Social Enterprise in Germany: Understanding Concepts and Context

ICSEM Working Papers No. 14. Liege: The International Comparative Social Enterprise Models(ICSEM) Project.

Resumen :

The term “social enterprise” appeared in Germany for the first time in the 1990s in the context of transnational research projects initiated with the help of the European Commission (DG XXIII: Social Economy). But only a small group of researchers participated in these projects, which can explain why research concerning social economy and social enterprises in Germany is still at an early stage. Hence, research and studies tend to focus on defining the “boundaries” and building a common and widely accepted understanding of terms, limitations and underlying concepts.

Although the terms social economy and social enterprise are not legally defined nor understood in detail in Germany today, various organizations exist, which work according to business principles, but aim for the greater common good rather than for individual gain. Some of them can look back on a history of more than 150 years. They exist in a wide variety of forms, which emerged for different reasons, in different times and contexts, with different organizational structures, and on the background of different philosophies or traditions.

Furthermore they do not act or see themselves as something like a coherent “social economy sector”, but are organised in separate groups or “families”, with different identities, institutional and legal frameworks, research, development, education and training organizations etc. Therefore, we cannot build on a coherent general “social enterprise debate” in Germany; the debate is split and takes place — with some few exceptions —mainly within these groups or families.

For the purpose of this contribution we will therefore outline the main discussion lines, based on the development of a wide range of groups or families of what could be considered social enterprises according to the criteria underlying the ICSEM project. We will discuss the explicit use of the notion in relation to the general policy, legal and finance-related environment as well as the institutional landscape and the socio-economic and social policy context. We will analyse the major conceptions having emerged in literature and research so far and seek to outline the topic in relation to other concepts. Finally, we will discuss the interest of public authorities and their underlying conceptions.