The Difference Between Associations & Societies

Written by carol rzadkiewicz
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The Difference Between Associations & Societies
Though similarly defined, there is a subtle difference between a society and an association. (old dictionary series image by pdtnc from

According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, an association is "an organisation of persons having a common interest," whereas a society is "an organised group working together or periodically meeting because of common interests, beliefs or profession."

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According to Collier's Encyclopedia, societies are predominantly social in nature. Membership in many secret organisations, for example, depends upon factors such as "military or civic virtues, wealth and status, clan affiliation, outstanding accomplishments, or a particular religious experience." Membership may also be determined by birth or certain rituals. The length of the membership may either be for life, renewed by recurrent contributions or limited to a fixed period of time. Some examples include the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Knights of Columbus, Loyal Order of Moose, American Legion, Phi Beta Kappa and Freemasonry (Masons).


Associations are not predominantly social in nature, but like societies, they too determine membership based upon certain criteria such as shared education, training, political affiliation, interests and/or goals. However, membership in associations is never considered a birthright. Some examples of associations include the American Library Association, American Association of Retired Persons, National Endowment for the Arts, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, American Psychological Association, Educational Association of America and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


According to Webster's, an organisation is "a body of persons organised for some specific purpose, as a club, union or society." Organizations include both societies and associations, but they can also exist independently. Collier's says that although organisations determine membership based upon shared commonalities, they are usually professional, religious or ethical in nature. Some examples include the United Auto Workers, National Catholic Welfare Conference, National Council of the Churches of Christ, League of Women Voters and Girl Scouts of America.

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