Dissertation Abstracts

The Paradox of the Third Sector: A Systems-Theoretical, Relational Approach to the Role of Third Sector in Welfare Governance Via Local Partnerships

Author: Ferreira, Silvia , smdf@fe.uc.pt
Department: Sociology
University: Lancaster University, United Kingdom
Supervisor: Bob Jessop and Will Medd
Year of completion: 2011
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Third Sector , Governance , Complexity , Local Partnerships
Areas of Research: Sociocybernetics , Participation, Organizational Democracy and Self-Management , Poverty, Social Welfare and Social Policy


The potential of governance through partnerships and the third sector to solve state and market failures has been taken up internationally. Yet this solution poses theoretical and practical challenges because these instruments further complicate an already complex field of action concerned with social problems.

While the third sector and governance are much studied, approaches that connect their roles in welfare governance to broader theoretical issues are underdeveloped. This thesis seeks to fill this gap by developing a systems-theoretical, relational approach that adopts the complexity and cultural turns and that was developed in a dialogue between ethnography and theoretical inquiry. The case study involved a Local Strategic Partnership in an English district in a period dominated by Third Way policies. The theoretical inquiry draws on Luhmannian systems theory and Jessop’s strategic-relational approach. Overall, the thesis explores, empirically and theoretically, discourses and semantics, descriptions and self-descriptions, policies, network and organisational features, decisions and undecidabilities, paradoxes and contingencies and the self-potentiating complexity of selections. In particular, it considers the variety of first- and second-order observations of failure and their role as a stimulus to continuing attempts at governance despite the recurrent experience of failure.

In this way, the thesis explores the inevitably complex unfolding dialectic between two sides of a fractally structured part-whole paradox in societies characterized by functional differentiation and network governance. This paradox has two sides. The state is but one institutional ensemble in a complex society that is nonetheless charged with governing the whole society; and the third sector is expected to represent the side of ‘society’ to the state and to deliver state objectives. Each side has its own fractal complexities, reinforced through their interaction. The thesis concludes by highlighting the analytical potential of this approach to understanding the complexities of governance in and through the third sector.