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  • Understanding the Social Economy: A Canadian Perspective
  • Allyson Hewitt
Understanding the Social Economy: A Canadian Perspective by Jack Quarter, Laurie Mook, and Ann Armstrong. University of Toronto Press, 2009, 344 pp. Paper $35.00, Cloth $80.00

If the term social economy sounds like an oxymoron, then this is probably not the book for you. If, however, you have an interest in social enterprises, co-operatives, and social purpose business, then this book provides a comprehensive guide to understanding this robust and emerging sector. Practitioners will be pleased to see the social economy portrayed as a legitimate field of scholarly study and appreciate this book’s thorough and thoughtful analysis.

Social economy organizations are established primarily for social reasons, but they also make a significant contribution to the economy. Although most parts of the social economy are not readily [End Page 279] captured by an easily accessible data set, here is an indication of the sector’s impact: not-for-profit organizations are reported to contribute approximately 7.1 percent of GDP (Statistics Canada 2006), employ over 1 million staff, and engage volunteers in providing over 2 billion hours of service annually.

The authors, Jack Quarter, Laurie Mook and Ann Armstrong, all University of Toronto professors at the time of publication, describe the social economy as “an umbrella concept for the many types of organizations created to meet a social need but also involving economic aspects … and in some cases, the exchange of services in the market” (p. vii). It is a very broad category, and the authors try—with varying degrees of success—to present a framework for understanding it.

Although there are many books that deal with components of the social economy, this one is uniquely Canadian and aims to “create an appreciation of the many contributions of the vast array of social economy organizations and to understand the challenges they may face” (p. xi). Again, this is not a particularly new topic, but the authors here are also targeting a historically unusual audience: business students. To remain relevant to these readers, the book offers not only historical analysis but also discussion questions and both high-level and in-depth case studies. This approach is obviously the work of experienced educators. The case examples are all good, as current as possible, and go a long way to making the experience of this nebulous sector relevant to a new audience.

The challenge lies in the distinctions the authors attempt to make between the rapidly blurring lines associated with creating both social and economic value, or what many of us in the sector call blended value, which builds on the work of Jed Emerson and more recently Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, who use the term shared value.

The authors present a typology that involves five categories: social economy businesses, community economic development, social enterprises, public sector non-profits, and civil society organizations. But as the authors themselves point out, the distinctions between these categories, and in fact between social economy organizations and traditional for-profit enterprises engaged in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), are “one of degree rather than one of dichotomy” (p. x), and the boundaries between the sectors are currently blurred and increasingly fluid. Therefore, the distinctions feel a bit forced and arbitrary, making them challenging to follow as clearly as one would have hoped.

The authors provide great detail on each of the categories. But some organizations, for example the YM-YWCA, which the authors identify as a social economy business, could fall under any category. Organizations in the social economy are complex, and an effort to find similar underlying characteristics, rather than differences, is probably a more useful exercise. The authors identify these shared, similar characteristics as having social objectives, social ownership, volunteer/social participation, and civic engagement.

Those who use the term social economy, primarily in Quebec where the term is frequently used, are probably comfortable with this characterization, but we at MaRS have begun to think about this work slightly differently. We are faced with a growing range of social innovators who are choosing some form of private ownership (not social ownership) in order to achieve a social or environmental outcome— valuing...


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pp. 279-281
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