Political Group Analysis

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Political Group Analysis


Current trends


The analysis of political groups covers a wide range of viewpoints, conceptual schemes, and structures of preference. Although the study of nongovernmental groups is currently a widespread academic concern and although some attempts have been made to construct conceptions of the structure of political power in which groups, variously defined, are central elements, no genuine consensus of a theoretical sort has emerged from these investigations. To speak of the group approach to political studies, of the group theory, or of the group model is both inaccurate and misleading. Such terms are at best labels applied to a diverse and frequently conflicting collection of analytical efforts in the study of politics.

Despite the absence of a consensus on what group analysis can do for the understanding of politics and power, one can identify two tendencies in the contemporary literature that provide a means of classifying the vast bulk of such writing. The first of these is the position that, especially in relatively developed societies, it is not possible to achieve an adequate understanding of the more visible, constitutionally recognized governmental institutions and their interconnections without taking into account the attributes and activities of nongovernmental or unofficial groups of various sorts. This position has produced a large and growing body of essentially descriptive research on the organization and activities of what are usually called pressure groups or interest groups. This type of investigation developed first in the United States, where the issues of domestic politics and the peculiarities of the constitutional structure combined to make such groups relatively visible and accessible to inquiry. Since shortly after the close of World War ii, however, studies of interest groups have been conducted in most of the developed parts of the globe, especially in countries whose systems permit relatively free political inquiry and at least tolerate the formation of extra-governmental associations. The contribution of these studies to the description of political systems often has not gone beyond adding another set of institutions to those customarily examined—executives, legislatures, courts, bureaucracies, and political parties.

A second tendency, much less common, is represented by a limited set of attempts to develop, directly from research or by synthesis from descriptive studies, something approaching a general theory of politics in which the group, variously conceived, occupies a central position. These efforts show differing degrees of sophistication and complexity. None is satisfactory as a general theory, but collectively they have helped to raise or revive, in the analysis of political systems, questions and problems of a fundamental sort that otherwise were likely to be neglected or to remain unidentified. Among these are questions concerning the nature of political leadership, the processes of electoral choice, the structure of official decision making, the character of linkages between constituents and officials, and the consequences of alternative forms of governmental organization. The convergences among these attempts are far from complete. They differ chiefly in the degree to which they allow for an independent initiative in public policy by elements of the official government, in the extent to which they see influence relations between groups and governmental units as unidirectional or reciprocal, and in the room they allow for short-run consequences of idiosyncratic behavior by those in positions of formal leadership.


The recognition of groups, broadly conceived, as significant actors in politics is scarcely a novelty in Western thought. The essential notion of the group, even as a claimant on the choices of governmental decision makers, is to be found in Plato and Aristotle. It appears and reappears in successive periods, especially when attention is focused on the classic problem of tensions between rulers and the ruled, the problem of the center versus the circumference, as Charles E. Merriam phrased it, whether in the restriction of the claims of the universal church, in the formation of the nation-state, or in the turbulence associated with the commercial and industrial revolutions.

In contemporary terms the analysis of political groups has claimed attention as groups have become highly differentiated and numerous under social systems characterized by a complex division of labor, interdependence, a resulting emphasis upon bargaining relations, and efficient means of communication, almost regardless of whether the political culture supports the open expression of dissent and the legitimacy of nongovernmental associations. In addition, the concept has been taken up by investigators attempting to give some sort of order to the confusing crosscurrents of political influence in semideveloped or underdeveloped countries exhibiting rapid change in various societal sectors.

The intellectual paths leading to contemporary concern with the analysis of political groups are, however, diverse. At least four can be discerned.

The first path is that of the English and Continental, especially German, pluralists. Essentially a reformist reaction, especially among its later English adherents, against the inclusive claims on behalf of the modern state to a virtual monopoly of legitimate authority, this doctrine’s most influential origins are to be found in the historical jurisprudence of Gierke [seeGierke]. Clearly not hostile to the emergent German nationalism of Bismarck, Gierke saw danger or at least error in the concept of the state as the exclusive source of law. Accordingly, he emphasized the similarities between the state and other social groups and employed his impressive historical scholarship in an attempt to revive the German Genossenschaftsrecht. Gierke’s work was introduced to English thought primarily by Maitland, who was skeptical about the implications of Austin’s monistic theories of state power and was consequently concerned to emphasize the importance of nongovernmental associations to an understanding of contemporary politics [seeAustin; Maitland]. Following Maitland and Figgis, who confined his attention largely to the relations between church and state, the later pluralists, G. D. H. Cole and especially Harold Laski, used these insights for an attack on existing state power and on the capitalism with which they saw it inextricably allied [seeCole, G. D. H.;Figgis; Laski]. Paradoxically, their writings implicitly assumed the relative stability of post-Victorian British politics in their neglect, at least until the 1930s, of the problem of how the authority of an ultimate power, whether as director or as umpire, is to be maintained. A useful instrument for socialist criticisms in Britain and for the demands of British labor, the doctrines of English pluralism were influential in the United States as a convenient descriptive approximation of some increasingly familiar features of the dispersion of power on the American scene. [SeePluralism.]

A second path to contemporary concerns was opened up by a set of highly influential Continental sociologists, notably Gumplowicz, Simmel, and Ratzenhofer, in the closing years of the last century [seeGumplowicz; Ratzenhofer; Slmmel]. Differing widely among themselves and pursuing sharply differing goals, they had in common an effort to use notions of the group as a means of comprehending the process of social and political development. They were among the contributors to the stimulating atmosphere of the Continental, especially the German, universities, into which entered a generation of young American scholars who were to be important in the emerging American graduate schools, in the social sciences as well as in other fields.

The third path to the contemporary concern with the analysis of political groups is best exemplified by the work of one man, Arthur F. Bentley, although he was not wholly alone in his efforts. His name must be linked with that of John Dewey, who was an influence upon him as early as 1895 and with whom an increasingly intimate association and collaboration developed in the 1930s and 1940s [seeDewey]. Bentley’s classic, The Process of Government (1908), was his only systematic excursion into the explicitly political realm.

The book, which was in his words an “attempt to fashion a tool,” is in part critical and in part constructive. Bentley participated in “the revolt against formalism” in this period of American thought. He rejected the reification of conventional categories, whether legal, political, or psychological, and repudiated a fixed and simple classification of social groups, whether that of Marx or those of the German sociologists. He insisted that a political science, or any social science, could be based only upon observable human behavior, although he left room for a “potential” stage of activity which he called “tendencies of activity.” Group activity, which he saw as a means of stating all the phenomena of government, was to be known and to be stated on this basis. He began to see the process composed of such activity as sets of “transactions,” though he did not use the term or elaborate the view until much later. [SeeBentley.]

The Process of Government is thus an inquiry much broader in scope than a study of “pressure groups.” For more than thirty years after its publication, however, the broader relevance of the book was almost wholly ignored. Instead, American scholars produced a series of studies of pressure groups and “lobbies” which collectively constitute the fourth discernible path to contemporary concern for the analysis of political groups. Frequently owing their inspiration to materials generated in the course of investigations conducted by committees of the Congress, these studies varied in scope and level of sophistication, but they built up a body of comment on a hitherto neglected type of political institution. The best of them focused on a particular arena (Herring 1929; 1936), on a type of policy choice (Schattschneider 1935), on the actions of a single group (Odegard 1928), or on the connections between a group’s internal processes and its actions (Garceau 1941). Following World War ii, as previously noted, the discovery that such groups were not restricted to the American political scene led to a large number of comparable investigations in a wide variety of countries. “Pressure-group” studies have since become a staple in the research activities of political scientists in almost every corner of the globe.

Current trends

No genuine convergence of these four paths has occurred, but collectively they have led to a number of uneven attempts to produce some limited theories or at least to alter prevailing modes of exposition. One of the first areas for this sort of effort was the American political party. The works of Herring (1940), Schattschneider (1942), and especially Key (1942) differed in their analytical and prescriptive positions, but each helped to establish the view that the political party, in the United States at least, could not be understood apart from its relations with constellations of nonparty groups [seeKey]. Key took the additional step of examining the party organization itself as one type of interest group, functionally indistinguishable in some of its features from nonparty groupings.

Paralleling such attempts have been a number of efforts at theorizing about nonparty groups in relation to the whole spectrum of the political system. Although these efforts cannot yet be properly assessed, it seems likely that those which avoid too narrow a conception of the term “group” will prove most acceptable. To limit the reference of this term to the “pressure group” of popular parlance is dangerous because, on the one hand, there is the risk of oversimplification and, on the other, the likelihood of adding another piece of misleading formalism to those erected by the constitutional structure.

Groups thus narrowly conceived are often assigned a monopoly of initiative in the area of public policy, no nongovernmental actors except formally organized groups of this sort are considered, and, consequently, governmental actors are treated as mere referees of group conflict or recorders and ratifiers of the outcomes of intergroup contests.

This oversimplification leads to the error of treating a limiting case as if it were the norm. This obvious error occurs with great frequency in the literature, despite the fact that even our rough knowledge of the distribution of cases of the relation between interest group and government demonstrates that this oversimplification fails to square with the evidence concerning a vast range of instances. A proper understanding of Bentley’s conception would help to avoid the constricting consequences of these oversimplified formulations. Bentley does not use the word “group” altogether unambiguously, but he does use it broadly, so that it becomes almost the equivalent of any pattern of activity. The gap between his own and conventional denotations may have been too wide, but the whole thrust of his theory was away from preassigned weights and roles. Even his distinction between underlying groups and representative groups, a variant of Marx’s sub- and super-structure, did not confine the representative groups to being referees and recorders.

Those who merely add the nongovernmental group to the collection of formal structures to be explained by analysis may do a different sort of disservice. By concentrating on a single institutional pattern in a descriptive way, they often lose sight of the total political process in all its complexities. In particular, they may ignore the question of variations in power resources, the question of differences in the degree of commitment and of efficient use of such resources, and the matter of the emergence of new groups and the recession of established ones. They may also neglect the functional similarities, as claimants upon legitimate authority, among a wide variety of groupings extending well beyond those conventionally accepted as “pressure groups” or interest groups. If the group notion is to prove useful in a theory of the political system, it is not likely to come about through such a reversion to formalism.

Among the more promising recent efforts in the analysis of political groups have been those which have focused on a broad segment of a political system or on the whole of a single system and have attempted to include political groups in the larger analytical enterprise. The best examples of the segmental sort are to be found in recent voting studies based on sample surveys, especially The American Voter (Michigan, University of …1960). As part of an extensive examination of the electoral decision in the United States, this study includes an analysis of the influence of group activity and identification on the choices of voters. The immediate significance of this work is its effectiveness in coming to grips with variations in group influence within and between elections. These the authors trace to a series of factors relating the individual to the group and the group to the political world. They show that some of these factors are relatively stable and some susceptible to considerable shortterm fluctuation through circumstance or design. This work has important implications for a wider range of questions. Exploration of the factors affecting group influence on voters’ choices suggests and strengthens hypotheses and intimates lines of inquiry concerning the relations between groups and points of decision within the formal governmental apparatus. In particular, the variability of electoral influence casts further doubt on those conceptions of the relations between group and government which give the group a monopoly of initiative in all circumstances.

A second and closely related example that deals with groups in the context of one broad segment of a political system is Key’s work on public opinion in the United States (1961). Working primarily from survey data, in this instance data on the structure and properties of mass opinion, Key selects as a basic objective an analysis of the system of “linkages” that may make opinion governmentally relevant, including nongovernmental “pressure groups.” His findings are largely inferential, but they serve to undermine simplistic conceptions that categorically assign to groups a coercive monopoly in the formation of policy. He shows that such power is exercised at most in marginal cases of low frequency, and he makes a persuasive case for more sophisticated conceptions involving a greater number of variables.

A revived interest in the analysis of political systems as such has been a marked feature of the period following World War ii. This revival of a classic concern is traceable in large measure to a high rate of change in numerous political systems, which has compelled analysts to re-examine and in some instances drastically to recast the organizing conceptions with which they previously worked. As a result, the activities and functions of governmentally relevant groups have been placed in context. The work, though not uniform, has produced more general and perhaps more satisfactory conceptions of governmental systems and at the same time has helped to refine views of group activity within the systems. The strongest thrust in this revival has come from the necessity to come to grips with the developing political systems in the newer nations, to which the categories conventionally used in discussing states of the western European type were patently inadequate either for analyzing these less familiar systems or for comparing them with the more familiar types.

The most influential example of this kind of effort is the work of Almond and his associates (Almond & Coleman 1960). Building on the accumulated evidence of the multifunctionality of political structures and working on the assumption that conceptions of Western systems have overstated the functional specificity of structure, while those of the primitive and traditional systems have overemphasized diffuseness and lack of differentiation, Almond develops a set of structures and of functions and proposes a comparison of political systems in terms of the probabilities of performance of specified functions by specified structures in specified styles. In discussing the function of interest articulation, he identifies four main types of interest groups, conceived almost as broadly as Bentley’s, and suggests a variety of styles in which these may perform this function. Although its success has not been definitely established, the scheme is useful because it places the analysis of political groups in a context which could allow for effective comparison of structures, styles, and systems.

A more concrete example of the renewed interest in systems as it bears upon the analysis of political groups is provided by a recent study of the process of governing New York City (Sayre & Kaufman 1960). Examining this system as a contest among individuals and groups, including both governmental and nongovernmental groups, the authors deal comparatively as well as descriptively with variations in the degree of involvement, in the resources, and in the goals of the group contestants. They introduce further and significant probabilistic properties into their scheme by emphasizing the effects of uncertainty, including imperfect information, upon the actions of participants. The resulting conception has considerable analytical power. Although it may not, without considerable modification, be appropriate to a wide range of cases, it bears at least a familial resemblance to other leading efforts to deal with groups in the context of an analysis of systems.

In one form or another the analysis of political groups has become fixed as part of the study of governmental systems and processes. Whether this analysis is pursued at the level of the group or at the level of the system, the current trends suggest that it is unlikely to prove fruitful unless it avoids a reversion to formalism and rejects simplistic, single-factor schemes of explanation. The promising revival of interest in the political system and the associated tendencies toward probabilistic conceptions point more constructively toward conceiving political groups in context and toward developing multivariate schemes in which such groups are taken into account as factors of varying weight and consequence.

David B. Truman

[See alsoInterest groups; Pluralism; Public policy; Systems analysis, article onpolitical systems. Other relevant material may be found inPolitical science; and in the biographies ofBentley ; Follett; Merriam.]


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

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

Garceau, Oliver (1941) 1961 The Political Life of the American Medical Association. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press.

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

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

Herring, E. Pendleton 1940 The Politics of Democracy. New York: Norton.

Hirschman, Albert O. 1963 Journeys Toward Progress: Studies of Economic Policy-making in Latin America. New York: Twentieth Century Fund.

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

Key, Valdimer O. Jr. 1961 Public Opinion and American Democracy. New York: Knopf.

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

Loved Ay, Peter 1962 Group Theory and Its Critics.Pages 3–44 in Peter Loveday and Ian Campbell, Groups in Theory and Practice. Melbourne: Cheshire.

Macridis, Roy C. 1961 Interest Groups in Comparative AnalysisJournal of Politics 23:25–45.

Meynaud, Jean 1958 Les groupes de pression en France. Paris: Colin.

Michigan, University of, Survey Research Center 1960 The American Voter, by Angus Campbell et al. New York: Wiley.

Odegard, Peter H. 1928 Pressure Politics: The Story of the Anti-saloon League. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Sayre, Wallace S.; and Kaufman, Herbert 1960 Governing New York City: Politics in the Metropolis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Schattschneider, Elmer E. 1935 Politics, Pressures, and the Tariff: A Study of Free Private Enterprise in Pressure Politics, As Shown in the 1929–1930 Revision of the Tariff. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Schattschneider, Elmer E. (1942) 1960 Party Government. New York: Holt.

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

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