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Une économie solidaire peut-elle être féministe ?

Christine Verschuur
Isabelle Guérin
Isabelle Hillenkamp

Solidarités, travail et rapports sociaux

The edges of vision in mapping solidarity economies: gender and race in US cities

Maliha Safri

Texte intégral

Diversity in the economy

1The premise of “diverse economies,” rather than “the economy,” can produce a radical ontological shift. This point has been forcefully elaborated by the participatory research projects of JK. Gibson‑Graham (1996), exploring the effects of different representations in generating new economic possibilities inside communities. By surveying a diverse range of economic activities undertaken by community researchers inside communities in the US, Australia, and the Philippines, she produced the following (and evolving) geographical conceptual mapping that uncovered the multiplicity of transactions, labour relations, and enterprises hidden in mainstream economic discourses.

2Table 1 resituates capitalism within a diverse economic field, re-visioning it as one type of economic practice among others, and helps to displace “the capitalist economy” from its position of authority and exteriority as the global economic other of local economic development (Healy and Graham 2008). Positing the economy as diverse, and irreducible to capitalism alone, paved the way to describe, conceptually map, and perform diversity in the economy. Rather than defer nonexploitative forms until or after some revolutionary moment, the diversification move opens us to participating and proliferating these economic forms “here and now, in any place or context.”

Table 1: Diverse Economies Conceptual Grid

Community economy/Diverse economy



Organisational form




Alternative market

Alternative paid

Alternative capitalist

Local trading systems
Alternative currencies
Black market

Indentured labour

Environmental ethic
Social ethic




Household flows


Feudal and slave

3The politics of community economies involved cultivating a language, a discourse, a set of representations equal to the diversity being posited. The discursive shift, at least for Gibson‑Graham, is particularly crystallised in visual representations like their “iceberg diagram” (Figure 1). An object submerged under water speaks to the visible and invisible economies that characterise communities. They found that such representations produced and were produced by subjective shifts on the part of research participants (Gibson-Graham 1996; Gibson‑Graham, Cameron and Healy 2013).

4As subjects awakened to all of the different activities previously not posited as economic, Gibson-Graham captured not only a different economic ontology, but the process of grasping that different, hidden ontology. The metaphor itself, conjured the hidden power of the iceberg of caring labour, cooperative labour, and cooperative economies below the water line, asking subjects to interrogate what lurks below their own water lines.

5Most people engage in and perform a diversity of economic actions, and yet only a subset of them have come to be officially counted as economic. Seeking to “count the invisible value” obviously borrows from one of the most important subfields of feminist political economy concerning reproductive and unpaid labour (Folbre 1987; 1995; Ironmonger 1996; Waring 1988). Extrapolating from time-use data, the estimates of the market-equivalent value of unpaid labour lies somewhere between forty to sixty percent of GDP in rich and poor countries alike. Feminist scholars forced the recognition of the feminised and hidden economic domain, as well as elaborated all of the ways that such a domain exerted social effects. One practical proposal involves modifying the UN system of national accounts to include gross household product as a complement to gross market product, each treated as a contribution to gross economic product (Ironmonger 1996). The unfolding of the neoliberal economic order has given this sort of project considerable urgency because reductions in state welfare provisions necessitate dramatic increases in unpaid household labour (Benería and Feldman 1992) and because women’s increased labour force participation simultaneously reduces the availability of that labour (Hoskyns and Rai 2007). Critics argued the occlusion was fundamentally shaped by a deep-running androcentric bias within economic theory itself (Ferber and Nelson 1993).

Figure 1: Iceberg diagram

Figure 1: Iceberg diagram

6Gibson‑Graham characteristically played with this, asking if bad theory produces bad results, what could be accomplished by “good theory,” influenced by queer, gender, and political economy theorists to produce an ontology of economic diversity, such as Table 1? Their answer was characterised by a dual temporality. First, acknowledge the already-present, uncounted economic practices in our households and in our communities. And second, coax a nervous future into existence by asking what other possibilities exist, perhaps when it comes to market and/or labour relations (Laville 2003; Mance 2007). Suspending disbelief and suspicion momentarily to “think outside the box”, what might be desired if we were to be experimental? And could we possibly generate through the research project itself a noncapitalist economic entity? The research action projects sought to work on both a present and future-oriented temporality (Cameron and Gibson 2005).

7Influenced by the work of Gibson‑Graham and the Community Economies Collective, I and Djar Horn began a participatory action research project on Diverse and Solidarity Economies in Asbury Park, NJ, where our research group produced simple Google maps of alternative economic organisations and businesses (Safri 2014; 2015). By teasing out people’s everyday activities, we urged people to see themselves as part of a diverse economy that was significant in both a quantitative aggregate sense, as well as a qualitative (and personal) sense since many of the non-exploitative activities sustained and improved their communities and families. Politicising economic development is not restricted to the strategy of identifying the role of hidden economic elements. It also involves redefining growth through rearticulating these capitalist and non-capitalist elements around a new logic that of building new, non‑capitalist economic forms (Healy and Graham 2008). The project went from uncovering diversity, to engagement, when some participants went on to initiate the first construction worker cooperative (Safri 2014).

8Now, my work has evolved into a project with a team of researchers (Craig Borowiak, Emily Kawano, Stephen Healy, Marianna Pavlovskaya), in which we deployed mixed methods to study “other” economies. We received a National Science Foundation Grant to use quantitative and qualitative methods to analyse and evaluate the impact of the solidarity economy in New York City, Philadelphia, and Worcester (Massachusetts), according to the following typology we constructed (see Table 2).

Table 2: Typology of solidarity economy practices








Credit unions

Fair trade networks


Buying clubs



credit unions

Peer lending

agriculture and

of resources




land trusts

Collectives of

Barter networks
Free-cycle networks
Time banks

Unpaid care work
Babysitting clubs

9Using Geographic Information Systems analysis, Borowiak (2015) finds in Philadelphia 17 Alternative Currencies/timebanks, 24 B Corporations, 4 Buying Clubs, 95 Community Development Corporations, 131 Community Gardens, 7 Community land trusts, 67 cooperatives, 117 Credit unions, 46 Community supported agricultural farms, 1 fair trade organisations, and 72 other SE organisations.

Figure 2: Philadelphia map by race and presence of only cooperatives

Figure 2: Philadelphia map by race and presence of only cooperatives

Source: Borowiak 2015.

10In Philadelphia, Borowiak’s results are especially illuminating, raising key issues for social movement actors as well. He found that once the credit unions were separated out from the rest of the cooperative sector, housing, worker, food, artist, and childcare cooperatives were virtually absent from neighbourhoods with the deepest poverty. However, neither did they cluster in the highest-income, White neighbourhoods (Borowiak 2015). The maps revealed “patterns of cooperatives clustering within buffer zones between rich and poor, and between White, Black, and Latino neighbourhoods.” (Borowiak 2015, 35). His important work actually begs more questions than can be currently answered – why are those patterns observable in those neighbourhoods? What supportive conditions exist in those neighbourhoods for such practices? Some racialised patterns were to be expected in Philadelphia given its deeply segregated city structure, but the results both defy some accusations and raise troubling issues for the social movement. The SE’s absence in the poorest and most racially homogenous neighbourhoods, either Black or White, means it is neither a movement for the rich (as is sometimes alleged by Left critics), nor is it a movement that includes the poorest in Philadelphia and NYC. While the former point buffers defences against critique and dismissal, the latter finding is a source of some trouble to a movement having stated goals of equity and pluralism. If there is to be a serious address of class inequity, absence across large swathes of social and class spectrums is not good news.

11In New York City, where the efforts started later and the scale is expanded to boot, the survey project is less comprehensive across all the SE sectors and forms. In NYC, we are surveying limited equity housing cooperatives (self-managed housing coops with income and price restrictions), worker cooperatives, credit unions, and food cooperatives. Preliminary Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping of credit unions (not for profit banks) and community development credit unions (not for profit banks with a mission to serve low-income communities of colour) are confirming that the latter do indeed have a different spatial and racialised pattern (Eletto and Pavlovskaya, under review).

12The NYC map that is the most comprehensive has actually been generated by local activist group SolidarityNYC.

13Demonstrating that the interest in mapping is far from an academic one, social movements have found it important to generate public, user-friendly maps that allow consumers and SE actors themselves to find other SE entities.

Race and gender in the solidarity economy

14In moving from the conceptual mapping to the GIS or self-generated maps, we have subtly made a theoretical cross-over that has racialised and gendered effects. Returning to table 1, the first generation of maps exposed diversity in market and nonmarket, paid and unpaid labour. The second generation (our GIS maps) revealed richer and demographic detail on alternative market activities and paid labour. In NYC, however, unpaid labour and nonmarket activities (e.g. household labour or volunteering), which are process oriented and spatially diffuse, dropped out of view in the move to the site-specific analysis of GIS maps. If unpaid household labour occurs everywhere, almost in every household, then mapping becomes irrelevant. Actual participation in unpaid labour as a multilayered reproductive, productive, and gendered practice is not technically visible through GIS in the same way.

15We also miss many kinds of solidarity economy, or noncapitalist, practices that occur more routinely in communities of colour. While they appear as “dark holes” in the above maps when particular practices are examined, that is not the case when using the typology of nonmarket oriented practices, or less formalised market ones. For example, Borowiak (2015) finds more community gardens growing edible crops in Latino communities, while they are largely absent in medium and high income communities. There is reason to believe nonmarket practices, such as childcare networks and cooperatives, and alternative market ones such as immigrant zero-interest lending groups, may generate significant but less quantifiable impacts on their participants. In part, the informality of these practices makes them harder to capture. Additionally, when practices border on the legal/illegal boundary, outright identification actually jeopardizes participants, which has meant the mapping project necessarily and intentionally refrains from visibilising some practices. For instance, we know there are at least some community gardens on squatted or illegally occupied land that would be endangered if made clearly visible across the city-space. To map in this case undermines the goal of social empowerment, even as incomplete mapping occludes some SE practices in communities of colour.

16Guérin and Nobre (2014) point out that SE “initiatives indeed have the potential to reshape the economy, barriers and links between ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’ to reinvent wealth and also the political sphere, which has been a longstanding demand of feminist agendas.” However, they find these same initiatives may actually reproduce gender inequality by reifying non-market and nonmonetary exchanges as the domain of the feminine. NYC results may also be following this trend of reification when it comes to worker cooperatives, but in the market domain. The preliminary estimates for worker cooperatives so far indicate that far and away, women are the dominant workforce in the city’s worker cooperatives. Numerically speaking, the largest worker coops are located in healthcare, childcare, and housecleaning. The incomes women report as worker-owner-members are also typically higher than the wages they reported receiving previously. Cooperative Home Care Associates is even able to boast health care insurance and pensions for home health care aides, uncommon in a field dominated by the self‑employed.

17On the one hand, to better the work lives of a segment of women (most of whom are women of colour), granting them greater work stability, higher incomes, better work conditions, and a degree of autonomy as self-managed collectives are all laudable achievements. These are some of the reasons why the NY City Council has now granted a $ 1.2 million dollar initiative (in which we are now participating) to further develop worker cooperatives in the city. The initiative is supposed to support the existing 22 worker cooperatives, and generate an additional 28 new worker cooperatives during the current year. Given that our research project was already mapping and analysing worker cooperatives in the city, we were pulled into the effort since we have the ability to establish baseline data against which to measure the effects of city support.

18On the other hand, the money granted is insufficient to consider expansion of worker cooperatives in all economic sectors. The initiative will probably concentrate on the same labour‑intensive sectors (related to reproductive labour, notably) as before, given that cooperative developers know those industries and occupations. The intense pressure to produce results quickly means there is little time to experiment with new sectors and occupations, much less capital-intensive ones. Previous scholars (Guérin and Nobre 2014) have challenged us to see how the solidarity economy might reify the domains of the nonmarket and unpaid labour as feminine. Our preliminary research results produce new insight into how particular market forms may assume the same pattern. NY worker cooperatives are becoming feminised given their formation within traditionally feminine occupations and sectors. This remains though, a question to be solved at the concrete contextual level. For instance, the worker cooperative experiences of Madison (Wisconsin) reveal a different pattern tipping more towards white males (Dilworth, Reynolds, and Borowiak 2015).

One ring?

19Positing a diverse economic ontology led to enthusiastic attempts to elaborate that diversity in various geographic contexts. Putting aside momentarily the ways that gendered and racialised occlusions still constitute those projects as noted above, it is a powerful move to represent the economy of cities through an alternative lens. They suddenly emerge as a significant group, instead of as unique entities or isolated types. The actions of dispersed actors are aggregated, producing some hints at their untold collective power. The maps (figures 2‑3), the economic contribution analysis, the representational figure (figure 1), all create the notion of an umbrella category whose multitudinous elements and practices constitute a diverse community economy or solidarity economy. Researchers stress that the “other” of capitalism is significant, and are persuasive with the aid of specific, albeit flawed, tools, methodologies, and data.

20However, the process of articulating diverse elements in real relation to one another as a collective coalition is not simply accomplished through representation. Real questions remain as to whether and how a community supported farm could integrate and materially connect to a nurses’ worker cooperative. Is it even possible for diverse elements to be articulated together by a common signifier? To be harsh, might the fantasy of social movements approach Tolkien’s mythical “one ring”, something to bring them all into a social movement, or community economy, or solidarity economy?

21The last collaboration concerning the aggregation of many diverse micro-actors was when Julie Graham and I wrote about “the global house-hold”. This work drew out of my dissertation on the economics of low, wage immigration to the US. Defining the global household as the migrant family network, composed of family units dispersed across borders who maintain material and/or affective ties, the focus was on the aggregate actions of an important microactor (Safri and Graham 2015). In the aggregate, the global household produces and distributes a large quantum of social wealth in the form of unpaid household labour, household-based business income, monetary and in-kind remittances, and gifts. It thus participates in international production, finance, and trade in addition to the coordination of international migration. International remittances (money sent by migrants to relatives back home) alone officially reached 414 billion of US dollars last year, with unofficial remittances tipping the total well over the half trillion dollar mark. Yet despite its potential to shape and alter economic indicators and processes such as gross domestic product (GDP), the balance of payments, the relative valuation of currencies, economic development, and the gender and social division of labour, the global household is seldom viewed as an economic actor. This is not only because those who recognise its existence generally see it as acted upon by other economic and governmental institutions; more fundamentally, it reflects the fact that the operations are seldom accorded theoretical standing or empirical attention. The most significant challenge lies in thinking about the aggregate actions of global households since complete heterogeneity characterised the immigrant spectrum: regional/national origin, race, language, motivation for moving, etc. How could we construct the notion of an “actor” out of radical diversity?

22The same structural problem confronts the social and solidarity economies, how to create a bond of solidarity across different actors. Can we have solidarity without sameness? The concept of an “empty signifier” or “nodal point” may prove useful in answering such questions. While Saussure first described language as a system of signs, it would be Ernesto Laclau, along with Chantal Mouffe (1985), who would go on to develop the importance of the “empty signifier” in politics. Signs are constituted by signifiers (the form, the actual word or image) and signified (the idea or the concept associated with that form), and meaning is always established through relationality and difference (Hall 1997). But “an empty signifier is, strictly speaking, a signifier without a signified” (Laclau 1996, 36). With respect to the solidarity economy, Borowiak and I (Safri and Borowiak, under review) suggest that it may serve as a nodal point under which diverse economic practices and movements are linked together. As an empty signifier, however, its meaning resists precise specification due to the myriad differences brought together under its umbrella. This play of difference and equivalence occurs on at least two spatial levels, the national and the inter/transnational.

23First, the SE serves as a nodal point at the national level when each social or solidarity economy network constructs itself and articulates different practices as being organised by “solidarity”. The partial struggles and mobilisations, such as collectively managed fisheries and community development credit unions, are indeed differentiated by their concrete objectives, goals, functions, constituencies, and so forth. Yet there is some relation of equivalence possible as each particular element enacts modes of solidarity that present alternatives to prevailing political economic and development paradigms.

24Second, despite national and regional variation, different social and solidarity economy (SSE) movements have managed to form intercontinental SSE networks. Bringing multiple national movements together, in 2001, the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of the Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS) was formed. With representatives from over 60 solidarity economy networks and groups in Latin America, Europe, Africa, North America, and Asia, the network can be seen as a movement of movements. While the RIPESS charter expresses a set of values and normative principles shared and implemented to various degrees by the networks, the international network has refrained from defining how precisely those principles (respect for gender equity, for instance) should be operationalised and implemented in each location. Borowiak and I (Safri and Borowiak, under review) argue they seek solidarity across these different movements, not equalisation or homogenisation. There is no one thing that all national movements share in common, and none of them is definitive of the whole. What draws them together is the understanding that each signifies the SSE movement, in all of its diversity. On this secondary level, the transnational SSE movement can be seen as asserting the SSE as a nodal point of nodal points.

25In the end, it is not positivity or some universal similarity that will bind together the radical heterogeneity of the SSE. The various networks representing social actors cannot arrive at common definitions, or normative guidelines, for all constituents. In the end, the networks, either at the international or national level, are seeking to empty solidarity or social economy of specific content. Every form does not have to assume the same organisational structure or social mission. Will more and more actors come to self‑identify under that common signifier though? The answer to this question, or more appropriately, the many geographic answers, will either indicate a growing SSE social movement, or a hypothetical one.


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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Iceberg diagram
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Titre Figure 2: Philadelphia map by race and presence of only cooperatives
Crédits Source: Borowiak 2015.
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Titre Figure 3
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Maliha Safri is an associate professor in the economics department at Drew University, and has taught and published on political economy. She has published articles in Signs, Organization, The Middle East Journal, Rethinking Marxism, The Economist’s Voice, and edited book collections. Most recently, she is working on a collaborative project funded by the National Science Foundation with researchers in the Northeast to map and estimate the economic impact of the social and solidarity economy. She has also been involved with a number of immigrant worker cooperatives in the New Jersey and New York areas, as well as economic literacy workshops with area activists and workers.


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