chapter  3
19 Pages

Interest groups and organizational form

Introduction: speaking the language of ‘organizational form’? How do groups settle on an organizational design at establishment? Do groups adapt and change models over their careers? Are groups – even when operating in the same environment – organized the same way? If not, how much diversity is there? What organizational models or recipes are deployed? These are important questions to the study of group life, but ones that have attracted relatively little dedicated attention. As is no doubt clear, this book sets out to (re) commence a discussion around the organizational dimensions of interest-group life. It does so by making the case for group scholars speaking the language of group ‘organizational form’ and pointing to how this might be translated into empirical analyses of group formation, maintenance, population dynamics and influence. The basic premise is that the literature on interest groups underplays the issue of (variation in) group organizational form. The dominant framework inherited by contemporary scholars is focused on explaining how collective-action problems associated with group formation are overcome (Olson 1965; Salisbury 1969). This is transposed into the maintenance literature, where it fosters the expectation that groups producing only political ‘goods’ are vulnerable – members may not all agree on political goals, political goals may be unachievable or lose relevance over time, and politics may not be enough to attract sufficient numbers of supporters. In the face of such vulnerabilities, so the argument goes, the stability and survival of the group is secured by managing incentives, and typically by supplying non-political inducements by way of selective material incentives. While maintenance clearly is about survival, much scholarly discussion of maintenance seems to overemphasize managing incentives at the expense of more diverse considerations. One such consideration is the organizational form in which groups maintain themselves. While recent work – mostly on population dynamics (see for instance Gray and Lowery 2000; Nownes 2004) and influence/lobbying (Leech et al. 2005; Baumgartner et al. 2011) – replaces the focus on individual behaviour with organizational behaviour (see Hojnacki et al. 2012), the dependent variable is typically a headcount of group numbers. Thus the apparent ‘organizational turn’

is not immediately helpful in illuminating or probing choices over organizational models. To be clear, the population dynamics and advocacy literatures do not deny diversity among the organizational models utilized by groups, they just do not dwell upon it nor make it the focus of study.1 Against this backdrop, the broad argument developed in this chapter is that group scholars would do well to pay more attention to questions of form. Inattention to the organizational qualities of groups is largely related to the absence of a vocabulary and conceptual scaffolding to direct attention to these issues. The foundational concept in the approach outlined in this book is organizational form. The term is intuitively attractive because it seems to capture nicely the idea that scholars ought to be attentive to the way organizations are put together. Applied in this general sense, the emphasis on organizational form signals a concern with the precise organizational nature of a group (and sets of related groups) at a given time, its organizational ‘recipe’, ‘design’, ‘model’ or ‘configuration’, if you like. It is an umbrella term to capture this general orientation to research. This is not, in and of itself, novel. By happenstance, other group scholars do use the precise same syntax. In fact, Truman made a very early observation that groups embodied a varied range of ‘organized forms’ and he pondered how such forms might be arrived at, how they might change, and – salient to our task here – how one might generalize about them (1971, 115). James Q. Wilson discusses the difficulties facing US ‘traditional business associations’ in the 1960s, and he talks of them reconsidering ‘tactics and organizational forms’ (1995, xiv). By form, he refers to the unease with peak bodies, groups that speak for an entire sector, otherwise known as ‘umbrella groups’, and the growth of firm-based lobbying and sector specific bodies. Wilson also refers to the absence of satisfactory accounts of how civil rights movements transformed from small local groups focused on mobilizing to national bureaucratic organizations better adapted to policy implementation (1995, xv-xvi). Hayes, for instance (1986, 134) talks about the way groups resemble one or other set of organizational forms (this important contribution is returned to in Chapter 4). It is also mentioned in passing by Jordan and Maloney (1997), who settle on the term ‘protest business’ to identify a form of group organization that relies on high-profile influence campaigns, is funded by a mass remote supporter base and is run on clear (for-profit) business principles.2 In their population ecology studies Gray and Lowery (2000) refer to organizational forms and use categories of firms, associations, and associations of associations, to empirically distinguish among lobbying organizations. It is more explicit in the work of Minkoff et al. (2008) who analyse a large data set of the structural features of social movement organizations to discern whether there exists a set of fundamental social movement forms. While an explicit sensitivity to organizational styles and designs might be systematically lacking within group scholarship, there is evidence enough that there is no innate resistance to a concept – at least in name – like organizational form. Thus, my message here might be more accurately restated as a call to reacquaint ourselves with an old yet neglected thread in the literature.