Towards an economic theory of cooperative and social enterprises and an understanding of their role and potential

Research Area: Economic theory
Scientific coordinator: Carlo Borzaga

Project status: on-going

This research project intends to explain the existence and role of cooperative enterprises within socio-economic systems by taking advantage of both a solid scientific base and a constant activation of theoretical reflection as well as empirical developments that can verify the hypotheses and theories and bring a better understanding of the characteristic traits of cooperative and social enterprises. With these aims, the project has achieved some initial results in previous years, contributing first of all to the theoretical definition of the continuum or variety of types and objectives of organizations, to the identification of successful features of social enterprises and to initial reflections on the governance of cooperatives and particularly the multi-stakeholder nature of social enterprises. Some empirical studies were also carried out on social cooperatives, investigating the theme of the relationship with the cooperative’s main stakeholders and looking specifically at the governance of social cooperatives and the relationship with workers.


The research project is aimed at developing innovative interpretations of the role of cooperative and social enterprises and the advantages associated with them and finding empirical confirmation of the distinctive features of these organizational forms. Starting from the results obtained from research carried out in previous years, the project intends to refine the new interpretations of the existence, institutional and governance characteristics and the evolution over time of cooperative and social enterprises and to contribute with new data to the understanding of the cooperative mechanism between members and with external stakeholders.

Main results

The theoretical analyses carried out so far have shown how all the organizational forms that populate contemporary economies are formed of a mixture of three coordination mechanisms (market, authorities and cooperation), though one of the three mechanisms is dominant in each of these. So, even if the dominant coordination mechanism in cooperative enterprises is cooperation, this organizational form, being an enterprise, cannot disregard exchanges on the market and an evaluation of production factors dictated by their value of exchange; just as it cannot avoid, at least in some cases, recourse to the hierarchical and authority mechanism, as long as these are aimed at reaching the mutual and social goals and not the end purpose of the organizational processes. The reflection therefore allowed an understanding of the positioning of cooperatives and social enterprises within what we can today define a mixed economy composed of a variety of institutions with different objectives, focusing attention on social enterprises in terms of their historical evolution and growing role, particularly with reference to the national context.

The empirical analyses instead showed firstly the quality of work relationships in social cooperatives, highlighting the perception of greater perceived fairness and workers’ satisfaction, loyalty to the organization, employment stability and the strong motivations of member and non-member workers. Additionally, the empirical investigations into the single- or multi-stakeholder nature of social cooperatives revealed the distributive function that particularly characterizes the latter and their ability to respond better to the community’s unmet needs and to collect additional resources from the local area (for example, with the involvement of volunteers). The rigorous analysis of the traits of Italian social cooperatives allowed for an evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses, highlighting some “lessons” that can be drawn from the reading of the distinctive features of Italian social cooperation.


Borzaga C. e Depedri S. (2010), “Economia, psicologia ed etica” in D. Cavanna, A. Salvini (a cura di), Per una psicologia dell’agire umano, Franco Angeli, Milano,  p. 423-439

Borzaga, C. e Becchetti, L., (2010), The economics of social responsibility, Routledge, London.

Borzaga C., Depedri S., Galera G., (2010), “L’interesse delle cooperative per la comunità” in Bagnoli L., La funzione sociale della cooperazione. Teorie, esperienze e prospettive, Carocci, Roma, pp.125-146.

Borzaga, C., Depedri, S., Tortia, E.C., (2011), “Organizational Variety in Market Economies and the Role of Cooperative and Social Enterprises: A Plea for Economic Pluralism” in Journal of Co-operative Studies, v. 44, n. 1, p. 19-30.

Borzaga, C. e Fazzi, L., (2011), L’impresa sociale, Carocci, Roma.

Borzaga, C.,  Galera, G., (2011), “Social enterprises and decent work”, in Aa.Vv., The Reader 2011. Social and Solidarity Economy: Our common road towards Decent Work, ITC of ILO, Torino, pp. 89-100.

Borzaga, C. e Paini, F., (2011), Buon Lavoro. Le cooperative sociali in italia: storie, valori ed esperienze di imprese a misura di persona, Altreconomia, Milano.

Depedri, S., (2011), “Does part-time mean part-satisfaction?” in Addabbo T. e Solinas G. (a cura di) Non standard employment and quality of work. The case of Italy, Springer Verlag – AIEL series volume III.

Borzaga C. , (2013) “Social Enterprise” in: Zamagni, L., and Bruni, L., (eds.), Handbook on the Economics of Reciprocity and Social Enterprise, Edward Elgar Publishing, London, p. 318-326.

Borzaga C., Depedri S.,  (2013), “When social enterprises do it better: efficiency and efficacy of work integration in Italian social cooperatives”, in Denny, S.. and Simmon, F., (eds.) Social Enterpsies – Accountability and evaluation around the world, Routledge, London, pp.85-101.

Becchetti, L., Castriota, S., Depedri S. (2014), “Working in the For-Profit versus Not-For-Profit Sector: What Difference Does It Make? An Inquiry on Preferences of Voluntary and Involuntary Movers”, Industrial and Corporate Change, Vol. 23, No. 4, pp. 1087-1120.

Borzaga C., (2014), “Cooperative in the provision of welfare services” Gijselinckx and Zhao (eds.) Co-operative Innovations in China and in the West: Convergences and Differences.

Tortia E., Sacchetti, S., (2014) The social value of multi-stakeholder cooperatives: the case of the CEFF system in Italy, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham.

Depedri S., Borzaga C.,  “Multi-stakeholder governance in civil society organizations: models and outcomes” in Laville J.L., Young D., Eynaus P. (eds.) Civil society in a changing world: Governance and democracy Routledge, in print;


This project has allowed the advancement of theoretical reflections and empirical first steps which were then joined up with other research projects, all with the common objective of verifying the characteristics and rationale of cooperative and social enterprises and the relationship with their members. These projects are:

Social participation and active volunteers: Analysis of motivation among Ancc-COOP members;

Aspects of participation and social relations in consumer cooperatives in Trentino;

I’m a member of a cooperative bank: Between economic, ownership-related and ideological participation.

University of Trento
EMES Network
University of Liège

Last publications

Related posts