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Political Organizations

Investigations of the behaviors of political organizations occur at an intersection of sociology, political science, and organizations studies. This interdisciplinary perspective offers great potential for richly informed understanding and comprehensive theoretical explanation of numerous facets of these crucial social actors and their relationships with the larger society and polity in which they are embedded. Four fundamental questions have dominated research and theorizing in this field over the past several decades:

(1) What sociopolitical conditions encourage the creation of political organizations?

(2) How are participants recruited and induced to provide crucial resources for political action?

(3) What mobilization processes enable political organizations to work together most effectively toward collective ends?

(4) What strategies and tactics exert the greatest impact on public policy makers’ decisions? This article attempts to provide brief answers to these questions.

Although most of the empirical research on political organizations concentrates on the United States, some recent evidence from European nations is examined.

The least restrictive definition of a political organization is any formally organized, named group that tries to influence the policy decisions of public officials. Most political organizations take the form of a voluntary association of persons or organizations that pools its members’ and constituents’ financial and other resources, and engages in conventional political actions to affect policy-making outcomes. Common synonyms for this type of organization are ‘‘interest groups,’’ ‘‘pressure groups,’’ and ‘‘collective action organizations.’’ Ironically, political parties are not political organizations, because their primary purpose is to elect candidates to public office and only incidentally to press for specific policy agendas. Most public bureaucracies should be excluded, unless they act regularly to promote their own policy preferences within a government. Another questionable type is the social movement organization whose primary political tactics involve rallies, demonstrations, and violent forms of protest (including revolutionary actions intended to overthrow the government) rather than working within routine channels of the political system. Some social movement organizations eventually transform into conventional political interest groups, if they survive their turbulent youths as outside challengers. However, certain profit-making corporations might be considered quasi-political organizations, in instances where their government affairs officers lobby for preferential treatment from legislators and regulators (Salisbury 1994).

Political organizations—including such types as labor unions, professional societies, business and trade associations, churches, neighborhood and community organizations, fraternities and sororities, nationality and racial-ethnic federations, civic service, philanthropic, and cooperative groups, medical and legal societies, conservation leagues, and even recreational and hobby clubs—encompass a broad range of formal goals. Political purposes need not be their primary goal nor compose the majority of their activities, but the critical requirement is that they go beyond merely providing direct services to their members by seeking to change or preserve the social, economic, cultural, or legal conditions faced by their members or those on whose behalf they operate. One interesting type is the so-called citizens’ group or public interest group (PIG), which purports not to benefit narrow sectarian or economic self-interests but to promote the broader collective values of the society (Berry 1977). For example, civil rights, civil liberties, environmental protection, feminist, and consumer advocacy associations frequently proclaim a disinterested agenda. A close examination of their supporters and activities suggests that they do not differ fundamentally from other political organizations in methods of operation (Schlozman and Tierney 1986, pp. 30–35). Based on listings compiled by various American directories, perhaps as many as 23,000 voluntary associations operate at the U.S. national level (many with dozens or hundreds of chapters and branches in state and local communities). Of these, perhaps half qualify as political organizations based on their efforts to communicate their positions on national policy issues to the federal government (Knoke 1990, p. 208). They range in size from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), with more than twenty-five million members, to small staff organizations with fewer than a dozen operatives bankrolled by foundations or public donations.

The creation, growth, and expansion of U.S. political organizations seem to occur in cycles corresponding to national political and economic events, including shifts in the legislative, regulatory, and judicial climate (Berry 1977, p. 13; Schlozman and Tierney 1986, pp. 74–82; Gray and Lowery 1996). American labor unions established a national policy presence during the New Deal, and public interest groups blossomed during the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist social movements of the 1960s. Business advocacy associations flocked to Washington in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction to restrictions imposed by newly established federal regulatory agencies for environment, occupational safety and health, consumer protection, and equal employment opportunity (Vogel 1996). Increasingly, mass membership associations have yielded ground to institutionally based organizations, including corporations; universities; foreign firms and governments; and confederations of U.S. state and local governments, such as the National League of Cities.

Interest groups rarely form spontaneously but require leadership and resources. Interest group foundings and expansions may be best understood as involving exchanges between entrepreneurial organizers, who invest capital in a set of benefits offered to potential members as the price of membership, and members who pay dues in order to receive these benefits. Intergroup subsidies may occur; for example, the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) founded the National Council of Senior Citizens, helped to recruit its early members from unions, and continued to underwrite its activities. Although committed citizen activists, such as Ralph Nader or John Gardner, occasionally provide an energizing impetus for launching new organizations, many public interest groups rely on patronage from wealthy individuals or foundation sponsors to get launched (Walker 1983), as well as on favorable mass media treatment to bolster their legitimacy. Once an organization is formed, its survival, growth, and effectiveness depend on its ability to attract and hold new members and other organizational sponsors. Labor unions and business associations can acquire substantial war chests through dues and assessments on their members, but PIGs have more limited capacities to tap potential diffuse constituents’ money. The virtual collapse of Greenpeace in the 1990s underscores the vulnerability of many activist organizations to quickly dwindling support.

For more than three decades, a central paradigm to explain member contributions has been the economic or rational choice model developed in Mancur Olson Jr.’s Logic of Collective Action (1965). Olson considered the conditions under which people would voluntarily contribute their resources to an organized group seeking a public good (such as a governmental farm crop subsidy) from which no eligible recipients could be excluded. Olson argued that utility-maximizing actors would refuse to pay for public goods that will be produced regardless of their contributions, and thus would take a ‘‘free ride’’ on the efforts of other members. As a result, the model predicts that most political organizations should fail to mobilize their potential supporters if they were to rely solely on public goods to obtain sustenance. Olson concluded that such entities are viable only if they offer ‘‘selective incentives’’ to prospective members in exchange for their contributions toward the organization’s public-good lobbying efforts. These inducements might include magazine subscriptions, group insurance, social gatherings, certification and training programs, and similar benefits from which the organization could effectively exclude noncontributors unless they pay dues and assessments. In Olson’s formulation, a political organization’s policy objectives are reduced to a secondary ‘‘by-product’’ of its members’ and supporters’ interests in obtaining personal material benefits. Despite his appealing analytical arguments, Olson’s propositions were repeatedly challenged by empirical investigations of the incentive systems of real voluntary organizations. Members often respond to diverse inducements apart from personal material gains, including normative and purposive appeals and organizational lobbying for public goods (Moe 1980, pp. 201–231; Knoke 1988, 1990, pp. 123–140). For example, right-tolife organizations appeal to their supporters’ religious, ideological, and emotional convictions about the illegitimacy of abortion and the necessity to take direct action to shut down clinics as well as to campaign on behalf of prolife politicians. The availability of picnics or T-shirts could hardly provide a compelling motivation for most participants in these groups. The internal economies of political organizations turn out to be more complex than originally believed. Organizational leaders have an important role in defining the conditions and prospects for their members and in persuading them to contribute to collective efforts that may run counter to the members’ short-term personal interests.

The governance of political organizations is often posed as a choice between oligarchic or democratic alternatives. Persistent leadership and staff cliques in labor unions, trade associations, fraternal organizations, professional societies, and other types of associations are frequently interpreted as evidence of an inevitable ‘‘iron law of oligarchy.’’ However, apart from labor unions (with their legal monopolies on occupational representation within certain industries), most voluntary groups are too dependent on their members for critical resources to enable officials to flout the memberships’ interests in the long run. Consequently, most political organizations’ constitutions provide for an array of democratic institutions, including competitive elections, membership meetings, referenda, and committee systems (Berry 1984, pp. 92–113; Knoke 1990, pp. 143–161). But actual practices of consulting members to formulate collective actions vary widely, and researchers have only begun to examine how the democratic control of political organizations shapes their capacities to mobilize their members for collective actions. The analytic task is further complicated by the complex interactions of formal governance processes with executive and leadership actions, bureaucratic administration, environmental conditions, and the internal economy of member incentives.

Political Organization

Figure 1: Political Organization

Political organizations serve a dual function for a political system. First, they aggregate the interests of citizens holding similar preferences, enabling them to press their demands on government officials more effectively. By articulating member demands and pooling the scarce resources of weak individuals, interest groups fashion a louder voice that is not readily dismissed by those in positions charged with public policy making. However, not all interests are created equal. Because higher-socioeconomic-status groups are more likely to join and participate in political organizations, the pressure-group system is biased against representing the views of less organized class, race, gender, and ethnic interests (Verba et al. 1995; Van Deth 1997). Second, political organizations provide public authorities with channels to communicate policy information and provide benefits to their electoral constituencies. Adroit politicians can manipulate public opinion to some degree by selectively targeting which interest groups will receive coveted access to present a case for modifications to pending policy decisions. Public officials and political organizations have a mutual interest in delivering policy successes that permit them both to survive to play the influence game again and again (Browne 1998, pp. 226–228). The fragmentation of political power among numerous policy arenas in the American federal system offers many aggrieved groups several institutional pressure points—legislatures; executive agencies; regulatory bodies; and courts at the local, state, and national levels—through which to raise their demands and promote their preferred solutions ontothe public policy agenda for debate and resolution. This duality of political organizations at the interface between the state and its citizenry assures that the interest-group system exerts a crucial, if constitutionally ambiguous, impact on shaping many outcomes of collective political action.

Researchers have made substantial progress in uncovering the evolving techniques deployed by political organizations in lobbying public policy makers on specific issues (Schlozman and Tierney 1986, pp. 261–385; Knoke 1990, pp. 187–213; Baumgartner and Leech 1998, pp. 147–167). Campaign contributions and litigation are relatively rare methods, while contacting governmental officials (legislative, executive, regulatory), testifying at hearings, presenting research findings, and mobilizing their mass memberships are the most prevalent tactics. But mustering the appearance of grassroots support by hiring consultant firms and lobbying specialists to generate calls and letters may be quickly discredited as phony ‘‘astroturf’’ (Kollman 1998, pp. 157–160). The Internet and the World Wide Web are only the most recent technological innovations to be pressed into the interest-group battle. The impact of political money, primarily unlimited political action committee (PAC) ‘‘soft money’’ election campaign contributions, is a highly emotional topic. Some researchers conclude that a corrupt campaign financing system allows large corporations to enjoy disproportionate political access and influence (Clawson et al. 1998), while others see the corporate capacity to act in unison on political affairs as more problematic and conditional (Mizruchi 1992; Grier et al. 1994). All lobbying methods aim at gaining organizational access to policy makers by winning their attention, communicating with contacts about mutual information needs, and reinforcing for those targets the importance of continuing to pay attention to the organization’s issues (Browne 1998, pp. 68–82). However, the precise conditions under which diverse lobbying tactics exert demonstrable impacts on policy decisions remain elusive.

One increasingly important strategy is collective action by a coalition of political organizations, often competing against an opposing coalition that advocates the contrary policy position. The organizational-state conceptualization of national policy domains emphasizes the shifting nature of short-term networks among organized interest groups mobilizing and coordinating their collective resources in campaigns to pass or defeat particular legislative proposals. The processes by which interorganizational communication networks generate collective action were examined in empirical studies of the U.S. national energy, health, agriculture, and labor policy domains (Laumann and Knoke 1987; Heinz et al. 1993), and in a comparison of U.S., German, and Japanese labor policy making (Knoke et al. 1996). European political scientists have been especially energetic in applying a policy network perspective to understanding how informal bargaining between interest groups and officials shapes policy outcomes in complex institutional settings (Peterson 1992; Verdier 1995).

Debates among European scholars about the organized representation of societal interests initially concentrated on corporatism as a distinctive form of interest intermediation. Although many definitions of corporatism and neocorporatism abound (Cox and O’Sullivan 1988), the dominant theme concerns how interest groups become incorporated into public policy-making processes through institutionalized access to the levers of state power rather than as seekers of intermittent influence and access that characterize fragmented, pluralist systems such as the United States (Baumgartner and Walker 1989). A corporatist arrangement involves explicit policy negotiations between state agencies and interest groups, followed by implementation of policy agreements through these political organizations, which enforce compliance by their members. The corporatist state takes a highly interventionist role by forming private sector ‘‘peak’’ (encompassing, nonvoluntary, monopolistic) interests groups; delegating to them quasi-public authority to determine binding public policy decisions; and brokering solutions to conflicts (Hirst 1995). In return for a stable share of power, privileged corporatist organizations are expected to discipline their members to accept the imposed policy decisions. Within national labor and other policy domains a closed tripartite network of state agencies, business, and labor organizations collaborates on solutions to such problems as workplace regulation and income distribution, and imposes these compromises on the society. Although much corporatist bargaining occurs primarily within the executive and regulatory sectors, the social partnership aspect of negotiated class conflicts should carry over into the parliamentary arena. The corporatist organizations representing capital, labor, and state interests jointly sponsor legislative proposals originated by agreement with the executive branch. Other interest groups are effectively excluded from participating in these corporatist agreements, resulting in a pattern of cumulative cleavages between them and the corporatist core. These disgruntled, excluded status groups are sources of new social movements against the corporatist monopolies; ecological, antinuclear, feminist, homeless, and immigrant groups are examples of these deprived segments.

This well-ordered corporatist framework seems to be breaking down as a result of the 1986 Single European Act that leads inexorably to an integrated internal market (Mazey and Richardson 1993; Fligstein and Mara-Drita 1996). Simultaneously, a ‘‘Europe of regions’’ is developing, with such areas as Scotland, Brittany, and the Basque country of Spain attaining formal representation and integration into European Union (EU) affairs. The Union is not yet a state, because it still lacks full sovereign power to make and enforce many types of decisions, particularly taxation. Rather, EU policy making is nonhierarchical, open, complex, conflictful, and unpredictable. With Brussels emerging as a supranational forum for resolving social, environmental, producer, and consumer conflicts, new forms of interest representation and lobbying are arising to tackle the expanding EU policy agenda. To varying degrees across different policy domains, the member states are steadily losing control over intergovernmental bargains, while ‘‘networks of actors . . . have become guardians of the policy agenda at the subsystemic level of EU governance, over which political controls are often weak or attenuated’’ (Peterson 1997, p. 7). In sum, the European Union is embarked on a huge, unforeseeable natural experiment that seems likely to transform traditional corporatist state-society relations into a system more closely resembling the ‘‘disjointed pluralism’’ of United States (Mazey and Richardson 1993, p. 24). The situation offers unbounded theoretical and research opportunities.

Despite occasional pessimistic appraisals that ‘‘interest-group studies have defined themselves into a position of elegant irrelevance’’ (Baumgartner and Leech 1998, p. xvii), research on political organizations is thriving at several levels of analysis, from the individual members to organizational political economies to the integration of societal interests into national and supranational polities. Analysts must exert greater effort to link these diverse focuses into a comprehensive explanation of interest organization behaviors situated within their sociopolitical environments. Especially promising avenues include developing formal models of rational social choice at the micro and macro levels; developing models of intra- and interorganizational exchange network; accounting for historical and institutional differences in interest representation processes across diverse national settings; and the functions of nongovernmental agencies (such as the World Health Organization) and pressure groups (such as Amnesty International) in the world system. Given the vastly expanded sociopolitical functions of modern states in all their permutations, a better understanding of the roles that political organizations play as developers, mediators, expresser, and manipulators of societal interests is indispensable.

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This Aricle was Written by
DAVID KNOKE

This Article was Published in
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIOLOGY
Second Edition
A Book by

EDGAR F BORGATTA
Editor-in-Chief
University of Washington, Seattle

AND

RHONDA J. V. MONTGOMERY
Managing Editor
University of Kansas, Lawrence

 

 
 
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