Two Kinds of Clubs

I’m slowly rereading Olson’s “The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups”.  I find it pretty frustrating, but that’s another story.

In the section I was reading last night he gets to musing that there are two flavors of clubs: inclusive v.s. exclusive.  Both create club goods.  The default tendency of an inclusive club is to welcome new members, while members of exclusive clubs tend to prefer that the membership shrink.  For example a lobbying group seeking lower taxes on industry will be inclusive, the more the merrier; meanwhile a members of an industry will tend to prefer that the number of competitors shrink.  Thus, for example, the members of an industry standards body with associated patent pool may prefer to trend toward a smaller and smaller membership.  In another example a professional society who’s function includes granting professional status to it’s members will might tend toward exclusive; e.g. a profession with a 1o0 members can charge more for it’s services than one with a 10 thousand members.

I sense foreshadowing in Olson’s plot development.  Since any hint of  selfish motivation always excites economists  I’ve little doubt he will soon explain how an exclusive club is more sustainable.

The name of this blog is about this topic.  A club of enthusiasts will not casually ascribe membership in their club to others, in fact doing so would offend them.  The enthusiasm acts as a binding force for the group, and dragging in those who lack it is likely to weaken that.  Members of the local model rocket club may engage in outreach, striving to juice up other people’s enthusiasm for the hobby, but it would be quite odd for them to randomly pick people and anoint them as members.

Clubs labor to create club and public goods.  That is their primary goal, but other goals get piled on sometimes intentionally sometimes by happenstance.  An example of that is how members of some clubs often garner status.  To start the goal is to create the good, in support of that the club fiddles with the process that maintains the pool of members.  As an unintended side effect membership becomes selective, and hence elite, and hence confers status.  This status creation wasn’t the goal of the club, and in fact it’s a distraction from the goal.  Good members are engaged with the primary goal, creating the goods; further they are peeved at the way the status becomes a distraction from that.  Meanwhile, outsiders who are much less concerned about creating the good tend to see only the status.  How perverse is that!

Most clubs are actually a hybrid, of course, you want members who contribute to the goal but at the same time you want to extend a broad and enthusiastic welcome to any and all; since how else can you hope to search out the enthusiastic members.

No doubt there are scenarios where the agenda of a club is entirely captured by the status generation.  As an outsider it would be hard to know for sure; for example I know practically nothing about Mensa, which was the first club that came to mind as existing entirely to create status for it’s members, but for all I know if I was inside that club I’d know that it exists to provide a delightful pool of fraternal activities for it’s members.  The insider/outsider problem is fascinating.  For example I certainly feel that people who own Rolex watches are just buying status, but then you discover that lots of those are sold to people who own multiples and have special watch humidors for their collections.  It’s confusing.

Inclusive/Exclusive is not the only dialectics that can be used to sort clubs.  It’s probably worth starting a list.

  • Primary goal: create club goods v.s. create public goods.
  • Focus is inward facing (i.e. on some project (think barn raising)) v.s. focus is outward facing (for example on some threat)
  • Membership – is naturally inclusive v.s. exclusive; e.g. the existing members would naturally prefer more or less members going forward.
  • The club tends has high/low capacity to exclude others from access to it’s club goods.
  • Clubs that create a broad range of goods v.s. clubs that fix upon a single good
  • Clubs who’s principal good’s quality depends upon the quality of the members contributions such that the best contribution sets the quality v.s. those where the worst contribution sets the quality.

These are not entirely orthogonal, are they?

6 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Clubs

  1. bhyde Post author

    Thank Leo – Me too, it triggers a nice bewilderment. I’ve revealed it’s meaning in a few ways over the years, so it’s out there; but usually hidden in the body of a post as here.

  2. Edward Vielmetti

    Ben, this is a great post – lots to think about.

    I’m always interested in how these complicated human relationships get simplified in online systems, and how systems get it wrong.

    I’ve seen a breakdown of groups (due to Bob Parnes in his PhD thesis) that distinguishes between open and closed, permanent vs. limited duration, and “on topic” vs “open forum”.

    A particular interest of mine is in groups that grow in number overall but that don’t have any more people at their regular meetings than the space will fill. A relatively open lunch group I run has 400 or so people on a mailing list but about 25 regular lunch attendees; it would not be sustainable if everyone showed up for lunch every time, because where would the extra spaces be for the new people?

    Much more to type in, but it’s not all organized enough to want to write it down.

  3. bhyde Post author

    The dinning club dynamic is fascinating, i’d not noticed it exactly. It’s similar to the power-law dynamic, with a few elite contributors and a long tail of lurkers; but in this case there is a heart beat where the upper class is condensed out somewhat randomly from the pool – that’s neat.

    I have a loose affiliations with two dining clubs here in town. One of they does three things I find slightly notable. A) pricy venue, B) they have very limited seats, and C) they set aside an allotment for new faces (along with a process). A & B create status and scarcity effect (hence the need for C). As usual they also have a long tail.

    I wonder if there is handbook out there on how to run a small dinning club.

  4. Zack Hyde

    Whenever someone asks me to help them move, I answer, “I’m happy to help, as long as it’s me, you, and one other person. If I get there and eight of your friends are there ‘helping’, I’m going home.”

    In this case, the ascription that I fear is anathema to any enthusiasm that I could muster for helping friend, and for very straightforward, logical reasons. Nothing moves a household’s worth of goods more slowly than a crowd of people.

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