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Constituting the Third Sector: Processes of Decontestation and Contention Under the UK Labour Governments in England


Discussion about, and analysis of, the question of definition and the third sector and civil society more generally has developed to a significant degree in recent years. This paper can be located in a new phase of recent research, which seeks to attend to the historical, cultural and politically contingent nature of this domain’s boundaries. The process of constituting the sector is discussed as the product of new discourses of decontestation and contention within third sector policy and practice. It takes England as a case study, drawing on evidence and argument assembled by the authors in recent and ongoing research efforts, variously conducted with the support of the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) and the European Commission. The paper proceeds by discussing relevant literature; describing recent patterns of policy institutionalisation; and then tries to draw out more analytically how this process of constitution has been associated not so much with a stable and consistent set of definitions and constructs, but rather with unstable and changing formulations, which reflect the playing out of a dual process of decontestation and contention.


Ces dernières années, les discussions et l’analyse portant sur la question de la définition du tiers-secteur et plus généralement de la société civile se sont développées de manière importante. Cet article aborde une nouvelle phase des études récentes, qui cherche à appréhender la contingence historique, culturelle et politique des frontières de ce domaine. Le processus de constitution de ce secteur est envisagé comme étant le produit de nouveaux discours de décontestation et des controverses au sein des politiques et des pratiques du tiers-secteur. L’article prend l’Angleterre comme cas d’étude, en s’appuyant sur les démonstrations et les arguments développés par les auteurs des diverses études récentes et en cours, menées avec le soutien du Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) et de la Commission Européenne. Cet article poursuit en commentant la littérature idoine, décrivant les modèles récents d’institutionnalisation des politiques, puis tente de déduire plus analytiquement comment ce processus de constitution a moins été associé à un ensemble stable et cohérent de définitions et de constructions qu’à des formulations instables et changeantes, qui reflètent l’existence d’un double processus de décontestation et de controverse.


Die Diskussion und Analyse der Definitionsfrage und des Dritten Sektors und der Bürgergesellschaft im Allgemeinen haben in den vergangenen Jahren erheblich zugenommen. Dieser Beitrag gehört zu einer neuen Phase jüngster Forschungen, die den historischen, kulturellen und politisch bedingten Merkmalen der Grenzen dieses Bereichs Beachtung schenken. Der Prozess der Festlegung des Sektors wird als das Produkt neuer Diskurse über Auseinandersetzungen und die Ausräumung von Streitfragen innerhalb der befolgten Grundsätze und Praktiken des Dritten Sektors diskutiert. England dient hierbei als Fallstudie, wobei sich die Abhandlung auf die Beweise und Argumente von Autoren jüngster, andauernder, diverser und mit Unterstützung des Forschungszentrums des Dritten Sektors und der Europäischen Kommission durchgeführten Studienbemühungen stützt. Der Beitrag diskutiert des Weiteren die relevante Literatur, beschreibt neueste Muster der Grundsatzinstitutionalisierung und versucht sodann, auf analytischere Weise darzulegen, wie dieser Festlegungsprozess nicht so sehr mit einer beständigen und einheitlichen Sammlung von Definitionen und Konstruktionen assoziiert wird, sondern vielmehr mit unbeständigen und wechselnden Formulierungen, die die Umsetzung eines dualen Prozesses von Auseinandersetzungen und der Ausräumung von Streitfragen wiederspiegeln.


Los debates y análisis sobre la cuestión de definición, el sector terciario y la sociedad civil en general han proliferado hasta un grado importante en los últimos años. Este trabajo puede situarse en una nueva fase de investigación reciente, que busca atender a la naturaleza histórica, cultural y políticamente contingente de los límites de este dominio. En él se debate el proceso de constituir el sector como producto de nuevos discursos de cuestionamiento y discusión en la política y práctica del tercer sector. Se toma Inglaterra como estudio de caso, basándose en la evidencia y en el argumento defendido por los autores en trabajos de investigación recientes y continuados, varios de ellos realizados con el apoyo del Centro de Investigación del Sector Terciario (TSRC) y de la Comisión Europea. El trabajo se estructura en torno al análisis de la literatura relevante; se describen los patrones frecuentes de la institucionalización política y después se intenta averiguar más analíticamente cómo se asocia este proceso de constitución, no tanto con una serie coherente y estable de definiciones e interpretaciones, sino más bien con formulaciones inestables y cambiantes que reflejan la realización de un proceso dual de cuestionamiento y discusión.

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  1. 1.

    It is important to note at this point though that the OTS was in fact a new department for England only. This is because following the devolution of political control to the independent administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since 2000, third sector policy is one of the policy arenas which have been devolved. Now there are separate offices for third sector policy within the different administrations, with separate policy initiatives are being pursued in each of these three countries; although in practice rather similar policy directions have been followed in all three of the devolved administrations (see Alcock 2010b). Devolution has fragmented UK policy, and the focus of this paper is primarily upon the policy environment that has developed in England.

  2. 2.

    As Evers and Laville (2004) have argued, the different policy regimes of different countries have led to the construction of different models of a third sector elsewhere. For instance they contrast the non-profit sector of the US with the social economy model of Western Europe—although both are of course conglomerate models of a unified sector. Policy discourses are a product of the policy regimes within which they are located. They are also a product of the changing balances of political power and policy debate within regimes, against the backdrop of historical factors which help constrain what is seen as possible and appropriate.

  3. 3.

    The framework being deployed is an adapted version of the cultural theory approach of Mary Douglas, drawing on how it has been applied to the worlds of policy ideas by Thompson et al. (1990) and Hood (1999). Under this approach it is possible to move beyond the usual binary distinction between market and non-market alternatives, but without proliferating categories to the extent that desirable analytic parsimony is sacrificed. The analysis of both de-contestation and contestation is presented using a ‘grid group’ framework guided by the three ‘active’ categories of cultural theory (that is, setting aside her fourth option, ‘fatalism’ as inappropriate in a climate of policy hyperactivity) in more detail in Kendall (2010b).


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The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Office for Civil Society (OCS) and the Barrow Cadbury UK Trust is gratefully acknowledged. The work was part of the programme of the joint ESRC, OCS, Barrow Cadbury Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC).

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Correspondence to Pete Alcock.

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Alcock, P., Kendall, J. Constituting the Third Sector: Processes of Decontestation and Contention Under the UK Labour Governments in England. Voluntas 22, 450–469 (2011).

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  • Third sector
  • England
  • Definition
  • Contestation
  • Ideology