Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Continuing the Collective Action Dilemma: The Survival of Voluntary Associations in the United States

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Continuing the Collective Action Dilemma: The Survival of Voluntary Associations in the United States

Article excerpt


Group populations take many different types of actions in order to influence government, but how those actions are received depends on the traits of group populations. This article uses data on national-level voluntary associations in the United States from 1974 to 1999 to investigate group survival and discuss how it affects representation. The results demonstrate the existence of density dependence, significant positive effects for group-level resources, group-level characteristics, and government attention on group survival. These findings also include counterintuitive significant negative effects for public attention suggesting that increases in public attention lead to group replacement rather than group survival.


interest groups, representation, organizational ecology, associations

Representation is one of the key concerns of political science as it goes to the very heart of democracy. Large volumes of research on the representation of citizens focus on electoral behavior, the opinion-responsiveness of government, and on interest group advocacy. However, despite the high level of interest in representation some questions particularly on the representation of groups are left unanswered.

A great deal of work has focused on the collective action dilemma that questions how and why some groups form when others do not. The formation of groups is an important process as beyond voting in elections groups are the main means for the public to interact with government. While advocacy is not the main purpose of all groups, advocacy and non-advocacy groups alike can and do engage government when issues that concern them land on the political agenda. Furthermore, public concerns over issues are expressed through groups more often and more effectively than through individuals. While it may be true that the public chorus "sings with a strong upperclass accent," it is also true that in order for the public to be effectively represented in the first place it must sing as a chorus (Schattschneider 1960, 35).

What affects the formation of groups is an important and interesting question, but does not even tell half the story of groups and their place within democratic representation. Collective action is a continual process and not just a dilemma that must be overcome in order for a group to form. The continuing maintenance of an association is just as important as its original formation. If a group does not survive, the fact that it overcame the collective action dilemma in the first place is a moot point (Walker 1983; Prakash and Potoski 2007). Groups must survive in order to serve their purpose, and representation through groups requires experienced, well-known, and politically entrenched associations that are all characteristics that take time to develop (Hansen 1991).

What affects the survival of groups therefore directly affects group representation in government. The traits of group populations, their average age, and the factors that affect group survival rates all affect group behavior and how that behavior is viewed by government. Representation is not just about the actions a group takes but also the context of those actions. It is not just what is said or done that affects representation but who is saying or doing it as well.

Despite the importance of understanding group survival, the factors that affect the longevity of groups are not well understood. This article tests several factors that are theorized to affect group survival rates guided by literature on collective action, interest group ecology, organizational ecology, and organizational sociology. These factors include individual group characteristics, population, and environmental-level factors. To accomplish this, Encyclopedia of Associations ( data on public affair groups is used to test these factors on a representative sample of national-level voluntary associations across several issues over a 26-year span. …

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