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Research Group "Individualisation and Integration"

'Civil Communities':
New Forms of Organized Solidarity

by Dr. Eva Nadai


progress report / october 1998


This project analyses new models of organized solidarity as examples of a type of social integration we call 'civil communities' (Behr 1995). The term 'civil communities' refers to a type of social integration that is based on communicative processes instead of norms and on voluntary membership. Unlike relations based on kinship and tradition, ties in civil communities can be dissolved at will &endash; civil communities are communities of choice. How is solidarity still possible under those conditions and how can it be stabilized, once shared values and traditional communities lose their binding force?


Research questions

Research on solidarity usually assumes a shrinking potential for voluntarism. This is believed to be due to growing individualisation and the erosion of communities. Contrary to this view I am asking whether there is a change of the forms of social integration and solidarity. My project is focused on four questions:

  1. Do new solidarity groups fulfill an integrative function for their members, and how is this integrative function promoted or hindered by their specific organizational features?

  2. Is turning an organization into some sort of community a prerequisite to mobilize and stabilize individual member's commitment to the organizations' goals?

  3. Are new organizational models a way to tap an additional potential for solidarity or do they just mobilize the same social groups as traditional voluntary associations?

  4. Do those new solidarity groups have an effect beyond their own members, i.e. to what extent do they meet the growing demand for care and social services and in what ways do they foster social integration on a societal level?


Sampling groups

The project is based on three case studies of innovative models of organized solidarity: (1) an agency for volunteers as an example for a trend to individualisation, formalisation, codification and quasi-professionalisation of volunteering, (2) a group based on the LETS-model (Local Exchange and Trading Systems) with a vision of overturning the present economical system (3) a mother's centre which combines the idea of self-help with the claim of offering a (paid) labour market and a place for further education for mothers.


Methods and research design

The study combines qualitative and quantitative methods and includes three levels of comparison between the groups: (1) the members of the three groups, (2) their personal networks, (3) the organizational level. The following methods are used:

  1. Qualitative interviews with 16 members pertaining to their concepts of community and solidarity and to their volunteering activities inside and outside the research groups. Sampling and analysis follow the grounded theory approach.

  2. Quantitative analysis of the ego-centered networks of a random sample of 97 members. Analysis centres on network density, on heterogeneity/homogeneity of network members, on multiplexity of ties and on the comparison of the group-internal and external parts of member's personal networks.

  3. Analysis of documents and expert interviews on the correlations of organizational features (e.g. group size, mechanisms of decision making and conflict resolution, channels for information and interaction between members etc.) and social integration.



Preliminary results (based on qualitative interviews and document analysis) indicate that solidarity need not necessarily depend on shared values and norms within a stable community nor on purely altruistic motives. Solidarity can be based on a fictitious consensus (Cohenn 1986, Jenkins 1996) among socially heterogenous actors without prior social ties between them. Building temporary communities of choice is promoted by a number of factors, such as (1) the existence of «symbolic boundary objects» (Star/Griesemer 1989), which serve as a focus for the forming of a collective identity; (2) the «joint production» (Lindenberg 1997) of collective goods, i.e. by cooperation and social exchange leading to the emergence of social networks based on affective, instrumental and moral ties; (3) specific features of the organizational design, which facilitate participation and identification with the group (Ostrom 1990). There are vast differences between the three sample groups in this respect. Correlations between embeddedness in personal networks inside and outside those groups and solidarity (volunteering, informal social support etc.) will be examined next by means of a quantitative analysis of the personal networks of group members (n = 97).


Dr. Eva Nadai, University of Berne, Institut für Soziologie



last updated 1.11.98 by Christoph Müller

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