizations (the YMCA and the American National Red Cross). Since these data are fragmentary and subject to all the limitations that apply to the case-study method, they cannot be used as a basis for specifying the conditions under which voluntary associations do and do not adjust to environmental conditions. What they do suggest, however, is the value of comparative research into organizational goal succession.

Functions for individuals and society

The functions that voluntary associations are said to perform for individuals and for society may be broadly classed into two groups: manifest (those which are intended and recognized by the participants) and latent (those which are neither intended nor recognized by the participants, but can be observed by the social scientist). Both types of functions are important, and each presents problems of verification; by far the most challenging problems are those presented by latent functions [see Functional analysis, article on Varieties of functional analysis].

The literature on voluntary associations is filled with assertions about the latent functions that they perform. How may such assertions be verified? Ideally, comparable situations should be studied in which a given kind of voluntary association is and is not present. If the observed function were to be performed in the former situation but not in the latter, then there would be a presumption that the voluntary association was the crucial element in the situation. The difficulties involved in verification of this type are enormous, since it is seldom possible to approach the conditions of a controlled experiment, that is, to assign populations to the two situations at random and to hold other factors constant. [Social processes that occur within voluntary associations may be studied by field or laboratory experiments; see Weick 1965; Zelditch & Hopkins 1961; see also Experimental design; Groups; Sociometry.] For this reason, latent functions must be accepted largely on the basis of their “logical” character—that is, through “mental experimentation”—and on the basis of the absence of any conflicting evidence. Historical analysis is another method of overcoming the difficulties of creating experimental designs; that is, methods of establishing causal relations that are adequate for a historical explanation are, logically, adequate for a functional explanation. The criteria for accepting historical explanations as adequate, however, are much in dispute. [For an example of the value of historical research for the study of voluntary associations, see Lipset 1950; for the views of two historians, see Historiography, article on The rhetoric of history; History, article On Social history.] So-called field studies or case studies, with all of their limitations (see Scott 1965), are by far the most common method of research into voluntary associations, and most of the functions described in this article are based upon field observations tested—in varying degrees—by comparative analysis (see Udy 1965 for discussion of the usefulness of the comparative method in the study of organizations).

Functions for individuals. The notion that individuals seek out and join a voluntary association in order to find an outlet for an interest is oversimplified, since there is considerable evidence that most individuals join an association only after they are urged or invited to do so (see, for example, Sills 1957, pp. 78-115). Nevertheless, after they become members, it may be presumed that individuals benefit to some extent from the organization’s program, whether it be the satisfactions of sociability, recreation, service, or political action. Manifest functions of this kind, important as they are, require no explanation here. Rather, attention will be given to two latent functions of participation; social integration and training in organizational skills.

In assessing the findings that are reported, it must be remembered that much of the evidence has been obtained from participants rather than from both participants and nonparticipants.

The researcher is faced with the same problem of self-selection that plagues students of communication : since people expose themselves to televised speeches and newspaper and magazine articles (to say nothing of church sermons) with which they are already in basic agreement, it is often difficult to detect changes in opinion through audience research. Similarly, the minority in a society that is active in voluntary associations tends to be self-selected in ways that minimize the chances of the activity’s having a measurable impact upon them. This problem is of course compounded by the difficulty of measuring changes in individuals and isolating the influences that brought them about.

Social integration. That people interact with others when they participate in a voluntary association is rather obvious, and it may be assumed that the benefits of interaction—easing loneliness, learning norms, acquiring information—are among the most frequent functions of membership for the individuals involved. What is more problematic is whether—to use Cooley’s terms—secondary groups such as voluntary associations serve the same integrative functions as primary groups. Wirth (1938, p. 20) and many others have expressed the view that the weakness of family and neighborhood ties in modern (or urban) society is compensated for by participation in voluntary associations, but such statements do not constitute proof.

The research evidence from studies of American society is inconclusive (see, for example, Babchuk & Edwards 1965, in which material on many kinds of associations is reviewed). There is no doubt that some people achieve family-like satisfactions from participation; this is most true of lodges, fraternal orders, and such self-help associations as Alcoholics Anonymous. In most other associations, however, the segmental, part-time, and task-oriented nature of the activity precludes the development of true primary-group ties. What is much more likely is that people who have satisfactory primary-group ties are more likely to join voluntary associations—a reversal of the direction of causality implied by the integration hypothesis. There is considerable evidence that this is so; for example, Jacoby (1965, p. 166) found that persons with primary-group ties (that is, persons who are living with others) are more likely to join expressive associations than are persons living alone.

One explanation for the absence of evidence of integrative functions in the United States is that it is a relatively integrated society, in which the family and the neighborhood continue to fulfill their historic functions. Janowitz (1952), for example, has explicitly challenged Wirth’s assertions about the anonymity of urban life by describing how the residents of Chicago (the nation’s second largest city, and the same city that Wirth studied) are bound to family and neighborhood groups. In another statement in this continuing debate, Korn-hauser pointed out that the evidence of the survival of primary groups in a mass society is not in itself very significant; the groups may persist, but their functions may be considerably weakened. For example, primary-group ties may be more easily broken because they receive less support from the institutional structure of society [see Mass society].

The extent to which voluntary associations serve social integrative functions in industrial societies has not as yet been satisfactorily measured. Much the same can be said for this role of voluntary associations in the developing countries, although there are grounds for assuming that voluntary associations are more important in this respect in societies that are in a stage of rapid detribalization and urbanization. Wallerstein, for example, noted that throughout tropical Africa in the post-colonial era “new voluntary associations sprang up to perform the services that the tribe, the family, and the government could not perform” (1964, p. 320).

Training in organizational skills. The social skills necessary for an individual to function effectively in an organization—serving as a committee member, writing minutes and reports, following Robert’s Rules of Order—are learned not at all in the family setting and only imperfectly in the school system. Yet it is precisely these skills that a democracy requires of large numbers of people if positions of power are to be rotated. Inspection of the campaign literature circulated by candidates for posts ranging from village trustee to senator reveals the importance placed by the candidates upon the associations of which they are members. Although candidates list these affiliations to demonstrate their dedication to the community welfare, the lists also serve as certificates of organizational skill. Consider, for example, the city of Lincoln, Nebraska (pop. 150,000), described by Babchuk and Edwards (1965, p. 160). After intensive study they concluded that there were over two thousand voluntary associations in that city that met regularly during the year. Since each association had at least one officer, and many had several plus a committee structure of some kind, the total number of residents who received some training in organizational skills in the course of a year is impressive. Here is an example of the reverse of what economists call economies of scale: the more fragmented the organizational structure is, the more individuals are trained.

In societies that are undergoing the transition from tribalism to modernism, the impact of such training is even more dramatic. As Wallerstein (1964) has described in detail, the voluntary associations in tropical Africa that the colonial powers had encouraged as a means of spreading modern values became in the end effective instruments of liberation: the presidents of debating societies and football associations became through these experiences trained leaders of anticolonial movements.

Functions for society. There is necessarily some overlap between functions that voluntary associations perform for individuals and those that they perform for society. For example, the training of individuals in organizational skills not only provides satisfactions for them and enables them to advance their careers; it also provides the total society with fresh cadres of leaders who have new perspectives on problems, thereby stimulating social change. The distinction is an important one analytically, however, since a function that may benefit individuals (e.g., through opportunities for self-expression) may be detrimental to society (e.g., if self-expression takes the form of violence). Even in the more frequent instances of functions being beneficial for both individuals and society, this distinction is necessary [see Functional analysis, article on Structural-Functional Analysis].

Since the range of organizations encompassed by the term “voluntary association” is so broad, some rather stringent limits must be placed upon a discussion of the functions of voluntary associations for society. Even with self-imposed limitations the task is formidable, which perhaps explains the absence of any synthetic discussion of the topic in the sociological literature. Most writers on voluntary associations have devoted a few sentences or paragraphs to the topic; no one has provided an extensive treatment.

The discussion in this section focuses upon six functions that voluntary associations are said to serve for society. As in the case of functions for individuals, the evidence that these functions are actually performed is uneven, and the problems of verification are largely unsolved. It is noteworthy that the functions described are all positive; few students of voluntary associations have pointed out any dysfunctions. An exception to this generalization is the effect that voluntary associations have on social mobility; although most American researchers have concluded that voluntary associations either provide avenues for upward social mobility or at least confirm prestige earned in other ways, a number of British studies have indicated that the class-based membership of many voluntary associations erects barriers to upward social mobility (Morris 1965, p. 200).

Mediation. The term “secondary groups,” as it applies to voluntary associations, indicates that associations mediate between primary groups and the state (the extent to which this mediation has meaning for the individuals involved is discussed in the previous section). It is much easier to demonstrate the mediation function of voluntary associations if concrete kinds of organizations are mentioned. Professional associations mediate between their membership and the government, especially in such matters as licensing, research funds, and legislation: in these areas, mediation shades off into lobbying. Through their public relations and public information programs, professional associations mediate between their membership and the general public. In national churches, both local and special-interest organizations are voluntary associations that mediate between the individual members and the hierarchy. (Other examples of mediating functions are given in the section “Classification into types.”)

Integration of subgroups. In plural societies, voluntary associations may serve to integrate minority groups into the national society. In fact, many ethnic associations are formed for this express purpose—for instance, the Water Level Society in Japan (an association of the eta that seeks to raise this outcaste group to the level of the national society), or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the United States. Many ethnic associations are formed for the purpose of maintaining ethnic identity, but, as Mary B. Treudley demonstrated in her study of Greek-American associations in Boston, a more frequent result is “the transformation of peasants into citizens” ([1949a] 1966, p. 59). The success of such organizations can lead to their own disintegration; thus Kurt Lewin pointed out, with specific reference to American Jewish organizations, that “the task of organizing a group which is economically or otherwise underprivileged is seriously hampered by those members whose real goal is to leave the group rather than promote it” ([1948] 1950, p. 193).

Affirmation of values. Voluntary associations may serve as a legitimate locus for the affirmation and expression of values, as do patriotic societies and political parties. Tocqueville recognized the dangers to a society inherent in “the unrestrained liberty of association,” but he also recognized the positive aspects of overt organizations:

This perilous liberty offers a security against dangers of another kind; in countries where associations are free, secret societies are unknown. In America there are factions, but no conspiracies. ([1835] 1945, vol. 1, pp. 202-203)

Governing. It was noted above that the uniqueness of the American pattern of voluntary associations has been overstated by many observers: many other countries have large numbers of active associations. What is difficult to overstate, however, is the part played by voluntary associations in the actual business of governing the United States, in the sense of making decisions on policy and of providing services to citizens. Tocqueville was impressed by this: “Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association” ([1835] 1945, vol. 2, p. 114). Rossi concluded, on the basis of a study of the leadership of a Midwestern industrial city of about 45,000 that he named Mediana, that this pattern is, if anything, more prevalent today than it was at the time of Tocqueville’s visit:

The most striking characteristic of contemporary cities, compared with the American community in the nineteenth century, is the relative drop in the importance of local government, not only in its relation to state and federal governments but also in its relation to local voluntary associations. To understand what is happening within a contemporary community an investigator cannot confine himself to the official table of organization for municipal government but must add to it a host of voluntary associations which act on behalf of the community and which together with the formal structure of local government form the basic organizational framework of the local community. (Rossi 1961, p. 301)

The nature and importance of voluntary association activity in community decision making probably varies with the size of the community, although to my knowledge there are no data to support this observation. In large cities, voluntary associations seem to serve largely as important pressure groups; in medium-sized cities they virtually run the municipal government. Thus, according to Rossi, “There is a saying in Mediana to the effect that Rotary owns the town, Kiwanis runs it, and the Jaycees do all the leg work” (1961, p. 309). In small towns the decision-making role is filled by families and cliques, leaving to voluntary associations such service tasks as raising funds for the library, decorating the plaza, and maintaining the cemeteries. Throughout most of America—in fact, almost everywhere except in large cities—voluntary associations perform the fundamentally governmental function of coping with emergencies: sickness is treated in voluntary health centers and hospitals; fires are fought by volunteer fire departments; disaster relief is furnished through the American Red Cross. This pattern is, of course, not confined to America: community service organizations are found in many countries. In Florence, for example, although Italy is not known for the importance of its secular voluntary associations, a voluntary association provides the major ambulance service.

The governmental functions performed by voluntary associations at the state and local level are also important. The organizational machinery for the licensing of such professionals as lawyers and physicians, for example, is generally run by voluntary professional societies. Throughout the federal government, agencies rely upon voluntary associations not only for research and training services, and for carrying out public information campaigns, but also, in many cases, for the actual administration of the agency’s program. Examples are the services provided by the National Travelers Aid Association to the Department of Labor, the services of the Institute of International Education and many other organizations to the foreign student program of the Department of State, and the hundreds of community action agencies that carry out the antipoverty program of the Office of Economic Opportunity. In a review of the financial and policy problems generated by the delegation of governmental functions to voluntary associations, Alan Pifer concluded that “the use of nongovernmental organizations to carry out public functions, a rare occurrence before World War n, is now accepted policy in most parts of government” (1966, p. 4).

Initiating social change. Since most voluntary associations are formed for the purpose of bringing about some change in society, and since most have had some measure of success in this, it follows that the initiation of social change is one of their major functions for society. The limiting case of social change—revolution—demonstrates the point: historically, revolutions either have been started by voluntary associations or have been directed by them once mass unrest led to outbursts of violence [see Revolution].

In many countries, most of the services that are now assumed to be the responsibility of government were initiated by voluntary associations. This is particularly true of welfare services to the poor, the ill, the orphaned, and the aged, but it is also true of such services as education. In many of the developing countries, for example, the present public school system is modeled after schools established by missionary societies, and these societies often continue to sponsor the secondary schools in which many members of the future elite are trained. This pattern is not confined to non-Western societies: the public school system of New York City, for example, is the successor to a voluntary association—the Public School Society.

The prevalence of the pattern in which voluntary associations initiate functions that are subsequently assumed by the government raises the question of whether the widespread utilization of voluntary associations is a permanent feature of Western society or merely a transitional phase between inactive governments and the welfare state. This question was seriously examined by a number of groups in postwar Britain when the Labour government assumed responsibility for many welfare programs previously carried out by voluntary associations (see, for example, Beveridge & Wells 1949). The conclusion reached as a result of these inquiries was that voluntary activities in the welfare field would undoubtedly diminish in importance but would not disappear. In the United States, the assumption of broader welfare responsibilities on the part of the federal (as well as state) government has undoubtedly been beneficial to voluntary health and welfare agencies, since governmental funds are a welcome supplement to gifts made by individuals and private foundations. [see Planning, Social, article on Welfare planning.]

Distributing power. The doctrine of political pluralism, which asserts that the power of the sovereign state must be balanced by the power of dispersed associations, is generally said to have had its origin around the turn of the century in the writings of Durkheim, Figgis, Gierke, Maitland, and others. It was Tocqueville, however, who gave classic expression to the notion that the power of the sovereign state is best limited by voluntary associations.

The book Union Democracy (Lipset et al. 1956), on one level a case study of a democratically controlled trade union, is, on a much broader level, an elaboration of ideas first expressed by Tocqueville in Democracy in America. Here is Lipset’s summary of Tocqueville’s contribution to an understanding of this aspect of the function of voluntary associations:

His study of America suggested to him two institutions which might combat the new Leviathan [a powerful state ruling an apathetic mass society]: local self-government and voluntary associations. Involvement in such institutions seemed to him a basic condition for the stability of the democratic political system. By disseminating ideas and creating consensus among their members, they create the basis for conflict between one organization and another. And, in the process of doing so, they also fulfill certain other roles: they limit the central power, they create new and autonomous centers of power to compete with it, and they help to train potential opposition leaders in politically relevant skills. (1959, p. 88 )

To test this theory of Tocqueville’s would require a vast research program—a program that is well under way in the 1960s through the research of organizational sociologists, political sociologists, and political scientists. There is widespread agreement among these scholars that the two societal trends that have characterized the twentieth century will continue: the extension of social and economic equality and the centralization of power in the hands of government and large organizations. If these trends are not to lead to an Orwellian mass society, new sources of power must be created and maintained. As Tocqueville formulated the problem:

Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased. ([1835] 1945, vol. 2, p. 118)

By stating the relationship between power and equality in the form of a scientific law, Tocqueville earned the right to be called one of the first truly modern social scientists.

David L. Sills

[see alsoAging; Anglo-American society; City; Community; Constitutional law, article on Civil liberties; Cooperation; Integration, article on Social integration; Leisure; Medical care; Mil-lenarism; Neighborhood; Organizations, article On Methods of research; Religious organization; Social movements; and the biographies ofCole, G. D. H.; Cooley; Durkheim; Figgis; Gierke; Kropotkin; Laski; Lindsay; Lundberg; Maitland; Michels; Tocqueville.]


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Associations, Voluntary

Associations, Voluntary


Voluntary associations are associations that people voluntarily join. Voluntary associations may be religious, fraternal or sororal, economic, social, cultural, or political. There are three types of membership incentives: social solidary (a term used by James Q. Wilson), purposive, and material (Wilson 1995). Social solidary incentives include the satisfaction of getting to know other people and networking with others. Purposive incentives involve working with an association to fulfill a social, political, or economic interest in society. Material incentives provide members with some tangible benefit (e.g., a discount card).

Associations facilitate peoples participation in civil society. Such civic engagement makes for a more connected society. As people get to know one another by way of their civic associations, they can in turn use their relationships to help accomplish other goals or objectives. People thus gain capital socially, what is also referred to as social capital. Social capital is composed of those features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions (Putnam 1993, p. 167). As ones social networks increase, ones ability to organize and effect change in ones interests is also increased (Putnam 1993, 2000). Increased interconnectedness is believed to increase social productivity. Yet social capital may be used for positive or negative circumstances. Positive uses of social capital contribute to a better society.

Those who participate in organizations face problems of collective action (Olson 1971). They have to overcome problems related to coordinating tasks among group members and problems related to limited resources. Limited resources can exist in the form of smaller memberships, limited financial resources, limited communication between members, and limited networks with other associations or institutions. Trust is a resource that can reduce some of the problems related to collective action. Those who are more trusting in others, who exhibit more social trust, can associate with others more freely and can later use these relationships to their benefit by asking for reciprocation.

While trust is an important resource in social relations, it is also important in the relationships between people and government, where it is referred to as political trust (Hetherington 1998, 2001, and 2005). When citizens trust in government, the relationship between citizens and government is more positive (Hardin 1998). Political efficacy affects perceptions of trust in government: Those who feel that they have a say in government or who feel that they have some effect on changes in government tend to trust in government more (Brehm and Rahn 1997). Those who exhibit more social trust also trust in government more (Brehm 1998). Over time, social trust (Putnam 2000; Rahn and Transue 1998) and political trust (Putnam 2000; Hetherington 2005; Rahn and Transue 1998) have been declining in the United States. Since their heyday in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, memberships in associations have also been declining (Gamm and Putnam 1999).

Distrust of people or government may have a deleterious effect on society. As social networks decrease, memberships in associations also decrease. Distrust leads citizens to feel less connected to government, but it also protects people against the possibility that their relationships with others or with government might be abused (Hardin 2004).

Collective action can also be important for countering government actions that disfavor peoples interests. People, however, also may face collective action problems when they try to coordinate large numbers of people to participate in activities to represent their interests. Despite the organization of associations, some people may be more likely to participate in associational activities than others. This leads to those who do not participate in associational activities free-riding on the work of those who do participate and still reaping the benefits of collective action (Olson 1965). The power of collective action, however, is also evident by way of social movements, when large numbers of people and sometimes several associations and their members can protest en masse for change. Moreover, social movements can connect the networks of many people and many associations to represent their interests more broadly (Tarrow 1994).

SEE ALSO Social Capital


Brehm, John. 1998. Who Do You Trust? People, Government, Both, or Neither. Paper presented at the Duke University International Conference on Social Capital and Social Networks, Durham, NC, October 30November 1.

Brehm, John, and Wendy Rahn. 1997. Individual-Level Evidence for the Causes and Consequences of Social Capital. American Journal of Political Science 41 (July): 999-1023.

Gamm, Gerald, and Robert D. Putnam. 1999. The Growth of Voluntary Associations in America, 1840-1940. In Patterns of Social Capital: Stability and Change in Comparative Perspective: Part II, special issue, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 29 (4): 511-577.

Hardin, Russell. 1998. Trust in Government. In Trust and Governance, ed. Valerie Braithwaite and Margaret Levi. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hardin, Russell. 2004. Introduction. In Distrust, ed. Russell Hardin. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hetherington, Marc. 1998. The Political Relevance of Political Trust. American Political Science Review (December).

Hetherington, Marc. 2005. Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hetherington, Marc, and John D. Nugent. 2001. Explaining Public Support for Devolution: The Role of Political Trust. In What Is It about Government that Americans Dislike?, ed. John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Olson, Mancur. 1971. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Rahn, Wendy M., and John Transue. 1998. Social Trust and Value: The Decline of Social Capital in American Youth, 1976-1995. Political Psychology 19 (3): 545-565.

Tarrow, Sidney. 1994. Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action, and Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, James Q. 1995. Political Organizations. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Shayla C. Nunnally

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voluntary associations

voluntary associations Any public, formally constituted, and non-commercial organization of which membership is optional, within a particular society. Examples include churches, political parties, pressure groups, leisure associations or clubs, neighbourhood groups, and (sometimes) trade unions and professional associations. In some theories of democracy, emphasis is placed on the important role such groups can play in fostering participation in the civil society, and thus in maintaining social order.

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