The world is awash in associations, which go by many labels: non-profits, NGOs, advocacy groups, “community based organizations”, voluntary associations, and so on. Wes and I have been working for a long time on the general question: “Where do associations come from?” Our main paper on the issue is forthcoming in the September issue of the American Journal of Sociology.
One common view is that associations arise from society itself — from educated, affluent individuals seeking to address various collective issues. We actually find support for this (or at least the point that education encourages association).
We develop two alternatives (each rooted in a long line of sociological work):
1) We argue that the state is an engine of association — and its historical expansion massively drives the growth of association. Our argument is in some ways out of fashion. It is more common to claim that the state “crowds out” association, and that NGOs flourish in the vacuum produced by shrinking or collapsed governments. We spend a good chunk of the paper discussing why this “conventional wisdom” is off-base, and working out why the expansion of the state (and other features, such as decentralization) encourage the formation of association. Among other things, the state legitimates issues in the public sphere and provides both resources and incentives to organize.
2) We argue that world society encourages association on a global scale. The international sphere is now filled with thousands of international NGOs, IGOs, “transnational advocacy networks”, and the like. This rich associational and cultural environment provides the legitimation, organizational models, and sometimes direct resources and assistance that encourage the formation of associations around the world — especially in the global south. In particular, “civil society” is very much in fashion, and international donors — not to mention key players like the World Bank — routinely fund (directly or indirectly) all sorts of local NGOs and community groups. Of course, this raises some issues. What does it mean to be a “local” when a great deal of funding and support for associations comes from places like the World Bank? We reflect on this at the end of the paper…
We explore these arguments using statistical data on voluntary associations for a large sample of countries over the past few decades.
It was a fun paper to work on, and Wes did a great job. A pre-publication version can be found here: