Third sector organisations in hypercomplex societies: a systems-theoretical approach to the third sector

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Dec 1, 2013 (3 years and 6 months ago)


Third sector organisations in hypercomplex societies: a systems
theoretical approach to the third sector

Silvia Ferreira

This paper puts forward a systems
theoretical approach to third sector organisations

(TSOs) informed by a relational
perspective on the third sector (TS). This perspective builds from the literature on the hybrid character of TSOs and
the semantics of the intermediate place of the TS between market, state and community (Brandsen et al. 20
05; Evers
2005; Billis, 2010). With the tools of second order cybernetics and Luhmanian complex system’s theory (Luhmann,
1995; 2006; Andersen, 2003; Baecker, 1999) it is argued that in the present functionally differentiated societies,
TSOs are observing
systems coupled to a large variety of other systems, social and psychic, and that, due to this
position, they observe in specific ways the contingency of systems’ selections. By combining systems theory and
Luhmann’s theory on organisations (Seidl and Kay,

2005) with the strategic relational approach (Jessop, 2008), it is
considered that the complexity perspective underlying these approaches provides an enhanced understanding of the
complexity of the TS in the complexity of present heterarchic welfare gover
nance (Jessop, 2003).

This perspective is applied to the analysis of TSOs self
descriptions collected from a theory
driven ethnographic case
study on TSOs’ participation in welfare governance in an English locality. Drawing from observation, document
ysis and interviews to TSOs and its networks, it examines the way TSOs are constituted as observers by the
observations produced and how this shapes their decisions and their self
descriptions and descriptions of people and
other systems in their environme

In this paper, in a first moment, I describe how different TSOs describe people and how this informs the way they
design their programs for people’s observation as citizens, users, members, women, homelessness, community, and
so on. I argue that the c
ontrol of how and whom to observe and how to be observed is a main topic in the
intermediations between people, the TSO and the environment. In a second moment, I focus on how TSOs
distinguish themselves from the environment and how they observe their envi
ronment and draw their strategies
accordingly, describing their observations on the failures of welfare systems’ organisations and programmes, the
market economy and the community. I argue that TSOs not only observe failures in systems’ programmes and code
but also that, as organisations coupling to different systems, they can use the communications of one system to
observe other systems as failing and even of functional differentiation failures. This helps understanding the diversity
within the third sect
or and makes TSOs relevant for governance in functionally differentiated and hypercomplex

With resonance on TS literature and semantics and on TSOs self
descriptions, this proposal aims at bringing third
sector debates to the general theoretica
l framework of complex system’s theory where it has been only marginally,
while also contributing to Taylor’s challenge of moving the TS beyond empirical theory (Taylor, 2010). On the other
hand, with the analytical tools provided it attempts at answering
Kramer’s paradox (Kramer, 2000) regarding the
emergence of a third sector when boundaries are increasingly blurring. That is, it aspires to improve the
understanding of the current shifts within the TS and the shifting borders of the market and the state i
n and increasing
liquid (or hypercomplex) society.


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Baecker, D., 1999. Introduction. In idem (ed.), Problems of F
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