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Cooperatives: transformative sustainable practices or lost in everyday routine?

Research project In the wake of the financial and economic crises a new interest has developed in cooperatives. The European Commission asks member states to increase their support of cooperative businesses. Some authors see cooperatives as opening up a space for an alternative organisation of the economy.

A study of the production of time, space, social relations, and discourses in cooperatives in Sweden, the UK, and Spain.

Head of project

Nora Räthzel

Project overview

Project period:

2017-01-01 2019-12-31


Dnr: 2016-02219

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences

Research area


Project description

In the wake of the financial and economic crises a new interest has developed in cooperatives. The European Commission asks member states to increase their support of cooperative businesses. Some authors see cooperatives as opening up a space for an alternative organisation of the economy. The ILO claims that cooperatives can play a key role in economic transformation. We suggest that it is only possible to speak of transformations if significant changes occur also in the everyday working processes, not only in management structures or the distribution of profits. Therefore, our research will focus on the everyday working process. We aim to investigate how cooperatives are created on a daily basis through the practices of their members. Can cooperatives be seen as producing in an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable way? We will analyse the production of the internal and external material, social and discursive relations in everyday working processes in order to contribute to a theory of the everyday as a complex and contradictory process of repetition and creation, investigating whether and how this everyday can become a realm of transformation and human flourishing or whether and through which processes this may fail. By choosing three countries we combine macro- (countries), meso- (organisations), with micro- (workplaces) analyses of cooperatives.

Theoretical framework

The project is based on a combination of theoretical perspectives to understand the complexities of the everyday at the workplace. We understand the everyday with Lefebvre as the domain in which 'genuine creations are achieved' (2002: 44), 'genuine changes' take place (Lefebvre, 1991: 137). What distinguishes Lefebvre's approach to the everyday is that he does not construct repetition and creativity as mutually exclusive. The everyday is for him the litmus test for any transformative creation: 'Even, and above all, when exceptional activities have created them, they have to turn back towards everyday life to verify and confirm the validity of that creation.' (Lefebvre, 2002: 45). It is because most of the time we are engaged in mundane, everyday activities, that these activities need to be transformed in order for an exceptional invention to have an impact. Creating a cooperative is an exceptional activity and those engaged with it will be full of enthusiasm and ready to put in extra time to make it work at the beginning. But such an enthusiasm cannot be held up for endlessly. What happens when the exception becomes normality, when the small daily problems and routines set in? The everyday has predominantly been investigated in the contexts of leisure (Bennett and Watson, 2002). Most people spend most of their time at work (paid employment), which is why everyday work impacts on people's well-being, identities, and social relations.
We conceptualise the workplace combining theories of labour (Lefebvre, 2002; Sennett, 2008; Burawoy,1979; Webster, 2008), space (Massey, 2005) and discourse (Foucault, 1971) into a multi-dimensional concept of internal and external practices constituting the work process: physical, social and discursive practices. They co-produce each other and can only be separated analytically. We employ an approach to social constructivism that acknowledges the materiality of practices, while at the same time insisting that the world we experience is always already socially constructed.

Selection of cases

Cooperatives are often defined as part of the 'social economy' comprising charities, small self- help organisations, and large businesses providing social services but not necessarily including worker participation. The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) defines a cooperative as: 'an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly- owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.'(ICA, 2014) We aim for a multi-sited ethnography comparing examples of cooperatives in three European countries that represent three varieties of Capitalism: 1. Sweden as an example of Coordinated Market Economies. 2. The UK as an example of Liberal Market Economies, and 3. Spain as an example of Mediterranean Economies.

We employ a dialogical model aiming to transcend the binary opposition between researchers and researched. This is complemented by action research elements following Lewin who argued that in order to gain insight into process, the researcher must be part of the change and then observe its variable effects and new dynamics. While we recognise that as researchers we set the agenda, the dialogical method enables us to reformulate this agenda when necessary, taking into account the knowledge of the researched. The potential of ethnography to capture meaning and identity has been acknowledged, yet its ability to grasp institutional processes and the reproduction of social relations over time and beyond specific contexts is one of its shortcomings. Burawoy has developed the notion of the 'extended case method' to overcome this deficiency. Comparing cases internationally we will employ an analysis that relates local processes to their extra-local national and international contexts. Portelli's multi-layered model in which times (past, present and future) interact with spaces (personal, collective, institutional) will guide our interpretation. The project will employ an innovative combination of methods


Latest update: 2018-11-26