Call for papers – Panel for the European Social Science History Conference (Belfast, April 2018)

Call for Papers for a panel at the ESSHC (Belfast, April 2018)

The Co-Constitution of Public and Private Actors: Building the Field of Social Protection in the 19th and 20th Centuries

This panel seeks to explore public-private interactions in the field of social protection by looking at how such interactions have been at the source of new organisations and new areas for both public and private intervention since the 19th century. Many studies have stressed how public and private agents may collaborate or compete with each other for legitimacy, resources and responsibility, but it is seldom noticed that public actors are often at the very origin of private initiatives, and vice versa. Moreover, the private and public sectors are involved in a vast array of (un-)mutual relationships, e.g. virtuously growing out of each other, preying or living as a parasite on each other and, sometimes, dying out together.

With this panel, open to specialists with different disciplinary backgrounds and working on different periods and case studies, we wish to explore the multiple forms of public-private interdependence that have structured the fabric of social protection. More precisely, we want to focus on their organisational dynamics, their consequences on social welfare provisions and practices, as well as on these organisations’ identities (especially in terms of gender, class and religion).

Recent scholarship has stressed the historically close ties between private initiative and public action in the field of welfare at the local and national level, as well as in the field of relief at the international level. For example, many historians have stressed that European Welfare States did not simply emerge in 1945 out of the ideas and policies of reformers situated within the State, but rather, from the end of the 19th century onwards, “through the central state’s gradual adoption and expansion of private local initiatives” (Downs, 2002, p. XIV). This often resulted in the creation of “hybrid welfare structures in which the lines between public and private were far from clear” (Zahra, 2008, p. 104). The same remains true to this day in many areas of social protection. Other scholars have focused on the financial side of the private-public connections. In an important book, Olivier Zunz showed that social protection in the United States since the end of the 18th century has been carried through a partnership between private philanthropy and the state, generating a “mixed economy of welfare” (Zunz, 2012). Looking at the British State’s consistent intervention and funding of private humanitarian action overseas from the 1920s onwards, Emily Baughan expanded Zunz’s idea into the notion of a “mixed economy of relief” (Baughan, 2016), emphasizing the continued dependence of the “private” sector upon public funds and support.

In this growing scholarship, public-private connections in the field of social protection are usually analysed through two main questions. The first one is the question of power. The dependence (especially financial, but also regulatory) of private organisations on public authorities is often at the heart of this line of enquiry, as well as the shifting relationships of collaboration, rivalry and competition between private and public welfare initiatives. The second question is that of the very nature and thickness of the divide between private and public realms. In this interlocked field of social protection wherein people, money, practices, policies and, sometimes, whole infrastructures circulate between the public and private sectors – professionals simultaneously or successively working in both; institutions being privatised or, on the contrary, taken over by local, national or international public entities; or else becoming hybrid structures jointly managed and funded – it is sometimes hard to draw the line between the two.

However, these questions may implicitly mislead us into considering the private-public nexus as a zero-sum game, in which organisations and policies may shift from private to public and back; the respective perimeters of the public and private sectors may grow, shrink or partially blur into one another; but the extension and external borders of the field of social protection as a whole would remain unchanged. Yet, public and private actors not only collaborate, compete or merge with each other: they also often give birth to one another, feed of each other (and die with each other), thereby constantly reshaping, expanding or shrinking, through their interactions, the field of social protection itself and the organisations which operate within that field (at the local, national and international scale).

Some studies do point to this historical co-constitution of public and private actors, through which new fields of social protection appeared. For example, Droux shows how the birth of the Committee on the Protection of Children of the League of Nations in 1925 was created through the private lobbying of the International Save the Children Union and the International Association for the Promotion of Child Welfare. These private organisations thus generated a new perimeter for international public intervention which, in turn, changed the nature and scope of private international action in the field of child protection (Droux, 2011). Also looking at these chains of mutual generation, Guerry shows how the creation of the League of Nations and the International Labour Bureau prompted the World Young Women’s Christian Associations (YWCA) to create a new private organisation dealing with aid to migrants, the International Migration Service, in 1921 (Guerry, 2014). In both these examples, private-public interactions generated new organisations and new areas for both public and private intervention.

It is this phenomenon of productive interdependence and co-constitution of public and private actors of social protection at all scales (local, national and international) which we seek to explore in this ESSHC panel. This call for papers thus invites scholars who have researched the history of social protection in the broad sense of the term (including charity, philanthropy, welfare, relief, social care, etc.) to revisit their material and explore the co-constitution dynamics of public and private actors. At this point, we are mostly interested in empirical case studies which may, ultimately, enable us to identify patterns of public-private interdependence.

We are particularly interested in:

  • The organisational dynamics at play, i.e. the way in which public and private actors constantly generate and reshape each other. Attention will be devoted to both “virtuous” dynamics (public and private actors contributing to their mutual growth and development, be it through collaboration or competition) and “unvirtuous” dynamics (the decline or disappearance of one actor having negative effects on a whole area for intervention and sometimes, leading to the disappearance of specific social policies). This also raises the question of the conditions under which these “virtuous” and “unvirtuous” dynamics play out. We assume that they do when and where public and private actors find resources and opportunities in each other; but they may not always do so. For example, where community-based organisations are prevalent, does this impede public-private co-constitution dynamics?
  • A grassroots level analysis. We are also interested in the consequences of this organisational interdependence on the way social protection is produced on the ground. Public-private interactions influence and shape social welfare practices, with public and private actors learning from and imitating each other. They also probably have an impact on the populations which are targeted as beneficiaries of social protection in general, and by both types of actors. Considering that private welfare or aid organisations often target beneficiaries along community lines (of class, religion or nation) while public services are supposedly more universal or gender and age-specific, we are interested in what happens when public organisations appear where only private ones existed, and vice versa. Are new beneficiaries included – or excluded? Does the relationship between providers and recipients of social protection change? Does the spatial coverage of social protection change (especially in terms of urban/rural provision)? Does it extend thanks to what we called “virtuous” interactions or, on the contrary, shrink on the whole when one type of actor (public or private) disappears?
  • Organisational and professional identities. A third question we would like to raise is the way in which these public-private dynamics may (re-)shape the identities of the organisations, as well as the identities of the public and private agents involved in them. For example, Guerry points out that the creation of the International Migration Service by the YWCA was initially determined by the necessity of presenting a neutral, non-confessional and expert face to the League of Nations and the International Labour Bureau; but this may also have ultimately changed how these women presented themselves and the social work they performed (Guerry, 2014). More generally, we wish to explore how public-private interactions and interdependence may change the gender, class and religious identities of social protection organisms and agents.


We welcome papers from all social sciences dealing with any field of social protection, on every continent, at every scale and from the beginning of the 19th century onwards. The final deadline for submission is April 15, 2017 (the panel proposal must be sent to the ESSHC on May 1st at the latest).


Proposals of about 300 words must be sent to:

Fabio Giomi: [email protected]

Célia Keren: [email protected]

Morgane Labbé: [email protected]




Baughan Emily, “Mrs Jellyby Nation: The British State and Overseas Aid in Europe, 1918-1925”, Paper presented at the ESSHC Conference, Valencia, April 1, 2016

Chatriot Alain, « Le rôle des entreprises dans la mise en place des politiques sociales françaises: L’enseignement de l’histoire », Informations sociales, 2004, no 117, pp. 10–17.

Downs Laura Lee, Histoire des colonies de vacances de 1880 à nos jours, Paris, Perrin, 2009, 433 p. Durham, NC, 2002 pour la 1ère éd. en anglais.

Droux Joëlle, « L’internationalisation de la protection de l’enfance : acteurs, concurrences et projets transnationaux (1900-1925) », Critique internationale, 2011, no 3, « Une autre approche de la globalisation : socio-histoire des organisations internationales (1900-1940) », pp. 17–33.

Guerry Linda, « Mobilisations transnationales. Le cas de l’International Migration Service, 1921-1939 », Monde(s). Histoire, Espaces, Relations, mai 2014, vol. 1, no 5, « Diplomaties », pp. 219‑237.

Zahra Tara, Kidnapped Souls : National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900-1948, Ithaca/Londres, Cornell University Press, 2008, XII-279 p.

Zunz Olivier, La philanthropie en Amérique: argent privé, affaires d’État, Fayard, 2012.



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