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Extraordinarily ordinary: working in the social economy

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Purpose ‐ Policy actors around the world are increasingly looking to the social economy ‐ markets explicitly oriented towards meeting social needs, usually through the third sector ‐ to underpin livelihoods and deliver welfare services. Once considered an adjunct to markets and states, and possibly even a residual, the social economy is being seen as a legitimate player in the plural economy, able to thrive through the effort of dedicated individuals and organisations committed to ethical entrepreneurship. The assumption is that future capitalism can accommodate, perhaps even requires as recession deepens, the energies of the social economy in making new markets and meeting welfare needs. While a body of research has emerged examining the economic characteristics of social enterprises and how they succeed or not in managing the interface between market and ethical priorities, little is known about what it is like to be involved in the social economy or about what different social actors gain from the experience. However, most academic and policy thinking assumes that engagement in the social economy is both rewarding and empowering. This paper aims to fill this gap. Design/methodology/approach ‐ This paper draws on sobering case evidence from Bristol relating to the experience of social entrepreneurs, employees and volunteers. Findings ‐ The critical question raised by this study is whether the role of the social economy should be that of returning the socially disadvantaged back into the formal economy. The evidence in this study tends to suggest that this expectation could be misguided and overly ambitious. Originality/value ‐ The paper offers insight into the backgrounds, motivations, experiences and futures of people involved in the social economy.
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Keywords: Empowerment; Entrepreneurs; Labour; Social economics; Social welfare; United Kingdom

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 22, 2009

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