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Department of History

Restoring local actors to Europe's welfare history

The ERC project 'Social politics in European borderlands (SOCIOBORD)' launched on 5 March 2021. EUI Professor of History Laura Lee Downs, the project’s principal investigator, explains some of the project's most exciting features.

17 March 2021 | Research


Friday, 5 March 2021 saw the inaugural (online) workshop of a new ERC project, Social politics in European borderlands, 1870s–1990s: A comparative and transnational study (SOCIOBORD). EUI Professor of History Laura Lee Downs, the project’s principal investigator, previews here some of the project’s most exciting features.

SOCIOBORD seeks to reframe the history of welfare and social care in modern Europe by restoring to view the contribution of local actors, primarily families and associations, to shaping welfare systems in three European borderlands – Galicia, the North-eastern Adriatic and the Franco/Belgian/Luxembourg/German border regions – from the late 1800s to the 1990s. SOCIOBORD thus turns our attention to the co-construction of social assistance by public and private actors in three regions marked by social, cultural, economic, religious or ethnic diversity. Here, the reach of central states often fluctuated and a variety of welfare structures, based on national, but also non-national forms of identity/solidarity (occupation or religion, for example) flourished. By focusing on the overlapping, and at times competing, local structures of social provision, and by homing in on borderland contexts where such competition was particularly visible, the SOCIOBORD team will explore the interplays between inclusion and exclusion that have long shaped European welfare provision.

The local welfare projects under study range widely, from homes for single mothers and their infants to nursery schools for children of the urban and rural working classes to assistance for disabled veterans, including programs intended to rehabilitate these men for re-entry into the workforce. Significantly, the targets of social action – working-class women, children and veterans – came from populations who were left largely untouched by state- or employer-run programs, which latter sought to ease, or compensate for, the work-related risks of (mostly male) industrial workers.

Each of these projects acquired particular shape and meaning from their borderland contexts: in struggles around the linguistic politics (monolingual vs. multilingual) that shaped early childhood education schemes in contested frontier regions; or in the unhappy fate of those veterans who, in the aftermath of war and the subsequent redrawing of boundaries, discovered that they had fought on the “wrong” side in the conflict (with the losers, a.k.a. the enemy) and were therefore excluded from social assistance.

The project website has a 90-second trailer.

Why reframe?

For the past several decades, scholars of welfare have explored the interactions between states and voluntary associations in building Europe’s ‘mixed economies of welfare’. By broadening the focus from state action alone to collaborations with civil society actors, this ‘mixed economies of welfare’ approach reminds us of the necessary interdependence of voluntary and state action that has long governed the creation and delivery of social services. Yet families remain side-lined in this scholarship. They are too often treated as passive beneficiaries, despite recent research showing that families in fact participate in shaping welfare services – not just passively, through their choices, but proactively as well, demanding, and at times creating, new structures of social care.

In order to restore the agency of families to view, SOCIOBORD adopts a highly innovative ‘triadic approach’ that emphasizes the dynamic relationships among these three distinct actors – families, voluntary associations and states – who interact at different levels and in multiple ways in the creation and delivery of social welfare. “The triadic approach first saw the light of day here at the EUI, where it was developed and tested by members of the international research network ‘European Trajectories in the Quest for Welfare and Democracy,’ which ran from 2015 to 2018,” recounts Downs. “Our early experiments with this innovative approach, researched in largely national contexts, are just now starting to appear in print.” Encouraged by these very promising early results, Downs has assembled a team of five scholars with expertise in the history of SOCIOBORD’S three borderlands. Together with Downs and several postdoctoral researchers, the SOCIOBORD team will apply the triadic approach in their case studies of local and regional welfare schemes.

“Rather than treating borderlands as peripheries, we approach them as laboratories for the development of social protection, thanks to the dense variety of actors competing for influence over their putative objects of assistance and for access to material resources,” observes Downs. “Indeed, we believe that these borderland stories have much to tell us about the development of welfare in Europe more generally. Our ultimate goal is to bring the histories of social protection in the East and West, North and South of Europe, and under socialist/post-socialist and liberal democratic regimes, into dialogue with one another.” 

SOCIOBORD project trailer

Sociobord Trailer

Last update: 26 January 2022

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