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Co-option (also co-optation, sometimes spelled coöption or coöptation) has two common meanings:
- the process of adding members to an elected or appointed group at the discretion of members of the body (rather than that of the electors or appointing body) in order to fill vacancies, or to appoint additional members if permitted by the group's Constitution or rules.
- the process by which a group subsumes or acculturates a smaller or weaker group with related interests; or, similarly, the process by which one group gains converts from another group by attempting to replicate the aspects that they find appealing without adopting the full program or ideals.
Reasons for use
Two common uses of co-option are:
- to recruit members who have specific skills or abilities needed by the group which are not available among existing members.
- to fill vacancies which could not be filled by the usual process (normally election), e.g. if suitable candidates appear subsequently.
Co-opted members may or may not have the same rights as the elected members of a group (such as the right to vote on motions), depending on the rules of the group.
Limitations on use
If a group is elected or appointed based on the its members representing specific constituencies, co-option to fill vacancies is inappropriate, as a member selected by existing members will not necessarily represent the interests of the group represented by the vacating member. In this case, vacancies may be filled via a mechanism specified in its rules, such as a by-election. Examples are:
- geographical constituencies (as used in legislatures in the United States and United Kingdom)
- constituencies of adherents to a political party, known as proportional representation (as used in legislatures in Israel and New Zealand)
- ethnic groups (as used in Māori constituencies in the New Zealand legislature)
- any other affinity group.
This is arguably a derivation from the first sense.
The outcome of such co-option will be specific to the individual case, and will depend on the relative strength of the co-opting and co-opted groups, the degree of alignment of their interests and the vigour with which their members are prepared to pursue those interests. For example, if a group concerned with the welfare of horses co-opted a group concerned with the welfare of mules, the resulting group might change its name, its publicity, or its methods of addressing cases of abuse; it might extend its operations to the welfare of donkeys or wild equines; etc.
Selznick, again in the context of the Tennessee Valley Authority, described this form as "informal co-optation", although the process he describes is almost indistinguishable from the corrupt sale of political influence.
- Selznick, Philip (1949). TVA and the Grass Roots: a Study in the Sociology of Formal Organization. Berkeley: University of California Press. OCLC 2293803.