A definition of interest groups and social movements. A brief overview

How is an interest group different from a social movement, and how does this then limit or expand their range of options for social change?

Essay, 2019

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0


“How is an interest group different from a social movement, and how does this then limit or expand their range of options for social change?”


The following essay will provide a delimitation of interest groups and social movements. Based on this, it derives how conceptual differences between both political bodies expand or restrict their options for social change.

The complexity of the addressed issue results from overlapping cases of social movements and interest groups. Applied measures and organisational structures often depend on specific circumstances as typical for socio-political bodies. Hence, the essay will begin with a technical definition of social movements. This conceptualisation makes it possible to develop both terms subsequently and to identify discerning criteria. The essay culminates with the example of the 1960s women's rights movement. It shows how the social movement (SM) transformed into an interest group (IG), putting both bodies in a processual relationship. A regional focus is placed on the US. Therefore, findings are valid for liberal-democratic systems and cannot be generalised without closer examination.

Distinguishing social movements and interest groups

SMs can be defined as “networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organisations, engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities” (Diani 1992, p. 1).

The organisational layer

Networks within SMs contain loose ties and informal interactions. Thereby, “actors negotiate, understand and construct their action through shared repeated interaction” (Fominaya 2010, p. 394). The provision of information, human and material resources requires continuous interest alignment by leaders, legitimised by mere supporter adherence.

Members of IGs, on the other hand, have a formal internal relationship. Their interactions are coordinated and based on a shared strategy. Moreover, they contribute funds to the IG, whereas SMs are “lacking the precise membership subscription” (Hague, Harrop & McCormick 2016, p. 316). Though SM networks and, hence, a SM as a whole is informal, this is not imperative for its separate parts. For example, social movement organisations (SMOs)1 are organised and have institutional characteristics. Accordingly, they can be part of a SM but not a SM themselves (Diani 1992). IGs, in contrast, are institutions and show “greater organisational rigidity and (...) more hierarchical structures” (Diani 1992, p. 14).

The incentive layer

A holistic discussion of contrasts between IGs and SMs requires an inspection of underlying political processes. In this context, collective identity can be a distinct characteristic of SMs. It results from individuals that identify themselves with the movement. They exhibit solidarity, that “arises in response to serious disaffection with the current course of public policy” (Costain 1981, p. 100). Melucci (cited in Fominaya 2010) justifies that individuals' joined fight for the recognition of their demands creates cohesion, rather than collective interests. This conflictual origin of SMs partially explains why SMs pursue radical changes in the traditional system and engage in public controversy with third parties. As opposed to this, IGs build on their members' self-interest rather than a common identity. Thereby, these interests are singular and neither “esoteric” nor “universal”. IGs, therefore, tend to represent a moderate number of people (Holyoke 2014, p. 19) and choose more conciliatory means than SMs.

However, a differentiation according to the concept of cultural identity can be flawed. Recent movements frequently claim their diversity (Fominaya 2010) and the assumption of IGs having no collective identity is somewhat vague.

The behavioural layer

Hitherto, the organisational and incentive layers have, despite conceptual constraints, shown general differences among SMs and IGs. From there, it is possible to derive limitations of options for social change and their efficiency; this is, competitiveness in pushing interests.

Instead, the behaviour of IGs and SMs enables a perspicuous differentiation. The available range of options for social change depends on their actions' political and cultural setting, as well as political and cultural objectives. Holyoke (2014, p. 71) provides a concept that illustrates this relationship along two dimensions; the extent to which interests are aligned with social values, and included in the political sphere. According to the concept, government policymaking debars SMs. Thus, their principal interest is “winning legitimacy in the eyes of the public and attention from the leaders” (Holyoke 2014, p. 64). Due to their informal networks, as discussed above, they must use non­institutionalised means like protests to obtain political attention. Therefore, the fundamental difference is the incorporation of IGs into the political system. One can define IGs as NGOs that have capabilities to exert direct influence on policymaking without becoming governments themselves. In other words, they can “promote and defend [their interests] through the political process” (Holyoke 2014, p. 32) using lobbyism.1

The concept has two further properties. First, it shows that IGs are less dependent on the public than SMs. When beneficial to lawmakers, they opportunistically include even narrow interests in policymaking. Second, it suggests that SMs transform into IGs as soon as they break into the political system. The essay will address both insights in the succeeding sections.2

In practice, SMOs increasingly permeate the political system and organise to lobby lawmakers. It may, however, be incorrect to assign them to IGs, for example, because they “must [still] convince members to risk bodily harm to [attract] lawmakers” (Holyoke 2014, p. 64) by unorthodox means. Henceforward, the essay omits those hybrid bodies in order to allow for a vivid examination of options for social change.

Range of options for social change

For a profound analysis, it is essential to begin with a decomposition of the term social change. Social change can be facilitated or impaired through two spheres. The political sphere involves decisions on the allocation of authority and economic goods. Besides, the cultural sphere entails public opinion; this is, socially shared meanings (Diani 1992). In order to obtain sustainable social change, it is necessary to achieve public acceptance of realised policy modifications.

The political sphere

On the part of IGs, a definite distinction of both spheres is possible. Their range of options enhances as they can exercise direct influence, mutually on politics and public opinion.

Thereby, the vital conventional means to affect policymaking is lobbyism. As the First Amendment of the US Constitution explicitly guarantees a right to “petition the government for a redress of grievance”, it legitimises the pursuit of self-interest within the political sphere. Among others, lobbyists advocate members' interests before government officials, provide members with information from the political inside and develop strategies (Heinz et al., cited in Holyoke 2014, p. 99). Meanwhile, lobbyism is “increasingly delegated to specialist lobbying companies” (Hague, Harrop & McCormick 2016, p. 309). This lobby business provides IGs with sophisticated methods and fastens their privileged position in a system of unequal access. Due to their inside position, they are, moreover, an attractive partner for governments and corporations.3

Furthermore, large IGs can mobilise their members in a way, which is elusive for SMs as it requires substantial coordination. IGs can initiate a “campaign of writing letters (...) to MPs” (Rootes & Nulman 2015, p. 734) and cease to cooperate with governments or invoke sanctions. Industry groups, for instance, can exert direct pressure through official strikes.

The organisational structure of IGs, as discussed above, has important implications. It facilitates collective objective alignment, resource allocation and legal processes by defining responsibilities. Consequently, IGs can build peak organisations that bundle resources and leverage influence on policymaking (Hague, Harrop & McCormick 2016, p. 309).

Nonetheless, some limitations derive from the hierarchical structure and minor collective identity. Member activity within IGs tends to shrink through burning out. Disconnecting members from those moving in the political setting causes alienation. Another issue that limits IGs' abilities to act is the free-rider problem. Some individuals do not pay membership dues but still enjoy public benefits when their interests are aligned (Holyoke 2014, p. 38).

The cultural sphere

SMs have no access to the political sphere. Even more, their rejection of the traditional system encounters political disfavour. Therefore, they can “influence policy outcomes only when (...) mediated by public opinion” (Rootes & Nulman 2015, p. 735). This notion explains why SMs adopt unconventional means like public protests, sit-ins or disobedient boycotts2. Successful SMs raise awareness for their interests and instil them into political debate. Distinct from IGs, they can introduce “ideas and actions which in the past [were] either unknown or unthinkable” (Gusfield, cited in Diani 1992, p. 9). Albeit, protests mainly emerge in response to existing opportunities. It is difficult to appeal to an unsensitized public for a specific issue. Thus, success can be indistinguishable from confounding events; there is a “chicken-and-egg problem” (Rootes & Nulman 2015, p. 735).

Since group dynamics are material on the part of most SMs, elaborating on the concept of collective identity on group level promises further insights. Emotional ties between actors can catalyse SMs in times of ill-success (Fominaya 2010). The same is not necessarily true for IGs. When individuals face repression, they are more likely to leave the group.

However, the concept of “collective identity does not imply homogeneity” (Diani 1992, p. 9). Thus, it reveals the main limitation of SMs. Fragmentation on group level can disperse a movement from within, especially when various groups propose conflicting means and objectives. It requires costly mediation and is particularly dangerous without the intervention of leaders with political expertise. IGs are sheltered from these fragmentations as they pursue singular interests and actors interact formally.

Public opinion defines the extent to which an interest body can gather people. Additionally, since “aggregate public opinion is quite stable” (Page, Shapiro & Dempsey 1987, p. 24), it is the base for long-term interest implementation.

Scholars detected a significant adverse relation between positions advocated by IGs and moves in public opinion. A reason for that causality is the public recognition of IGs. They are often perceived as unreliable sources of opinion, selfish and narrow (Page, Shapiro & Dempsey 1987).

Surprisingly, this also proposes an additional option for IGs as they solely seek publicly invisible actions. IGs have sufficient resources and lobbying capabilities to exert influence on experts and news commentators. These have a significant positive impact on public opinion because of their assumed “nonpartisan status” (Page, Shapiro & Dempsey 1987, p. 35).

Furthermore, it is interesting to inspect the impact of rising social media on options for social change. SMs benefit significantly. They can assemble more people faster and share content that stirs people in order to generate public support. A potential drawback for SMs is the ease in participation which erodes commitment. On the other hand, IGs take less advantage from social media. They enhance information flows to members but suffer from increased transparency3 (Holyoke 2014, pp. 80-84).

Public relations campaigns

Public relations campaigns simultaneously account for the public and cultural sphere in an integrative project. They are complex instruments and usually conducted by professional agencies. As only well- financed IGs can use them, they significantly expand their options for social change (Hague, Harrop & McCormick 2016, p. 312).

Transition from social movement to interest group

The previous findings have revealed incentives on the part of SMs to penetrate the political system. Thus, if SMs want to obtain a privileged status and “cement their gains so that no future movement can take them away” (Holyoke 2014, p. 71), they will need to become interest groups. An example of a successful SM is the 1960s US women's rights movement. It accomplished political integration of its interests; equal rights and social participation.


1 View Greenpeace, distinct from environmental (social) movements like Fridays for Future

2 This is consistent with the differentiation on the behavioural layer. Though SMs could use conventional means, they need to act non-systematically in order to be heard. Similar thoughts apply to IGs; the use of unconventional means would undermine their credibility in the political sphere.

3 It prevents IGs from exploiting informational asymmetries. Agency costs that arise between IGs and professional lobbyists, however, decrease.

Excerpt out of 7 pages


A definition of interest groups and social movements. A brief overview
How is an interest group different from a social movement, and how does this then limit or expand their range of options for social change?
The University of Sydney
Introduction to Politics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Social Movements, Interest Groups, Social Change
Quote paper
Michael Kreienbaum (Author), 2019, A definition of interest groups and social movements. A brief overview, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1128192


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