Voluntary Associations
Helmut Anheier

Editors Introduction The term "voluntary association" has a long history in the social sciences, particularly in sociology and anthropology. Although it was never at the core of sociological or anthropological theorising, the term has figured prominently in a number of approaches. Moreover, it is an important concept in a number of social science specialities, and today figures prominently in sociological and political theories of trust, democracy, citizenship and social capital. In this feature, Helmut K. Anheier, director of the Centre for Civil Society, based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, examines the history and development of voluntary associations.

Voluntary associations have a practical and theoretical relevance in a number of academic arenas. In the sphere of organisational studies, voluntary associations are seen as one of the three basic forms next to the business firm and the government agency. In urban and community studies, they have been identified as vehicles of local integration and sources of community power. In political sociology, voluntary associations are related to social movements, interest groups and status politics and in development studies, they play an important role in building a social infrastructure for economic growth by generating networks of mutual trust.

Defining the voluntary
Not surprisingly, given the different contexts in which voluntary associations figure in the social sciences, definitions vary. However, these definitions share a common core in viewing voluntary associations as private, membership-based organisations in which membership is non-compulsory. What is more, the organisation should have identifiable boundaries to distinguish members from non-members, be self-governing, and non-commercial in objective and behaviour.

The definitions differ mainly in emphasis and along the demarcation lines to related forms such as business (partnerships, co-operatives, mutual organisations), compulsory organisations (guilds, bar associations, and, in some countries, chambers of commerce), political organisations (parties, political action committees, interest groups), and quasi governmental institutions (mass membership organisations in the former Soviet Union, state churches).

Some of the definitional complexities arise from significant overlaps with related terms such as non-profit organisation, non-governmental organisation or third sector organisation. In contrast to these forms, voluntary organisations have a membership focus, whereas many non-profit organisations like hospitals, social service agencies or art museums may have a governing board but no broad membership base as such. The same applies to non-governmental organisations like Oxfam or Save the Children, although some like Amnesty International, the Red Cross or Greenpeace are membership-based. A popular classification in the US, also reflected in the country's tax laws, groups non-profit organisations into public-serving entities, and those that are member-serving, voluntary associations.

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

In traditional, pre-modern societies, voluntary organisations 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 labour and provided mutual assistance and economic benefit to members who may be farmers, craftsmen or traders. Indeed, they were in fact precursors of social classes grouping similar economic statuses, occupations, and property owners around some joint interest.

Researchers emphasised 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. More generally, voluntary associations are said to 'give voice' to interests and concerns that otherwise might not be heard. As a form of collective action, they group people and organisations sharing similar interests like sport and other hobbies, or other cultural, economic and political ones, ranging from debating clubs to choirs, and from scholarly societies to professional associations.

Next to social integration and the voice function, 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, co-operative-type organisations 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.

De Tocqueville and the voluntary
Modern sociological thought about voluntary associations has its roots in de Tocqueville's Democracy in America 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 organise people from diverse backgrounds around a common purpose, thereby contributing to social cohesion; and they build an intermediary sphere between the political centre 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 post revolutionary political order. France had been a centralised nation-state long before the revolution of 1789; and this very centralisation made the revolution possible and facilitated its effectiveness in replacing the ancien regime with a new ruling class. In line with the highly individualistic and anti-corporatist 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.

The development of voluntary associations
In the US, no French Jacobin tradition restricted the development of voluntary associations. Indeed, while both countries emphasised individualism over collectivism, the US remained quasi state-less for a prolonged period, developed both a strong pragmatic orientation in policy-making, and a general mistrust of centralised power. As a result, voluntary associations flourished, and soon created a complex network of social clubs, religious and church-based organisations, 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. Some have 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 US society into 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 anti-feudal revolution, the German case is a series of compromises between a self-modernising feudal system and an emerging, co-opted bourgeoisie.

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 organisations, in particular guilds and unions, with their compulsory membership and comprehensive coverage. In the early nineteenth century, under Lorenz von Stein's modernisation policy, the mandatory system of corporatist organisations was transformed into modern voluntary associations. 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. The expansion of the voluntary sector 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 member in 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 in regards to formal, that is, registered associations. Estimates of membership in indigenous forms of associations are very incomplete, as many of these organisations 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 association number about 800 in Ghana, 13,000 in Thailand, 20,000 in Egypt, and 200,000 in Brazil.

In former state socialist countries, mass organisation linked to political parties accounted for very high membership rates; in the transformation process, however, many have lost significant number of members or otherwise faced dissolution. As a result, the membership structure in such societies in reorganising 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 signalled 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.

Current issues and 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 data-bases remains underdeveloped because major economic and social statistical systems exclude non-market/non-state activities from regular reporting. In terms of theory, research on voluntary associations will gain by addressing the emerging field of civil society studies, the notion of social capital and work in the field of the expanding world society.

Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.