Interest Groups and Interests

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Interest Groups and Interests


In every democratic society, a plethora of interest groups seeks to influence public policy. Groups representing businesses, consumers, environmental causes, and a wide range of other concerns flock in the halls of power. Interest groups can, on the one hand, be seen as contributing positively to democratic processes by allowing different parties to state their case before government. On the other hand, they may be described as unduly affecting public policy on behalf of special interests. No matter which side of this ambivalence is emphasized, the role of such groups must be of great concern to those interested in understanding politics. Among the topics attracting particular attention are the questions of how groups attract and maintain members and how groups influence public policy.

Interest groups are conventionally defined as organizations seeking to influence public policy. They are distinguished from political parties in that they do not seek election to public office. Apart from this common ground, there are different opinions as to exactly which organizations should be categorized as interest groups. Notably, some authors include individual businesses, government institutions, as well as other types of organizations that make policy-related appeals to government. Others restrict the term to membership organizations, but accept that group members might be individuals, firms, or even other interest groups. In an attempt to clear up this confusion, Grant Jordan and his collaborators (2004) have suggested reserving the terms interest group or pressure group for organizations with members, while letting the term pressure participant refer to the wider spectrum of politically active organizations.

In discussions of interest groups, it is often fruitful to distinguish between different types of groups. Various ways of subdividing the universe of interest groups have been suggested, but among the most persistently used is the distinction between special interest groups and public interest groups. Special interest groups or sectional groups represent specific sectors of society, while public interest groups act for various causes. The latter are also referred to with the terms cause groups, idealistic groups, and citizen groups. This category encompasses both groups working for specific short-term goals and groups acting for more general causes, such as environmental protection or human rights. Whereas sectional groups typically recruit their members within the sector they represent, public interest groups are at least theoretically open to anyone supportive of group goals.

The classical approach within the study of interest groups is pluralism. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, authors such as David Truman (19132003) attached great importance to groups. Pluralists portray groups as competing for influence in a relatively open political system. While resources are not seen as equally distributed among groups, it is asserted that no group is able to be consistently dominant. According to pluralists, new groups will mobilize almost automatically, provided their interests are sufficiently threatened, and these groups will counteract the influence of existing groups. Even though pluralism has come under attack from many quarters, it remains an important frame of reference in the interest group literature.

Among the important blows to pluralism was E. E. Schattschneiders (18921971) ascertainment that: The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent (Schattschneider 1960, p. 35). Contrary to the pluralist notion of a fairly balanced group system, Schattschneider and the scholars following in his footsteps documented that the interest group system is heavily biased in favor of business interests. The most influential attack on pluralism directly targeted the assumption of automatic group mobilization. In The Logic of Collective Action (1965), the economist Mancur Olson (19321998) argued that rational self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their group interests. According to Olson, interest groups typically work to achieve public goods. It is in the nature of such goods that nonmembers cannot be excluded from consuming the good if the group is successful in providing it. If a business group is successful in obtaining business-friendly regulation of an industry, all firms in the industry will benefit. Furthermore, in large groups the contribution of one member does not make a difference in regard to whether a group will achieve its goals or not. Every potential member would therefore be better off by saving their membership dues than by joining the group. According to this logic, it is surprising that interest groups exist at all.

Following Olsons seminal work, much attention has been devoted to discussing how interest groups come into existence. Olson himself pointed out that interest groups might recruit members by offering selective incentives, such as cheap insurance or free magazines. Other authors have argued that groups offer their members a variety of benefits ranging from material goods over social relations to the good feelings arising from contributing to a cause one believes in. Further, the importance of entrepreneurs or patronsprivate or governmentalinvesting in the creation of groups has been emphasized. Although numerous factors helping the creation and maintenance of groups have been identified, it is highly unlikely that the existing universe of interest groups reflects a perfect mobilization of all groups and concerns.

Once established, interest groups become active in influencing politics. In these efforts, they use different strategies. Groups can rely on insider strategies, where public decision makers are targeted directly, or they can engage in outsider strategies, where the media and citizen mobilizations are used to exert pressure on policymakers. In the U.S. literature, much effort has gone into studying the lobbying of Congress, whereas Europeans have focused more on the interaction between interest groups and the bureaucracy. Among other factors, this difference reflects cross-national variation in the importance of different lobbying activities. Apart from cross-national factors, the choice of strategy also depends on group type and on factors related to the issue at hand.

An important question in regard to interest groups is whether the political process can best be described as relatively open to different types of groups or as characterized by structured interaction by certain groups and public decision makers. In the United States, authors such as Theodore J. Lowi in The End of Liberalism (1969) pointed to the close interaction between interest groups and government agencies and the resulting accommodation of interest group demandsaccording to Lowi working to the detriment of liberal democracy. In Europe, many countries were even described as corporatist, indicating that the integration of interest groups into public decision making was a crucial element of the political system. Although stated in other terms, the literatures on iron triangles, policy subsystems, and policy communities share common ground with corporatism in emphasizing how policy processes are often much more structured and less open than the pluralists assumed. While this debate has attracted much scholarly attention, there is now widespread agreement that most societies exhibit both characteristics corresponding to the pluralist notion of competition between interest groups and more structured patterns of interaction between groups and government. The challenge is therefore to account for the causes and consequences of variation in the role of interest groups.

SEE ALSO Associations, Voluntary; Campaigning; Collective Action; Free Rider; Lobbying; Organizations; Public Policy


Baumgartner, Frank R., and Beth L. Leech. 1998. Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jordan, Grant, Darren Halpin, and William Maloney. 2004. Defining Interests: Disambiguation and the Need for New Distinctions? British Journal of Politics and International Relations 6 (2): 195212.

Lowi, Theodore J. 1969. The End of Liberalism: Ideology, Policy, and the Crisis of Public Authority. New York: Norton.

Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schattschneider, E. E. 1960. The Semisovereign People: A Realists View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Schmitter, Philippe. 1974. Still the Century of Corporatism? Review of Politics 36: 85131.

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

Walker, Jack L., Jr. 1991. Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: Patrons, Professions, and Social Movements. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Anne Binderkrantz

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Interest Groups and Interests

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