Pressure groups and social movements

Moira Byrne

Key terms/names

collective action, disturbance theory, exchange theory, incentives, insiders and outsiders, political opportunity, population ecology, sectional interests


Groups and movements that pressure governments and political parties seeking government to change policy are vital features of democracy. Without the combined actions of people participating in groups and social movements, those who wish to hold office may not be aware of issues affecting constituents or how changes to policy may affect them.

Knowing about pressure groups and social movements is critical in considering democracy, government and policy making. This chapter discusses what pressure groups and social movements are, when they form, who joins them and how they work. These considerations shine a light on some of the important theories about group power. The chapter also reflects on whether these groups are good for democracy and discusses the kinds of pressure groups and social movements in Australia.

What are pressure groups and social movements?

Political scientists use a number of terms to describe pressure groups, including interest groups and lobby groups.1 The term ‘pressure groups’ refers to organisations that pressure government to change policy, whether for their own interest or in the interest of others. A pressure group more broadly is defined as an association that seeks to represent a sector of society and make a direct or indirect claim on government to influence policy, without wanting to govern.2

Interest groups seek to represent their own interests in government policy without wanting to govern. Advocacy groups advocate for others. Some pressure groups are both interest groups and advocacy groups.3 They might represent some of their own interests, but also the interests of others.

The term ‘social movement’ refers to shared opinions and beliefs in a population which indicate preferences for changing elements of the social structure or operation.4 These coalesce into people’s campaigns to change society and culture. Sociologist Sidney Tarrow observed that major societal changes such as war, recession, political instability, or large demographic or technological change often prompt ‘waves of protest’ which give rise to social movements.5 Typically, social movements centre on a broad issue, so are also known as issue movements.

Contemporary social movements tend to have many of the following characteristics:

  • high levels of participation by individuals who don’t necessarily see themselves as part of a formal organisation
  • self-identification with the cause or issue of concern
  • seeing political or ideological opponents as ‘enemies’ to overcome
  • links with formal interest groups and ‘social movement organisations’ within this wider tapestry of informal participation.

Collective action is intrinsic to pressure groups and social movements because they employ group power to alter public policy.6 Many activities may not be directly political, but groups and movements spend at least some of their time and resources trying to influence public policy. This may include indirect methods through networking or participating in government consultations, or more direct methods such as electioneering or strategic professional links to government by being close to government decision makers, either geographically or politically.7

When do pressure groups and social movements form?

A number of theories explain formation. While these theories are explained separately, in practice, many factors affect formation of pressure groups and social movements.

Disturbance theory

David Truman observed the formation of pressure groups as a response to the growing complexity of society. Any disturbances arising in the community upset the balance within society. This in turn prompted pressure groups to form to oppose these threats to the status quo. Truman also noted that in almost all organised groups, an ‘active minority’ governed on behalf of the many.8

Population ecology

The theory of organisation population ecology illuminates the challenge to balance outcomes for all interests. In the 1970s, scholars attempted to understand group formation in the context of the politics of the day, as well as those who were trying to promote ideas or change policy.9 Groups form depending on the population density of other groups at the time of their formation, which ‘both legitimises and constrains’ group formation.10 A group with the same motivation may arise because great numbers of people wish to join them in a particular location; another group with the same motivation may founder because it does not offer a unique perspective and there are already groups at that place. These groups frequently compete for the same resources, membership and funding.

Because pressure groups are in competition with each other, the existing density of groups in the population affects a new group’s prospect of formation.11 Further, low density of groups increases the legitimacy of the organisations that exist. Yet as more organisations form, competition for resources means some groups cease to exist.12

Political opportunity

Political opportunity is a third theory advanced to explain group formation, noting that group formation depends on the political environment. In this framework, favourable political conditions prompt advocacy groups to form. This can include changes in government, which provide the impetus for groups to form whose ideas align with those elected. But it can include structural factors, like the openness of institutions to lobbying, litigation, or other forms of political practice that groups and movements have expertise in.13

Who joins pressure groups and social movements and why?

A variety of motivations prompt individuals to participate.

Incentives and exchange theory

Clark and Wilson categorised benefits offered to group members:

  • Material benefits: offer tangible advantage for the member, such as economic benefits (publications, or discounts on services and products) or improved working conditions. This is often associated with Robert Salisbury’s exchange theory, namely, that organisers offer incentives and benefits to potential members for joining.14
  • Solidarity benefits: are intangible, offering a sense of identity and community through education, involvement and participation. This also brings a collective identity, marking one as belonging to a group or standing for a cause. This, in turn, can bring status, enjoyment and social capital.
  • Purposive benefits: relate to the group’s purpose, such as to change a policy, promote an idea, or pursue a particular action.15 These purposive benefits are also termed ‘expressive’ benefits, as people join to voice their values and ideals.16

Clark and Wilson argued that one or more of these benefits must be provided to members to either entice them to join or to remain part of the organisation. A pressure group’s continued existence depends upon members sharing in the group benefits, and group organisers extracting advantage from those members.17

This approach also explains paradoxes in group formation: if groups produce public benefits that all can access, what is the incentive of participation for the individual? If groups become too large, some may benefit without paying the costs of the group. This problem of ‘free riding’ can be seen in the way some groups attempt to restrict the benefits of their collective action to their membership, such as when unions historically enforced ‘no ticket no start’ requirements that workplaces must employ union members.

Cultural models

New social movement theory maintains that most social movements today are international and largely concerned about their physical and psychological environment.18 The internet is an enormous contributor to the global nature of social movements and dialogue in the public sphere. Social movements can be considered as sites of shared identity, and can be instrumental in radical identity-forming processes. Old loyalties are detached from conventional views or the status quo, and transferred to the new movement, bringing a sense of identity.19

How do pressure groups work?

Political scientists have identified five levels through which pressure groups or citizens convey their ‘demands’ to government:

  1. Concerned individuals acting of their own accord represent interests, or advocate for others.
  2. Spontaneous group activity occurs, that is unplanned and unorganised.
  3. Groups of people sharing a common trait or concerns form non-association pressure groups.20 Examples include particular cultural groups or localised citizens concerned about a particular development in their town or suburb.
  4. Organised groups represent interests in a more sophisticated way through institutions, such as businesses, educational institutions and non-government organisations.
  5. Associations and specific lobbying organisations representing particular groups advocate to influence how political, social and economic goods are distributed in explicit policy changes.21

How the latter advocate depends on the structure of the pressure group.

Strategies used to influence policy makers

Pressure groups demonstrate these roles in the strategies they employ, including:

  • Direct and indirect lobbying of politicians, policy advisors and political parties, and the public. Indirect lobbying aims to change government policy through lobbying people and bodies which themselves may have influence on government decision-makers, such as lobbying political parties and the public.
  • Agenda-setting through lobbying activities, media work, or direct communications with the public.
  • Electioneering through mobilising support or opposition for candidates or parties based on their policy positions, or influencing public opinion so that the wider public is inspired to act.

Yet despite any success, a group’s reliance on electoral tactics over party politics or bureaucratic involvement is a sign of weakness. This is because it depends on a concerted campaign rather than integration into the policy system. Similarly, although protest can be powerful, it is a less assertive form of leverage because it is often undertaken by groups without ‘insider’ knowledge or contacts, whether from lack of resources or exclusion from consultation.22

A group or movement’s choice of strategies depends largely on its resources, but also on the political system and its conventions, and on the goal.23 A lack of power does not preclude successful lobbying by less-resourced pressure groups, particularly where a pressure group boasts experience and evidence to persuade policy makers of an argument. As a result, such pressure groups may become more formally involved in the policy system.24

Excluding electoral tactics, focusing a lobbying effort on an individual politician can be effective.25 It prevents some difficulties encountered when lobbying parliamentary groups, where party discipline dominates responses. Although contact with a member of parliament is usually referred to the relevant minister or at times to Cabinet, it can also become a ‘fast track’ to raising the issue in a policy area.26 Of course, lobbying also involves garnering support from others, including the media.27

Participation and involvement within policy-making institutions

Placing an issue on the policy agenda, lobbying and developing policy is a time-consuming process of ‘continuous contestation’. It often involves participation from a number of pressure groups to reach policy decisions.28 Negotiation is important in policy making, as is ongoing interaction within the policy cycle.29 Ideally, the policy process engages local communities and an array of voluntary groups, but for decades governments have preferred to deal with one ‘umbrella’ group, rather than a number of smaller organisations.30

Although some political lobbying is secretive,31 most pressure group attempts to intervene in the polity are part of broad public consultation on the public record. Pressure groups are useful to governments, offering representation, lending authority, and providing knowledge – often gathered through close involvement with the subject at hand.32 This can assist policy bureaucrats to gather invaluable information and arguments about a particular policy before a decision is made, and is useful for policy specialists providing briefing or advice.33 Governments use this expertise and the advice of pressure groups in policy development,34 so engagement yields mutual benefits. It can broaden the government’s support by demonstrating stakeholder participation. Pressure groups achieve attention and credibility from the wider community, and leverage to pursue their own policy priorities if the opportunity arises.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommends that a lobbying framework should include strategies to promote a ‘level playing field’. Information should be made readily available, conflicts and preferential treatment avoided, and policy makers should be accessible to the broad community and not just a privileged few, so that all voices can be considered.35

Insiders and outsiders

Wyn Grant noted that pressure groups, like many other political entities, are frequently categorised as political ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’ in their access to government.36 Insiders are very close to government, and numbers of pressure groups are integrated into government. Others remain excluded, presumably because they lack the requisite power, contacts or expertise.

Consequently, certain stakeholders are relatively subservient subjects of ‘bureaucratic citizenship’, while other groups enjoy a ‘right’ to consultation and participation in the policy process. The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) is one of the few welfare or advocacy groups represented in policy advisory committees. In many ways it is an insider group, as it retains ongoing consultative status. Its lobbying role is accepted, but unlike ‘producer’ groups, ACOSS is not able to use economic sanctions to achieve a policy result.37

Although groups are normally more able to bring about change as insiders, some pressure groups prefer to be ‘outsiders’. An outsider signals a separation from government, which affirms a philosophical commitment to an issue and provides freedom and independence to express views or pursue agendas without real or perceived censorship. While some other outsiders may respect this position, outsiders tend to be valued less by politicians – particularly if the strategy could be perceived as extreme or unlikely to affect electoral results.

Cultural and communication work

Literature about social movements sheds light on the way that issues are ‘framed’ by organisations to garner support for a social movement or for policy change. Framing refers to how groups link interpretations of individual interests, values and beliefs with their activities, goals and ideology. Entman provides a useful definition of framing and its policy implications:

to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation.38

When a particular event is framed as meaningful, individuals can be prompted to bring others together in collective action. Moreover, the event may serve to guide social movement organisations or pressure groups.39

Are they ‘good’ for democracy?

Within the framework of political economy and public choice theory, organised interests can be seen as a risk to good governance. Interest groups operate ultimately from the same selfish motive: to benefit themselves, even to the exclusion of others. They behave to maximise their economic, societal and legal or regulatory conditions as they pursue their objectives in the political sphere. Political and policy decisions may be attributed to the expedience and motivations of politicians and political parties, such as electoral advantage, rather than policy best practice.40

Ultimately, while governments determine which interests to indulge, interest group behaviour cannot be separated ‘from the surrounding institutional and cultural framework’.41 In other words, governments cannot always be relied upon to ensure a balance of optimal outcomes for all interests.42 In this critique, interest groups potentially undermine governance and the economy.

More positively, Beer identified pressure group types which governments can harness to achieve superior policy outcomes. In this way, pressure groups are functional: they support, rather than destabilise, governance and democracy (although Beer cautioned that special interests had the potential to ‘impair’ a political system’s action for the long-term interests of its citizenry).43 Beer’s more optimistic approach suggests that participation, making a contribution and concern for quality of life are the values which inspire pressure group formation, rather than the self-interested interpretation of some rational choice scholars’ view of pressure groups.44

Beer’s interpretation recognises that pressure groups arise from various political environments. With this more ‘contextual’ perspective, each pressure group can be examined and assessed in the context of its own history and situation. In this view, collectives are motivated by the freedom of members of society to choose, as part of a democratic and inclusive ‘provider’ society. Interest, or pressure, groups are organised representations of citizens who facilitate democratic participation. The motive to form a pressure group is egalitarian rather than selfish, as groups lobby to address disadvantage.

What kinds of pressure groups and social movements are in Australia?

Within Australia, pressure group participation is much higher than membership of political parties.45 Pressure groups are often divided into two main camps:

  • Sectional organisations represent traditional, recognised interests such as those of the labour force, business or primary industries.
  • Promotional groups advance interests other than these main sectors, such as women’s interests or environmental issues.46 However, their focus on particular issues can result in representing narrower interests than those of other political groups.47

Both prefer different styles of action and different relationships with governments or political parties.48 Despite some complications, most pressure groups in Australia could fall easily into these two categories; the categories may also overlap.49

Sectional groups

Sectional interest groups represent significant sections of the community and the economy, and are usually integrated into party politics and government. Some are frequently involved in policy development, often as advisors.50 Despite a goal of representing issues of their sector to influence policy, some sectional groups remain aligned to particular political parties, even to the disadvantage of their interests.51

Sectional interests represent a ‘fixed’ clientele,52 and professional groups tend to be well-resourced sectional interests. Somewhat lesser resourced are producer groups who generate goods or services. This includes unions, which represent labour services. Groups representing the interests of state welfare service clients are more inclined to represent groups of individuals who are the clientele of the welfare provider groups. When banded together, conglomerations of interests may be called ‘collectivist’ pressure groups.53

The major sectional interest organisations operate under established conventions of participating in the policy-making process. Large sectional organisations such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the National Farmers’ Federation, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions are involved in the policy process, and are often represented on government advisory committees. Sectional groups often employ highly qualified individuals to act for them; businesses frequently recruit former senior public servants for such roles.54 In fact, business groups are significant sectional interests representing their views to government in Australia. The business lobby tends to be privileged because its resources, significant sectional interests and its production capability afford it power in a market-based economy, described as structural power.55

Peak bodies

Peak bodies are usually strong sectional pressure groups, with several democratic functions: involvement in the policy process of those most affected, developing the capacity of its member organisations to enter into the policy process, but also representing resource-poor sections of the community. Peak bodies represent, co-ordinate, inform, research, and develop policy on behalf of member organisations for their sector. Importantly, peak bodies are not service providers, though there are a number of ways in which they provide services to their members (e.g. in co-ordinating submissions, participating in consultation processes, and perhaps providing information).56

Promotional groups and advocacy groups

Unlike sectional interest groups, promotional pressure groups are more peripheral to government policy making. For this reason, they may use more electoral tactics.57 Despite promotional groups appearing to succeed at the ballot box through either election of candidates, or significant portions of the voting public supporting candidates, they exert limited policy influence. This is because they are not integrated into government processes and relationships, and can be divisive for parties. That said, particular promotional groups obtained greater access to the bureaucracy during past decades due to some government agencies engaging staff with links to promotional groups, or with a personal commitment to their cause.58

Promotional groups are often more concerned with advancing a particular issue or cause. Advocacy groups are a type of promotional group that seek to raise the status or profile of a section of society seen to be disadvantaged or deprived – socially, politically or materially. Promotional groups tend to focus on causes to advance the interests of society as a whole, and speak along policy lines rather than as a representative.59

On a cautionary note, at times promotional pressure groups may be proxies for more vested interests of sectional organisations.60 For example, the Alliance of Australian Retailers was a group ostensibly opposed to the plain packaging of cigarettes because the policy would damage the business of small retailers. It was later found to be an ‘astroturf’ group (i.e. a fake ‘grassroots’ organisation) as it was funded by tobacco companies Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco Australia.61

Other types

Single-issue pressure groups focus on raising the profile of a single cause or issue, perhaps as part of a social movement. Social reform movements seek to change norms rather than push for radical change, whereas radical movements seek to change the way society is structured. Groups and movements can be temporary, whether short-term or semi-permanent, emerging as needed. Fusion refers to when two or more groups or movements join for a common purpose.62

In the political sphere, the approach of single-issue pressure groups can be seen as a ‘thin edge of the wedge’, as they concentrate on one particular issue or one aspect of a more complicated issue, and they may not be integrated into either the party system or the machinery of government. They do not become part of government processes or advisory committees. Rather, single-issue lobby groups focus on raising awareness of their particular issue so it is adopted by more powerful pressure groups or the community itself.

Multi-issue groups promote several, usually interconnected or themed, issues. They are generally better resourced and therefore better able to promote their causes and concerns. At times, the delineation between single- and multi-issue groups is ambiguous. For example, an environmental group could be dismissed by politicians and policy makers as a single-issue group, yet such groups frequently campaign on related concerns such as greenhouse gas emissions, preservation of wilderness areas, and recycling. Similarly, the Australian Christian Lobby may engage on a number of issues including refugees, school curriculum and euthanasia, but is primarily concerned with ‘Christian principles and ethics [being] accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate as a society. We want Australia to become a more just and compassionate nation.’63


While the political sphere undergoes change from digital disruption and disaffection with democracy, pressure groups and social movements form an important conduit to ensure citizens’ voices are heard and reflected in policy. Theories of pressure group formation can help explain why some groups emerge and last. An individual’s decision to join a pressure group or social movement can be influenced by a variety of factors, but collective action is effective in bringing about change. Groups’ roles of representation, education and scrutiny are used differently by groups who employ insider and outsider strategies. Whether they are political insiders or outsiders, they can use either or both kinds of strategies to exercise influence.


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About the author

Dr Moira Byrne works in law and policy in the Australian government, and as an occasional teaching academic in the School of Politics and International Relations at Australian National University. A former policy advisor and speechwriter, her research interests include lobby groups in politics and policy, democracy, and political communication. With qualifications in theology and economics, she is also a keen observer of the intersection of religion and politics.


1 Richardson 1993, 1.

2 Halpin 2012, 179; Matthews 1980, 447; Richardson 1993, 1; Smith 1993, 2.

3 Sawer 2007, 24–5.

4 McCarthy and Zald 1977, 1217–8.

5 Tarrow 1994.

6 Cook 2004, 138.

7 Davis et al. 1993, 139; Warhurst 1986, 312.

8 Truman 1951, 139–55.

9 Nownes 2004.

10 Jenkins 2006, 313.

11 Nownes 2004.

12 Jenkins 2006, 313.

13 Jenkins 2006; Nownes 2004.

14 Salisbury 1969.

15 Clark and Wilson 1961, 134–5.

16 Salisbury 1969, 16.

17 Salisbury 1969.

18 Habermas 1995.

19 Melucci 1994.

20 Matthews 1980, 447.

21 Hogan 1996, 158.

22 Vromen, Gelber and Gauja 2009, 244–5.

23 Rozell and Wilcox 1999, 2–3.

24 Vromen, Gelber and Gauja 2009, 236–7.

25 Barnett 2010, 47.

26 Matthews 1980, 467.

27 Barnett 2010, 73.

28 Vromen, Gelber and Gauja 2009, 322, 344.

29 Colebatch 2002.

30 Giddens 1998, 75–6; Matthews 1980, 458.

31 Warhurst 2007a, 9.

32 Warhurst 1986, 311.

33 Barnett 2010, 17; OECD 2008, 8.

34 Warhurst 1986, 313.

35 OECD 2008, 18–20.

36 Grant 1995.

37 Mendes 2006, 4.

38 Entman 1993.

39 Snow et al. 1986, 464.

40 Frey 1980, 66; Self 1993, 45.

41 Marsh 1995.

42 DeAngelis and Parkin 1986, 316; Marsh 1995.

43 Beer 1982, 4.

44 Beer 1982; Marsh 1995, 57–80.

45 Warhurst 2006, 327.

46 Matthews 1980, 448.

47 Warhurst 1986, 313.

48 Warhurst 2006, 329.

49 Maddox 1996, 411; Warhurst 2006, 330.

50 Warhurst 1986, 313.

51 Davis et al. 1993, 139; Warhurst 1984, 24.

52 Beer 1958, 133.

53 Beer 1958, 133–4.

54 Warhurst 1984, 5, 9.

55 Lindblom 1977; Warhurst 2007b, 53.

56 Sawer 2002, 40–1.

57 Matthews 1980, 460.

58 Warhurst 1984, 20–4.

59 Vromen, Gelber and Gauja 2009, 239.

60 Matthews 1997, 271; Matthews 1980, 452–3.

61 Davies 2010.

62 Cole and Foster 2001.

63 Australian Christian Lobby n.d.