Voluntary Associations

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The 1990s saw renewed interest in and concerns about voluntary associations and their roles in society. On the international level, countries that had been part of the Soviet Union and its power bloc continued to form and experiment with what they called "informal groups," which had the essential characteristics of voluntary associations. That is, those groups were independent of control from outside sources, people were free to join or leave them, and members established their own objectives and goals and developed means that might achieve them. Among the most important developments arising from these informal groups was the emergence of political parties as part of the struggle to establish democratic governments.


It is generally acknowledged that the origins of voluntary associations are in the writings of early Reformation leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin (Hooker 1997). Calvin taught that all believers should participate equally in church decisions. The way to accomplish this equality was to see the church as a free and voluntary association of members; at the same time, to become a member, an individual had to be approved by the congregation. An early expression of this democratic church model developed in New England towns, with the local Congregationalist church as the prototypical voluntary association.

When Alexis de Tocqueville based Democracy in America on his tour of the United States in the 1830s, he took particular note of the degree to which Americans formed groups to serve personal interests and solve problems from the mundane to the profound. Tocqueville (1956) was particularly impressed by New England small towns with their autonomous local church congregations, whose citizens gathered in "town meetings" and voted on projects, from building schools and roads to caring for the poor. Current American nostalgia for local control to preserve the moral order may owe much to the almost sacred aura given to the reading of Tocqueville's description of early American society.


Research on voluntary associations was limited until recently, with most people accepting their importance to a free society and concentrating on questions of demographic characteristics and the contributions they made to local communities (Irwin et al. 1997).

One of the most consistent findings about voluntary associations (Cutler 1976) was that individuals with higher socioeconomic status (SES) were more likely to participate in voluntary associations. Age, race, and gender (while influenced strongly by SES) also were identified as important factors in membership, with middle-aged persons, whites, and males more likely to be members.

Gender differences in voluntary association membership have been studied in terms of rates of participation as well as differences in the types of organizations to which each sex belongs. Historically, women's participation rates in voluntary associations (McPherson and Smith-Lowin 1986) were lower than men's. Furthermore, the groups to which women belonged tended to be smaller, single-sex, and expressive rather than instrumental. Still, in the 1980s, Knoke (1986) reported that the gender gap was narrowing as more women entered the professional ranks.

Studies of the effect of race on voluntary association membership provided inconsistent findings. For example, Hyman and Wright (1971) documented a sharp increase in membership among blacks between 1955 and 1962 (sharper than that among whites). However, blacks continued to be less likely to belong to a voluntary association other than the local church congregation and its Bible study groups. Knoke (1986, p.4) summarized more recent research with the statement that "researchers generally found that blacks' participation rates fell below whites' but disagreed on whether the gap could be traced to black SES disadvantages."

Researchers interested in the way nonpolitical voluntary associations influence political participation have found that individuals who are members of such organizations are more likely to vote and participate in politics (Sigelman et al. 1985; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980; Milbrath and Goel 1977; Rogers et al. 1975).

Voluntary associations range in size from groups of four or five persons to those with hundreds of thousands of members worldwide; structures vary from very informal with little leadership and few norms or guiding rules to highly structured with formal leadership, codes of conduct, and elected and appointed offices. These differences reflect different goals and the ability to influence civic and political affairs.

Some associations, such as the American Medical Association, labor unions, and churches that are hierarchic in structure or practice infant baptism, may have some of the characteristics of voluntary associations, but they are not seen as such in the definition adopted here.


In the United States, Putnam (1996) developed the hypothesis that voluntary associations might well have run their course as he recounted the tale of "Bowling Alone," suggesting that the decline of voluntary associations was bringing with it a decline in the country's civic health. His hypothesis sparked renewed interest in voluntary associations and their place in American society.

While Putnam was suggesting the decline of voluntary associations, Wuthnow (1994) was reporting on the large and apparently growing number of Americans who were joining small groups that seemed to have the characteristics of voluntary associations. Wuthnow's national survey of American adults found that "exactly forty percent of the adult population of the United States claims to be involved in a small group that meets regularly and provides caring and support for those who participate in it"(1994, p. 45). Assuming that an American adult belonged only to one small group, Wuthnow estimated that at the time of his study, there were at least three million small groups active in the United States, with approximately one group for every eighty people, assuming group size averages of close to twenty-five. Drawing on a variety of sources, Wuthnow subdivided these small groups as follows:

Bible study and related religious groups: 1.7 million

Self-help groups: 500,000

Special-interest groups (political, sports, book and/or discussion): 750,000 (1994, p.76)

These figures contrast sharply with earlier attempts to estimate the number of voluntary associations active in American society. Rose (1967) estimated that there were over 100,000 such associations in the United States, and Hyman and Wright (1971) reported that 57 percent of the American adult population did not belong to a voluntary association. However, local and regional studies found higher participation rates. For example, Babchuk and Booth's Nebraska study (1969) found that 80 percent of the adult population belonged to at least one voluntary association. More recently, Knoke observed that "perhaps one third of U.S. adults belong to no formal voluntary organizations and only a third hold membership in more than one (not including churches)" (1986, p. 3). Excluding churches may help account for much of the discrepancy in the figures provided by various scholars.

The highest figure provided for membership in voluntary associations among adult Americans came from the 1990–1991 World Values survey. Galston and Levine (1997, p. 2) reported that that survey showed that "82 percent of Americans belonged to at least one voluntary association, a rate exceeded only by Iceland, Sweden and the Netherlands." This survey was carried out as Wuthnow was doing his study of small groups and Putnam was bemoaning the decline of at least some kinds of voluntary associations.

Evidence of concerns about growth and decline in voluntary associations can be found in events such as the agreement between Lions Clubs International and the Junior Chamber International ( JCs) to form a global partnership to boost membership and encourage lifelong service to the community. Lions International (1998) reported 1.4 million members representing 43,700 clubs in 185 countries, while the Junior Chamber reported 322,000 members in 9,000 chapters in 123 nations. The members of JCs typically have been in the under-40 age bracket; the intent of the new collaboration is to have them join Lions Clubs as they move up the age ladder. Both groups would be encouraged to work more closely together in community service. In this way, they hope to stem the age creep that has brought stagnation and decline to many voluntary associations.

Skocpol and her colleagues in the Harvard Civic Engagement Project have begun to document the local, state, and national linkages of voluntary associations, in the process challenging the assumption that the strength of American civic life ever lay in the local focus of voluntary associations. In her historical overview, Skocpol (1997) identified events such as the Revolutionary War and the subsequent electoral politics, along with the development of an extraordinarily extensive and efficient national postal system, as key factors encouraging the activities of thousands of local and extralocal voluntary associations. Major growth spurts occurred between 1820 and 1840, from after the Civil War to the end of the century, and in the 1930s. These growth spurts seem to be related to the great issues of the time: slavery and its moral dilemmas, industrialization, and economic crisis.

The Harvard group has so far tracked detailed life histories of some fifty-five voluntary associations that have enrolled 1 percent or more of American adults at some point in their history. Four-fifths of these associations still exist, with most of them paralleling the three-tiered government structure with local, state, and national branches. Although many groups have come and gone at the local level, a more balanced historical view sees voluntary associations as vital links between local and national civil life. The social historian Alexander Hoffman was cited as stating that "local institutions and organizations may best be understood as branch offices and local chapters . . . the building blocks of a 'nation of joiners.'. . . Americans enlisted in local church groups, fraternal lodges, clubs, and other organizations that belonged to nationwide networks" (Skocpol 1997, p. 3).

There is evidence of a decline in some types of voluntary associations even as new small groups emerge. For example, Skocpol (1996) noted that since the 1960s, the Christian Coalition has been one of the few cases of local to national federations growing, while some, such as the Lions, Rotary, and the Junior Chamber, have found themselves with an aging population and in a process of slow decline or even death. Thus, the new alliance between the Lions and the Junior Chambers mentioned above may be seen as an effort at revitalization.

Current research about voluntary associations has revealed a decline of same-sex organizations, growing numbers of college-educated and professional women members, and the replacement of family-oriented by professional associations. As Skocpol put it, "the best educated people are still participating in more groups overall, but not in the same groups as their less well-educated fellow citizens" (1997, p. 5).

At least in the short run, the educational gap, which is reflected in the occupational and income gaps, seems more of a threat to the well-being of civil society than does the so-called loss of the local group. Indeed, Wuthnow's data, supported by recent research on small faith communities in the U.S. Catholic Church (D'Antonio 1997), suggests the opposite: Small associations are alive and booming at the local level, with more than a little support from national organizations that provide regional gatherings, bring together diverse racial and ethnic groups, and provide a wide range of literature that urges outreach as a part of their mission. Their members may be spending more time working in soup kitchens and other service activities. Meanwhile, other small groups are supporting local teenage sports clubs rather than participating in union-style bowling leagues.

Among Wuthnow's findings was that social support in these small groups tends to focus on the individual; the groups themselves revealed tendencies to see political and social issues in a conservative vein. Outreach seldom got beyond the soup kitchen state of concern for others.

To the extent that these new groups cut across class, gender, and age lines, they may be fulfilling the hope expressed by Skocpol (1997, p. 5) that Americans will find new ways to work together, "not just on 'helping the poor' but 'doing with' rather than 'doing for' if we want to revitalize the best traditions of American voluntarism."


Among the new directions in voluntary association activity is the development of an interdisciplinary relationship between social work and veterinary medicine. Built on the premise that "democracies are based on the value of the worth and dignity of each person, and the empowering of persons to take action in their own lives" (Granger and Granger 1998), Colorado State University has established a Human-Animal Bond Center (HABIC). Its goal is to provide animal-assisted therapy and activities in partnership with community health, mental health, education, and human service programs. The founders of this program extend the respect for humans to animals and to the environment as a crucial element in the survival of a democratic society. The essential factor in their vision is the linkage of voluntary associations with formal groups such as social work agencies and veterinary medicine societies.

At the international level, scholars in Finland are going beyond studying the functional role of voluntary associations in the stability and growth of democratic societies. They propose that "from the point of view of social constructionism voluntary associations can be seen as forums for the production and transmitting of social meanings. This is an intersubjective process which may yield objectivated and taken-for-granted meanings. If internalized, these meanings become the source of personal identity and goal-formation of the association. Thus voluntary associations can be seen not only as part of the western culture heritage but also as cultures in themselves" (Raivio and Heikkala 1998, p. 1).


Voluntary associations generally are seen as central ingredients of a pluralist democratic society. Millions of Americans belong to hundreds of thousands of these associations, as do growing numbers of people worldwide. Among the more important research findings has been the multifaceted nature of voluntary associations' growth and impact: Some associations have remained strictly local; some have grown from local to state, national, and international levels; and not a few have grown from the top down, such as the American Legion and the PTA. Their influence on local, state, and national governments has led to much important legislation, such as the GI Bill fostered by the American Legion.

A review of the literature and current research challenges the nostalgic view that what is needed to restore vitality to American democracy is a return to localism and a shrinking national government. Instead, these findings suggest that the current trend toward the growth of a variety of types of voluntary associations, within and across national boundaries and working with rather than apart from governments, is the best formula for the revitalization of American political democracy. The limited evidence from other societies suggests that that same formula applies to all societies seeking to model Western democracies.


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