Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

Understanding the Social Economy: A Canadian Perspective

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

Understanding the Social Economy: A Canadian Perspective

Article excerpt

Understanding the Social Economy: A Canadian Perspective Jack Quarter, Laurie Mook, and Ann Armstrong. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009

The primary purpose of this book is to provide a comprehensive examination of the social economy within Canada, which is defined by the authors as a "bridging concept for organizations that have social objectives central to their mission and their practice, and either have explicit economic objectives or generate some economic value through the services they provide and purchases that they undertake" (4). The text targets business studies and, as discussed below, takes into account factors that are frequently overlooked by scholars and educators whose focus is the accumulation of profits within the private sphere.

The book is divided into three parts and nine chapters. Part 1 consists entirely of Chapter 1, and it introduces the reader to the notion of the social economy and characteristics of social economy organizations, including social objectives within their missions. The authors' description of Canada's largest credit union, Vancity, succinctly captures the essence of mission within social economy organizations as they explain it emphasizes the "so-called triple bottom line: financial, social, and environmental" (16).

Another core characteristic of social economy organizations is social ownership. Unlike the for-profit sector where personal gain is the hallmark of ownership, social benefit is the defining trait within social economy organizations. Consequently, assets are considered social dividends that are passed from one generation to another.

Chapter 1 also alerts the reader that this book differs from a standard business text because it explains how the current neo-liberal climate challenges social economy organizations. In short, those organizations earning their revenues in the market may be forced to compete with profit-oriented businesses while those that rely primarily on public sector funding may vie for contracts.

Part 2 consists of five chapters that each addresses a particular dimension of the social economy. Chapter 2 focuses on different types of social economy businesses that operate within the market economy to meet their members' needs. For instance, a discussion of user-based cooperatives in the form of credit unions or caisses populaires reveals that the co-operative financial institution Desjardins is the sixth-largest financial institution in Canada and the leading employer in Quebec. Other social economy businesses mentioned in this chapter include commercial non-profits such as the university-based Travel Cuts and quasi-commercial nonprofits like the well-known and popular YMCA network.

Community Economic Development (CED) is the primary domain of Chapter 3. This chapter contains an incisive discussion of the growing economic inequality within Canada and how this has prompted the need for CED. The attention to this topic was a pleasant surprise, especially within a business text. A useful diagram on page 81 outlines how CED initiatives embrace aspects of the social economy, such as a strong social mission, but also generate revenues through the market and often receive financial support from the public sector. The authors maintain that the socio-economic benefits emanating from CED project are real and "tangible" (96), yet they mention no studies that outline these benefits. A few concise summaries of studies that capture the benefits of CED, particularly within impoverished regions, would have boosted the persuasiveness of this chapter.

Chapter 4 focuses on social enterprises. These initiatives exchange goods and services within the market and thus generate substantial revenues through the private sphere but they may also receive financial support from governments and foundations. A form of CED, social enterprises typically assist individuals that may face socio-economic barriers, such as persons with disabilities, in becoming more economically independent. …

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