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It is - or should be - axiomatic that interest group scholars must define, with some precision and consistency, what their subject is. Unfortunately, definitional precision in the subfield is relatively rare, and the problem has received little attention (among the few who note the problem are Mackenzie, 1995; Macridis, 1961; Salisbury, 1975; G. Wilson, 1981; Schlozman and Tierney, 1986; Petracca, 1992; Walker, 1991; A. Olson, 1992).
Although at first glance this may seem to be a matter of little consequence, it has enormous implications for the subfield. For example, how are we to adequately study how interest groups developed as an institution, how people feel about interest groups, or the extent to which they participate in them if we cannot agree on what an interest group is? How can we say that there is anything approaching a commonly recognized definition when those in common use range from unorganized groups of people who happen to share an interest to formally organized membership associations that exist primarily to influence government?
What is clearly needed is a definition that is recognized as most closely reflecting both an understanding of what "interest groups" are already commonly understood to be as well as our reasons for studying them in the first place. Four definitional elements are critical, then, to a satisfactory understanding of the term: interest groups are comprised of actual organizations, rather than multiple persons who are unorganized; they attempt to influence government; they are not themselves government agencies, however; and neither are they political parties - i.e., they do not nominate candidates for public office.(1)
THE DEFINITIONAL ELEMENTS
Interest groups must be defined as consisting of actual organizations, however rudimentary they may be, or the term - and thus, also the subfield - becomes too broad; in effect, the subject of study is enlarged to that of interests. Although interests are obviously related to interest groups and deserve study in their own right, the element of organization is an important conceptual distinction. Those who merely share an interest are a "group" only in the sense that they are not singular, just as a "group" of people can share a political interest that stems from their status as, say, taxpayers, women, or notary publics. However, they are not an organization until they somehow work together, and it is precisely the political phenomenon of the cooperative promotion of an interest that the subfield is expected to target.
Interests can and should be studied in their own right, but even the more specific problem of how people act on their interests is already spread over any number of subfields, such as voting behavior, public opinion, legislative behavior, and political theory; indeed, the subject is hardly less broad than political science itself.(2) A truly helpful definition of the subfield of interest groups will avoid undue overlap with others.
Of course, the study of unorganized interests is not irrelevant to the study of interest groups: it is from unorganized interests that interest groups often - if not always - arise,(3) and no interest group, or combination of them, is likely to organize everyone who shares an interest. Thus, the study of the proliferation and organizational development of interest groups necessarily touches upon unorganized interests, too.(4)
The most significant offender here is David B. Truman, who is generally credited with exerting significant influence on the two generations of interest group scholars who followed. If an interest group can be unorganized, as he believes (Truman, 1958), then any event that creates a new interest also creates a new interest group - that is, those persons who share the new interest. Thus, the invention of the telephone results in the instant creation of numerous interests and corresponding interest groups: those who want to manufacture telephones and related equipment for the highest possible profit, those who want to have telephone service at the lowest possible price, and those who want to protect competing forms of communication like the telegraph or messenger services. Viewed from this perspective, Truman's theory does not even explain the formation of actual organizations, much less organizations that attempt to influence government.
Because they ignore this problem, scholars routinely misapply Truman's theory as one that purports to explain the formation of organizations. For example, Jeffrey M. Berry applies Truman's theory pertaining to increased societal complexity to explain the formation of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the National Cable Television Association (Berry, 1984), when Truman did not claim to explain anything more than the creation of sleeping car porters and cable television.
Even when Truman's theory is not overtly misapplied, the use of his concept of latent interest groups means that one can never be quite sure what is meant when the topic is the development of the interest group system - i.e., what interest groups did, and did not, exist at a particular point in time. Thus, the meaning of such discussions as Alison G. Olson's landmark study of Anglo-American interest groups during the American colonial era (A. Olson, 1992) becomes somewhat muddied unless it is clear from the context that an actual - as opposed to a latent - group existed.
Another manifestation of the problem of sloppy definition is illustrated by Mancur Olson, Jr.'s The Logic of Collective Action, which has done much to shape interest group scholarship of the last quarter century. After arguing an extended theory about why "interest groups" develop as they do, Olson abruptly announces that his theory is less applicable to "noneconomic" interest groups - i.e., those with "social, political, religious, or philanthropic objectives" (M. Olson, 1967).
Attempts to Influence …