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Interest group, also called special interest group or pressure group, any association of individuals or organizations, usually formally organized, that, on the basis of one or more shared concerns, attempts to influence public policy in its favour. All interest groups share a desire to affect government policy to benefit themselves or their causes. Their goal could be a policy that exclusively benefits group members or one segment of society (e.g., government subsidies for farmers) or a policy that advances a broader public purpose (e.g., improving air quality). They attempt to achieve their goals by lobbying—that is, by attempting to bring pressure to bear on policy makers to gain policy outcomes in their favour.
Interest groups are a natural outgrowth of the communities of interest that exist in all societies, from narrow groups such as the Japan Eraser Manufacturers Association to broad groups such as the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) and to even broader organizations such as the military. Politics and interests are inseparable. Interests are a prevalent, permanent, and essential aspect of all political systems—democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian regimes alike. Furthermore, interest groups exist at all levels of government—national, state, provincial, and local—and increasingly they have occupied an important role in international affairs.
The common goals and sources of interest groups obscure, however, the fact that they vary widely in their form and lobbying strategies both within and across political systems. This article provides a broad overview that explains these differences and the role that interest groups play in society.
As defined above, an interest group is usually a formally organized association that seeks to influence public policy. This broad definition, increasingly used by scholars, contrasts with older, narrower ones that include only private associations that have a distinct, formal organization, such as Italy’s Confindustria (General Confederation of Industry), the United States’s National Education Association, and Guatemala’s Mutual Support Group (human rights organization). One problem with such a narrow definition is that many formally organized entities are not private. The most important lobbying forces in any society are the various entities of government: national, regional, and local government agencies and institutions such as the military. Another reason to opt for a broad definition is that in all societies there are many informal groups that are, in effect, interest groups but would not be covered by the narrower definition. For example, in all political systems there are influential groups of political and professional elites that may not be recognized as formal groups but are nonetheless crucial in informally influencing public policy.
Some interest groups consist of individuals such as ranchers or fruit growers who may form farm commodity organizations. In other instances, an interest group consists not of individuals but of organizations or businesses, such as the Histadrut (General Federation of Labour) in Israel and the Andean-Amazon Working Group, which includes environmental and indigenous organizations in several South American countries. These types of organizations are called peak associations, as they are, in effect, the major groups in their area of interest in a country.
The term interest rather than interest group is often used to denote broad or less-formalized political constituencies, such as the agricultural interest and the environmental interest—segments of society that may include many formal interest groups. Similarly, interest is often used when considering government entities working to influence other governments (e.g., a local government seeking to secure funding from the national government). In authoritarian and developing societies, where formal interest groups are restricted or not as well developed, interest is often used to designate broader groupings such as government elites and tribal leaders.