Interest Groups

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    I certainly would. Unfortunately sometimes, more often than not, we all have to fight to be heard. And being backed by a group that shares our interests can be more effective than going to fight on our own!

    Such a group could be an Interest Group.

    In this article, we will explore the main aims, methods and outcomes of interest groups. Along the way, we will highlight a number of examples which showcase the work of interest groups and their impact on the UK political system.

    Meaning of Interest Groups

    Interest groups are a specific type of pressure groups. To recap, pressure groups are groups of people who usually have something in common and join together to organise activities that promote their interests or values, influence public opinion, and put pressure on policymakers. Pressure groups include:

    • Interest groups. Interest groups' membership is usually restricted and they promote the interest of their membership or of a specific section of society which can be a profession. An example of an interest group is the Teachers' Union, only teachers and teacher students can join and the union represents the interests of teachers only.

    • Cause groups. Anyone can become a member of cause groups and they usually raise big issues affecting society as a whole. Sometimes the issues raised do not affect the members of the cause group, but they represent the interest of a group in society who isn't as able to speak for themselves. An example of a cause group is the Refugee Council: anyone can support the refugee council and they'd be fighting for refugees' rights and wellbeing.

    • Social movements. Social movements have similar objectives to cause groups but they are more loosely structured and usually more politically radical. A good example of a social movement is #MeToo.

    Interest groups are groups with restricted membership that work to promote the interests of their membership

    The first recorded interest group gathered for the purpose of freeing John Wilkes in mid-18th century England. Wilkes had spoken out against the establishment and proposed a new Bill of Rights.

    As societies have become bigger and more complex over the last couple of hundreds of years, individuals who do not feel represented by the governments, have united and organised to be better heard.

    Functions of interest group

    The main function of interest groups is to ensure their points of view are heard by policymakers and translated into the laws of the country. However, there are other, more subtle functions that interest groups play.

    Representation of members

    Interest groups have to represent a specific subsection of society. Often membership to interest groups is restricted and members must meet specific criteria to join. For instance, to join the National Farmer's Union, members must be "connected to the agricultural sector"1.

    Interest groups must use their political influence to represent the views of their members.

    The British Medical Association considers representing and negotiating the pay and rights of doctors and medical students as its primary function.

    Education

    Interest groups can be great at gathering and presenting issues that the government might not have been aware of, and, by the same token, the members of each group are likely to know more about the subject they represent than an average politician. This knowledge can be, and sometimes is, used by governments to draft policies that are more informed and therefore more inclusive.

    In the UK the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) launched a consultation in March 2021 involving the National Farmer's Union to comment on its draft policy statement on environmental principles

    Benefiting members

    An interest group can benefit their members directly.

    • Membership to the National Rifle Association (NRA) includes travel discounts and specific life insurance policies.
    • Membership to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) includes a regular magazine on campaigns as well as plenty of information about nuclear disarmament.

    Funding political parties

    In some democracies, interest groups can provide financial support to the candidate in an election that most closely represents their views.

    Trade unions are one of the Labour Party's major funders.

    Improving democracy

    The functions mentioned above are all part of the more overarching ideal, which is that interest groups can make democracy better.

    "How?", you may ask.

    • Interest groups facilitate political participation by providing a structure for citizens to channel their voices and grievances through to their government.

    • They also hold governments to account by tracking its activities in relation to the issues the interest groups care about.

    • Ensuring pluralism. As different interest groups represent the interest of many different groups in society, they ensure different voices get heard

    Pluralism is a philosophy that recognises the importance of the peaceful coexistence of people and groups in society from different ethnic, social, political, religious and economic backgrounds

    In the real world, of course, not all different groups are as able as each other to carry out their functions. Let's think back to some of the groups we have discussed. As I am sure you can guess, the differences in resources, organisational levels, alignment to government's views, and, crucially, type of government ( democratic or authoritarian) mean that not all interest groups' views are taken into account as equals.

    Interest Groups Examples

    There are very many interest groups all around the world, representing the whole breadth of political views in societies.

    Let's look at some examples, subdivided by whether they represent economic interests or not:

    Economic. This section can be further subdivided into business interest groups, for example, the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) which is a group that works both at the national and European levels to improve the competitiveness of European industries; Labour interest groups: any trade union would be an example of this; professional interest groups which represent the economic interests of any one profession such as the Association of Horticulturalists of the Indian Subcontinent (AHIS); and consumer interest groups, representing the rights of consumers.

    Non-Economic: this category of interest groups is in itself extremely broad and varied. What they do have in common is that their aims are primarily non-economic, instead, they promote a cause, value, or ideology. In this group, we find organisations that promote and defend human rights, such as Amnesty International; animal welfare, for example, PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; the rights of people with disabilities (e.g. the British Deaf Association), environmental concerns (e.g. Friends of the Earth), religious values (e.g. Muslim Council of Britain), food ethics (e.g. the Campaign for Real Ale) or political issues (e.g. Stop the War Coalition).

    As you can see from some of the examples above, interest groups can work on a local, national or international level.

    Interest groups Symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament StudySmarterFig. 1 Symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

    Relationship between interest groups and political parties

    Let's now take a look at the different relationships that interest groups can have with political parties. From this perspective, we can divide interest groups into "insider" and "outsider" groups. But what do we mean by this?

    "Insider" Interest Groups

    We define interest groups as "insider" when their interests are closely aligned with the government. These interest groups are therefore able to rely on their "insider" contacts with policymakers to achieve their aims. In the absence of direct connections with policymakers, these groups will lobby the government directly or have the financial resources to hire professionals to lobby the government. These groups may even be consulted by the government due to their expertise on a specific subject; in turn, governments are more likely to support their interest.

    The British Medical Association (BMA) is the trade union for doctors and medical students. It can be considered an insider group because of how it worked closely with the government's Department of Health to introduce the smoking ban in public places in the UK.

    Interest Groups Photograph of British Medical Association House StudySmarterFig. 2 Main entrance of the British Medical Association house

    "Outsider" Interest Groups

    "Outsider" groups instead tend to have less financial resources, have no direct contact with policymakers, actively oppose government policies, and are not generally consulted by governments. For all of these reasons the tactics used by outsider groups tend to be less discreet than the tactics used by insider groups. "Outsider" groups are more likely to be engaging in public demonstrations, direct actions, and other activities aimed at raising awareness of their cause in the public arena.

    A good example of an outsider group is fathers4justice. This group fights for fathers' rights and highlights fathers' struggle and lack of representation through protests and public stunts

    Characteristics of Political Interest Groups

    So, what do you think are the key characteristics of political interest groups? And which of the groups discussed so far can be defined as "political"?

    All interest groups are inherently political as their aim is to change legislation to fit their objectives.

    Given this, and given how different interest groups can be in their scope, what key characteristics have they got in common?

    • Interest groups are formed by individuals with a common goal out of a need, or frustration to be better heard and represented.
    • Interest groups have an organised set of activities to achieve their goal.
    • Interest groups are independent of the political system, unlike political parties, whose goal is to participate in, win elections, and eventually govern.
    • Interest groups need funding which, in the majority of cases is private i.e. from the members or groups and industries that support the aim of the group; but can in some cases be public i.e. from the government, although this leads to risks of loss of independence for the groups.
    • Interest groups play a role in keeping an eye on government activities and play a role in publicising potential faults in these, in order to gain an advantage for themselves.

    Interest groups - Key takeaways

    • Interest groups are groups of individuals with a common purpose, who join together to put pressure on society and policymakers to achieve their purpose.
    • The first interest group dates back to the mid-18th century.
    • Interest groups are varied in nature and motivations. Some examples are the British Bankers Association, the Via Campesina, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Council.
    • Interest groups can be subdivided into insider and outsider according to their relationship with the government.
    • The main function of interest groups is to achieve their aim by putting pressure on society and the government.
    • Interest groups also work to benefit and educate their memberships and support the governmen in making educated policies
    • The presence of interest groups can make democracy more representative.
    • Interest groups are characterised by their common aim, their level of organisation, and the role they play in keeping a close watch on government activities.

    References

    1. National Farmer's Union, NFU Membership, 2022
    2. Fig. 2 Main entrance of the British Medical Association house (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Facade-BMA-detail.JPG) by Archibald Tuttle (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Archibald_Tuttle) licenced by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Interest Groups

    What is the main function of Interest groups?

    The main function of interest groups is to be heard by policymakers and see their views turned into legislation. However, Interest groups also work to benefit their members and generally to improve the democratic system.

    What is an interest group?

    An interest group is a group of individuals with a shared characteristic and a shared goal who join together to put pressure on policymakers to achieve their objective(s).

    What are examples of interest groups?

    Amnesty International, the British Medical Association, the Refugee Council, the Campaing for Real Ale.

    How do interest groups influence government?

    Interest groups can influence government through many different activities depending on the type of group. these activities include lobbying, advising, funding, demonstrating and direct action.

    What makes interest groups successful?

    An interest group can be described as successful if it has managed to achieve its purpose of representing its memberships' interests to the extent that they are now part of the country's legislation.

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