Time for a more realistic debate: the Swedish case

A big day of my life is approaching.  On the 4th of November I will defend my thesis at the University of Gothenburg. The thesis explores how social enterprises have come to be constructed as a solution to problems of social exclusion and unemployment in Sweden. Over the last couple of years, there has been an increased interest in social enterprises in Sweden, among practitioners and scholars, as well as among politicians and within the Swedish government. In the Swedish political discourse, social enterprise is today very much framed as an efficient means to combat problems of social exclusion and unemployment. Further, it is supposed to foster participation and empowerment among excluded groups in society (Näringsdepartementet, 2010).

While completing my thesis, I have had the opportunity to lecture on the topic touching upon conclusions from it in various milieus and in front of different audiences. The more interesting experiences so far have been meeting people who have been in direct contact with social enterprises, either as employed social entrepreneurs or as people being subject to workfare measures within the companies. In meeting people with ‘inside’ perspectives, I have received a lot of interesting feed-back and sharp analysis of what the solutions advocated by social enterprises sometimes may imply. And the pictures drawn to me are not always quite as beautiful as the vows of social enterprises undertaken in the political discourse and articulated by the Swedish government. Rather than being empowered and participative, several people give testimonies of being used as workforces and feeling abandoned by the welfare state in being subject to workfare measures run by social enterprises.

So, how could similar indications of the implications created by social enterprises be comprehended? And how exactly is the concept of social enterprise understood and used in a Swedish context? Well, similar to a wider European understanding, the Swedish social enterprises are mainly viewed as initiatives operating within the third sector, and adopting a legal organizational form with limited access to profit-distribution (Nutek, 2008). In focusing on work integration, the Swedish understanding of the concept is further linked to what is usually referred to as ‘work integration social enterprises’ in the wider European discourse (Defourny & Nyssens, 2008). The first social enterprise initiatives appearing in Sweden were run as social work co-operatives and were mainly developed as a result of the deinstitutionalization within the Swedish psychiatry in the early 1990’s.  The concern with inclusion in these enterprises primarily focused on processes of collective action and democratic governance as a means to reinforce the influence and power of marginalized groups in society. In the discourse emerging from these initiatives excluding processes and structural factors were highlighted as causes of social exclusion. However, a more pro-active attitude to labour market integration has emerged in recent years, where the social enterprise is framed as an active labour market policy tool aiming to amplify excluded people’s work abilities in order to enhance their possibilities to be included in society. Rather than highlighting structural excluding forces in society, in this latter understanding of the social enterprise the excluded individuals’ capacities to change in order to ‘fit’ in society are the focus. Hence, two different discourses of the social enterprise emerge in Sweden that imply a discursive sliding in the view of the social solutions offered by similar initiatives.

Additionally, in the definition of social enterprises provided by the Swedish state authority in charge of the growth and development of social enterprises (Tillväxtverket, former Nutek), three forms of enterprises are described. These are social enterprises focusing on i) work with wage employment, ii) job training as a preparation for taking a job in the ordinary labour market and iii) a sense of fellowship and meaningful pursuit (Nutek 2008:23). In this regard, social enterprise does not come forward as one uniform phenomenon. More accurately, it appears as a concept with several possible understandings, aims and goals. The idea of  ‘enterprise’ as activities involving multiple goals and principles opens up for a wide range of competing discourses in the social enterprise discourse. Consequently, in the Swedish debate of social enterprises the lines are repeatedly blurred between what is to be understood as businesses with paid employees and what is to be understood as human service organizations conducting welfare services and offering workfare-measures for excluded people. From a neo-institutional point of view, this can be interpreted as a way for social enterprises to gain legitimacy in different institutional domains, such as spheres run by for example labour market policy logics, social policy logics and enterprise policy logics. The various institutional logics at play in the institutional fields surrounding social enterprises provide possibilities for the enterprises to creatively use and negotiate various discourses in the struggle for legitimacy. In the process of institutionalization that social enterprises are subject to in Sweden today, this kind of creative negotiation is also needed in order for institutional entrepreneurs, such as social ones, to get access to the resources available in different institutional domains, and hence to survive as organizations. However, in the grand narrative of the social enterprise emerging in the contemporary political discourse it is chiefly the first form of social enterprise that is being discussed. Hence, in the political discourse work integration primarily tends to be equalized with the possibility for social enterprises to create new job openings, and to employ excluded people in these positions. The empowering ability of the social enterprise is hence linked to the possibility to be employed and become self-sufficient.

In framing labour market integration as the overall – and common – goal for the work conducted by social enterprises, initiatives enabling people to become fully employed business leaders with discretion of the operation of the company are regularly talked of in similar ways as the ones being subject for workfare initiatives. This implies an exposed position for the people being subject for workfare measures within the social enterprises, especially as they are being talked of as people being empowered when they are actually positioned as objects of change. This also explains why people in ‘client’ oriented positions in Swedish social enterprises many times experience themselves as being used and abandoned, as the dominating discourse first and foremost frame the possibility to be employed and empowered as a self-sufficient individual as the grand outcome of the work conducted by social enterprises. Hence, it is time for a more reflexive and less idealized debate of social enterprises. Hopefully my thesis can make a contribution and create a starting point to this process.



Näringsdepartementet (2010) Handlingsplan för arbetsintegrerande sociala företag. Regeringsbeslut: N2010/1894/ENT.

Nutek (2008a) Programförslag för fler och växande sociala företag. Stockholm: Verket för näringslivsutveckling (NUTEK).

Defourny, Jacques & Marthe Nyssens (2008) ”Social enterprise in Europe: recent trends and developments”. Social Enterprise Journal, vol. 4 nr 3, s. 202-228

Posted by Ulrika Levander

Ulrika Levander is a final year PhD student at the Department of Social Work, Gothenburg University, Sweden, who will defend her thesis, ‘The Social’ in the Social Enterprise, during the fall. In the thesis she explores the construction and understanding of the Social Enterprise in varying institutional and political contexts in Sweden.

Email contact: ulrika.levander@socwork.gu.se


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