The International History of Grassroots Associations

By Smith, David Horton | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, December 1997 | Go to article overview

The International History of Grassroots Associations


Smith, David Horton, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


This article is a review of the research literature dealing with Grassroots Associations (GAs) through human history. GAs are defined as locally-based, volunteer-run, nonprofit, common-interest groups, whether formal or informal. For purists, history began only 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing that can record history. I take the broader view that history refers to all prior events and circumstances. Human history, even so defined, is not clearly demarcated yet because of disagreements among scholars regarding which particular teeth, skulls, and bones represent our earliest direct ancestors (cf. Lenski et al., 1995, pp. 131-134). Without trying to settle the matter here, suffice it to say that human ancestors have existed on this planet for more than a million years, probably several million years. For the vast majority of that time there is no evidence of any Non-Profit Sector (NPS) or Grassrots Associations according to experts on this period (Anderson, 1973, p. 9; Ross, 1976, Ch. 2; Service, 1962).

Preliterate Societies

The earliest structural form of human society was the hunting-gathering band (Goldschmidt, 1959, Ch. 6), which dominated 99% of human history (or 90%, depending on how one dates bones and other human remains and which remains are seen as those of "our" human ancestors) (Lenski et al., 1995, pp. 131-134). Such bands, each a separate little society, were quite small with a median size of about 40 people (Lenski et al., 1995, p. 88). These bands depended for their livelihood on the gathering of fruits, nuts and other plant products as well as on trapping and hunting animals. Most were nomadic on a regular basis, and the central bases of social organization were kinship and territoriality.

Why was there no NPS, or GAs specifically, in hunting-gathering bands? Some scholars offer functional explanations. Ross (1976, p. 31) argues that the lack of GAs in such societies results from two factors: (a) the harsh environment gives little leeway for cultural options beyond simple kinship, and (b) the lack of a permanent residence reduces communication below the minimum needed for such additional groups to form. Bradfield (1973, V. 2, p. 492) argues that GAs arise to "counter the [fractionating] tendencies inherent in the emergence of unilateral descent groups as the principal asset-holding bodies in settled [communities] . . ." Thus, GAs are seen as a kind of social glue in larger and more settled societies that counters kin influences which draw people into separate, possibly conflicting, families and clans. In hunting-gathering bands, small as they are, GAs are not "needed," it is argued, because the very small size of society works against the negative effects of kin fractionation.

My own argument, based on a theory of GA prevalence (Smith, 1973; Smith and Baldwin, 1983) suggests that GAs are seldom found in bands because there is little interest or goal differentiation and little collective action orientation in such small societies, even though intercommunication is high. The lack of goal and interest differentiation is crucial. People in these very small societies have the same goals, generally. Consensus is high on what should be done. Subsets of people rarely share common goals/interests that are different from the goals/interests of the rest of the society. Thus, there rarely is a nucleus of people to form a separate GA within this very small, nomadic kind of society. Further, this type of society does not readily permit, let alone instigate, GAs. The idea of GAs here is strange to members of the society, to be eschewed or prevented in practice. Nor are there any important payoffs for collective action, or adequate resources for collective action of individuals beyond kin and territorial groups. And the very small average size of these societies suppresses the formation of very many different groups.

Anderson (1973, p. 10) suggests that the first GAs probably arose about 25,000 B. …

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