Reimagining the Cooperative: An Interdisciplinary Conversation


Corinna Howland (University of Cambridge)

Patrick O’Hare (University of Cambridge)


The cooperative has proved to be a remarkably enduring and adaptive organizational form. With roots in the Industrial Revolution and with its current iterations persisting in/in spite of the highly contested materialities and moralities of neoliberalism, cooperatives manifest across different socio-historical contexts and economic sectors, whilst also leading distinctive local lives. As such, the cooperative has emerged as a floating signifier for a range of ventures aimed at social and economic transformation: grassroots responses to economic pressures and crises, modernization and development projects, and business endeavours such as the Basque private sector powerhouse Mondragón. With such diversity of histories and practice, what actually links cooperatives to one another? Why have cooperatives, as an organizational form, persisted for such a long time?

There has been considerable and sustained interested in cooperatives across the humanities and social sciences. Yet these approaches, which centre upon their status as economic organizations, political projects, and sites of meaning and value-making, remain largely siloed within specific disciplines. In anthropology, political science, and sociology, much of the debate has centred on whether cooperatives constitute a launch-pad for radical departures from prevailing social and economic conditions, or whether they instead reinforce the status quo. Other work, particularly in economics and development studies, has focused on more explicitly descriptive and applied ends: analysing the structure, efficiency, and successes/failures of particular cooperative projects, often in order to contribute to the progressive development of cooperative entities overall. What can we gain from bringing these two strands of research together? Furthermore, is it possible for us to move discussions of cooperatives beyond a consideration of structural politics and applied approaches, and what are the implications of this? What other (shared) avenues of analysis are open to us as cooperative scholars? As its primary objective, this two-day workshop seeks a more sustained and coherent interdisciplinary theorizing of contemporary and historic cooperative practice.

In particular, the workshop will explore the following questions: why and how have cooperatives endured as a form of social organization? What forms of sociality, politics, morality, and material practice do cooperatives engender? What is the relationship between cooperative form and practice across time and space? What role do cooperatives play in contesting and/or reproducing status-quo economics, politics, and associated social forms? How might attentiveness to recent theorising about economics – particularly notions of performativity and the commons – generate new ways of thinking about cooperatives? Finally, how might cooperatives shadow other kinds of communal and collaborative working groups, such as labour unions, collectives, and associations?

Call for Papers

We invite papers from across the social sciences and humanities (anthropology, history, geography, economics, political sciences, development studies) and from emerging and established scholars, to contribute to the workshop.

Participants are welcome to consider the following:

  • Theoretical reconsiderations of the cooperative as social form and political potentiality
  • History and historiography of cooperatives, the cooperative movement, and cooperative ‘experiments’
  • The practice of cooperatives as ‘total social institutions’ and sites of meaning and value-making
  • Continuities and frictions between cooperatives, the state, development NGOs, and market actors
  • Micro-politics: governance, collective labour, and membership
  • Theoretical and analytical connections between cooperatives and other types of communal and collaborative working associations (labour unions, collectives, informal work groups, the sharing economy, mutual and co-owned business, and associations)

Please send a 300-word abstract and short CV to Corinna Howland, cfh39 [at] by December 20th, 2017. Applicants will be notified if they have been accepted by January 5th, 2018.

Successful applicants will then be asked to submit a 3000-word paper by April 20th, 2018 for circulation among the workshop participants. This, together with a fifteen-minute presentation, will form the basis of the workshop discussions.

Accommodation, lunches, and a workshop dinner will be provided for speakers.

Categories: Conferences

2 replies »

  1. Oh dear, oh dear. I don’t feel comfortable here.
    When can we stop being observers and actually see ourselves as participants
    in this conversation!
    I can’t help feeling frustrated
    as a sociologist
    in thinking that I actually exist
    in this system.
    How can we shift our research practice
    from meaningful observation
    to meaningful participation?
    Collaboration in our own investigations.
    Why are we so ‘behind the eight ball’
    with this?
    As an observer
    I find this remarkably uninspiring.
    The world is changing, along with our perceptions of it.
    How can we be involved
    as sociologists?
    I hope you don’t publish this,
    it is just a reaction.
    No more than a distraction.

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