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Wilson: Political organizations

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Wilson. 1973. Political organizations.

In Brief

"Many persons active in politics and policy-making, in and out of government, are persons speaking for, or acting as part of, formal organizations and that the constraints and requirements imposed by their organizational roles are of great significance in explaining their behavior.... The central theme of the study is that the behavior of persons who lead or speak for an organization can best be understood in terms of their efforts to maintain and enhance the organization and their position in it" (p9).

Those occupying "organizational roles (leader, spokesman, executive, representative)" depend heavily on "the requirements of organizational maintenance and enhancement." More than anything else, this requires "supplying tangible and intangible incentives to individuals" so that they will become or remain active members of the organization (p13).

Chapter-by-Chapter Summaries=

Chapter 2: Rationality and Self-Interest

Olson underpredicts participation. We do join much more. Though Olson speculates as to why (moral, social, erotic, psychological incentives), it remains a weak point in the theory. Olson's "model is useful in making us see a problem [non-joining] but only of limited value in helping us solve it" (p24). The problem: Economics can be precise when dealing with money, but economic theories have difficulty making unique, precise, and testable predictions once "motives" can include more than money. Thus, we need a "fresh start" (p26) in our modeling.

"In this book we assume that people join associations for a variety of reasons and that they are more or less rational about action taken on behalf of these reasons" (26). The primary incentive to join an organization depends on people's impressions of its "dominant character" [but only after it has been founded]. A minority will value this incentive highly and therefore participate actively; the majority may be more passive.

For someone to join, it is "not clear" that he must believe that his participation is necessary (Olson to the contrary). Some will join regardless (out of guilt), while others will join only if necessary.

This book's scope: The author wants to explain organizations (especially their executives), not why individuals join the organization. He wishes to explain "how organizations behave toward persons wanting certain kinds of material and nonmaterial [benefits]; we shall not explain, except to offer some passing observations, how it is that certain persons respond to one incentive rather than to another" (p28).

Chapter 3: Organizational Maintenance and Incentives

In maintaining (not so much in starting) an organization, executives may rely on any combination of four general types of incentive:

  1. Material incentives
  2. Specific solidary incentives (like officeholding and honors--they can be withheld from individual group members).
  3. Collective solidary incentives (like friendship and fun). (Both types of solidary incentives relate to how (you think) others view you.)
  4. Purposive incentive (ideological goals)

These four incentives vary in two central ways.

  1. Their precision. Material incentives are most precise (then can easily be directed in precise quantities to individuals).
  2. Their relationship to the group's stated goals. Purposive incentives are closely related. Monetary goals generally are not.

Chapter 4: Effects of Social Structure on Organizational Behavior

Higher social classes and children of joiners are more likely to be joiners. Why? Since Marxist explanations fall short, Wilson offers his own three-party answer:

  1. Economic. Upper classes have more resources (time and money), making participation possible.
  2. Social position. Organizations court high-status people as spokespeople and endorsers.
  3. Psychological. Upper-class people are those who are most likely to have personality traits conducive to joining: efficacy, a sense of competence, achievement motivation, a distant time horizon, a sense of duty (p59).

Chapter 5: Effects of Political Structures on Organizational Existence

If the social structure influences who joins (ch 4), the political structure determines which organizations exist (ch 5). This chapter discusses how the "distribution of authority in society affects the number of kinds of organizations that will form by affecting the value and accessibility of the rewards of political activity" (p15).

Primary Hypothesis: "The greater the decentralization and dispersion of political power, the greater the incentive for the formation of many voluntary associations" (p89).

These are the sub-hypotheses, roughly grouped:

Comments and Criticism

Relative to Chapter 2

If your theory holds that executives (organizational leaders) behave as necessary to maintain and expand the organization's membership, how can you possibly do so without first explaining why people become or remain members of an organization? You must know why people join an organization to explain how executives try to retain member

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Wilson, James (author)American PoliticsBureaucracyCollective ActionInterest Groups

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