chapter  1
17 Pages

Studying interest groups as ‘organizations’: a lacuna?

Introduction In his classic treatment of interest groups, James Q. Wilson claimed that ‘Whatever else organizations seek, they seek to survive’ (1995, 10). His point was a simple one: before groups could actually get on with their job of engaging in policy they needed to establish themselves and secure resources sufficient to be an ongoing organizational concern. Yet, Wilson – and his contemporaries – largely left this important observation at that. Missing was an explicit problematization of the ‘choice’ of style, format or design of group organizations. Survival ‘yes’; but in what form? The premise of this book is that this basic observation ought to provoke a range of rather crucial questions for the way we understand and interpret groups and the group system more generally. Specifically, if taken seriously, it challenges us to look at those aspects of group life we are well used to studying – namely, formation, maintenance and population dynamics and influence – in new, important and revealing ways. It calls for taking the terrain of organizational design seriously. As will become evident, the classic group literature is not particularly attentive to issues of organizational design. Scholars would no doubt accept them as salient, but they are under-examined. They are – and remain – themes for the footnotes of studies of ‘other’ things like influence, formation, maintenance, and population-level analysis. This book sets out to identify this lacuna in the literature and, in so doing, seeks to reinvigorate an organizational perspective on group life. It puzzles over both the origins and processes driving the adoption of specific forms by single groups and the diversity of forms among group populations. It is commonplace to rue the lack of progress in group studies, particularly compared to the apparent sophistication and progress of electoral and party studies (see Baumgartner and Leech 1998; Richardson 1999). This assessment likely underplays the extent to which recent group research has been able to start to accumulate conclusions. Moreover, it understates the extent to which group studies have been channeled into a few discrete – albeit largely independent – streams of scholarly inquiry. There are established cannons of research with

respect to formation and maintenance, population dynamics and influence. Yet, against this considerable progress, one particular feature of group study has, however, been left to one side: namely, the question of group organization. Put simply, group entrepreneurs cannot avoid asking the question ‘how should we organize?’, nor can they avoid dealing with its consequences for things like influence and survival prospects. This book develops an organizational perspective on group life, and then offers illustrations as to how it might give new insights to each compartment of the interest group canon. The aim pursued in this book is timely. In discussing research on civic participation and US democracy, Theda Skocpol makes the point that in recent decades scholars – armed with survey data on individual citizen behaviour – pursued questions about why individual citizens did (or did not) participate in voluntary associations; yet they were far less focused on ‘the kinds of organizations leaders were creating [or] . . . what sorts of groups were available for citizens to join’ (2003, 16). This is unsatisfactory when, as Skocpol maintains, there is much diversity (not to mention substantial historical flux) in the way groups themselves are assembled. Much the same omission has existed in interest group scholarship. Perhaps influenced by the strong legacy of Mancur Olson’s work on collective action (problems), the literature has pursued a largely context-free discussion of incentive structures and the rationality of individual joining decisions, with far less attention placed on the organizational substance of the groups that individuals actually joined. A recent review by a set of senior scholars in the field argues that the shadow cast by Olson may be lifting. It is suggested that one of the hallmarks of the recent literature has been that it has left behind the Olsonian focus on the decisions of individuals – and on group joining – and thus ‘the unit of analysis becomes the group rather than the individual’ (Hojnacki et al. 2012, 10; see also Lowery and Gray 2004a, 166). And, as a consequence, studies take contextual social, economic and political variables as explanations of group organizational behaviour (such as formation, strategy or influence) (Hojnacki et al. 2012, 10). This is undoubtedly true, and to be welcomed. However, the tone struck by this book is that the practice of treating groups as the unit of analysis has some way to evolve. Not only is current work mostly stuck with a (convenient) unitary assumption – namely that groups are functionally equivalent but, in turn, the group field operates with few heuristics with which to guide describe, analyse or develop expectations as to how groups ‘decide’ to organize themselves. Take the recent waves of population ecology work. It rightly places emphasis on identifying those factors that shape the aggregate size of the group universe, but there is little concern with the ways in which those groups constituting populations are themselves constituted as organizations (a point accepted by key authors, see Gray and Lowery 2000). In short, the existing group literature – by and large – ‘black boxes’ the question of group organizational form, and in so doing, deprives scholars of an insight into what are important questions of organizational crafting and design. While few if challenged would actually suggest it is empirically the case, one must assume (for the purposes of analysis) that

groups are more or less homogenous and substitutable. While progress has been made, and there is cause for optimism, there is more that can be done to move the treatment of organization as the unit of analysis on further. The marginalization of questions of organization is not a disease that singularly or disproportionally afflicts group scholarship. As Terry Moe (1991) eloquently argues, this state of affairs reflects the broad political science disciplines tendency to avoid studying parties, legislatures and groups as organizations.1 As Moe explains, the choice to pursue a theory of groups, and not seek to embed this in a broader concern with organization, means that political science is borrowing – and not contributing – to the broader organizational social science literature (and vice versa). This book explicitly sets out to turn this around, by showing how organizational social science can support and rejuvenate group scholarship (and vice versa). In so doing, acknowledgement is made of a frequent complaint that there is a lack of accumulation in the interest group literature owing to a lack of common, broad or overarching theoretical questions framing the empirical work of group scholars (Hojnacki et al. 2012). At least so far as group organizing goes, this book aims to address these concerns. In so doing, the intent here is not to replace or argue down existing stances. The tone I wish to strike here is of building progress and adding extra layers to existing approaches. Recent reviews of the group literature explain, with some cause, that this sub-literature is on an upswing (see Lowery and Gray 2004a). A new cohort of scholars – in the US, Europe and further afield – are engaged in large-scale data collection activities that share core questions. Whether this work can be satisfactorily subsumed by tags like ‘neo-pluralist’ or not, there is plenty of cause for optimism. This book seeks to plug into this emerging scholarly milieu and to make it richer. The story here is not what is wrong with scholarship, but how often-discussed and referred-to dimensions of group life might be taken up and addressed more centrally and explicitly by group scholars. In short, it is about adding to the conceptual toolkit from which a new generation of researchers will generate novel research questions, formulate hypotheses and hunches, and thence develop empirical accounts.