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 Manager: Carlo Borzaga

Project status: on-going


This research project intends to explain the existence and role of all the enterprises and productive organizations that have been founded by citizens and are then classified as bottom-up phenomena. In 2008, Euricse started to contribute to the theoretical analysis of the role of cooperative and social enterprises, both at the beginning of their development and today, by looking to modern economies and the new welfare system. Theoretical analysis therefore required both the creation of 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 respect to these objectives, 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, as well as to the analysis of the cooperative mechanism as an alternative way to activate resources and transactions.  The project also helped identify successful features of social enterprises and provided some initial reflections on the governance of cooperatives and on the multi-stakeholder nature of social enterprises. Some empirical studies on social cooperatives were also carried out, 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.

Theoretical and empirical research on these topics represents also today a core activity in the Euricse research area, and is closely connected to many of the other research projects of the Institute.


The research project is aimed at developing innovative interpretations of the role of the various organizational forms in which people tend to organize (through bottom-up processes) in order to address their needs. Attention is therefore devoted especially (but not exclusively) to cooperative and social enterprises. The research project consists of both theoretical and empirical contributions to the understanding of these organizational forms, by also finding  empirical confirmation of the distinctive features and economic advantages of these organizational forms. Starting from the results obtained from research carried out in previous years, the project continues 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 suggest that all the organizational forms that populate contemporary economies are formed by a mixture of three coordination mechanisms (market, authorities and cooperation), though one of the three mechanisms might be more dominant in each of them. 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 are not the final 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 Italian context.

The empirical analyses, instead, highlighted some of the distinctive features and comparative advantages enjoyed by companies based on the cooperative mechanism: (i) a high level of empowerment and commitment through community involvement and governance mechanisms; (ii) the good quality of work relationships and the articulation of employment relationships between a contract of employment, a psychological contract and a corporate contract; (iii) the ability to support a distributive function of cooperative enterprises, intended as the possibility of producing extra services and distributing part of them, even free of charge, to thecitizens that need them the most; and (iv) the ability of cooperative firms and social enterprises to better respond to unmet needs of the community and to gather additional resources from the territory. The real-time analysis of the features of Italian social cooperatives allowed them to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, highlighting some ‘lessons’ that make the model a successful one.


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.

Borzaga C.,  Depedri S., (2015) “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

Fedele A., Depedri S. (2016) “In medio stat virtus: does a mixed economy increase welfare?”, Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, Special Issue

Borzaga C. Depedri S., Galera G. (2016) “Emergence, evolution and institutionalization of Italian social cooperatives” in Jensen A., Patmore G., Tortia E. (a cura di) Cooperatives Enterprises in Australia and Italy, Firenze University Press, pp.209-230


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

Economic roleEconomic theorysocial economysocial enterprises

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