Affinity Groups

People are social creatures: most individuals need to be with others, to belong to larger communities, and to identify with those larger communities. Affinity groups offer one pathway to fulfill those basic human needs. Participation in affinity groups also benefits society and good governance. Such participation fosters social capital and cultivates aspects of democratic citizenship such as intellectual, social, and participatory skills (e.g., identifying problems, seeking solutions, cooperating with others, managing conflict, and promoting compromise) as well as civic dispositions (e.g., respect for diverse ideas, concern for a community).

The vast majority of schools—both K–12 and collegiate—maintain, encourage, and support a variety of affinity groups. Most high school students are provided a wide array of affinity groups, often called clubs, from which to choose, such as the Fishing Club, Bible Club, or Young Republicans. Students initiate some high school clubs and apply to be recognized by the school. Schools maintain policies governing the activities of a club; for example, most require a faculty sponsor. Some provide nominal financial support to fund club activities, and most allow clubs to use school facilities, such as the announcement system or classrooms, for club activities.

The United States Constitution and federal law protect students’ rights to form clubs at the secondary and university level. In Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 ( 1981 ), the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Missouri–Kansas City violated a university student's free speech rights by refusing to recognize or allow a Christian group access to university facilities. Attempting to extend the logic of Widmar to secondary schools, Congress passed the Equal Access Act in 1984. The act states:

It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.

The Equal Access Act provides a broad umbrella of protection (i.e., religious, political, philosophical) for student affinity groups at public schools. Because the vast majority of public schools receive federal financial assistance and maintain “a limited open forum,” they are therefore subject to the limitations of the Equal Access Act. When high school student Bridget Mergens and her friends were not allowed to form a Christian Bible Club at Omaha Westside High School, she sued the school district. In Mergens v. Westside, 496 U.S. 226 ( 1990 ), the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act and the limits it imposed on public secondary schools.

Affinity groups are increasingly popular in the public and private sectors. Many large government institutions and corporate bureaucracies encourage the development and maintenance of affinity groups as a way to address an increasingly diverse workforce and foster employee satisfaction. The United States Department of State “encourages individualism in its workforce and offers several employee organizations to help strengthen and support its diversity.” The Department of State offers the following affinity groups:

The private sector also recognizes the value and potential of affinity groups. The company Procter and Gamble, for example, offers the following affinity groups to its employees:

Affinity groups and other associational activities, such as trade unions, religious organizations, political parties, and public meetings, are key aspects of political culture that help to form a person's civic identity. In free and open societies such as the United States, people are allowed to choose their affinities. Americans govern themselves through a common civic culture and identity, one that is marked by simultaneous membership in multiple groups.

SEE ALSO Civic Engagement ; Civil Society ; Social Movements ; Solidary .


Briscoe, Forrest, and Sean Safford. “Employee Affinity Groups: Their Evolution from Social Movement Vehicle to Employer Strategies.” Perspectives on Work 14, no. 1–2 (2015): 42–5.

Salomone, Rosemary C. “From Widmar to Mergens: The Winding Road of First Amendment Analysis.” Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 18 (1991): 295–323.

Procter & Gamble. “Employee & Affinity Groups at P&G.” 2014. .

Rice, Mitchell F. “Workforce Diversity in Business and Governmental Organizations.” Diversity and Public Administration (2005): 96–119.

U.S. Department of State. “Affinity Groups.” .

Van Aken, Eileen M., Dominic J. Monetta, and D. Scott Sink. “Affinity Groups: The Missing Link in Employee Involvement.” Organizational Dynamics 22, no. 4 (1994): 38–54.

Thomas S. Vontz
Kansas State University