Towards a global history of the consumer co-operative movement (until September 1st)

The aim of the project is to produce a comparative survey of the history of the consumer co-operative movement, from the nineteenth century onwards, in all regions of the world. This will take the form of an anthology, to be written in English and edited by the project leaders, which will include chapter-length surveys of co-operative history in as many regions and countries as possible, together with thematic analyses of the transnational connections, processes and entanglements which have shaped co-operative history throughout the world. Combined with statistical information and bibliographies, the anthology is intended above all to create a resource for future studies on the co-operative movement.

The work will be produced to the highest scholarly standards by professional historians, but we will also use other forms to disseminate the results of the project to a wider audience, including co-operative activists. The project builds upon important earlier  studies in this field, including for example the work of Johnstone Birchall, and the anthologies edited by Brazda and Schediwy (1989) and Furlough and Strikwerda (1999) but it is nonetheless still the case that consumer co-operation has been surprisingly neglected by economic and social historians. 

The project is concerned primarily with consumer co-operatives, many of which though by no means all state their adherence to the principles of the so-called Rochdale model (based on the eponymous co-operative society founded in northern England in 1844). Many  consumer co-operatives are concerned with retailing, but it will also be necessary to consider consumer co-operation in other fields, e.g. energy, healthcare, social services including care for the elderly etc. Other forms of co-operative organisation will be considered where necessary in relation to consumer co-operation, including for example producer co-operation (especially where co-operative production was run as part of co-operative wholesale federations serving consumer societies), agricultural co-operation and credit co-operation.

By presenting a global perspective on a truly global movement, the project also attempts to move beyond the Euro-centric perspectives that continue to dominate much trans-national historical research, and  thus contribute to the growing interest in globalised history. The  aim of the project is to understand consumer co-operatives as a  global phenomenon, and it thus requires a careful consideration of methodology. We seek to understand why consumer co-operation existed all over the world, but at the same time it is important to avoid over-emphasising entanglements, and adopting a euro-centrist or neo-colonialist view. It is thus important to pay attention not just to Rochdale but also to different models of co-operation and their  diffusion. Further, although the framework for the nation state was often the main context for the historical development of co-operatives, similarities and differences will have to be treated very carefully in order to avoid generalisations that hide local and regional  developments.

Scope of the project

The book will be divided into two sections. The first will include a series of single-country or regional chapters, written by experts, and organised around an agreed set of common questions and themes. The second will consist of broader surveys exploring different themes in co-operative history. The list of countries/themes is still subject to revision.

1) Introduction (the editors)
Section 1: country/regional surveys
2) Britain 3) The Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) 4) Germany 5) Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland 6) Eastern Europe 7) France 8) Spain (including Mondragon), Italy 9) North America (Canada and United States) 10) Central America and the Caribbean 11) Spanish South America 12) Brazil 13) West Asia (including Israel) 14) Russia and the CIS 15) China (including Hong  Kong) 16) Japan, Korea and Taiwan 17) South-east Asia (including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia) 18) French and British West Africa 19) Southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe etc.) 20) East Africa 21) India (including Bangladesh, Miramar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) 22) Australia and New Zealand 23) International organisations (ICA; co-operative sections within UN, ILO)
Section 2: thematic chapters
24) Co-operation and the labour movement (labour attitudes to coops; co-operative attitudes to labour) 25) Co-operation and gender; also ethnicity, locality and religion 26) Consumer co-operatives under communism and fascism 27) Empires and colonialism 28) Co-operatives, law and the state: regulation, public policy 29) Co-operation, consumerism and other consumer movements; food Culture and the environmental movement 30) Co-operative international trade and the fair trade movement 31) Co-operative management and industrial relations; co-operative business models; co-operative governance and member participation 32) Co-operative advertising, material culture, iconography and education 33) Co-operatives and the retail sector 34) Service consumer co-operatives: healthcare, energy, social services 35) Transnational networks; diffusion of different models

Questions/framework for analysis

The country or regional surveys will need to address a common set of  questions, as follows:

1) How, where and when did the co-operative movement emerge, and what were the main influences on its development? What was the relationship between indigenous co-operative organisations and co-operative ideas introduced from overseas? How were  co-operative ideas transmitted, e.g. by immigrants, colonial and domestic authorities, trading contacts, transmission and translation of key texts? What was the influence/status of different models of co-operation?

2) What forms did co-operation take in different national and regional contexts? What was the relationship between consumer co-operation and other types of co-operation (producer, agricultural, credit)? What  was therelationship between consumer co-operation and other  consumer movements? How may we try to explain the relative success or not of consumer co-operation in different countries?

3) What was the legal, constitutional and political framework for the development of co-operation? Were co-operatives treated as friendly/mutual societies or as businesses? What was the role of the state, either in actively promoting the development of co-operatives or in hindering them? How did legislation affecting co-operatives shape their development (e.g. legislation forbidding trade with non-members)? Was there organised opposition to co-operation (e.g. from private retailers) and how significant was this? Were co-operatives able to influence public policy?

4) How did co-operation develop on different scales and in different places? Was co-operation associated with particular communities or  places? How did the movement develop historically in national and/or regional contexts? When were the first societies founded? What was the significance of federations at national or federal state level? How was the movement structured and organised?

 5) How can we understand the historical development of the movement in relation to general economic, social and political trends, and processes such as e.g. industrialisation, urbanisation,  globalisation, rising/falling living standards, changing patterns and  cultures of consumption? How important is path dependency for understanding co-operative history in a national context?

6) How were co-operative societies managed, and how did this change Over time? Were there any particular periods of expansion and innovation or of decline, and how can these be explained? How  did consumer co-operatives manage industrial relations with their own employees? What was distinctive about co-operative governance and the arrangements for member participation?

7) Did the co-operative movement appeal to any particular social groups? To what extent were consumer co-operatives associated with or divided by social categories such as class, occupation, gender, ethnicity, language, religion? To what extent did the co-operative movement provide other activities, e.g. education, cultural activities, social clubs, press, housing, insurance schemes and other mutual benefits? Were there separate women's organisations and what role did they play?

8) To what extent did the co-operative movement develop its own  istinctive material culture and iconography? What can be said about its public buildings, brands, advertising etc.? How did the co-operative movement seek to promote its products to its members  and how do its activities fit in with wider patterns of consumption? To  what extent have consumer co-operatives sought to engage with debates about 'wise' consumption, for example healthy eating,  organic food production, fair trade and ethical consumerism?

9) What was the relationship between the co-operative movement and Other social and political organisations, especially the labour  movement? What was the labour movement's attitude to the  co-operative movement? Were any co-operative societies affiliated formally with political parties, social democratic or otherwise?

10) To what extent was co-operation an international movement? What was the relationship between the national co-operative organisations and the ICA, and/or other international organisations? What contacts (trading orotherwise) did the co-operative movement have with co-operatives in other countries? To what extent were international relationships between co-operatives shaped by inequality, power, and colonial or post-colonial relations? What has been the role of technical assistance and aid between co-operative agencies?

11) What can be said about the historiography of co-operation in a national context? What have been the roles of academics and/or  co-operators in writing co-operative history, and how have they tried  to explain periods of expansion and decline? What has been the   main focus of co-operative researchers? In what ways has the  movement commemorated its own history?

Contributors will also be asked to include some bibliographic and statistical information in relation to their own countries, where this is available.

Practical organisation

This is a very ambitious project, which will rely for its success onmeticulous planning by the project organisers, and the co-operation of all participants in following instructions, framework and deadlines very closely.

The project organisers are Mary Hilson (University College London, UK; and Silke Neunsinger (Labour Movement Archives and Library, Sweden; Any queries about any aspect of the project should be directed to them in the first instance. There is also a small steering group of international experts who will be advising the project organisers.

We are now seeking initial responses to the call for papers, from scholars working in the field who wish to propose contributing one of the regional or thematic chapters.

At this stage, we would like to invite short outline proposals (max 3-4 pages). Please note that for the national/regional surveys, we suggest that these proposals should take the form of short responses to the 11 questions listed in this call for papers, rather than a conventional abstract.

On the basis of the proposals we receive, we will select the full papers to be presented at the project conference, to be held in 2011 (date and place to be confirmed).

 Please contact us as soon as possible with informal expressions of interest.

Proposals should be sent to Mary Hilson (, no later than 1 September 2010. Please also include a brief CV and details of any relevant publications. Jointly-authored proposals are of course welcome.

Please note the following:

1) The project organisers have only very limited funds at theirdisposal. No fees can be paid to contributors. In general, scholars will be asked to seek their own funding for travel to the conference. The project organisers will do their best to assist scholars from poorer countries with finding suitable funds towards their travel and subsistence to enable them to attend the conference, but no guarantees can be made.

2) Proposals should be written in English where possible; proposals in French and German are also acceptable. The language of the  project conference will be English. As far as contributions to the final volume are concerned, it may be possible to submit papers in other languages for translation. Please make it clear in your proposal if this is likely to be necessary.