Reasons Behind Growth of Organized Groups in Recent Decades


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D.George Mason University

Many reasons contribute to the growth of organized groups. Humans are social creatures, and forming groups is natural. But, when as a group, you desire public goods, individuals must figure out how to overcome the collective action problem. To solve this problem, groups use enticements to get people to contribute to a cause.

Silhouette of a group of people raising their hands
Since humans are social beings, therefore, it’s natural for people to form groups. (Image: mudassar_dar/Shutterstock)

Enticements in the Form of Selective Incentive and Coercion

First, groups offer enticements in exchange for participation. We call these selective incentives. It’s like when your local NPR station is running their seasonal membership drive. If you call and offer a donation, you might get a coffee mug, umbrella, or special socks as a thank you gift. Physical enticements like these have been shown to help people overcome the barriers of collective action, even when the enticements are of much lesser value than the contribution being made.

Second, some collective action problems are solved through coercion. It doesn’t mean coercion in a manipulative, negative sense—although mobster-style, physical threats can be effective. Rather, the threat of a consequence can often be enough to encourage people to contribute to a public good. This is the primary way that the government works. 

When governments provide healthcare, security, environmental protection, or public parks, they do so by collecting taxes. Of course, someone who does not pay their taxes will face punishments in the form of fines or even jail time. In this way, governments coerce people to contribute to public goods by collecting taxes and enforce participation with the threat of legal consequences.

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Altruism and Connectedness as Solution for Collective Action

Sometimes people are willing to contribute to a public good through a sense of altruism. To be altruistic is to be generous toward others, sometimes at a cost to yourself. Generosity to the point of self-sacrifice is not strictly rational from an individualistic or economic point of view, but there are many social, emotional, and maybe even spiritual benefits that people earn through acts of altruism. When such acts contribute to public goods, like shoveling your neighbors’ sidewalks after a snowstorm, you may contribute to a public good out of a sense of altruism for your neighbor or your community.

The fourth solution to a collective action dilemma is connectedness. Sometimes people join organizations because of the desire to be connected to others who share their interests or values. Maybe you’ve joined a neighborhood poker game or bridge club. Such organizations may not provide public goods exactly, but part of the reason people are willing to join them is out of the human interest in being connected to people who are similar to ourselves. 

Learn more about how political parties organize democracy.

Civil Rights Movement and Growth of Organized Groups

The success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s was largely hailed as one of the most productive political movements of all time. The organizational strategies and political actions that organizations associated with the Civil Rights Movement took in the 1950s and 1960s are credited with ending the era of Jim Crow in the South and enforcing suffrage rights to African-Americans through the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. 

As a result, many other groups sought to mimic the successes and strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. A feminist movement of women’s liberation, an anti-war movement, an environmental justice movement, advocacy for children, animals, homeless people, and victims of disease all advanced their causes by following the lead of the Civil Rights Movement. More Americans learned to organize in the middle part of the 20th Century than perhaps ever before in the nation’s history.

An image of a crowd at a 1963 march in Washington D.C.
The success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s served as an example for other special interest groups to replicate in the future. (Image: US Information agency/Public domain)

Effects of Expanding Middle Class on Interest Groups

Second, thanks to a rapidly expanding middle class, more Americans than ever before had the means to participate in social and political activities. After World War II, the United States entered a new era of global status and economic prosperity that reached many more people than in the previous century. Congress passed a GI Bill that allowed thousands of Americans who had served in the war to go to college and buy homes for reasonable prices with government assistance. 

The United States built the interstate highway system and facilitated the growth of suburbs. More people and families were contributing to and benefiting from, an expanding economy. What this meant was that more and more Americans had their basic needs met. When people no longer worry about making sure they have food and shelter, they develop the luxury of worrying about other matters. By expanding the middle class, a space where issues of racial, social, and environmental justice could be addressed was created.

Learn more about politics and the media.

Technology, Expanded Government and Interest Group Growth

A third contributing factor to the growth of America’s organized interests is technology. The 20th century saw incredible growth in technological advancement, especially in communications, transportation, and science. Starting with the advent of television, then cable television, the Internet, and now social media, all of these inventions lowered the costs of group organizing. 

Through electronic communication such as e-mail and instant messaging and social media applications like Facebook and Twitter, it is easier for people to find those who share their interests and to communicate with them and organize into groups.

Finally, the government has expanded considerably in the period since World War II. The US economy has grown from $240 billion to over $21 trillion in 2020. In 1960, total federal government spending was $92 billion; in 2019, it was nearly $4.5 trillion. As the government grows and does more things, it creates opportunities for citizens to interact with it. The growth of groups and government are mutually reinforcing, as each creates the incentives for more of the other.

Common Questions about Reasons Behind Growth of Organized Groups in Recent Decades

Q: How did the Civil Rights Movements affect the growth of organized groups?

After the success of the Civil Rights Movement, other movements such as the anti-war movement, the environmental justice movement, advocacy for homeless, children, and victims, etc., all sought to mimic the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement.

Q: How did the expanding middle class help the growth of organized interest groups?

After the middle class expanded rapidly, more people tended to contribute to groups and organizations. Consequently, the world has seen rapid growth in organized groups more than ever before. The reason behind this growth is that people were no longer just concerned for their basic needs and had other matters to be worried about.

Q: What’s one of the main factors behind the growth of organized interest groups?

One important factor in the growth of organized groups is technology. After the advent of cable TV, the Internet, social media, etc., the costs of organizing interest groups decreased, leading to more people getting involved in organizing interest groups.

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