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Health and Social Care in the Community (2010) 18(4), 346–354 doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2524.2009.00899.

The lifespan and life-cycle of self-help groups: a retrospective study of groups in


Nottingham, UK
1 2
Sarah Chaudhary LLB (Hons) MA , Mark Avis BA (Hons) MSc RGN RMN RNT Cert Ed and Carol Munn-Giddings BA
3
MA PhD
1
School of Nursing, Midwifery and Physiotherapy, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK, 2School of Nursing,
Midwifery and Physiotherapy, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK and 3Faculty of Health and Social Care, Anglia
Ruskin University, Chelmsford, UK

Correspondence Abstract
Sarah Chaudhary This article is based on an analysis of a practice database held by Self
Room B49 (Research Office) Help Nottingham, an organisation that supports local self-help groups.
School of Nursing The database contains details of 936 groups that closed between 1982
Queen’s Medical Centre and 2007. The aim of the study is to provide qualitative and descriptive
University of Nottingham
quantitative information about the life-cycles of self-help groups, the
Nottingham NG7 2HA, UK
problems that they face throughout their existence and the likelihood of
E-mail: sarah.chaudhary@nottingham.
ac.uk different problems leading to their closure. The database was not
collated for research purposes and so we restrict our discussion of the
findings to identification of broad patterns regarding the birth and
closure rates of different types of group and questions for future
research. Comparisons were made between groups that addressed differ-
ent types of problem, groups with different memberships and groups
that had reached different stages in their existence. There was reasonable
consistency in the survival rates of different types of group with physical
health groups being the most likely to reach maturity followed by
mental health and lastly social issue groups. Survival rates for groups
that serve different membership populations were reasonably constant
although there were some anomalies. There were high levels of consis-
tency regarding the reasons for closure for groups closing at different
stages of maturity. The most commonly cited reasons among all groups
were the withdrawal of a ‘key’ member and a decline in membership.
The article suggests that some of the assumptions and prescriptions
within the existing literature need to be considered in light of more
detailed empirical evidence, and it raises questions about the theoretical
understanding of self-help groups.

Keywords: community settings, peer, self-help groups

Accepted for publication 04 October 2009

1999 at a rate of 9% per annum. However, these figures


Introduction
require caution as Elsdon’s study was based solely in
The number of self-help groups is believed to have Nottingham which may not be representative of the UK.
grown rapidly in recent years both in the UK and inter- Since Elsdon’s work, there has been no large-scale study
nationally (Borkman 1999, Munn-Giddings & McVicar of UK self-help groups.
2006). Elsdon et al. (2000) estimated that there were more The paucity of data about self-help groups reflects the
than 23 000 groups in the UK, and, based on entries in methodological challenges they present (Dadich 2003–
Self Help Nottingham’s (SHN) directory of self-help 2004). First, there is a lack of clarity in defining self-help
groups, that the number had grown between 1982 and groups, (Rootes & Aanes 1992, Adamsen & Rasmussen

346 ª 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd


The lifespan and life-cycle of self-help groups

2001), which are traditionally seen as distinct from sup- fore, essential to inform the sympathetic development of
port groups. The former being instigated and run by and health policies that encourage lay involvement in plan-
for members who generally share a medical condition or ning and delivery of services.
social situation, while the latter are usually defined as The study aims to add to the limited evidence regard-
being controlled by professionals. Lack of an accepted ing UK self-help groups and to increase understanding
definition is compounded by a reliance on international of group development and the reasons why groups
studies where different contexts and applications of self- close.
help complicate the picture (Steinke 2000). The definition
of self-help groups used in the current study draws on
Research context
that developed by SHN, which accepts varying levels of
professional contact provided that control and owner- The data on which this paper draws were provided by
ship of the group resides with members (Munn- SHN. SHN is an intermediary organisation that sup-
Giddings 2003). In addition, self-help groups involve ports local self-help groups. It provides a contact point
meeting with other people, who share the same or simi- for groups and for enquiries about self-help. It assists
lar circumstances or conditions, to discuss and to share groups at their inception and offers assistance, such as
coping strategies. This is usually conducted through training and small subsidies. It also supports groups
face-to-face meetings, but as use of the internet increases, over less tangible matters, for example, their direction
some groups hold ‘virtual’ meetings on-line. Sometimes, and aims. The city of Nottingham is the only UK area
other terms are used to describe the relationships in that has this type of support agency for all types of self-
these groups, for example, mutual aid groups and help group.
mutual helping groups. SHN records data on all the groups with which it has
Second, few local or national organisations systemati- contact. It also produces a directory of current groups
cally maintain records of self-help groups. Groups can that is distributed locally and available to the public. The
be hard to access and many have little or no contact with directory contains all those groups who consent to be
public agencies, thereby remaining hidden from public included and who have reached certain developmental
view. Research into self-help groups also tends to be par- milestones.
tial as usually only extant groups are included. It is diffi-
cult to contact groups that have closed or that have failed
Methods
to properly get started and consequently these groups
rarely attract research attention. The sample comes from a practice database that was
Although there is growing evidence regarding their kept as a means of logging the development of and
benefits (Kryouz & Humphreys 1997), little is known, maintaining contact with groups. It contains information
particularly in the UK, about groups’ life-cycles on 936 self-help groups that have closed down since
(Borkman 1999, King et al. 2000) and their reasons for SHN commenced keeping records in 1982. Initially the
closure. Understanding groups’ evolutionary processes data were collected using a paper based record system,
is based mainly on international, particularly American, and subsequently recorded and updated using a ‘Card-
studies (Karlsson et al. 2002) that may have limited appli- box’ computer database.
cation within the UK. The groups are classified into four types according to
This study comes at a time when UK health policy, their status at closure: (1)’enquiries’ are groups where
especially in relation to the management of long-term ill- SHN received a request for information about starting a
ness, is beginning to incorporate lay and peer expertise group, but no further development occurred; (2) groups
into service delivery (Taylor & Bury 2007). In addition, at the ‘thinking’ stage had responded to the information
there is an emphasis on the development of patient user from SHN and a meeting had taken place between a
groups, which, although distinct, share similarities with SHN worker and potential self-help group members; (3)
self-help groups (Godin et al. 2007). Although it is ‘new’ groups had reached the stage of having some
observed that self-help groups emerge and evolve in internal organisation and had begun to hold meetings;
response to their social policy context (Munn-Giddings and (4) ‘established’ groups had been operating for over
2003) and national welfare systems (Steinke 2000), previ- a year, had held regular meetings and had a method for
ous research also suggests that professionals misunder- being contacted by the public.
stand how self-help groups work (Wilson 1994, Elsdon After losing contact with groups, SHN sends out a
et al. 2000) and improving understanding of the ways in final letter asking the group to contact them if they are
which groups evolve is important in ensuring that pro- still active. If they receive no response, the group will be
fessional involvement is appropriate (King et al. 2000). logged as ‘closed’. It is possible that some of these groups
An understanding of self-help group processes is, there- may still be running without the knowledge of SHN.

ª 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd 347


S. Chaudhary et al.

The majority of information is recorded within prede- words in the free text. Again there was some overlap
termined categories including the group name, first and with some groups citing more than one reason for their
last contact dates, contacts with professionals and closure. In these cases, the groups were included in all
whether groups undertook certain forms of publicity. In cited categories as it was generally not possible to rank
addition, the database includes some free text providing the various reasons.
more information about some of the groups, such as To increase the validity of the study, the findings
their reasons for closure. were referred back to staff at SHN for comment.
Ethical approval was not deemed necessary as the
study, relying solely on existing, routinely collected data,
Results
falls within the definition of service evaluation (National
Patient Safety Agency 2008) and was undertaken for the
Types of group
purposes of SHN’s own internal evaluation. The data-
base was anonymous and contained no confidential Of the 936 groups, 419 were physical health groups.
information. These included groups for transient, long-term, common
and rare conditions. The mental health category com-
prised of 185 groups. These included diagnosed condi-
Analysis
tions such as schizophrenia and more general conditions
The data record fields were not designed for research such as stress or addiction. ‘Social issues’ comprised 349
purposes and the validity of the information contained groups including bereavement and unemployment as
in the database had not been tested. Consequently, a well as broader situations such as ‘isolation’. Some
broadly qualitative approach coupled with descriptive groups from this category were social groups that did
analysis was deemed most appropriate. The descrip- not address a specific problem.
tive statistics were obtained using ‘Cardbox’ indexing Within these broad categories were a number of fre-
software. Basic content analysis was used (Graham quently occurring subgroups as shown in Table 1 below.
2005) for counting key words and themes contained
in the database. This is an appropriate analytic
Characteristics of members
method for building a picture of a phenomenon rather
than explaining the reasons for its occurrence (Adams Some groups were exclusive to specific memberships
et al. 2009), and thereby consistent with the paper’s including parents, black people and women, as can be
aim of contributing to evidence about UK self-help seen in Table 2. These membership categories were not
groups and to develop further questions for future mutually exclusive. Four hundred and ninety-nine
research. groups did not have specific membership require-
Groups were categorised according to the type of ments.
condition they addressed. The three main categories
were physical health, mental health and social issues.
These categories were subdivided according to the most
frequently occurring subgroups. Additional groupings Table 1 Most frequently occurring subgroups
were made according to membership characteristics such
as gender and ethnicity. The allocation to these catego- Number of groups
ries was done through the group’s name and explana-
Cancer 34
tory notes in the text. There was some overlap among
Disability 39
the categorisations. Where it was possible to discern a Gynaecology 21
main purpose or main type of membership, it was allot- Parents of sick children 84
ted to that category. Where groups appeared to have a General mental health 67
dual purpose or membership, they were allotted to both Addiction 45
Bereavement 49
categories.
Parenting 85
The data were also categorised according to the Domestic violence and rape 22
group’s status at closure. Groups at the ‘enquiry’ or Social group 39
‘thinking’ stage were categorised as having closed while Sexual abuse 24
‘in development.’ Those at the ‘new’ or ‘established’ General carers’ groups 24
Other 420
stage were classified as closing after becoming ‘estab-
lished.’ The column total is greater than the number of groups as the
Reasons for closure were given for approximately categories were not exclusive.
one-third of groups. Categories were derived from key *Total number of groups is 936.

348 ª 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd


The lifespan and life-cycle of self-help groups

Table 2 Breakdown of type of group by status


Longevity of groups
Established In development Total
To provide more insight into groups’ life-cycles, the data
Health 205 (49%) 214 (51%) 419 were summarised according to the length of time for
Mental health 81 (44%) 104 (56%) 185 which the groups existed, as shown in Table 2 below.
Social 136 (39%0 213 (61%) 349 Of the 936 groups, 515 (55%) had closed while ‘in
Cancer 16 (47%) 18 (53%) 34 development’. These groups’ lifespan ranged from a sin-
Disability 18 (46%) 21 (54%) 39
gle contact with SHN to over 30 months.
Parents of sick children 45 (54%) 39 (46%) 84
General mental health 30 (45%) 37 (55%) 67 The remaining 421 (45%) groups had closed after
Addiction 24 (53%0 21 (47%) 45 becoming ‘established.’ These groups had lasted
Bereavement 26 (53%) 23 (47%) 49 between 1 and 27 years.
Social group 19 (49%) 20 (51%) 39 There was reasonable consistency regarding the pro-
Domestic violence and rape 7 (32%) 15 (68%) 22
portion of groups reaching ‘established’ status prior to
Criminal justice 2 (17%) 10 (83%) 12
Sexual abuse 9 (37%) 15 (63%) 24 closure. However, as Table 2 indicates, some categories
Parenting 35 (41%) 50 (59%) 85 showed exceptionally high or low proportions of ‘estab-
Black 21 (60%) 14 (40%) 35 lished’ groups.
Asian 15 (48%) 16 (52%) 31
Men 10 (36%) 18 (64%) 28
Women 78 (45%) 96 (55%) 174 Reasons for groups’ closure
Reasons were given for 319 groups, although for 42
groups, these reasons merely stated that SHN had ‘lost
Professional contacts
contact’ with the group and so we cannot be certain that
This information was recorded for 688 groups of which they were not still running. Of the 42 groups where ‘lost
384 had been in contact with professionals. The database contact’ was stated, 27 (64%) were ‘in development’ and
showed 304 groups as not having had contact with pro- 15 (36%) were established. The subsequent analysis con-
fessionals; however, it may be that some of these had cerns the remaining 277 groups for which reasons for
contacts of which SNH was unaware. The type of profes- closure were given.
sional was logged in most cases. These included health
and social workers, clergy, teachers and charity workers.
Reasons for closure: groups ‘in development’
The nature of the relationship was not recorded.
Similar proportions (41% and 42% respectively) of Of these 277 groups, 85 had closed while ‘in develop-
groups that closed while ‘in development’ and when ment’. The most common reason, given by 25 groups,
‘established’ were recorded as having had contact with was due to the key member’s withdrawal. The most fre-
professionals. quent reasons for this withdrawal were ill-health, a
Of the 49 groups that had lasted for at least 10 years, change of focus or a change in their circumstances.
only 11 had links with professionals, whereas 25 had ‘Dwindling numbers’ was cited by 23 groups as a cause
not. The remainder of these cases was unknown. of closure and 23 groups also stated that they had failed
to properly ‘get going.’ This was often for similar reasons
as for key members’ withdrawal, such as the initiator’s
Publicity
ill-health.
The database logged which groups had appeared in Six groups reported practical problems, such as find-
SHN’s directory and their listings page in the local news- ing suitable venues, as either the reason for the group’s
paper. To be eligible for inclusion in either medium, closure or leading to a decline in numbers and its conse-
groups had to have reached ‘established’ stage and been quent closure.
fulfilling certain requirements such as holding meetings. A further 11 groups closed for reasons connected to
One hundred and thirty-one groups had appeared in the external organisations. In four cases, the group believed
newspaper, while 194 had not. Two hundred and one that the national organisation better addressed their
groups had been entered in the directory while 64 had needs than a local group. The remaining seven groups
not. It was unclear from the database how many of these were reliant on public sector workers and when these
groups had chosen not to be included and how many workers withdrew the groups were unable to continue.
were omitted due to not meeting SHN’s entry require- Additional reasons for closure were; the group hav-
ments. However, staff at SHN stated that a ‘significant ing achieved its purpose (two), the group no longer
proportion’ had elected not to be entered in either med- being self-help (five) and problems among members
ium. Only nine groups had had their own website. (one).

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S. Chaudhary et al.

Table 3 Reasons for groups’ closure at different stages of


Reasons for closure: ‘established’ groups maturity
Of the 277 groups with reasons for closure, 192 were
Age of group 1–3 4–6 7–9 10 or
‘established’. Again the two most common reasons were at closure (total years years years more
key member withdrawal (74 groups), followed by declin- number of groups) (74) (43) (26) years (49)
ing membership (72). The reasons for key members leav-
ing were similar to those given by groups ‘in Key member 24 18 10 22
development’; however, ‘established’ groups also cited withdrawal
Dwindling numbers 37 11 9 15
the ‘unwilling[ness]’ of other members to contribute to Practical problems 4 3 1 6
the group’s organisation or to assume leadership. External 9 9 6 9
A change in focus was cited by 23 groups. Five of these organisations
became professionally organised while others became Change of focus 5 11 2 5
campaigning groups. A few groups changed from meet- Never got going 7 0 0 0
Achieved aims 2 3 4 0
ing as a group to meeting simply as friends. In some Problems 4 2 0 1
cases, a change of direction was related to declining among members
membership, group leaders therefore deciding to offer Merger 3 1 0 2
telephone help-lines instead. Lack of support 0 0 2 1
The reasons given by ‘established’ groups were similar
*Columns add up to more than total of groups as categories are
in proportion to those for groups ‘in development’,
not exclusive.
although some, such as a failure to ‘get going,’ were, as
perhaps expected, less common in ‘established’ groups,
with only seven groups citing this. Conversely, some Number of group closures
problems were more likely to become apparent after the Table 4 indicates the number of groups that closed
group had been operating for some time, for example, within 5-year bands for the time period under consider-
problems between members were reported by seven ation. The years in which groups actually closed were
groups and merger was the reason why six groups closed. given for 585 groups. For 350 groups, no closed date was
Reasons connected to external agencies accounted for recorded and so the table uses the date of their final con-
the closure of 33 groups, with 14 of these closing due to tact with SHN. One group had no contact dates
the influence of national self-help organisations. As with recorded.
groups ‘in development’, closure was sometimes at the
members’ instigation; however, there were also ‘compli-
cations’ and ‘problems’ with national bodies and in five Discussion
cases, the national group was cited as having closed The data provide a number of points of interest that will
down the local branch. A change in relationship with add to the limited knowledge base about UK self-help
professionals was stated by 19 ‘established’ groups. groups’ life-cycle processes. They suggest important
Again, this was usually due to reliance on a worker who questions, both for future research and regarding the the-
could no longer support the group. In addition, some oretical understanding of self-help groups.
groups closed due to changes in local services, which It is important, however, to note the limitations of the
made them unviable or superfluous. study. First, the data held by SHN were not collected for
Further reasons included practical problems, usually research purposes. Second, Nottingham is the only area
with venues (14 groups), or the group having achieved with a dedicated organisation that supports all types of
its purpose (nine groups). A lack of ‘support’ was cited self-help group. This may have a significant effect on
by three groups, although it was unclear to whom this groups’ survival rates. Furthermore, not all self-help
lack of support referred. groups in the Nottingham area choose to be in contact

Further analysis of ‘established’ groups according


Table 4 Number of group closures over time
to lifespan
The reasons for closure were further analysed for groups 1982– 1985– 1990– 1995– 2000– 2005– Total
that had existed at different lengths of time to provide 1984 1989 1994 1999 2004 2007
more detail about the types of problem that occur during
Number of 10 142 157 313 213 100 935
a group’s evolution. In fact, as Table 3 indicates, the rea- groups
sons for closure were fairly consistent irrespective of the
group’s age. *No contact dates were recorded for one group.

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The lifespan and life-cycle of self-help groups

with SHN and those that do not may behave differently bers may affect survival rates. International studies
than those that do. (Lieberman & Snowden 1999, Barnett et al. 2006) state
Consequently, the findings would strictly be that self-help groups are more widely used by people
regarded as specific to Nottingham. However, the dearth with higher levels of education and socioeconomic sta-
of knowledge about UK self-help groups means that at tus. Elsdon’s study (2000) found that UK groups are
present they may represent the best available informa- rarely accessed by social classes that include unskilled
tion of this type and a means through which future ques- labour and the unemployed. It may be that the typically
tions about self-help groups in all areas of the UK can be low socioeconomic status, low levels of education and
defined. often chaotic lives of prisoners would make the establish-
Groups’ practices, such as their ways of attracting ment of groups more difficult. Domestic violence, rape
new members, are believed to affect survival rates (Wi- and sexual abuse groups also showed high rates of early
tuk et al. 2002). However as Medvene (1985) stated, due closure, which may indicate a negative relationship
to their small-scale, non-bureaucratic and collectivist nat- between social stigma and group survival. These issues
ure, standard organisational theories may not be applica- also have greater scope for political and ideological dis-
ble to self-help groups and this may still be the case agreements between group members than do health con-
today. Similarly standard organisational practices such ditions, potentially leading to difficulties in becoming
as the need for publicity or the desire to maximise mem- established. Such factors could also possibly account for
bership will not necessarily be desirable for self-help the difference in proportions of early closure between
groups. Some of these groups, including many that had groups for parents of sick children, of which 54% became
existed for several years, appear to have preferred to ‘established’ and for parenting of which only 41%
remain ‘hidden’ and to limit their membership, as shown became ‘established. Williams (2004) describes how
by their reluctance to publicise themselves. It may be that members of parenting groups have an acute sense of
for some groups to maintain their particular philosophy, stigmatisation, whereas such feelings are unlikely to be
it is desirable that prospective members proactively seek held by parents of sick children, and parenting problems,
them out rather than being reached through standard at least those reaching the attention of statutory services,
routes such as advertising. Self-help groups are extre- tend to be associated with lower socioeconomic groups
mely varied in their aims and ways of working and so it (Katz et al. 2007). However, the numbers in the data set
should be expected that a wide range of practices will are too small to allow further testing of this hypothesis.
suit different groups. Therefore, guidance and advice for In all cases, further research would be needed to allow
groups should not be overly prescriptive or necessarily firm conclusions about why groups for certain popula-
based on presumptions that underlie mainstream organi- tions have difficulty in becoming established. It would
sations. be useful, for example, to explore whether these groups
Literature suggests that growing numbers of groups require additional support, whether they are more feasi-
have links with health and social care professionals ble when operating under a national organisation or
(Medvene et al. 1999–2000, Ben-Ari 2002, Wituk et al. whether indeed there are some problems for which self-
2002), but there is disagreement as to how this relates to help may not generally be appropriate.
groups’ lifespans (Maton et al. 1989, King et al. 2000, Black groups were the most likely to become ‘estab-
Wituk et al. 2002). Maton et al. suggest a complex rela- lished’. Again this raises questions for future research. If
tionship, whereby there is an optimal level of profes- the reasons relate to particular features within black com-
sional support, beyond which it actually lowers survival munities, then this may not be transferable to non-black
rates. They also state that when professional support is groups. However, if it is due to the nature of the support
coupled with assistance from a national umbrella organi- or assistance that black groups receive, lessons might be
sation, it can negatively affect longevity. The findings do learned that are relevant more broadly. Obaze (1999) has
not allow for firm inferences, but appear to support the suggested that black people are more likely to be
view that the effects of professional involvement are not involved in community mutual aid than in traditional
straightforward. Over half of the groups that closed after voluntary organisations, and it may be that this also
10 years or more did not have any links with profession- applies to single issue self-help groups. This type of
als suggesting that professional contact is not vital to information can be useful at the level of policy planning,
group survival. for example, when trying to recruit ethnic minorities into
Although these findings do not allow for predictions volunteering too narrow a focus on the traditional volun-
about the expected lifespan of different types of group, tary sector may be less effective than policies that facili-
some of the data stood out as being of particular interest. tate the organisation of self-help groups.
The difficulties in establishing ex-prisoners’ groups sug- The closure of 55% of the groups before becoming
gest that the demographic characteristics of group mem- ‘established’ supports the work of Maton et al. (1989) that

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S. Chaudhary et al.

found a ‘steady turnover’ of self-help groups and the lights these issues in response to her work with Ameri-
view that self-help groups tend to have a natural life- can groups and the extent to which her typology of
span. This life-cycle may be a consequence of the way in professional relationships with self-help groups is appli-
which groups are usually instigated and led by individ- cable in the UK is open to further enquiry. Research
ual founder members. It may also be due to patterns in should also begin to ask how groups that are begun by,
membership renewal, which slow down after groups’ or initially rely heavily on, professionals can successfully
initial impetus to attract members. A common response pass control to group members.
(King et al. 2000, Wituk et al. 2002) is to regard these Increased understanding of professionals’ different
issues as ‘problems’ and to look for ways to resolve them roles may also allow for more accurate definitions of
to increase survival chances. However, the risk in this self-help groups in relation to support groups.
approach is that extending groups’ lives may come to The data do not indicate any distinct pattern in the
take priority over allowing them to evolve in their own rate of group closure over the last 30 years and do not
unique and spontaneous ways. Interventions designed allow us to infer the effects of changing social attitudes,
to improve longevity could thus undermine groups’ policy changes or technological advances, most particu-
effectiveness. Furthermore, to focus too closely on the larly the growth of the internet. However, the mainte-
‘problem’ of key member withdrawal, or to place too nance of this type of information is important if future
much emphasis on groups developing pre-emptive strat- research is to address such questions and it would be
egies against it could lead to the creation of the very valuable to discover how the growth of on-line self-help
problems such interventions were intended to resolve, might be related to the survival chances of face-to-face
ensuring that groups who may otherwise have coped groups.
with this situation come to see it as inevitably leading to The findings also raise theoretical questions about
crisis. The ‘problem’ of group closure due to key mem- self-help groups. Self-help groups are believed to be
ber withdrawal or declining membership may be an grounded in the principle of serial reciprocity whereby
intrinsic by-product of how groups work and thus inter- benefit to oneself is derived through helping others and
ference in these processes could fundamentally alter the contributing to the group (Medvene & Teal 1997, Munn-
group’s nature. Giddings & McVicar 2006). That so many groups close
Similarly, attempts to ‘improve’ the survival chances when key members leave suggests that this is not always
of self-help groups could affect the environmental equi- occurring. The withdrawal of the key member would
librium that gives rise to new groups. Maton et al. (1989) seem unlikely to have such effects if the members were
explain how groups arise in response to their environ- all contributing to the group. However, it may be that
ment, particularly in relation to existing groups. If this reciprocity applies only to the substantive work of
environment is altered by prolonging groups’ lives, the groups, for example with regard to giving and receiving
spontaneous dynamic of groups’ birth rates and turn- support, and not to its organisational functions.
over could be altered and consequently their unique The findings also indicate the need to begin to
responsiveness to changing problems could be affected. broaden the theoretical contextualisation of self-help
This does not mean that groups should not be given groups. It has been claimed that self-help groups play a
assistance or that advice and guidance would always be civic role within the community and can contribute
inappropriate, but rather that care is needed to ensure towards democratic regeneration (Giddens 1992, 1998,
that this advice works sympathetically with self-help Van Hove et al. 2000). However, while groups have been
groups’ natural processes and patterns. analysed in relation to civil society and the voluntary or
Although the data cannot support detailed conclu- third sector (Karlsson et al. 2002), they have not as yet
sions about why groups close, they suggest that a crucial been considered within Habermasian type frameworks
role is played by key members. It is therefore important of the public sphere. Within these models the public
that future research begins to ask more in-depth ques- sphere is broadly defined as a space in society, indepen-
tions about the nature of this role, the characteristics of dent of the state, in which groups of citizens associate
its holders and the reasons why groups may become so freely and communicate about issues pertaining to the
reliant upon them. common good (Calhoun 1992). These associations must
The reliance by some groups on professionals, as be inclusive and non-hierarchical in structure, and they
illustrated by these groups’ demise upon their with- should be conducive to the dissemination of ‘political
drawal, is also an important area for future research. The learning’, which includes, for example, organisational
findings here raise questions about the different roles skills (Marcello & Perrucci 2000).
that professionals have within groups and the ways in The apparent control of groups by key members and
which different types of professionals may view their the inability or unwillingness of other members to take
relationship with self-help groups. Borkman (1999) high- organisational responsibility, as well as some groups’

352 ª 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd


The lifespan and life-cycle of self-help groups

reliance on the leadership of professionals, suggests that of groups and the reasons why different types of
groups may not be functioning as ‘perfect democracies’ group appear to have a different likelihood of reaching
or structured in the egalitarian way that is frequently maturity.
presumed (Rootes & Aanes 1992, Brown et al. 2000) and
that gives rise to their being seen as contributing within
Acknowledgements
the public sphere.
This inability of members to take control of groups The authors would like to thank the staff at Self
also implies that they are not necessarily as effective as Help Nottingham, particularly Caroline Bell and
sites for the development of political learning as is some- David Thornton, for their assistance at all stages of
times suggested (Gidron & Chesler 1994, Elsdon et al. the research.
2000).
The reliance on and frequency of links with profes-
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