Normative Organizations Research Paper Starter

Normative Organizations

(Research Starters)

Normative organizations (also called voluntary organizations) are those organizations in which membership is voluntary and which are joined in order for members to pursue a common interest or to gain personal satisfaction or prestige. Although in general, normative organizations offer individuals ways to pursue nonfinancial goals that they consider to be worthwhile, in actuality, normative organizations comprise a very heterogeneous classification of organizations. Although research has shown various demographic and social variables to be related to the probability of an individual joining a normative organization, the results are often inconclusive. It is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about such a wide range of organizations because of their distinctive natures. However, normative organizations are an integral part of American life. Better and consistent definitions are needed before meaningful research can be performed to better understand normative organizations.

Keywords Class; Economic Development; Formal Organization; Grassroots Movement; Normative Organization; Organization; Society; Socioeconomic Status (SES)

Social Interaction in Groups


Over the course of our lives, most of us will be members of many organizations. Although some of these will be informal organizations, many will be formal organizations: large, highly organized secondary groups that are structured to efficiently accomplish one or more tasks and meet goals. According to some categorizations, there are three types of formal organizations:

  • Normative organizations that one joins voluntarily in order to pursue a common interest or to gain personal satisfaction or prestige (e.g., political parties, religious organizations, and sororities and fraternities);
  • Coercive organizations which one is forced to join (e.g., correctional institutions or many psychiatric wards); and
  • Utilitarian organizations that are voluntarily joined in order to gain a material reward (e.g., universities and business organizations).

Normative Organizations

People join normative organizations in order to pursue nonfinancial goals that they consider to be worthwhile for any one of a variety of reasons. For example, people may join a normative organization for the prestige that it offers them (e.g., an exclusive men's club, or a sorority or fraternity). Many normative organizations, however, are service or charitable organizations. These organizations (also sometimes called voluntary organizations) may offer the member prestige, but their primary purpose is to accomplish an altruistic goal or to promote activism around a specific issue. Examples of this kind of normative organization include parent-teacher associations, religious organizations, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Another type of normative organization comprises civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters. In addition, there are political organizations (e.g., the National Organization of Women). Normative organizations comprise an interesting subset of formal organizations. Although one may be forced to join some type of utilitarian organization out of financial necessity or join a coercive organization against one's will, normative organizations reflect the philosophies, interests, and ambitions of the individual. In many ways, therefore, membership in normative organizations is an expression personal identity. By allowing members of society to express themselves in diverse ways through formal organization, normative organizations have become a conspicuous feature of American life.

Membership Variables


Membership in normative organization is often determined by gender, class, race, or ethnicity. For example, many normative organizations are only open to members of a particular gender. It has been estimated that approximately 50 percent of the normative organizations in the United States have all-female memberships and that approximately 20 percent have all-male memberships (Kendall, 2005). It has also been found that males are more likely than females to join normative organizations, although their time commitments tend to be similar. Further, men tend to be more likely to join instrumental groups such as professional associations, while women are more likely to join expressive groups including church-related organizations (Tomeh, 1973).

Socioeconomic Status

Further, people of lower socioeconomic status may be prohibited from joining some upper-class organizations not because the bylaws of the organization prohibit them from joining but because they simply cannot afford to join. In fact, research has found that individuals with higher socioeconomic status are more likely to participate in normative organizations than are individuals with lower socioeconomic status. However, grassroots movements often exist that meet the same needs and are open to all or to those who have been excluded from other organizations. In addition, individuals of different socioeconomic status tend to join different types of normative organizations. For example, historical societies and country clubs tend to be joined primarily by people of high socioeconomic status, civic groups and service organizations tend to be populated by individuals from the middle class, and fraternal organizations and veterans associations tend to attract individuals from the working class.


Race is another demographic variable that has received a great deal of attention regarding its effect on membership in normative organizations—in particular, a comparison of the membership patterns of African Americans versus those of white Americans. Most theorists attribute the differences between membership rates of African Americans and white Americans in normative organizations as representative of socioeconomic status rather than of cultural or racial differences per se. This interpretation posits that because African Americans are overrepresented in lower socioeconomic groups, they are less likely to join normative organizations. However, this interpretation does not take into account membership rates of African Americans and white Americans at comparable socioeconomic levels. When the data are parsed in this manner, African American individuals have higher participation rates in normative organizations at all levels of social class.


Another demographic variable that is frequently related to membership in normative organizations is age or life stage. For those organizations in which age is related to membership, there is typically a tendency toward an increasing membership from adolescence through middle adulthood, with a decline in old age. However, this relationship does not hold true for normative organizations, and the effect appears to be compounded by other factors (e.g., gender, social class).

Religious Preference

Another demographic veritable that appears to greatly affect the probability of an individual joining a normative organization is religious preference. For those with religious affiliations, Protestants tend to more frequently join normative associations (other than the church) than are Roman Catholics. Theorists believe that these differential rates of membership in normative organizations are due at least in part to the structure and ideology of the religions and the concomitant way in which they either encourage or discourage participation in such organizations. For example, Protestant churches tend to be more flexible than the Roman Catholic Church and often allow more individual freedom of inquiry and expression. In addition, the Protestant effect has been identified with individualistic and competitive patterns of both thought and action. This philosophy encourages participation and voluntary groups. In comparison, the Roman Catholic Church is relatively rigid and binds its membership to the authority of the church leaders. As opposed to Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church has historically been associated with collectivistic, working-class patterns of thought and action. This philosophy tends to impede participation in voluntary organizations. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church has a number of faith-based voluntary organizations that can meet individuals' needs to...

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