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Development & Maintenance of Interest Groups

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  • 0:02 Why Interest Groups Form
  • 1:56 Maintaining Interest Groups
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
The following lesson will discuss how interest groups are developed and maintained. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check for your understanding.

Why Interest Groups Form

Many of us have had so much pleasure in enjoying the savory taste of bacon in the morning for breakfast, or have had the ability to go to college because of money given to us in financial aid, or even can breathe the crisp air while taking in the beauty of our national parks. All of these pleasures, however, have come from the hard work of interest groups. While all interest groups strive to achieve a collective good for a group of people, their reasons for forming may differ. There are two general theories as to why interest groups form.

The first is in response to massive changes within a particular historical era. For example, the great explosion of interest groups between 1900 and 1920 (the Progressive Era) was due to a communications revolution, the government's attempt to regulate business activity, the increased division of labor, and immigration, which added to the growing diversity of the American population. In short, this era, like those that preceded it, was related to important social movements and unrest, which collectively produced new interest groups in the United States.

The second theory that tries to explain why interest groups form is called disturbance theory. First formulated by political scientist David Truman, and later expanded upon by Robert Salisbury, disturbance theory argues that interest groups form in response to big changes to how society should normally operate and interest groups attempt to restore a balance. Specifically, disturbance theory sees two main types of disturbances.

First, interest groups form in opposition to other interest groups to counteract influence in their respective domains, which is sometimes perceived as a threat to their goals. And second, interest groups form in a response to the absence or scarcity of resources.

Maintaining Interest Groups

It's puzzling to many political scientists as to why some people join interest groups and others do not. How many college students, for example, join the American Association for Community Colleges, an organization that lobbies the government for increased financial aid to students? Not as many as one would think considering the amount of college students who rely on financial aid to go to college.

One general theory to explain how some interest groups are maintained comes again from Robert Salisbury, called the entrepreneurial theory, which sees the formation of a group by a strong leader who wishes to keep the group strong and viable for the future.

Group size is also an important factor in explaining how interest groups are maintained. The actual group, the people who actually join an interest group, is always smaller than the potential group, or people who may identify with an interest group's goals but do not necessarily join.

The main reason for this was briefly mentioned at the outset of this lesson and has to do with the collective good, or things of value that everyone can enjoy regardless of group membership status. For example, you enjoy crispy bacon for breakfast without having to worry about contamination because interest groups over 100 years ago fought for safe meat packing standards. This often times leads to the serious issue of the free rider problem, where membership recruitment becomes a problem for groups because the benefits they achieve can be gained without joining the group.

Political theorist Mancur Olson feels that the free rider problem only gets worse as the size of the interest group grows. In his Law of Large Groups and Logic of Collective Action, Mancur states that the larger the group, the further it will fall short of providing an optimal amount of a collective good.

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