Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Encyclopedia of Social Work. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 30 March 2023

Mutual Aid Societiesfree

Mutual Aid Societiesfree

  • Susheelabai R. Srinivasa, Susheelabai R. SrinivasaThe University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
  • Sudershan PasupuletiSudershan PasupuletiThe University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
  •  and Ram Shepherd BheenaveniRam Shepherd BheenaveniThe University of Texas Rio Grande Valley


Mutual aid societies, associations, and groups (MASAGs) are typical representations of the human spirit of cooperation and mutual help that characterized the evolution of human societies across civilizations and nations. These social entities are instrumental in bringing people together with common interests and needs to engage in mutually beneficial pursuits, relationships, and exchanges resulting in enduring benefits to the members and larger society. Mutual aid societies are member-led, member-organized, nonsectarian, and nonhierarchical voluntary social entities for mutual interests, mutual help, and empowerment. MASAGs are social inventions that have transformed and empowered members individually and collectively, with far-reaching spiraling effects on their families, social networks, communities, and societies throughout the world.


  • Macro Practice
  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

Mutual aid societies, associations, and groups (MASAGs) evolve from a voluntary initiation and involvement of members where they form themselves into a collective and undertake mutual-help activities (Hall & Kirdina-Chandler, 2017). Individuals who have common concerns, needs, and interests forge themselves into such collectives to support one another to find solutions to their common problems (Cronin, 2003). MASAGs are informal entities in which individuals engage in collective actions and build a collective agenda incrementally toward enhancing their own lives and their environment via cooperation, support, and help (Hood, 1991; Milward & Provan, 2000).

The practice of mutual aid is as old as human society because human beings have an innate social instinct in their DNA that intuitionally drives them to cooperate with one another and inclines them toward engagement in mutual help despite conflicts (Gächter, 2012). “Mutual aid” as a concept was popularized in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Kropotkin (1902), an anarchist philosopher with thoughts spanning many disciplines. Kropotkin’s ideology is consistent with the philosophy and practice of mutual aid as he rephrased what Darwin called “social instinct and sympathy” in humans (Shideler, 1960). Both Darwin and Kropotkin observed that humans successfully adapted through mutual aid and cooperation to natural selection in the context of vagaries of nature, adversities, and demands of survival (Shotwell, 2021). Humans responded to such natural challenges through mutual aid and cooperation, and that social instinct of mutual aid has been continuing through human history (Marsh, 2013, p. 433). It was social learning in early and primitive human societies as much as in modern societies. Even in recent times, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous mutual aid voluntary responses emerged in various areas of the world to provide relief and support services to the afflicted and their families (Domínguez et al., 2020). Many of them expanded their operations and services. Nashville Mutual Aid is one such example that emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (Schupak, 2020). It created a Google Sheet to connect people who can help with those who need help (Booth, 2020).

As social collectives of people with common interests, needs, and objectives (Katz & Bender, 1976; Levy, 2000), MASAGs engage in mutually beneficial interactions, activities, and programs, thus resulting in sharing and exchange of resources and services (Kropotkin, 1902). MASAGs are member-led, member-organized, nonhierarchical, and nonsectarian groups founded on reciprocal help and problem-solving of common problems for mutual benefit and upliftment (Katz & Bender, 1976; Levy, 2000). MASAG members help each other, and mutual help is deeply rooted in the collective wisdom of people historically (Briskin & Erickson, 2009). MASAGs are distinct entities from therapy and support groups, albeit mutual help and reciprocity are common features of all these groups. MASAGs may seem initially as support groups when members are engaged in helping one another and sharing experiences. Thus, the impact of MASAGs is not just confined to their members; they may transition into social action groups to create more impact on the macro environment.

MASAGs are in operation in all areas of the world and used in a variety of settings for advocacy, networking, empowerment, and influencing their environment. But the nomenclatures of these groups vary from one country to another; they are called mutual aid societies in the United States, connect groups in Australia (Mulvaney & Kamminga, 2020), and mutual-aid-driven self-help groups in African (Hill, 2021) and Asian countries (Nair, 2005; . Self-help groups are widely found in all Third World countries, wherein they are viewed as instruments for empowering women and other vulnerable populations, developing leadership abilities among the poor and the needy, increasing school enrolment, and improving nutrition and the use of birth control (Gugerty et al., 2019). In addition, with core principles of mutual aid and common interest, there are cooperatives for different ethnic populations, federal credit unions, and associations of employees in different industries that share core characteristics of mutual aid societies, yet there are differences among them.

Historical Overview of Mutual Aid Societies

Mutual aid has been a practice among humans from time immemorial. There have been many entities of cooperation and mutual help, whether formed and operated as formal or informal organizations. But the practice of mutual aid is human enterprise-driven, extending help, support, and services to one another on a mutual-benefit basis as well as on a humanitarian basis to those who are in need or crisis. Because it is not possible to document all human entities that might represent characteristics of MASAGs, some notable cases from the 19th–21st centuries are discussed in this section. Some of these MASAGs served specific ethnic and interest groups.

The Charitable Irish Society

One of the oldest mutual aid societies in North America is the Charitable Irish Society, established March 17, 1737. This was started by 26 male immigrants with Irish ancestry with the aim to provide relief to the poor, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and people who were suffering from sickness or due to shipwrecks and other accidental misfortunes (Shannon, 2015). The aim was “with good will doing service,” and it has been continuing since the society’s founding. These immigrants of Ulster Presbyterians from Northern Ireland wanted to protect themselves from the discrimination of the English penal laws imposed upon them (Shannon, 2015).

The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick

In 1771, the Society of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick was founded in Philadelphia. Members of this vibrant organization meet regularly to share, engage in fellowship, and experience common heritage. The society exists to promote Irish culture, education, and mutual aid among members. The society engages in fundraising through various acts of benevolence to provide help to its members and outsiders. Citizens of the United Irish lineage who are older than age 18 years and with good moral character are eligible for membership. However, it offers help to people with different religious backgrounds and all denominations of Catholics, Protestants, and Quakers (Campbell, 1892).

The Ancient Order of Hibernians

This mutual aid society, started by a group of Irish Catholics, was founded in New York City in 1836. Membership in this society was restricted to only Catholic males. The society’s work was driven by the motto unity, Christian charity, and friendship (Mannion, 2022).

Prevalence of Mutual Aid Societies Among American Racial and Ethnic Groups

In the past, people assumed that by living in ethnic enclaves, minorities and immigrants could insulate themselves from prejudice and discrimination amid the emerging tumultuous circumstances. This notion eventually culminated in establishing ethnic-based mutual aid groups. Thus, understanding conflict and cooperation among social groups, organizations, and nation-states is required for studying the history of mutual aid in the United States (Fernando, 2021).

The Irish Home Society

Irish Americans came together to form the Irish Americans Society (Riain, 1972). It was believed that a solitary group would serve the needs of the Irish community. The Irish American Home Society continues to welcome and bring Irish and Irish American families together and preserve Irish traditions, culture, music, and friendship. The society has experienced rapid growth since its origin in 1945 (O’Brien, 2011). The society aimed to serve old and new, and planned to continue to serve as a point of contact for newcomers to the United States to help them understand and appreciate the American way of life and also help preserve and appreciate the Irish culture (Meagher, 2005).

The African American Mutual Aid Society, Philadelphia

In 1778, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, two African men, identified a need for a society to promote orderly and healthy social living without any religious identity and affliction. The society needed to support members during sickness and protect widows and fatherless children (Douglass, 1862). The African American community thereupon developed a network of benevolent societies that included African American mutual aid societies such as the National Association of Colored Women, Mutual Benefit–Free African Society, New York African Society for Mutual Relief, Negro Mutual Benefit Society in Philadelphia, and the New York Phoenix Society (Douglass, 1862).

The Free African Society

In 1787, Black ministers founded the historical Free African Society. The members of this society pooled money every week and helped the society’s needy. It was a nondenominational society that was open to all religious sects; no one sect had enough members to establish its own mutual aid society (Barge, 2016).

New York African Society for Mutual Relief

In 1808, more than two decades after the Free African Society was formed, the New York African Society for Mutual Relief was founded. This society also provided health and life insurance for its members and their families (Alexander, 2008). In 1809, William Hamilton gave a call to the members of the society to “Let us all be united, my brethren,” concluding in rousing rhetoric for “mutual interest, mutual benefit, and mutual relief” (Wilder, 1998).

Negro Mutual Benefit Society in Philadelphia

In 1831, this mutual aid society made a public announcement in a newspaper notice “To the Public,” seeking contributions for the relief and education of poor African Americans in Philadelphia. The society listed its goals and the relief offered to its members and the public (Ergood, 1971).

Phoenix Society, New York City

In 1833, this society made its goals public via a newspaper. The primary goals were the education of Black children and adults, trade apprenticeships, and promotion of self-improvement groups. Later, it extended its service of providing clothes to children who were not members of the society (Hembree, 2006).

Other African American Mutual Aid Societies

Following the establishment of the Phoenix Society, another African American mutual aid society was formed in 1903 to provide health and life insurance, along with other services, to widows, orphans, and sick; it arranged burials for the dead as well. Later, this society added services such as education and training to African Americans, freemen, and fugitive slaves.

A plethora of antebellum black mutual benefit associations emerged during the 19th century, including the Free African Union Society (Newport, RI, 1780s), the Free African Society (Boston, MA, 1787), the Free Dark Men of Color (Charleston, SC, 1791), the New York African Society for Mutual Relief (1808), the African Benevolent Society (Chillicothe, OH, 1827), the Baltimore Society for Relief in Case of Seizure (1830), the African American Female Literary Association (Philadelphia, PA, 1831), the Colored American Temperance Society (Philadelphia, PA, 1831), the Adelphic Union Library Association (Boston, MA, 1836), and the Young Men’s Literary and Moral Reform Society (Pittsburgh, PA, 1837).

Mexican American Mutual Aid Societies

Mutual aid societies (Tejanos sociedades mutualistas) were established by Tejanos during the 1870s when many people felt a need for such societies. After 1890, there was a progressive rise in immigration into the United States, resulting in mutual assistance among immigrants and refugees (Pycior, 1995).


Although many mutual aid societies were formed during the 19th and 20th centuries in response to the needs and crises in American society and other areas of the world, many could not survive due to lack of sustained membership and funding.

Salient Features of Mutual Aid Societies, Associations, and Groups

Mutual aid societies, associations, and groups involve human relations and cooperation among group members and with other groups as well. People with common issues and problems are bound to have empathy for others and tend to extend their helping hand to those who are in similar situations. This is the basis for the spirit of compassion, concern, reciprocity, support, and aid for one another. Members of mutual aid societies unite as they are going through common struggles and let other people know they are not alone in their journey. Chine (2010) noted that these groups mobilize their “strength in numbers” and “all are in the same boat (p. 141).” Although mutual aid groups experience many changes, as identified by Steinberg (2004), they are successful in managing these and provide a cost-effective solution to deal with problems (Gitterman, 1979, p. 15).

The members of MASAGs take personal responsibility and emphasize face-to-face social interactions. They create an image in the community; mobilize financial resources, material assistance, and emotional support; and frequently work on a “common cause.” By doing so, they achieve their common goals. Jacobs and Goodman (1989) estimated that every year approximately 10 million people make use of MASAGs; it was also estimated that at the end of the millennium, more than 25 million Americans belonged to MASAGs (Kessler et al., 1997). Unlike therapeutic groups, MASAGs are not formed by professional providers (Rootes & Aanes, 1992; Schwartz, 1961). Rather, members of mutual aid societies depend on the interaction among the group members. In addition, a wide variety of problems, including those that are beyond the capacities of individuals, are addressed by MASAGs (Katz, 1993; Riessman & Carroll, 1995). Currently, more clinicians and social policy analysts are interested in using the mutual help group model to provide services in a cost-effective and sustainable manner. Because many individuals’ problems are interconnected with the macro environment, the scope of social work interventions expands with the macro component.

Social Functions and Mutual Aid Societies, Associations, and Groups

In the past, by providing help to individuals, MASAGs assumed many functions of social welfare spontaneously and on an ad hoc basis because social welfare policies, delivery systems, and funding mechanisms did not exist to meet the needs of people. MASAGs emerged to fill the gaps in services that governmental and/or private agencies could not adequately provide. Assumption of social welfare functions by MASAGs occurred in the past and also happens in current times, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Steinberg (2004) describes two instrumental activities of MASAGs—processes and outcomes. The processes in which members of mutual aid societies or groups engage include the exchange of input and feedback (Bogo & McKnight, 2006). The underlying concepts on which MASAGs operate are reciprocal relationships, mutuality, and interdependence (Gutman & Shennar-Golan, 2012; Kurland & Salmon, 2005). They involve “face-to-face interaction, shared responsibility, exchange of multiple resources (emotional support, material aid, information, instrumental assistance) and reciprocity” (Hernandez-Plaza, 2006, p. 1162). In addition, the members of these societies take roles of providers as well as recipients of support. And these groups operate independently, guided by self-governance principles (Hatzidimitriadou, 2002). Overall, they have evolved into intermediary institutions and as a support system in both informal and formal ways across various settings. The evolution of these institutions mobilized all kinds of resources, and they became vehicles of influence and change at multiple system levels, such as the improvisation of nutritional intake and health care practices, expansion of sociopolitical relations, involvement in decision-making, protection of fauna and flora, and so on.

Three major categories of mutual interest groups are therapy groups, support groups, and self-help groups (Helgeson & Gottlieb, 2000). Therapy groups are excluded from this discussion because they belong to the micro social work practice area, although they may overlap with macro practice in the process of assisting and advocating for clients. Support groups, although they appear similar to self-help groups, are different because they have closed membership and are usually led by an expert who facilitates the group activities to accomplish group objectives, improving coping and adjustment aligned with individual needs (Helgeson & Gottlieb, 2000). Mutual aid or self-help groups are based on reciprocity of group members in giving and receiving help and support (Orford, 1992). On the contrary, MASAGs are informal social entities that make support and services available to all their members. This characteristic, as well as the flexibility of MASAGs, makes them accessible and trustworthy to people so that they can join and leave at will. MASAGs also provide a platform integrating the formal and informal structures through exchanges of mutual aid and support, negotiation, and conflict-resolving mechanisms. Services and resources are more accessible to vulnerable, at-risk, and oppressed populations that are underrepresented in the formal systems in terms of service utilization and resources (Hernández-Plaza et al., 2006). In this respect, MASAGs are like a social welfare system that takes care of the needs of people and protects them from crises and risks.

MASAGs are effective in making services and resources accessible to underrepresented and marginalized populations. They address common problems based on collective wisdom and reflection as they tap into group resources such as others’ knowledge and insights. Unlike other groups, they are formed by peers who have come together for mutual assistance that eventually creates a strong bond among members. They work toward fulfilling common needs and goals, overcoming common limitations/challenges, disrupting the problem homeostasis, and achieving desired social and/or personal change (Katz & Bender, 1976).

Theoretical Perspectives on Mutual Aid Societies, Associations, and Groups

The practice with MASAGs is supported by empowerment and advocacy theories, ecofeminism, and social reconstruction theories with conceptual frameworks, practice assumptions, dynamic interactions with the group, and values.

The theories explain why and how the mutual aid efforts need to be organized to achieve the goals for which they are established such as societies, associations, cooperatives, and groups with dual objectives of providing mutual aid and building support systems and resources for the members and non-members with and without certain restrictions. Many of the initiatives of MASAGs have resulted in not only member empowerment but also social change in the larger community or society. Empowerment is a core intervention strategy employed across settings in social work practice to achieve client self-reliance (Simon, 1995). Self-directed group work is an endorsement of empowerment and a participative approach (Mullender & Ward, 1991). Advocacy has its origin in the legal field but is now a tool for social workers to bring about policy changes and to secure resources for their clients and client systems (Boon, 1993).

Empowerment and advocacy strategies also promote a positive environment wherever MASAGs are deployed as vehicles for change in the macro environment. Empowerment is a process that mobilizes people’s participation, builds strength by adding numbers and by using people’s power, helps people engage in collective decision-making to make the “powerless powerful,” and leads people to initiate action to change their lives (Payne, 2005).

Collective power is generated through MASAGs, which are instrumental in negotiating equity and resources in the larger environment. Ecosystem theory refers to the dynamic interaction between a client system and a larger environment. The evolving relationship determines the immediate and long-term outcomes of MASAGs. Social learning occurs among the members of MASAGs through interactions. With increased collective power and influence, MASAGs garner more resources and visibility in the larger environment. This leads to a reconstruction of their social reality and unleashed potential. This has been demonstrated by MASAGs in the past and in the current times, and many successful stories attest to this proposition. Empowering vulnerable people who have had fewer or no resources or power through MASAGs has made a remarkable difference in their lives, resulted in securing equity, justice, and empowerment for marginalized individuals, groups, and communities. While empowering the members in the group, it has brought equity and justice among the members, including gender equality in decision-making. Hence, MASAGs have served as vehicles to ameliorate vulnerabilities, disparities, and inaccessibility and to create opportunities for empowerment and equity through the core principle of mutual aid. Mutual empowerment involves “self-efficacy, ability to help oneself, expansion of freedom, of choice and action” (Narayan, 2005, p. 4). The larger goal of this approach is to achieve adequate, comprehensive, and sustainable socioeconomic and political development (Bates, 2005).

Ecosystem theories are based on three major viewpoints: the ecocritical and ecosocial/ecofeminist perspectives (Matthies et al., 2001), the life model perspective (Germain & Gitterman, 1996), and the ecosystems perspective (Mattaini et al., 2001). Ecofeminism (Besthorn & McMillen, 2002) points out that none of the political, social, and ecological systems in social work have worked to improve women’s position. On the other hand, the ecocritical model discusses, for example, how Germany undertook several environmental and green project initiatives as part of the ecocritical approach during the 1980s.

Social construction theory obiters that it is the social interaction among people which serves as a basis for knowledge and understanding of the world. This knowledge construct is often derived from cultural, historical, and local settings and conveys social experiences in an intelligible manner. Payne (2005) notes, “social construction is an interpretivist, postmodernist theory proposing that understanding about the world comes from interactions between people as part of many interchanges in a social, cultural and historical context” (p. 58). Thus, it is a unique perspective that involves in-depth analysis of human interactions vis-à-vis lived experiences. Mutual aid groups have also adopted the social constructionist approach to understand the self, status and reflexivity of women from the spectrum of gender equality in order to reshape the patriarchal social realities that exist in the social, political, and cultural realms of women’s lives, thereby, this postmodern approach is critical, but hearing the voice of weaker gender as part of societal discourses is imperative (Davis et al., 1985) because they have been structurally subjected to different subjugations (Gilligan, 1986).

Mutual Aid Societies, Associations, and Groups in Practice and Select Examples

Kropotkin (1842–1921) formulated his concept of mutual aid in the late 19th century as a response to Darwinian evolutionism and the human intrinsic predisposition for gregariousness. Thus, he is often referred to as the “founder of mutual aid,” although his work is not associated with contemporary mutual aid social entities in the United States or elsewhere (Maxwell, 2021). Dean Spade characterized the functionary of mutual aid as “survival work” practiced in conjunction with movements for social transformation (Shotwell, 2021). The long march of mutual aid societies can be seen in the United States from the 1933 report by the President’s research committee to the integrated network of solidarity of present times.

MASAGs provide a variety of services and support to their members that have impacted political, social, health, educational, spiritual, psychological, economic, and financial realms, although they have had a primary focus on mutual aid. Whereas mutual aid networks constituted the most popular form of voluntary association in the United States throughout the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, mutual aid groups performed more clinical work in the 1950s and 1960s. Numerous alcoholics anonymous groups in the United States are organized by mutual aid organizations (Kessler et al., 1997). Through their participation in MASAGs, women have gained awareness, personal control, a social network, and experience in handling conflicts in life. Brody et al. (2016) indicated that participation of women in MASAGs has stimulated empowerment because of mutual help and support, training, and increased financial stability, which may in turn result in improvement in women’s bargaining power, autonomy, and self-confidence and thus, elevate their status (Bhoj et al., 2013; Brody et al., 2016; Caro et al., 2013). Women’s groups have expanded their involvement in the areas of microcredit, entrepreneurship, and empowerment.

Empowerment has resulted in greater social justice through institutional policies and practices. For example, formal financial institutions have recognized informal MASAGs to allocate financial resources for the vulnerable groups that have been historically excluded, including women. Mutual aid societies created for different ethnic groups in the United States have contributed to the empowerment of African Americans and Hispanic Americans in current times and immigrants during the 19th century. The process of empowerment changed the power dynamics and resulted in the transfer of greater power and influence for many recent immigrant groups. MASAGs contributed significantly toward this goal in transforming the lives of members of minority communities, especially during Blacks’ struggles in America (Solomon, 1976) and for immigrants (Hood, 1991). Similarly, Barooah et al. (2019) note that MASAGs have produced positive economic, social, and empowerment outcomes, including increased financial literacy, productivity, diversification of livelihoods, and participation in economic activities. Mehta et al. (2020) found a positive correlation between membership in MASAGs and sanitation indicators at scale (improved reproductive, maternal, newborn, child health and nutrition) and improving primary health care in India.

MASAGs have contributed to empowerment by bringing equity to the economic sector and inclusion of women in overall development. MASAGs have empowered women of color and the underprivileged through skill-building. Women have gained access to resources so that they can participate in the workforce and generate sustainable livelihoods (Ordway, 2011). In addition, the green movements throughout the world started with the concern of saving nature and its resources. For instance, the anti-militarism movement in Europe, the movement against dumping hazardous waste in the United States, and Kenya’s green belt movement are regarded as remarkable ecofeminist movements that formed based on collective action and self-help motives (Jyothi, 2019).

Likewise, volunteers of MASAGs throughout the United States deliver groceries to the elderly and immunocompromised people, and their help was critical during COVID-19 and important in the battle against structural racism, whether donating food and first aid to Black Lives Matter demonstrators or gathering money for the almost 10 million Americans who are behind on rent due to the epidemic (Hastings, 2021). Within the first week following a hurricane, Trinity University students with Trinity Mutual Aid in San Antonio, Texas, received more than $120,000 in donations to deliver kits with food, water, first aid, and winter coats to community members before freezing temperatures hit (Perez, 2021).

Sundaram (2012) notes that MASAGs are instrumental in changing the macro environment by improving infrastructure, enhancing skill sets, marketing products and services, availing the advanced technological and communication gadgets, increasing economic strength through cumulative savings, becoming involved in community action and politics, achieving social harmony and social justice, and paving the way for a sustainable quality of life. As a result, development at the macro level and empowerment at the individual level are outcomes of MASAGs.

Even during the unprecedented chaos of COVID-19, mutual aid networks cropped up throughout the United States at the start of the lockdown, helping communities organize themselves in the absence of adequate state support and resources. These types of projects have a long history in the United States, especially within early organized labor (Adereth, 2021).

Timely action of a few countries during the pandemic resulted in the creation of support services (Patel et al., 2021). In a few countries, such support services were created to help people self-isolate. Basic services for shopping and collection of medicines were offered. Self-organized groups to help neighbors were created by community members in the United Kingdom (Al-Mandhari et al., 2020; Pleyers, 2020; Sitrin & Sembrar, 2020). Nearly 4,000 mutual aid groups emerged throughout the country (Booth, 2020). Many new community support groups emerged to organize the needed support services, and they did not categorize themselves as “mutual aid societies.” Furthermore, many existing community organizations had to shift their focus to provide services to COVID-19 victims and survivors and their families. Responding to the prolonged COVID-19 situation over 2 years, many mutual aid groups evolved and flourished (Firth, 2020; Mao et al., 2021). Some groups were stuck to the mutual aid tradition.

Prasad (1993) highlights the Urban Basic Services Program, which was launched in India during the late 1980s with the support of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund to make basic provisions and services such as water, health and sanitation, and education available in urban slums. The Urban Basic Services Program demonstrated the benefits of mutual aid groups, primarily operating through self-help groups, and people’s participation in and financial resources provided for the activities. They pooled economic resources by voluntary donations, fundraising, and reaching out to support each other’s income-generation activities. COVID-19 has been one of the most challenging times for communities, which have had to seek resources from within and outside.

Taylor (1996) examines the postpartum depression support group movement and explores the relationship between gender, the ideas and strategies of women’s self-help groups, and feminism. Indeed, the bond between self-help and market economies can be seen in the dominance of economic language; however, mutual aid groups minimize structural inequalities and refute collective resistance against such inequality (Riley et al., 2019).

Mutual aid groups helped create hope during the coronavirus (Mahanty & Phillipps, 2020), and the support they provided was an essential part of the public response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom (Tiratelli & Kaye, 2020). These groups focused on building bottom-up structures of cooperation and horizontal networks of solidarity (Laville, 2010), which represents a radical divergence from traditional public services and forms of volunteerism (Spade, 2020). The COVID-19 crisis led to mutual aid groups providing grocery shopping and delivery services, food parcel deliveries, collecting prescription drugs, dog walking, postcard and library services, emotional support by telephone/email helpline, informational support on existing public services, community gardening, and more (Mao et al., 2021; O’Dwyer et al., 2020; Tiratelli & Kaye, 2020). Psychological support services and processes are currently being studied to determine the sustainability of these groups in the future (Bowe et al., 2019; Mao et al., 2021; Wakefield et al., 2021).


Mutual aid societies, associations, and self-help groups are enduring vehicles of mutual help and support for people, especially vulnerable, at-risk, marginalized, and underrepresented populations in societies throughout the world, including most developed societies such as the United States. MASAGs have a sustained and successful record of providing relief, help, and support to people in crises but have gone beyond to empower members and nonmembers and transform communities through voluntary and grassroots initiatives for self-reliance in the United States and beyond. They became the voice of the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed groups and at-risk populations. Working with groups of diverse modalities proved an effective strategy for social work practice in organizing communities for social change and development. Practice with groups (an intermediary arena) strengthens macro practice and complements micro practice as well. Although working with MASAGs has immense potential for social work practice, as a practice arena, it is still underpracticed and underrepresented. MASAGs mobilize human capital, moral support, and other needed resources to address their needs, problems, and concerns. These modalities of practice offer many opportunities for social learning and human development through skill-building, peer mentoring, etc. Hence, empowering individuals through MASAGs is very effective in the United States and globally, and successful stories are testimony to this. It is no exaggeration to conclude that MASAGs meet the needs of individuals, as mutual support is fostered in groups and sustained communities are created through MASAGs. This is the reason they are viewed as a hidden arena of macro social work practice.


  • Alexander, L. M. (2008). African or American? Black identity and political activism in New York City, 1784–1861. University of Illinois Press.
  • Al-Mandhari, A., Kodama, C., Abubakar, A., & Brennan, R. (2020). Solidarity in response to COVID-19 outbreak in the eastern Mediterranean region. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal, 26, 492–496.
  • Barge, M. (2016). Free African Society (1787–1794). VCU Libraries, Social Welfare History Project.
  • Barooah, B., Chinoy, S. L., Dubey, P., Sarkar, R., Bagai, A., & Rathinam, F. (2019). Improving and sustaining livelihoods through group-based interventions: Mapping the evidence (3ie Evidence Gap Map Report 13). International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie).
  • Bates, B. R. (2005). Public culture and public understanding of genetics: A focus group study. Public Understanding of Science, 4(1), 47–65.
  • Besthorn, F. H., & McMillen, D. P. (2002). The oppression of women and nature: Ecofeminism as a framework for an expanded ecological social work, Families in Society, 83(3), 221–232.
  • Bhoj, S., Bardhan, D., & Kumar, A. (2013). Determinants and implications of rural women’s participation in microfinance programme: An analysis of dairy self-help groups in Uttarakhand State of India. Livestock Research for Rural Development, 25(10), Article 185.
  • Bogo, M., & McKnight, K. (2006). Clinical supervision in social work: A review of the research literature. The Clinical Supervisor, 24(1–2), 49–67.
  • Boon, A. (1993). Advocacy. Cavendish.
  • Booth, R. (2020, March 16). Community aid groups set up across UK amid coronavirus crisis. The Guardian.
  • Bowe, M., Wakefield, J. R. H., Kellezi, B., McNamara, N., Harkin, L., & Jobling, R. (2019). “Sometimes, it’s not just about the food”: The social identity dynamics of foodbank helping transactions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49(6), 1128–1143.
  • Briskin, A., & Erickson, S. (2009). The power of collective wisdom: And the trap of collective folly. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  • Brody, C., de Hoop, T., Vojtkova, M., Warnock, R., Dunbar, M., Murthy, P., & Dworkin, S. L. (2016). Economic self-help group programmes for improving women’s empowerment: A systematic review (3ie Systematic Review No. 23).
  • Campbell, J. H. (1892). History of the friendly sons of St. Patrick and of the Hibernian Society for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland: March 17, 1771. Hibernian Society.
  • Caro, D., Pangare, V., & Manfre, C. (2013). Gender impact assessment of the ASI Sunhara India Project. Cultural Practice.
  • Chine, W. T. (2010). An overview of mutual support groups for family caregivers of people with mental health problems: Evidence on process and outcomes. In L. D. Brown & S. Wituk (Eds.), Mental health self-help: Consumer and family initiatives (pp. 107–154). Springer.
  • Cronin, C. (2003). Democracy and collective identity: In defence of constitutional patriotism. European Journal of Philosophy, 11(1), 1–28.
  • Davis, A., Newton, S., & Smith, D. (1985). Coventry crisis intervention: The consumer’s view. Social Services Research, 14(1), 7–32.
  • Domínguez, D. G., García, D., Martínez, D. A., & Hernandez-Arriaga, B. (2020). Leveraging the power of mutual aid, coalitions, leadership, and advocacy during COVID-19. American Psychologist, 75(7), 909.
  • Douglass, R. W. (1862). Annals of the First African Church in the United States of America now styled the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia. King & Baird.
  • Ergood, B. (1971). The female protection and the sun light: Two contemporary Negro mutual aid societies. Florida Historical Quarterly, 50(1), 25–38.
  • Fernando, C. (2021, January 21). Mutual aid networks find roots in communities of color. AP News.
  • Firth, R. (2020). Mutual aid, anarchists’ preparedness, and COVID-19. In J. Preston & R. Firth (Eds.), Coronavirus, class and mutual aid in the United Kingdom (pp. 57–112). Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Gächter, S. (2012). A cooperative instinct. Nature, 489 (7416), 374–375.
  • Germain, C. B., & Gitterman, A. (1996). The life model of social work practice: Advances in theory and practice (2nd ed.). Columbia University Press.
  • Gilligan, C. (1986). Reply to critics. In M. J. Larrabe (Ed.), An ethic of care: Feminist and interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 207–214). Routledge.
  • Gitterman, A. (1979). Development of group services. In A. Gitterman (Ed.), Social work with groups in maternal and child health (pp. 15–21). Columbia University Press.
  • Gugerty, M. K., Biscaye, P., & Anderson, C. L. (2019). Delivering development? Evidence on self-help groups as development intermediaries in South Asia and Africa. Development Policy Review: The Journal of the Overseas Development Institute, 37(1), 129–151.
  • Gutman, C., & Shennar-Golan, V. (2012). Instilling the soul of group work in social work education. Social Work with Groups, 35(2), 138–149.
  • Hall, J., & Kirdina-Chandler, S. (2017). Towards an intellectual history of evolutionary economics: Competition and struggle versus cooperation and mutual aid. Brazilian Journal of Political Economy, 37, 551–564.
  • Hatzidimitriadou, E. (2002). Political ideology, helping mechanisms, and empowerment of mental health self-help/mutual aid groups. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 12(4), 271–285.
  • Helgeson, V. S., & Gottlieb, B. H. (2000). Support groups. In S. Cohen, L. G. Underwood, & B. H. Gottlieb (Eds.), Social support measurement and intervention: A guide for health and social scientists (pp. 221–245). Oxford University Press.
  • Hembree, M. F. (2006). Wright, theodore sedgwick. In C. A. Palmer (Ed.), Encyclopedia of African-American culture and history: The Black experience in the Americas (2nd ed.). Macmillan.
  • Hernández-Plaza, S., Alonso-Morillejo, E., & Pozo-Muñoz, C. (2006). Social support interventions in migrant populations. British Journal of Social Work, 36(7), 1151–1169.
  • Hill, M. J. (2021). The harambee movement in Kenya: Self-help, development and education among the Kamba of Kitui District. Routledge.
  • Hood, C. (1991). A public management for all seasons? Public Administration, 69, 3–19.
  • Jacobs, M. K., & Goodman, G. (1989). Psychology and self-help groups: Predictions on a partnership. American Psychologist, 42(3), 536–545.
  • Jyothi, A. (2019). Community mobilization with ecofeminist approach—A case study of Pothnal, Karnataka experience. Language in India, 19(2), 217–224.
  • Katz, A. (1993). Self-help in America: A social movement perspective. Twayne.
  • Katz, A. H., & Bender, E. I. (1976). The strength in us: Self-help groups in the modern world. New Viewpoints.
  • Kessler, R. C., Mickelson, K. D., & Zhao, S. (1997). Patterns and correlates of self-help group membership in the United States. Social Policy, 27(3), 27–46.
  • Hernandez-Plaza, S., Alonso-Morillejo, E., & Pozo-Munoz, C. (2006). Social support interventions in migrant populations. British Journal of Social Work, 36(7), 1151–1169.
  • Kropotkin, P. (1902). Mutual aid: A factor of evolution. Freedom Press.
  • Kurland, R., & Salmon, R. (2005). Group work vs. casework in a group: Principles and implications for teaching and practice. Social Work with Groups, 28(3–4), 121–132.
  • Laville, J. (2010). The solidarity economy: An international movement. RCCS Annual Review, 1(2), 1–41.
  • Levy, L. H. (2000). Self-help groups. In J. Rappaport & E. Seidman (Eds.), Handbook of community psychology (pp. 591–613). Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
  • Mahanty, S., & Phillipps, N. (2020, March 25). The community-led movement creating hope in the time of coronavirus. The Conversation.
  • Mannion, P. (2022). “I am as good as Irishman as you”: The ancient order of Hiberians and the construction of Irish ethnicity in Canada and the United States, 1908–1918. Journal of American Ethnic History, 41(2), 26–57.
  • Mao, G., Drury, J., Fernandes-Jesus, M., & Ntontis, E. (2021). How participation in Covid-19 mutual aid groups affects subjective well-being and how political identity moderates these effects. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 21(1), 1082–1112.
  • Marsh, C. (2013). Social harmony paradigms and natural selection: Darwin, Kropotkin, and the metatheory of mutual aid. Journal of Public Relations Research, 25(5), 426–441.
  • Mattaini, M. A., Lowery, C. T., & Meyer, C. H. (Eds.). (2001). Foundations of social work practice: A graduate text. National Association of Social Workers Press.
  • Matthies, A. L., Narhi, K., & Ward, D. (Eds.). (2001). The eco-social approach in social work. SoPhi Academic Press.
  • Meagher, T. (2005). The Columbia guide to Irish American history. Columbia University Press.
  • Mehta, K. M., Irani, L., Chaudhuri, I., Mahapatra, T., Schooley, J., Srikantiah, S., Abdalla, S., Ward, V. C., Carmichael, S. L., Bentley, J., Creanga, A., Wilhelm, J., Tarigopula, U. K., Bhattacharya, D., Atmavilas, Y., Nanda, P., Weng, Y., Pepper, K. T., Darmstadt, G. L., & the Ananya Study Group. (2020). Health impact of self-help groups scaled up statewide in Bihar, India. Journal of Global Health, 10(2), Article 021006.
  • Milward, H. B., & Provan, K. G. (2000). Governing the hollow state. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 10, 359–380.
  • Mullender, A., & Ward, D. (1991). Self-directed groupwork: Users action for empowerment. Whiting & Brich.
  • Mulvaney, J., & Kamminga, J. (2020). Prehistory of Australia. Routledge.
  • Nair, J. (2005). The promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press.
  • Narayana, D. (2005). A Sourcebook. World Bank.
  • O’Brien, M. J. (2011). Ireland and Irish Americans 1932–1945: The search for identity, by John Day Tully. New Hibernia Review, 15(2), 149–153.
  • O’Dwyer, E. J., Beascoechea-Seguí, N., & Souza, L. S. (2020, December 10). Rehearsing post-Covid-19 citizenship: Social representations of UK Covid-19 mutual aid.
  • Ordway, A. (2011). Microfinance, ecofeminism, and the Third World. Unpublished thesis, University of Oregon.
  • Orford, J. (1992). Community psychology: Theory and practice. Wiley.
  • Patel, J., Fernandes, G., & Sridhar, D. (2021). How can we improve self-isolation and quarantine for Covid-19? BMJ, 372(625), 1–6.
  • Payne, M. (2005). Modern social work theory (3rd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Pleyers, G. (2020). The pandemic is a battlefield: Social movements in the COVID-19 lockdown. Journal of Civil Society, 16, 295–312.
  • Prasad, R. (1993). Urban basic services programme in India: A critical evaluation. Unpublished paper, Regional Centre for Urban and Environmental Studies Osmania University, Hyderabad.
  • Pycior, J. L. (1995). Mexican American organizations. In Texas State Historical Association (Eds), Handbook of Texas (pp. 1–6).
  • Riain, P. Ó. (1972). Boundary association in early Irish society. Studia Celtica, 7, 12.
  • Riessman, F., & Carroll, D. (1995). Redefining self-help. Jossey-Bass.
  • Riley, S., Evans, A., Anderson, E., & Robson, M. (2019). The gendered nature of self-help. Feminism & Psychology, 29(1), 3–18.
  • Rootes, L. E., & Aanes, D. L. (1992). A conceptual framework for understanding self-help groups. Hospital and Community Psychiatry, 43(4), 379–381.
  • Schwartz, W. (1961). The social worker in the group. In New perspectives on services to groups: Theory, organization, and practice (pp. 7–34), National Association of Social Workers.
  • Shannon, C. B. (2015). “With good will doing service”: The Charitable Irish Society of Boston (1737–1857). Historical Journal of Massachusetts, 43(1), 94–123.
  • Shideler, E. W. (1960). Darwin and the doctrine of man. Journal of Religion, 40(3), 198–211.
  • Shotwell, A. (2021). Flourishing is mutual: Relational ontologies, mutual aid, and eating. Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, 7(3), 19–20.
  • Simon, B. L. (1995). The empowerment tradition in American social work: A history. Columbia University Press.
  • Sitrin, M., & Sembrar, C. (2020). Pandemic solidarity: Mutual aid during the Covid-19 crisis. Pluto Press.
  • Solomon, B. B. (1976). Black empowerment: Social work in oppressed communities. Columbia University Press.
  • Spade, D. (2020, March 1). Solidarity not charity: Mutual aid for mobilization and survival. Social Text, 38(1), 131–151.
  • Steinberg, D. M. (2004). The mutual-aid approach to working with groups: Helping people help one another (2nd ed.). Haworth.
  • Sundaram, A. (2012). Impact of self-help group in socio-economic development of India. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 5, 20–27.
  • Taylor, V. (1996). Rock-a-by baby: Feminism, self-help and postpartum depression. Routledge.
  • Tiratelli, L., & Kaye, S. (2020). A second wave for mutual aid? New Local.
  • Wilder, C. S. (1998). The rise and influence of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, 1808–1865. Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, 22(2), 7.