In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Interest Groups in American Politics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals

Political Science Interest Groups in American Politics
Darren R. Halpin, Anthony J. Nownes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0098


This article considers interest groups in American politics. Interest groups are variously defined. Traditionally, both textbooks and scholarly studies have used a definition like this one: “An interest group is an organized body of individuals who share some goals and who try to influence public policy” (Jeffrey M. Berry, The Interest Group Society. 2d ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1989, p. 4). In practice, much scholarship takes a looser view on what counts as an interest group. This is for several reasons. First, many interest groups (e.g., associations of business firms) do not comprise individuals. Second, many membership groups have members that do not share goals. For example, it is hard to argue that the tens of millions of members of the AARP—the Washington, DC, lobbying behemoth—share political goals. Rather, it appears that many join simply to get the variety of benefits the group offers. Finally, many groups do not try to affect public policy at all, but rather try to affect government procurement decisions (i.e., government decisions about which specific goods and services to purchase), government appointment decisions, and government land-use decisions (i.e., decisions about what a property owner can and cannot do with his/her/its land). In this broader usage the working definition would be something like: an interest group is any organization that attempts to affect government decisions. This very broad definition is expansive enough to include the numerous types of organizations that interface with government in the United States. These types of organizations include business firms, charities, churches, citizen groups (a.k.a. public interest groups), coalitions, labor unions, political action committees (PACs), professional associations, think tanks, trade associations, and others. It is important to note that interest groups are active at all three levels of American government—state, local, and federal. While this is undoubtedly the case, the research and scholarship on interest groups is heavily Washington-centric. Thus, this article lists more studies here concerning Washington interest group politics than either state or local interest group politics. Nonetheless, groups are active everywhere in the United States, and thus this article tries to include studies of subnational interest groups as well.

General Overviews

While interest groups invariably are covered in introductory American government texts, there are not very many dedicated works that review the field. This section has identified several works in particular that are the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule. Unfortunately, most mentioned here are a bit dated. Nonetheless, they are quite useful for the budding interest group scholar. Baumgartner and Leech 1998 provides an authoritative overview of the study of American interest groups. By contrast, Browne 1998 offers a case for why interest groups are important and valuable actors in American democracy. Cigler 1991 is a nice and accessible introduction to the study of US interest groups. Hrebenar and Thomas 1993 is an edited volume that will prove useful for the reader who wishes to know the current state of the literature on interest groups in American politics. Maisel and Berry 2010 contains several chapters encompassing the state of the art in US interest group research. Hrebenar and Thomas 1993 is a classic on groups in the US states. All works mentioned here say much more about the study of interest groups in the United States than about interest groups themselves. For a basic overview of the roles and activities of interest groups in American politics, it is best to start with the works discussed in the section Textbooks.

  • Baumgartner, Frank R., and Beth L. Leech. Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

    An expansive and historical overview of the study of interest groups in American politics. Provides an excellent analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of various research studies, and highlights important lacunae in the research on interest groups. Contains an invaluable bibliography for the interest group student or scholar.

  • Browne, William P. Groups, Interests, and US Public Policy. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1998.

    Begins with the premise that many Americans hate interest groups and believe they are evil forces that dominate and distort American politics. From here, mounts a spirited defense of interest groups and the work they do. While acknowledging and accepting some criticisms of groups, uses (then) contemporary research and the author’s own opinions to explain why interest groups “fit in” with contemporary American politics.

  • Cigler, Allan J. “Interest Groups: A Subfield in Search of an Identity.” In Political Science: Looking to the Future. Vol. 4, American Institutions. Edited by William Crotty, 9–136. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

    An excellent primer on the study of interest groups in the United States. Contains an expansive overview of studies of interest groups. Is especially useful for its description of the various topics that interest group scholars study and its delineation of how the field of interest group studies is organized.

  • Hrebenar, Ronald J., and Clive S. Thomas, eds. Interest Group Politics in the Midwestern States. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1993.

    One in a series of four edited volumes on interest groups in the states. Each volume covers one region of the United States (the others are the Northeast, the South, and the West) and contains one chapter per state. Absolutely essential for the scholar of state interest group politics.

  • Maisel, L. Sandy, and Jeffrey M. Berry, eds. The Oxford Handbook of American Political Parties and Interest Groups. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199542628.001.0001

    An accessible assessment of the current state of the literature on interest groups. Each of the chapters on interest groups examines the scholarly literature on the topic at hand (topics include interest group influence, interest group activities in elections, business interest groups, and urban interest groups), summarizing what scholars have learned about the topic. Contains several chapters on political parties.

  • Thomas, Clive S., and Ronald J. Hrebenar. “Interest Groups in the States.” In Politics in the American States: A Comparative Analysis. 8th ed. Edited by Virginia Gray and Russell L. Hanson, 113–143. Washington, DC: CQ, 2004.

    One of the classic articles on interest groups in state politics, it presents a nice overview of the nature and extent of interest group politics in the states. This essay is updated every few years for the new edition of Politics in the American States. This is not the most recent, but it is one of the best.

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