These terms refer to a type of society in which various large-scale corporate organizations with powerful vested interests are involved in the economic, social, and political decision-making process. Examples of groups of people acting jointly in their interest include business groups, the professions, trade unions, and pressure groups. Sociologists have usually concentrated their attention on economic corporations, especially large multinational corporations which have grown over the course of the 20th century, and on the extent to which they enjoy control over the economy or are themselves controlled by democratic processes.
The evidence suggests that business corporations have considerable power in the market, but they may also be constrained by competition in the market, and by the state. Corporate groups are interdependent. In the 1970s, it was argued that a corporatist relationship existed between employers associations and trade unions, who, along with the state, were jointly involved in economic decision-making. Corporatism was especially evident in West Germany, the Scandinavian countries, and to a lesser extent Britain. Corporate groups were said to enjoy a say in making national policy decisions in return for controlling their members. In relation to the trade unions, there has been much debate as to whether corporatism was a form of working-class incorporation, or an expression of worker power. In the harsher economic climate of the 1980s, however, corporatism all but disappeared, especially in Britain, when trade unions were almost entirely excluded from the policy process. The various interpretations of corporatism are spelled out fully in Order and Conflict in Contemporary Capitalism (1984), edited by John H. Goldthorpe, a collection of essays based on a series of comparative studies of political and industrial conflict in advanced capitalist societies during the post-1945 era.
It should be noted that theories of corporatism are sometimes called ‘neocorporatist theory’, to distinguish them from the normative theory of the corporate state espoused in the early 20th century by the Roman Catholic Church, Italian Fascist Party, and others.