pressure group

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pressure group,

body, organized or unorganized, that actively seeks to promote its particular interests within a society by exerting pressure on public officials and agencies. Pressure groups direct their efforts toward influencing legislative and executive branches of government, political parties, and sometimes general public opinion.

A major area of concentration for pressure groups in the United States is the Congress, which may draw up legislation affecting the interests of the group (see lobbyinglobbying,
practice and profession of influencing governmental decisions, carried out by agents who present the concerns of special interests to legislators and administrators.
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). Through promises of financial support or of votes by interest group members at the next election, the organization hopes to persuade certain legislators, especially appropriate committee chairmen, to endorse favorable legislation. This is one of the reasons that incumbents, regardless of party, receive the preponderance of campaign funds.

Much effort is also expended in influencing executive decisions, because the bureaucracy often possesses considerable discretion in implementing legislation. This is especially true of the independent regulatory agencies (e.g., the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission). Such agencies are especially open to the influence of those they regulate because of their continuing relationship with those they oversee; they receive much more sporadic attention from possible countervailing forces such as Congress or public opinion.

Political parties are also targets for pressure groups. However, because influencing public policy rather than electing a certain candidate is the aim of an interest group, most groups avoid heavy involvement with one party and generally remain at least formally nonpartisan. Some large pressure groups make a considerable effort to mold public opinion by means of mailing campaigns, advertising, and use of the communications media. On the other hand, there are other groups, especially the more powerful organizations representing narrow interests, that prefer to have their activities and influence go unnoticed by the public at large.

Because any particular pressure group reflects the interests of only a part of the population, it is argued that such organizations are contrary to the interests of the general public. However, it is pointed out that some interest groups supply legislators with much needed information, while others, such as the labor unions, perform a broad representative function. The power of an interest group is usually dependent on the size of its membership, the socioeconomic status of its members, and its financial resources. There are a great many categories of interest groups, including economic, patriotic, racial, women's, occupational, and professional groups. The AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Legion, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws are examples of well-known American pressure groups.


See V. O. Key, Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups (5th ed. 1964); G. McConnell, Private Power and American Democracy (1967); M. Lipsky, Protest in City Politics (1969); D. Truman, Governmental Process (2d ed. 1971); S. Miller, Special Interest Groups in American Politics (1983); J. D. Greenstone, ed., Public Values and Private Power in American Politics (1984).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

pressure group

(POLITICAL SCIENCE) any organized association of persons with the aim of influencing the policies and actions of governments or simply changing public opinion. In contrast with POLITICAL PARTIES, pressure groups do not seek to become the government, although in some cases organizations which begin as pressure groups may become political parties. The term interest group is mainly used interchangeably with pressure group.

A distinction can be drawn between:

  1. groups which succeed, if only for a time, in establishing a continuing direct relationship with government (e.g. the National Farmers’ Union and the Ministry of Agriculture, the British Medical Association and the Ministry of Health);
  2. attitudinal or promotional groups (e.g. Shelter or CND), which mostly attempt to influence governments more indirectly by seeking to alter the general climate of public opinion.

Groups in the former category are usually based on a clearly defined economic interest. Their ability to establish a continuing direct relationship with government appears to depend on: (i) the claim to represent a significant proportion of potentially eligible membership, and (ii) advantages which arise for government as well as the interest group from a sustained cooperative relationship (see Eckstein (1960)).

The existence of a multiplicity of pressure groups of varying types is often regarded as an important indicator of the extent of political pluralism within a society. This may be so, but should not disguise the fact that major differences exist in the capacity of individuals to engage in effective pressure-group activity. See also PLURALISM. CORPORATISM, SOCIAL MOVEMENTS.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000

pressure group

a group of people who seek to exert pressure on legislators, public opinion, etc., in order to promote their own ideas or welfare
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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