Focus areas

EMES members look for joint themes and projects that bring different disciplines from the human sciences together: not only sociologists, economists, political and management scientists, but colleagues from historical sciences, law, psychology, or cultural studies as well.

Specifically, the EMES network studies socio-economic entities that, while increasingly important in Europe and elsewhere, remain under-researched.
This research has been so far mostly focused on Europe – a space with its own traditions, peculiar political institutions (like the EU) and therefore an agenda for third sector research that differs to some degree from other regions in the world.

However, EMES is now involved in the evolution of research at a broader geographic level via its enlarged international membership and via international partnerships (e.g. with the UNDP and research networks in Latin America and Eastern Asia).

Social enterprise

The EMES approach derives from an extensive dialogue among several disciplines (economics, sociology, political science and management) as well as among the various national traditions and contexts in the European Union. Moreover, guided by a project that was both theoretical and empirical (1996-2000), it preferred from the outset the identification and clarification of indicators over a concise and elegant definition (Borzaga, Defourny, 2001).

These indicators have long been presented in two subsets: a list of four economic indicators and a list of five social indicators (Defourny 2001, 16-18). For comparative purposes however, it appeared more appropriate to distinguish three subsets rather than two, which allows highlighting forms of governance specific to the EMES type of social enterprise.

Three indicators reflect the economic and entrepreneurial dimensions of social enterprises:

  • a) A continuous activity producing goods and/or selling services
  • b) A significant level of economic risk
  • c) A minimum amount of paid work

Three indicators encapsulate the social dimensions of such enterprises

  • d) An explicit aim to benefit the community
  • e) An initiative launched by a group of citizens or civil society organizations
  • f) A limited profit distribution

Finally, three indicators reflect the participatory governance of such enterprises:

  • g) A high degree of autonomy
  • h) A decision-making power not based on capital ownership
  • i) A participatory nature, which involves various parties affected by the activity

It must be underlined that such indicators were never intended to represent the set of conditions that an organization should meet to qualify as a social enterprise. Rather than constituting prescriptive criteria, they describe an “ideal-type” in Weber’s terms, i.e. an abstract construction that enables researchers to position themselves within the “galaxy” of social enterprises. In other words, they constitute a tool, somewhat analogous to a compass, which helps the researchers describe the position of the observed entities relative to one another and eventually identify subsets of social enterprises they want to study more deeply. Those economic and social indicators allow identifying brand new social enterprises, but they can also lead to designate as social enterprises older organizations being reshaped by new internal dynamics.

Two EMES seminal books

The Emergence of Social Enterprise (Borzaga and Defourny, 2001) traced the most significant developments in social entrepreneurship emerging in Europe.

Social Enterprise. At the crossroads of market, public policies and civil society (Nyssens, 2006) develops a comparative European analysis within a multidisciplinary framework to explore social enterprises.

Comparisons with other definitions

Other definitions of social enterprise and/or social entrepreneurship have been developed by various others researchers. In an attempt to promote dialogue and mutual understanding among approaches and groups of researchers across the world, J. Defourny and M. Nyssens published a comparative analysis of the more influential “schools of thought”, which is available in several languages:

  1. The EMES approach of social enterprise in a comparative perspectiveEMES WP 12-03
  2. L’approche EMES de l’entreprise sociale dans une perspective comparativeSOCENT WP 13-01
  3. El enfoque EMES de la empresa social desde una perspectiva comparada, CIRIEC-España. Revista de economía pública, social y cooperativa, no. 75, 7-34. Also as EMES WP 13-01 available here
  4. Chinese version available in Kuan, Y.-Y., Chan, K.-T., Lu, W.-P.& Wang, S.-T. (2012), Social Enterprises in Taiwan and Hong Kong: a Comparison, Chu Liu Publ. Taipei, 27-60. You can download it here

Social economy

The concept of “social economy” goes back to the 19th century when various new types of organisations and enterprises were formed collectively by groups of people in response to problems they were facing due to deep transformations of the economic system: co-operative societies, friendly (mutual benefit) societies, and other forms of undertakings which aimed at organizing production, consumption, access to credit, access to health care and other services on a more equitable and democratic basis.

In today terms, the social economy gathers enterprises of the co-operative movements, mutual benefit and insurance societies, foundations and all other types of non-profit organizations which all share some principles making them correspond to the “third sector” of modern economies. Indeed, social economy organisations differ from the private for-profit sector as their primary goal is to serve members’ needs or a broader public interest instead of maximizing and distributing profits to shareholders or members. They are also clearly distinct from the public sector although non-profit organisations may receive public subsidies to fulfil their mission: they are self-governed private organisations with the rule “one member, one vote” in their general assembly.

By Jacques Defourny.

Solidarity economy

The solidarity-based economy includes the set of activities contributing to the democratisation of economy on the basis of civic commitments. This perspective of analysis is characterised by the fact that it envisages these activities not only from the point of view of their legal form (associations, co-operatives, mutual societies…) but also through the twofold dimension – both economic and political – which constitutes their specificity.

The economic dimension first insists on the prevalence of the reciprocal impulse in the emergence of these practices. The latter are not based on a contractual agreement motivated by profit; they rather aim at an inter-subjective experience. Their consolidation is then sought through mixing resources, with redistributive public resources and market resources relaying reciprocal resources. The challenge consists in mixing resources in a way that preserves the rationale behind the project, without transforming it into a mere tool.

The political dimension is rooted in this reciprocity and the construction of public spaces allowing a debate among the stakeholders on the goals pursued and the means implemented hereto. The challenge, in this case, lies in maintaining the possibility for the existence of autonomous public spaces, distinct from institutionalised public spaces regulated by authorities.

The two dimensions are intertwined insofar as the mobilisation of the forms of reciprocity used in a voluntary way by free and equal citizens allows them to gain access to the public space by constructing the conditions for their economic independence. But the capacity to generate social changes depends on the link established between, on the one hand, exercising this positive freedom of association and co-operation and, on the other hand, a public action which is the only one able to promulgate the rights and to define the norms of an inequality-reducing redistribution. The effects of the solidarity-based economy are thus linked to the combination of two dimensions of democratic solidarity, namely egalitarian reciprocity and public redistribution.

The practices of the civil and solidarity-based economy thus counter the naturalisation of economy based on the sole dimension of individual material interest.

By Jean-Louis Laville


  • Laville J.L., (ed.), L’économie solidaire: une perspective internationale. Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1994 (Réédition 2000).
  • Laville J.L., Cattani A.D., Dictionnaire de l’autre économie, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 2005.
  • Laville J.L., Magnen J.P., De França Filho G.C., Medeiros A., Action publique et économie solidaire, Toulouse, Erès, 2005.

Third sector

The term ‘third sector’ is often used because it appears as a neutral term, free of an a priori link with any theoretical or ideological tradition. This, however, implies that the same word, ‘third sector’, can have different meanings.

Some organisations are clearly considered as belonging to the third sector, whatever the meaning given to the term. This is the case, for example, of organisations which are limited to political goals and to the social and cultural self-expression of their members – no one would doubt that NGOs, cultural associations wherein people spend their free time and similar forms belong to the third sector. However, things are getting more difficult with respect to those organisations that provide goods and/or services for others.

The inclusion or exclusion of these organisations will depend on the definition used. Definitions as they are often found in the US imply that only those organisations that do not make a surplus and/or do not distribute it among their members belong to the third sector; this first approach is at first glance especially convincing as long as the organisations considered as belonging to this sector are seen as social, cultural and political bodies, where economic aspects play no or just a very limited role (voluntary organisations, charities, foundations).

However, there also exists a broader and somewhat different definition. According to the latter, the main criterion for deciding whether an organisation belongs to the third sector is the fact that the organisation is governed in a way that ensures that the potential surplus is used and reinvested alongside social criteria. This is ensured through having the organisation governed by stakeholders with a multi-goal agenda, or by a set of different stakeholders, who have to agree on a balanced set of material goals or other purposes; such organisations would then not have to be non-profit, but they would have to be not-for-profit. This second definition is mostly linked with a view that acknowledges that many third sector organisations have an important economic dimension and an economic purpose; this is the case of cooperatives and mutual societies, but as well of new and other forms of “social enterprises”; similarly, nowadays, many voluntary and charity organisations can also be seen as different forms of organizing actions with a clear economic dimension – as contributors to a different, “social” or “solidarity-based” economy.

Finally there can be differences in defining the third sector regarding the degree to which sectorial borders are seen as clearly demarcating it. From what point onwards does a tight link of a third sector organisation with the public authorities turn it into a state-related agency? And from what point does the concern with the economic stabilization and growth of a third sector service provider turn this organisation into an enterprise where concerns with making a surplus are as dominating as in for–profit enterprises? These questions do not only indicate that the boundaries between sectors are often hard to draw and that there are “grey zones” of transition between sectors; they also underpin a viewpoint that argues that it is not the total absence of state concerns and profit considerations which defines a third sector organisation, but rather the degree to which these motives are outbalanced by other ones.

By Adalbert Evers.


To read more about the theoretical debates on this question, see the first introductory chapter in the Third Sector in Europe and the article by Borzaga, C. and Mittone, L. “The multi-stakeholder versus the non-profit organisation” (Working paper, 7, Università degli Studi di Trento, 1997).

Non-profit sector

There is no universally accepted definition of the non-profit sector. However, from the standpoint of empirical international research, it is possible to refer to the conceptual framework established  within a vast comparative project coordinated by the Johns Hopkins University since 1990.

On such a basis, the non-profit sector consists of organisations with the following characteristics:

  • a) they are formal, i.e. they have a certain degree of institutionalisation, which generally presupposes legal personality;
  • b) they are private, i.e. distinct from the both state and those organisations issuing directly from the public authorities;
  • c) they are independent, in the sense that they must have their own regulations and decision making bodies;
  • d) they cannot distribute profits to either their members or their administrators. This “constraint on the distribution of profits” lies at the heart of all the literature on non-profit organisations;
  • e) they must involve some level of voluntary participation by volunteers and/or donors, and they must be founded on the free and voluntary affiliation of their members

For more information, visit The Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies.

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