Distinction in the third sector

Working Paper 89 - October 2012

Many people operating in and around the third sector, including researchers, appear to want to define, safeguard and promote some intrinsic characteristics of third sector activity. There are clearly commitments to the idea that the sector, or fractions within it, or individual organisations, are in some way different and distinctive.

This paper argues that claims about distinctiveness remain inconclusive. However, it also argues that it is not enough merely to ask ‘is the third sector distinctive?’ We should also ask why the answers to those questions matter for people in and around the sector. It could be because there are real differences between organisations, types of organisation and sectors. Here we have argued that it is something to do with establishing ‘room’ to exist in a competitive and contested field of struggle. This may focus on wider demands for resources, but it may also involve recognition, or the pursuit of status, profile and regard.

The paper uses this argument to complicate and extend the idea of the third sector as a ‘strategic unity’. It argues that the third sector can be seen as a contested field, in which ‘distinction strategies’ are used to create room for individual organisations (against other organisations), groups of like-minded organisations (against other groups), and the third sector as a whole (against other sectors).

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