Social Origins of Civil Society: Explaining the Nonprofit Sector Cross-Nationally

Lester M. Salamon, Helmut K. Anheier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

555 Scopus citations


Recent research has usefully documented the contribution that nonprofit organizations make to "social capital" and to the economic and political development it seems to foster. Because of a gross lack of basic comparative data, however, the question of what it is that allows such organizations to develop remains far from settled. This article seeks to remedy this by testing five existing theories of the nonprofit sector against data assembled on eight countries as part of the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project. The five theories are: (a) government failure/market failure theory; (b) supply-side theory; (c) trust theories; (d) welfare state theory; and (e) interdependence theory. The article finds none of these theories adequate to explain the variations among countries in either the size, the composition, or the financing of the nonprofit sector. On this basis it suggests a new theoretical approach to explaining patterns of nonprofit development among countries-the "social origins" approach - which focuses on broader social, political, and economic relationships. Using this theory, the article identifies four "routes" of third-sector development (the liberal, the social democratic, the corporatist, and the statist), each associated with a particular constellation of class relationships and pattern of state-society relations. The article then tests this theory against the eight-country data and finds that it helps make sense of anomalies left unexplained by the prevailing theories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)213-248
Number of pages36
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1998


  • Comparative methodology
  • Cross-national comparisons
  • Nonprofit theory
  • Social origins theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Strategy and Management


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