The Social Economy : The worldwide making of a third sector
This text is the first chapter of a collective book entiteld L’économie sociale au Nord et au Sud, compiled by J. Defourny, P. Develtere and B. Fonteneau (De Boeck, 1999).
The initial objective of this first chapter is to clarify the concept of the social economy by putting it back in its historical context. The various forms of co- operative, mutualistic and associative organisations that today form the third sector are buried in the history of human society. Thus, to gain an in-depth understanding of the social economy, it is essential to reconstruct them as they evolved, and to understand the intellectual currents that had an important influence on them, in both the North and the South.
Second, in order to explain contemporary conditions in the third sector, we will examine the definition and origin of the social economy. We will also attempt to characterise the benefits and limitations of the social economy approach, especially compared to its Anglo-American counterpart, which is rooted in the concept of the non-profit sector.
In the final section, with a view of highlighting the main conditions allowing the social economy to emerge and grow, we will compare the contemporary revival of the social economy with older currents. Our objective is to identify the most powerful forces underlying the social economy.