The picture /Art accompanied by grace' - Shankar Gallery/Richard Lazzara. Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Association, la vie associative and lifelong learning: we explore the process of joining together in companionship or to undertake some task – and the educative power of playing one’s part in a group or association.

contents : introduction · the significance of local institutions and associations · the decline of associational activity · la vie associative · associationalism · conclusion · further reading and references · links · how to cite this article

The idea of ‘association’ appears and reappears in the literature of informal education. For example, the landmark  1919 Report on adult education looked to the educative power of social movements and voluntary associations. They saw the value of ‘the imponderable influences which spring from association in study’ and the significance of ‘the informal educations which come from sharing in a common life’ (1956: 76). Similarly, in 1960 the Albemarle Report famously declared that the primary aims of the youth service should be association, training and challenge (pp. 36 – 41 and 52 – 64).

To encourage young people to come together into groups of their own choosing is the fundamental task of the Service… (W)e want to call attention to:

a) an opportunity for commitment….

b) an opportunity for counsel….

c) an opportunity for self-determination. (1960 52-54).

Here we want to explore the significance of association – of joining together in companionship or to undertake some task – and the educative power of playing one’s part in a group or association. 

The significance of local institutions and associations

In the early 1990s Konrad Elsdon (1995) and his colleagues undertook a large scale survey of local voluntary organizations in Britain. Two things were striking about their work. First, the sheer scale of involvement. Around 12 million women and men were involved in running 1.3 million bodies – and what is especially interesting here is that these were what we might describe as associations – ‘small democracies’ (1995: 39). Second, Elsdon and his colleagues demonstrated empirically the educative potential of voluntary groups.
They comment on:

… the great range of learning, change and satisfaction over and above those which are deliberate, inherent in the organization’s objectives, and expected by their members. The one which was given priority almost universally, and reported as being of greater importance than the content objective of the organization, is quite simply growth in confidence, and its ramifications and secondary effects of self-discovery,
freedom in forging relationships and undertaking tasks, belief in oneself and in one’s potential as a human being and an agent, and ability to learn and change both in the context of the organization’s objectives and in others. (1995: 47)

In the United States similar studies have been undertaken and the many of the same benefits mapped (see Smith 2000). Besides individual growth, there are significant political gains. Small-scale local organizations help to underpin democracy (Richardson 2008: 251) Malcolm Knowles has similarly argued that ‘these groups are the foundation stones of our democracy. Their goals largely determine the goals of our society’ (Knowles 1950: 9). In this he was drawing on a long tradition of American practice – one that was identified and developed by Alexis de Tocqueville,

the strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it. Without local institutions a nation may give itself a free government; but it has not got the spirit of liberty’ (1994) First published 1835.

Institutions such as churches, tenants groups and YMCAs involve people in freely combining together in order to further some agreed purpose. They have members, officers and committees: structures and ways of working that should allow those involved a say and a vote. In other words, they have an associational structure. Alongside these more formal organizations, other forms of significant, locally-based, organizing has emerged – often around the needs of families (see Bookman 2004). Of course, there are all sorts of problems with all these forms work out in practice – but the potential remains:

  • Such local organizations are part of larger political processes. Many were formed with the definite purpose of representing people’s interests, for example, tenants action groups and residents associations.
  • They usually carry within them some valuing of co-operation and a commitment to those in membership. Again, we only have to think about the activities of most religious groups or tenants groups to confirm this.
  • Many local groups may be thought of as mutual aid organizations. They involve people joining together to produce goods and services for their own enjoyment. The basis for this is reciprocal, and relationships carry within them some idea of ‘give and take’. Many ‘organize around enthusiasms’ (Bishop + Hoggett 1985) ranging from swimming clubs to beekeeping societies and train-spotting circles; from allotment associations to antiques groups and basketball teams. These groups can help provide a sense of belonging and identity as well as a setting to meet and make friends with people. (See Smith 1994: 152; Hanley 2007; Richardson 2008).

Crucially, such groups and organizations have considerable educative power. Groups, of whatever nature, can become, in Malcolm Knowles‘ words, ‘laboratories of democracy’ – places where people can have the experience of learning to live co-operatively. ‘Attitudes and opinions’, he wrote, ‘are formed primarily in the study groups, work groups and play groups with which adults affiliate voluntarily’. They help to create ‘habits of the heart’: mores that allow people to connect with each other and the wider community (see Bellah et al 1996).

The decline of associational activity and the seeds of change

Drawing upon a range of studies, Robert Putnam (1999) has argued that there has been a significant decline in associational activity in the United States since the 1960s. Alongside this has come a growing social distance between neighbours, friends and the extended family. The result, he contends, is a significant decline in social capital – social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity.

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper social engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago – silently without warning – that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (Putnam 1999: 27)

Theda Skocpol (2003) has explored the ways in which this diminishes democracy – highlighting the shifts in American civic life in particular the movement from an emphasis on membership to one of management  in non-profit groups and associations. This trend brings with it major costs in terms of human well-being (economic, social, personal) but is not irreversible, he contends. Alternative forms of local mutual aid and organization have developed – especially around the needs of family and child care – and in them there may, as Ann Bookman (2004: 6) has argued, be the seeds of a movement for strengthening the quality of community life. Furthermore, as Liz Richardson (2008) has shown, when local groups are given quite small sums of money to undertake activities they judge to be important for their communities there is often a significant response and involvement.

La vie associative

The idea that voluntary organization has great educational potential has a long history in adult education, community work and youth work. For example, one of the pioneers of the Mechanics Institutes and, incidentally, one of the first English writers to discuss social education, James Hole (1860) explored the ‘educative tendency’ of associations. As we have already noted, the writers of the famous ’1919 Report’ on adult education also saw this:

There is… in a voluntary body a definite point of view, a common outlook, and a common purpose which give it a corporate spirit of its own. This corporate spirit is, perhaps, the most valuable basis for group study (1956 version: 158).

In French there is a term for this – la vie associative - and it constitutes a strong tradition of practice within French adult or ‘popular’ education. La vie associative is, according to Toynbee (1985: 33), a difficult term to translate into English ‘because it contains an idea or even an ideal which is not so apparent in Britain. It recognizes the importance of association in the widest sense of the word and the effect which this can have both on the life of the individual and on the life of a village, town, region or country. The “life of the associations” or the “associative life” are inadequate translations’

One cannot reduce adult education to a series of regular activities consisting of modules which have now become ritualized in the form of courses. The very participation in the life of an association, being conscious of what one is doing there (such as the running of a centre) is, in itself, a form of education. And the life of the association sometimes constitutes a springboard for taking on other responsibilities at a local or national level (Ormessano quoted in Toynbee 1985: 10)


Linked to these ideas is a political project. It is argued that if we follow a simple idea there will be considerable gains. This  is that, ‘human welfare and liberty are both best served when as many of the affairs of a society as possible are managed by voluntary and democratically self-governing associations’ (Hirst 1993: 112). Sometimes known as ‘associationalism’, this notion ‘gives priority to freedom in its scale of values, but it contends that such freedom can only be pursued effectively if individuals join with their fellows’ (Hirst 1993: 112).

Early adult education activists such as James Hole were strong associationalists, but it was through the work of  Mary Parker Follett that it reached a significant number of social and educational activists. In groups,

… the centre of consciousness is transferred from our private life to our associate life. Thus through our group activities does neighbourhood life become a preparation for neighbourhood life; thus does it prepare us for the pouring out of strength and strain and effort in the common cause (Follett 1918: 368)

Follett’s work deeply influenced a number of the pioneers of educational settlements and community centres in the UK. She was also deeply influenced by thinkers such as Harold Laski and his concern for decentralization. Her argument is in part based on her opposition to American machine politics but much of the book is a critique of representative democracy in general. She argues for the organization of groups and for the neighbourhood to be developed as a political base: to substitute for the fictitious democracy of equal rights and consent of the governed the living democracy of a united people is the task of the 20th century’. The community group meeting regularly for genuine discussion this provides an opportunity for learning to together and taking responsibility for community life, a mode of expression of a genuine ‘will of the people’.

Our proposal is that people should organise themselves into neighbourhood groups to express their daily lives, to bring to the surface the needs, desires and aspirations of that life, that these needs would become the substance of politics, and that these neighbourhood groups should become the recognised political units. (Follett 1918: )

This vision owes much to the small town vision of democracy that runs through American political and literary culture. It links into the concerns of settlement workers like Jane Addams (a friend of Dewey) and, in this country to workers in educational settlements and the newly appearing community association movement (such as Basil Yeaxlee).

In this we can also see deep links with the vision of John Dewey in Democracy and Education and The Public and its Problems. Dewey held that individualism must be restructured around the principle that the moral development of each separate self in a democracy is in a profound and specifiable sense dependent on the collective contribution of all other selves (Gunn 1992: 75). ‘The individual in his isolation is nothing; only in and through an absorption of the aims and meaning of organized institutions does he attain true personality (Dewey 1916: 94). Democracy, from the point of view of the individual, is the possession of a ‘responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain.’

In conclusion – la vie associative and informal education

What I am trying to say here is that informal education is inevitably concerned with associations. It isn’t just that they provide us with a place to work. It is also that participation in the life of an association is, in itself, a form of education. Josephine Macalister Brew put it thus: ‘A club is neither a series of individuals… nor is a club a club leader. A club is a community engaged in the task of educating itself’ (1943: 67).

‘A club is a community engaged in the task of educating itself’. What does this tell us about ourselves as informal educators. First, our focus on conversation expresses and fosters values, and ways of being with each other, that are central to democracy. Second, the organizations in which we work for much of the time – clubs, groups, and associations – usually have ‘democratic’ structures. These may not be open or used – but they are there. They provide a chance for learning, and for engaging in politics.

Our task as informal educators is to work alongside people so that they may learn and organize things for themselves. Central to this is a concern that all, in Dewey’s words, may share in a common life. This is not marginal to our task as educators – it is central. The cultivation of the knowledge, skills and virtues necessary for political participation – is more important morally than any other purpose of public education in a democracy (Gutmann 1987: 287). Yes, people do need to learn various skills related to work and to home life. Yes, people do need to develop their intellects so that they may add to the sum of human knowledge. But more important than these is learning to engage with each other in ways that display mutual respect, a concern for others needs, and a belief in community. For without this, such democracy as we have will be subverted, and oppression will flourish. When that happens education serves the interests of the few. We need to recover association. A flourishing political community is dependent on there being large numbers of associations. These, ‘act as nurseries for feelings of mutual loyalty and trust which hold the wider community together, and where the skills of self-government may be learned and practised’ (Marquand 1988: 239).

Informal educators cannot be neutral. Our behaviour and attitudes must convey deep respect for democratic values.

Further reading

Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A. and Tipton, S. M. (1992) The Good Society New York: Vintage. 347 + viii pages. Exploration of the importance of institutions in (US) society. The book has a good introductory pieces on the way in which we live through institutions – and goes on to examine political economy: markets and work; government, law and politics; education: technical and moral; the public church; and America in the world. The concluding chapter ‘Democracy means paying attention’ sums up one of the dominant themes in the book. Follow-up to the very influential Habits of the Heart. Individualism and commitment in American life 2e, Berkeley: University of California Press (1985; 1996).

Bishop, J. and Hoggett (1986) Organizing Around Enthusiasms. Mutual aid in leisure, London: Comedia. 132 pages. Excellent study of hobbiest and leisure groups and clubs. Examines mutual aid in leisure; leisure sub-cultures; the contribution of individuals to groups; the environment of groups; and the structure and dynamic of communal leisure organizations. [Out of print].

Cohen, J. and Rogers, J. (1995) Associations and Democracy, London: Verso. 267 + xiv pages. The authors put forward the case for rejuvenating democratic states through the strengthening of secondary associations such as neighbourhood groups; parent-teacher associations and women’s societies. Their claims are then critiqued by an impressive group of contributors.

van Deth, J. W. (ed.) (1997) Private Groups and Public Life. Social participation, voluntary associations and political involvement in representative democracies, London: Routledge. 244 + xv pages. Explores the changing role of voluntary associations, intermediary organizations and other social movements in a number of European and Scandinavian countries. Useful around political participation.

Elsdon, K. T. with Reynolds, J. and Stewart, S. (1995) Voluntary Organizations. Citizenship, learning and change, Leicester: NIACE.168 + viii pages. Report of a six year, large scale English research project which examines the place of voluntary organizations with regard to adult learning. A major contribution to the literature that explores the development of local voluntary organizations; provides a useful typology; and strongly evidences their associational and educational potential. In addition to the main report, the team produced some volumes of case study material – Adult Learning in Voluntary Organisations Volumes 1 – 3, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education. Volume 1 (Elsdon 1991) contains two fairly substantial case studies – a local group of the National Women’s register and a rural community association. Volume 2 (Stewart, S., Reynolds, J. and Elsdon, K. T. 1992) consists of 13 case studies ranging from a long established voluntary adult education institute, through various women’s groups to mutual aid and enthusiast groups. Volume 3 (Elsdon, K. T. with Stewart, S. and Reynolds, J. 1993) contains a further 15 studies including a settlement, a residents association, 2 WEA branches, a PTA plus various self help and enthusiast groups. A last and fourth volume A Town in Action: Voluntary networks in Retford (Reynolds, J. et al 1994) explores the nature of local activity and relationships between groups and key individuals.

Etzioni, A. (1997) The New Golden Rule. Community and morality in a democratic society, London: Profile Books. 314 + xxi pages. Interesting development of communitarian debates based around what Etzioni sees as the two cardinal founding principles  and core virtues of the good society: social order (based on moral values) and autonomy (or “thick” liberty). The “golden rule” is where these are in equilibrum.

Galbraith, M. W. (ed.) (1990) Education Through Community Organizations, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 97 pages. Useful North American collection that explores the nature of community education; social and fraternal rganizations as educators; and then looks at various forms of institution – religious bodies, libraries, museums, human service organizations etc.

Hanley, Lynsey (2007) Estates. An intimate history. London: Granta. Books. A very readable and insightful exploration from first-hand experience of living on council estates.

Heath, S. B. and McLaughlin, M. W. (1993) Identity and Inner-City Youth: Beyond ethnicity and gender, New York: Teachers College Press. Important collection exploring the contribution of youth organizations – how they represent ‘embedded contexts’ that allow young people to construct positive senses of self and ‘envision a hopeful future’. Examines frames for identity that extend beyond gender and ethnicity. Brings out the contrast between the perceptions of young people and policymakers.

Hirst, P. (1994) Associative Democracy.New forms of economic and social governance, Cambridge: Polity. 222 + x pages. Examines how self-governing voluntary associations can help to democratize and breathe life into civil society. Chapters examine associative principles and democratic reform; associationalist ethics and collective action;
associative democracy and economic governance; welfare and collectivism; associational states.

Power, Anne (2007) City Survivors. Bringing up children in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Bristol: The Policy Press. Based on a major study of people’s experiences over a number of years this book brings out the significance of neighborhood and the problems that people face in increasingly polarized areas.

Putnam, R. D. (1999) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 540 pages. Groundbreaking book that marshals evidence from an array of empirical and theoretical sources. Putnam argues there has been a decline in ‘social capital’ in the USA. He charts a drop in associational activity and a growing distance from neighbours, friends and family. Crucially he explores some of the possibilities that exist for rebuilding social capital. A modern classic.

Richardson, Liz (2008) DIY Community Action: Neighbourhood Problems and Community Self-help. Bristol: Policy Press. Useful exploration of a scheme that sort to enhance local community groups with few strings being

Toynbee, W. S. (1985) Adult Education and the Voluntary Associations in France, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education. 44 + vi pages. Useful exploration of the state of adult education in France in the early 1980s. The focus is on la vie associative, education populaire and associations and voluntary activity.

Weale, A. (1999) Democracy, London: Macmillan. 236 + viii pages. Weale argues that the central justification for democracy is its capacity to enable members of society to advance their common interests as political equals in a situation of human fallibility. Chapters deal with a typology of forms; justification; autonomy, virtue and consent; participation and representation; forms of representation; consensus and majority rule; inclusion; constitutionalism; and obligations.

Other references

Bookman, Ann (2004) Staring in our own Backyards. How working families can build community and survive the new economy. New York :Routledge.

Brew, J. M. (1943) In the Service of Youth, London: Faber and Faber.

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press.

Follett, M. P. (1918) The New State. Group organization the solution of popular government (3rd impression [1920] with introduction by Lord Haldane), London: Longman Green and Co.

Frazer, E. (1999) The Problems of Communitarian Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 279 + ix pages.

Gunn, G. (1992) Thinking Across the American Grain. Ideology, intellect and the new pragmatism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gutmann, A. (1987) Democratic Education, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Held, David (2006) Models of Democracy 3e. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hole, J. (1860) ‘Light, More Light’ on the Present State of Education Amongst the Working Classes of Leeds, London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts.

Kumar, K. (1994) ‘Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’ in Z. Morsy (ed.) Thinkers on Education Volume 2, Paris: UNESCO.

Marquand, D. (1988) The Unprincipled Society. New demands and old politics, London: Fontana.

Ministry of Education (1960) The Youth Service in England and Wales (‘The Albemarle Report’), London: HMSO.

Ministry of Reconstruction (1919; 1956) Report of the Adult Education Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction, London: HMSO. (Republished in an edited version as A Design for Democracy, London: Max Parrish -
editor: R. D. Waller).

Nyrere, J. (1978) ‘Development is for man, by man, and of man: the Declaration of Dar es Salaam’ in B. L. Hall and J. R. Kidd (eds.) Adult Learning. A design for action, Oxford: Pergamon.

Skocpol, Theda (2003) Diminished Democracy. From membership to management in American civil life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Smith, David Horton (2000) Grassroots Associations. Thousand Oaks CA.: Sage.

Smith, M. K. (1994) Local Education. Community, conversation, praxis, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Yeo, S. (2001) Organic Learning, Leicester: NIACE


Mary Parker Follett and informal education

The Youth Service in England and Wales (‘The Albemarle Report’): introduction and contents

Acknowledgement: The picture /Art accompanied by grace’ – Shankar Gallery/Richard Lazzara. Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2000, 2012) ‘Association, la vie associative and lifelong learning’, the encyclopaedia of informal education [ Insert date].

©  Mark K. Smith  2000, 2002, 2008

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