Sociology Of Voluntary Associations Research Paper

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The term voluntary association has a long history in sociology, reaching back to the founding period of the discipline. Although never at the core of sociological theorizing, the term has figured prominently in a number of approaches. Moreover, it is an important concept in a number of sociological specialties. Prominent examples are organizational sociology, where voluntary associations are seen as one of the three basic forms next to the business firm and the government agency; urban sociology, where voluntary associations have been identified as vehicles of local integration and sources of community power; political sociology, where voluntary associations are related to social movements, interest groups and status politics; or the sociology of development, where voluntary associations play an important role in building a social infrastructure for economic growth by generating networks of mutual trust.

1. Definition

Not surprisingly, given the different contexts in which voluntary associations figure in sociology, definitions vary somewhat by theory and field. However, while numerous definitions have been offered, they share a common core in the sense that voluntary associations are seen as private, membership-based organizations in which membership is noncompulsory. What is more, the organization should have identifiable boundaries to distinguish members from nonmembers, be self-governing, and noncommercial in objective and behavior (Salamon and Anheier 1997).

Definitions differ mostly in emphasis and ‘at the margins,’ i.e., along the demarcation lines to related forms such as business (partnerships, cooperatives, mutual organizations), compulsory organizations (guilds, bar associations, and, in some countries, chambers of commerce), political organizations (parties, political action committees, interest groups), and quasigovernmental institutions (mass membership organization in the former Soviet Union, state churches). Some of the definitional complexities arise from significant overlaps with related terms such as nonprofit organization, nongovernmental organization or third sector organization. In contrast to these forms, voluntary organizations have a membership focus, whereas many nonprofit organizations like hospitals, social service agencies, or art museums may have a governing board but no broad membership base as such. The same applies to nongovernmental organizations like Oxfam or Save the Children, although some like Amnesty International, the Red Cross, or Greenpeace are membership-based.

2. Development

Classical sociological thought saw voluntary associations as an indicator of social evolution in the development of undifferentiated to differentiated societies and voluntary associations as expressions of development supplanting traditional forms of organizing such as the extended family or compulsory groups such as guilds and caste-type institutions. Maine’s distinction of status vs. contract, Toennies’ Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft, and Durkheim’s mechanical vs. organic solidarity are prominent exemplars of this type of thinking.

In traditional societies, voluntary organizations fulfilled a number of functions. They served as integrative mechanisms cross-cutting family and clan structures as well as age groups, thereby avoiding potential divisions within the community; they operated as alternative mobility strata in societies with rigid, often hereditary status systems; they were part of the division of labor and provided mutual assistance and economic benefit to members (farmers, craftsmen, traders); or they were in fact precursors of social classes grouping similar economic statuses, occupations, and property owners around a joint interest.

Researchers emphasized the contributions voluntary associations make to the integration of migrants and minorities. African village associations in urban areas facilitate the acculturation of rural–urban migrants from the same area by providing a buffer zone between village life and the more diverse city culture. Other examples along the same principle include ethnic associations among Italian, Greek, or German immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth century, or Turkish clubs in Germany the late twentieth century. Next to social integration, voluntary associations served a complementary economic function as well. They provided a mechanism for mutual self-help among marginal population groups. Savings and credit associations among the poor, cooperative-type organizations among small-scale farmers and small-scale producers etc. are examples of how excluded members of society pool resources to improve their economic well being.

Modern sociological thought about voluntary associations has its in roots de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1990 [1840]) where he observed the importance of voluntary associations for the working of democracy at the local level. In modern, democratic societies, voluntary associations serve a dual function: they organize people from diverse backgrounds around a common purpose, thereby contributing to social cohesion; and they build an intermediary sphere between the political center of power and the electorate, thereby allowing for the expression of minority preferences against a potential ‘tyranny of the majority.’

With de Tocqueville’s work, the study of voluntary associations began to put more emphasis on state– society relations, the political system, and social structure. A brief comparison of France, Germany, and US may illustrate this central point.

Tocqueville’s analysis of the US was meant as a critique of France and its postrevolutionary political order. France had been a centralized nation-state long before the revolution of 1789, and this very centralization made the revolution possible and facilitated its effectiveness in replacing the ancient regime with a new ruling class. In line with the highly individualistic and anticorporatist ideology of the revolution, the influential Loi de Chapelier decreed that no intermediary associations were allowed to exist between the individuals as citoyens and the state as their supreme and unambiguous representative. As a result, the legal and political space for voluntary association became very limited. Only in the twentieth century did voluntary associations gain momentum as their number increased significantly in the 1980s onwards, particularly in the field of leisure, recreation, and culture (Archambault 1996).

In the US, no French Jacobin tradition restricted the development of voluntary associations. Indeed, while both countries emphasized individualism over collectivism, the US remained quasi stateless for a prolonged period, developed both a strong pragmatic orientation in policy-making, and a general mistrust of centralized power. As a result, voluntary associations flourished, and soon created a complex network of social clubs, religious, and church-based organizations, and political, professional, and scholarly associations. Voluntary associations and charities continued to occupy a prominent place throughout US history: as service providers in the absence of a welfare state, as an important source of political mobilizations (e.g., civil rights), and as a platform for status competition in a formally egalitarian society (DiMaggio and Anheier 1990). Coser (1956) suggested that multiple memberships in voluntary associations created overlapping social circles and criss-crossing social conflicts, thereby avoiding the emergence of significant class cleavages and other fault lines that could potentially divide society into two antagonistic groups.

In contrast to ‘state-based’ France and ‘association- based’ US, Germany reveals a very different role of voluntary associations in political development. In the absence of an antifeudal revolution, the German case is a series of compromises between a self-modernizing feudal system and an emerging, co-opted bourgeoisie (Seibel 1992).

When elements of a bourgeois culture and civil society first evolved in the form of literary societies, music clubs, and educational associations, the political system and state administration remained under aristocratic control. Moreover, there existed a widespread system of self-governing organizations, in particular the mediaeval system of guilds and unions, with their compulsory membership and comprehensive coverage, underwent a modernization push. In the early nineteenth century, the mandatory system of corporatist organizations was transformed into modern voluntary associations as part of a modernization policy championed by the state. As a result, the German voluntary associations were not seen as the antithesis to the state, as in France, nor did they develop parallel to it, as in the US, but in interaction with an emerging welfare state.

Characteristically, whereas religions in both France and the US are voluntary associations constitutionally separate from the state, the German Catholic and Protestant Churches in particular continue to enjoy the status of public institutions with their own legal system (canonical law), signifying the incomplete separation of religion and political power as a consequence of historical compromises.

3. Scope

Regardless of the strikingly different political and social contexts in which voluntary associations developed historically, recent decades have witnessed a significant expansion in the number of associations and memberships. The number of voluntary associations in the US is well over 1.5 million, with 57 percent of the population being members of at least one association. In France, an associational boom has increased the number of associations to 700,000– 800,000, with 35 percent of the French population having at least one membership. Associational density in Germany has tripled since 1960, and nearly two-thirds of Germans belong to associations. Social democratic countries like Sweden have among the highest membership rates among developed societies, with over 80 percent. On average, about half of the adult population in developed countries belongs to at least one voluntary association.

In the developing world, this proportion is somewhat lower with regard to formal, i.e., registered associations. Estimates of membership in indigenous forms of associations are very incomplete, as many of these organizations are informal and not registered. Moreover the legacy of authoritarian rule in many developing countries over the last 50 years also contributed to somewhat lower membership rates in formal associations. At the same time, there are significant variations. India shows a very rich tapestry of associational forms, with estimates running over 2 million. By contrast, developing countries with prolonged histories of authoritarian rule and a tradition of restrictive laws have much lower rates of associations. Formal registered associations number about 800 in Ghana, 13,000 in Thailand, 20,000 in Egypt, and 200,000 in Brazil (Anheier and Salamon 1998).

In former state socialist countries, mass organization linked to political parties accounted for very high membership rates; in the transformation process, however, many have lost significant numbers of members or otherwise faced dissolution. As a result, the membership structure in such societies in reorganizing and remains at lower levels than in the West. At the same time, important differences exist across countries: in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, an association boom immediately after the initial regime transition signaled the emergence of new voluntary sector, whereas in other countries like Romania and Bulgaria, such processes are much slower, suggesting a continued underdevelopment of civil society.

4. Theoretical Approaches

Current approaches group voluntary associations frequently with other nonstate/nonmarket forms in an attempt to develop theories that explain the existence of a third sector in modern economies that is located between the market (first) and the state (second). Several such theories have been introduced.

The ‘heterogeneity’ theory is based on the notion of ‘market failure/government failure’ in economics. This line of thought assumes markets have an inherent limitation in producing ‘public goods,’ i.e. goods that are available to all whether or not they pay for them. This ‘market failure’ justifies the presence of government, which exists to satisfy the demand for goods left unsatisfied by the market system. In a democracy, government can perform this role only when a majority of voters support the production of a particular public good. Where considerable differences in voter preferences exist about which public goods to produce, and which ones not to produce, it may be difficult to generate such majority support, leaving unsatisfied demand for public goods as a consequence. Such ‘government failure’ is most likely where considerable heterogeneity (religious, linguistic, or ethnic) exists in a population. In such circumstances, the establishment of voluntary associations and other types of nonprofit organizations serves both as a vehicle of collective action in the formation of interests and as a mechanism to supply the public goods neither state nor market provide.

A related body of theory sees voluntary associations not only as a reflection of demand heterogeneity; instead, the theory emphasizes the role of social and political entrepreneurs who seek to maximize nonmonetary returns, i.e., followers, believers, or members (James 1989). According to this supply side theory, the presence of such entrepreneurs is most likely in societies with high levels of religious competition or basic ideological splits within the population. In such circumstances, activists have an incentive to form voluntary associations as a way to attract adherents to their cause by offering services that these potential adherents might find attractive, such as health care, education, or cultural events.

A third approach is based on the notion of information asymmetries in market economies (Hansmann 1996). In many transactions, consumers lack the information they need to judge the quality of the goods or services they are purchasing. This can occur because the purchaser is not the same person as the consumer (e.g., the purchase of nursing home care by children for an elderly parent), because the service in question is inherently complex and difficult to assess, or the inputs of some are difficult to match with the benefits procuring to many. In such cases, purchasers or members seek alternative bases for trust in leadership performance or the quality of the resulting service. Voluntary associations offer a solution to this trust dilemma. Because of the ‘nondistribution constraint,’ i.e. the prohibition on distribution of profits to owners, voluntary associations may be more trustworthy and more likely to serve client or member needs. Accordingly, the nonprofit status of voluntary associations functions as a proxy for the market, signaling trust in the quality of output.

A fourth approach emphasizes the embeddedness of voluntary associations in the social, economic, and political dynamics of societies (Salamon and Anheier 1999). As such, their evolution cannot be attributed to any single factor, such as the unsatisfied demand for public goods or the supply of social entrepreneurs. Rather, the emergence of voluntary associations in modern society is rooted in the broader structure of class and state–society relations. Salamon and Anheier (1997) suggest four regime types of voluntary sectors, each with a particular constellation of social forces, specifically the social and economic importance of the state, measured in terms of social welfare spending, and the overall scope of civil society, measured as the size of voluntary sector activity. The statist regime combines limited state activity and a weak voluntary sector. It is found in societies where the state assumes a controlling role, and where elites co-opt the middle class, thereby reducing the level of organizing outside state structure and the market, with Japan being the most prominent example. The liberal model characterized by limited state activity but a well-developed system of voluntary association is found in countries like the United States and Great Britain. By contrast, the social democratic pattern in countries like Sweden is characterized by relatively high levels of government social welfare spending and relatively small nonprofit sectors in economic terms, but with a very active voluntary component in terms of number of associations and memberships. Finally, in the corporatist model both the state and the voluntary sector work in cooperation with each other, whereby the state assumes the role of financier of activities offered by voluntary associations. A typical example is Germany, where a vast network of religious organizations helps implement government-funded programs.

5. Future Directions

Despite some progress, the study of voluntary association continues to face considerable methodological and theoretical challenges. In terms of methodology, the measurement of central variables, such as membership, voluntary activities, and formality informality remains a problem because of significant cross-cultural variations in meaning. Moreover, the development of adequate databases remains underdeveloped because major economic and social statistical systems exclude nonmarket nonstate activities from regular reporting. In terms of theory, research on voluntary associations will increase by addressing the emerging field of civil society studies (Keane 1998), the notion of social capital (Putnam 1993), and work in the field of world society (Meyer et al. 1997).


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