Interest Groups: History, Types, Development & Maintenance

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  • 0:01 Interested?
  • 1:20 History of Interest Groups
  • 3:03 How Interest Groups Function
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the history and workings of an interest group and even have the opportunity to start your own interest group. Then, test your knowledge with a brief quiz.


If I told you I belonged to an interest group, what would you think? That we were a bunch of people who had a similar hobby? Maybe baseball cards, model trains, or recreational planking? Remember that whole planking movement - trying to lay completely rigid in random places? Well, interest groups have somewhat more structured goals than that.

An interest group, also called a lobby or advocacy group, is an organization aimed at influencing public opinion or policy on a certain topic. Say you are really passionate about saving the whales. Well, there are interest groups that work to inform the public about whales and try and convince lawmakers to create policies to protect the whales.

This style of action, used commonly by interest groups to create change, is called advocacy. Advocacy can include things like public awareness, handing out fliers, fundraising, demonstrations, going into schools to educate children, holding town meetings for people to ask questions, getting signatures for petitions, and directly speaking to lawmakers about policy changes. Interest groups are generally non-profit, relying on donations and membership fees to gather the funds they need to create change.

History of Interest Groups

Public opinion has been an important part of most cultures for a long time. Many governments throughout history concerned themselves with public opinion to prevent rebellions and other forms of unrest. However, the first true interest group was formed in England in the 18th century.

A man named John Wilkes was arrested after speaking out against the King of England. Wilkes was a popular figure, and after he was imprisoned and removed from the British Parliament, people in London formed an interest group called the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights. This interest group supported a bill of rights that Wilkes had proposed and they held protests, informational meetings, and public awareness rallies. Being careful not to cross the line into rebellion, the group used legal means like handing out pamphlets to turn public opinion on their side. The group was fairly successful, getting Wilkes reinstated to Parliament and extending the freedom of press in England.

Since then, interest groups have been an important part of politics around the world. Nations in Europe and the Americas saw the rise of many interest groups throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries for various issues. In the 19th century, labor, or the rights of working people, was a major issue and labor interest groups popped up across the Western world. Women's rights, especially the right to vote, was a major cause supported by interest groups in the early 20th century.

The second half of the twentieth century saw the rise of major interest groups focused on civil rights, the environment, and gay rights. Interest groups have come to represent the freedom that people have to participate in politics and the expectation that governments will respect the desires of the people.

How Interest Groups Function

Interest groups are not financially supported by the government. These are private organizations developed and maintained by regular people. So, to see how this process works, let's form an interest group. First, pick a topic that you're passionate about. Environment? Been done. Prohibition? Tried that. Seat belts? Good, but how about something flashier? Bow ties? Yes. Let's start the Save the Bow Ties interest group.

We have a topic, we have a name, now we need members. You see, the strength of an interest group lies in the number of people who support it. No one is going to take a campaign seriously that only has two supporters. If we want change, if we want to stop the bow tie from disappearing forever, we need more than just you and I. We need support. There are two things we have to think about here.

First, public awareness. You head down to the street corner and hand out fliers explaining why people need to work together to save bow ties. I'll start a social media campaign and spread the word that way.

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