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Who is Represented? Explaining the Demographic Structure of Interest Group Membership

Cleavages
Interest Groups
Representation
Lobbying
Jens Van der Ploeg
University of Amsterdam
Joost Berkhout
University of Amsterdam
Marcel Hanegraaff
University of Amsterdam
Jens Van der Ploeg
University of Amsterdam
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Abstract

Schattschneider, (1960, 32) notes that the bias in interest group politics ‘is shown by the fact that even non-business organizations reflect an upper-class tendency’ and ‘large areas of the population appear to be wholly outside the system’. He points out that citizen-surveys show that people with low socio-economic status, women and those living in rural areas hardly ever are members of interest associations. Recent surveys show similar results, such as high discrepancies in political participation across citizens with varying levels of education. This systematic finding in studies of ‘biased’ political participation is however only infrequently connected to the study of interest groups. Rather this literature tends to focus on bias in lobby influence and bias in organizational collective action. This is surprising because, as Schattschneider (1960, 34), among other, assumes that biases in participation will eventually be exacerbated in the process of political organization. More to the point, the weaker social groups will also be relatively weakly organized. Such groups will associate in a low number of large organizations rather than a large number of specialized groups. This paper therefore focusses on the bias in the type of members interest groups represent. It does so from the perspective of interest organizations themselves rather than individuals. The key question we ask is whether or not interest groups, on the one end, under- or over represent certain groups of people, relative to the demography of the electorate. On the other end, whether the business community over represents certain type of companies, such as large companies or companies with highly educated employees, compared to their share in the economy. Combined this allows us to assess whether or not membership participation in interest groups is biased towards certain types of citizen or companies in society. The data stems from a large scale interest group survey project in the Netherlands (n=875) whereby we asked, among others, citizen groups, labor unions and business associations about the demographic nature of their constituency. This study is relevant for interest group scholars as it provides yet another, potential, source of bias in interest representation. Yet, the results have broader implications as it taps into a broader debate on whether or not some demographic groups (based on ethnicity, education, etc.), and ‘their’ issues, are represented proportionately in politics. Interest groups are one channel to which citizens can enter the political arena. Studying potential biases in this channel are thus a welcome addition to this literature as well.