Intl Journal of Public Administration, 28: 749–765, 2005
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Inc.
ISSN 0190-0692 print / 1532-4265 online
LPAD0190-06921532-4265Intl Journal of Public Administration , Vol. 28, No. 09, Jul y 2005: pp. 0–0Intl Journal of Public Administration
Griffins or Chameleons? Hybridity as a Permanent
and Inevitable Characteristic of the Third Sector
Griffins or Chameleons? Hybridity in the Third SectorBrandsen, Van de Donk, and Putters Taco Brandsen, Wim van de Donk and Kim Putters
Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, Faculty of Law,
Tilburg University, the Netherlands
Abstract: The term “third sector” is increasingly used, but it is also increasingly difficult
to define. It is characterized by fragmentation, fuzziness, and constant change. Furthermore,
the bordering domains of community, market, and state are equally difficult to define and
are becoming more blurred. One may have to accept that hybridity and change are perma-
nent features of the organizations and arrangements involved. They could be classified not
with reference to the structural characteristics of abstract domains but on the basis of how
they cope with conditions of hybridity and change. The search for a valid empirical defini-
tion of the third sector, however modestly ambitious, must focus on the fringes of the
domain where the “hard cases” can be found—the phenomena that are most difficult to
identify and therefore most likely to reveal what is essential to the different domains.
Keywords: third sector, nonprofit sector, definition, research strategy, hybridity
“My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes
of a different kind. You, heavenly powers, since you were responsible
for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and
spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the
world’s, down to my own times.” 
There are an increasing number of fora and publications focused on the notion
of a “third” domain between community, market, and state, under a variety of
related and overlapping labels such as “the nonprofit sector,” “civil society,”
Address correspondence to Taco Brandsen, Tilburg School of Politics and Public Admin-
istration, Faculty of Law, Tilburg University, PO Box 90153, 5000 LE, Tilburg, the
Netherlands; Fax: +31134668149; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
750 Brandsen, Van de Donk, and Putters
“économie sociale,” “the third sector,” and so forth. Here we will use what
is possibly the vaguest term, “the third sector,” which seems to embrace all the
others. At present it is an unsatisfactory concept, meaning no more than some-
thing other than community, state, or market. This type of description gives
rise to problems when applied empirically.
Research shows the third sector to be many things (private nonprofit or non-
government organizations, social movements, volunteer groups, cooperatives,
etc.) that seem to have little else in common other than what they are not. Hybrid
forms, that is, those that mix elements from these idealtypical domains, are
increasingly prevalent throughout society. There is evidence of increasing bound-
ary problems between the third sector and the surrounding domains of market,
state, and community. These boundary problems are not just of an empirical, but
also of a conceptual nature. The concept of a third sector is based on idealtypical,
simple notions of state, market, and community, when research focusing on these
areas increasingly reveals them to be just as problematic as the third sector label.
In light of these concerns, one has to wonder whether the perspective of
sectors or domains is not an unsatisfactory one all together. In this paper, we
propose research strategies that may be more helpful in clarifying what con-
stitutes the essence of the third sector. Our aim is not to posit yet another def-
inition, but to work towards a new conceptual basis—although this is
necessarily a long-term effort. At the core of our approach is the notion of
hybridity. Hybridity refers to heterogeneous arrangements, characterized by
mixtures of pure and incongruous origins, (ideal)types, “cultures,” “coordi-
nation mechanisms,” “rationalities,” or “action logics.” The notion of hybrid-
ity has its origins in biology, where it refers to the more or less stable mixture
of different species. In the administrative history of the Netherlands and
other European countries one can find many examples of hybrid arrange-
ments, in the fields of health care, social housing, education, and other
domains of the modern welfare state. These combine, for instance, ele-
ments usually characterized as public and elements generally associated with
market logic. Empirically speaking, it appears far easier to find arrangements
that are hybrid or “fuzzy” arrangements than those approximating idealtypi-
Boundary problems, fuzziness, and changeability may in fact be a defin-
ing characteristic of the third sector (and perhaps a feature of society more
generally). It is on this footing, perhaps, that a new typology of organizations
could be established. They could be classified not with reference to the struc-
tural characteristics of abstract domains but on the basis of how they cope
with hybridity and change. The challenges for third sector researchers would
be to prove that there is a specific “third sector” way of coping with these con-
ditions, and to analyze where this comes from. If distinct third-sector coping
strategies can be identified (although one must accept that this may not be
possible) then these could, for instance, be related to the characteristics of the
products and services these organizations provide.
Griffins or Chameleons? Hybridity in the Third Sector 751
THE THIRD SECTOR AS A “MISCELLANEOUS AND FUZZY
SECTOR” AMIDST COMMUNITIES, MARKETS, AND THE STATE
Many authors have tried to develop a typology of organizations that can be
found in the “third sector.”[4–12] De Tocqueville already noted that such a
typology would be very difficult to develop. More recently, Kendall and
Knapp have characterized this sector as a “loose and baggy monster,” while
Salamon speaks of it as a “hidden subcontinent of enormous size and com-
plexity.” Frumkin speaks of the “contested arena” between state and mar-
ket where public and private concerns meet and where individual and social
efforts are united, a sector at once a visible and compelling force in society
and an “elusive mass of contradictions.” Levitt once characterized it as an
“enormous residuum,” filled with a “bewildering variety” of organizations
that only share their exclusion from the domains of the state and the market.
Third-sector organizations are involved in activities that: “business and gov-
ernment are either not doing, not doing well, or not doing often enough.”
This image of a “sector of leftovers” dominates the contemporary literature of
nonprofit organizations and is in many respects unsatisfactory.(18)
There have been attempts to develop a more “positive” approach to the
third sector, claiming there is more to say about third sector organizations than
what they are not. Building on earlier work, van de Donk has analytically
reconstructed the third sector in terms of three dimensions. It can be
described as a domain in society comprising organizations that are private (not
belonging to the state), nonprofit (not distributing the profits to economic
owners as market organizations do), and formal (in contrast to more informal
networks of families and communities, although the former may originate in
the latter). Within such a conceptualization, the “third sector” is a hybrid
domain amidst the three idealtypical or “pure” domains of society (that is,
organizations in this sector emerge as hybrid types between the pure actors we
know as bureaucracies, enterprises, and families or clans).
The assumption underlying the typology is that organizations in the
sector are all in one way or another caring organizations, providing services
or goods with a “dual” public (collective) and private (individual) nature.
Care for others on a voluntary basis, directed at a more or less defined and
exclusive “other,” is regarded as their common denominator. Within the
class of organizations that share this element, various analytical types can
be distinguished. At the center of Figure 1 the quadrants A, B, C, and D
refer to four types of third-sector organizations that care either for a case or
The first type (A) comprises organizations where caring for others con-
cerns “the indirect other,”for example, the environmental movement, which is
strongly motivated by the ideal of safeguarding our natural habitat for future
generations. These organizations often operate near the political domain, since
they mostly (though not always) attempt to use the political procedures and
752 Brandsen, Van de Donk, and Putters
mechanisms of the state to realize their ideals and objectives (e.g., NGO’s in
developing countries offering both advocacy and practical aid). The second
type (B) is also found in the part of the third sector close to the political sys-
tem. These are organizations like unions and umbrella organizations that care
for more tangible “others,” representing the interests of their members. They
engage in all sorts of activities in order to serve their member organizations,
such as lobbying, the production of rules and codes, member services and the
formation of identity.
The lower left quadrant of the circle (C) comprises those organizations
providing care within communities. They often originate in families or per-
sonal networks and operate in open or closed communities, such as neighbor-
hoods or companions in misfortune. Usually these are less formalized than the
other types, maintaining their grassroots character. Organizations in the lower
right quadrant (D) are characterized by higher degrees of professionalism and
a range of clients/beneficiaries beyond the communities from which they
sprang (e.g., local mutual forms of insurance). Not surprisingly, these are
Figure 1. Four types of third-sector organizations.
Griffins or Chameleons? Hybridity in the Third Sector 753
closer to the market domain, as they often provide forms of care also provided
by market enterprises.
This conceptualization of the third sector allows for segmentation, allow-
ing, among other things, a more specific distinction between “social capital
enhancing” groups and organizations (related to the notion of “civil society”)
and other actors that tend to be classified as third sector. However, this seg-
mentation should not be interpreted too strictly. The dotted lines that separate
the four quadrants suggest that the four types of third sector organizations or
associations mentioned above are no more than idealtypes. The distinctions
between the domains and quadrants can in practice be characterized as fuzzy,
which poses a further problem to the notion of a “third sector.”
What is perhaps confusing in relation to the term “third sector” is the
existence of three other domains. This is because families, households, and
other types of informal communities are usually lumped together with third-
sector organizations, whereas market and state organizations are recognized
as belonging to alternative domains. While the difference is gradual (as it is
with the other domains), it is important to distinguish between small, pri-
mary social units (such as families) and larger, more organized units (such as
voluntary groups). The latter may operate on the basis of care and trust, but
are not based primarily on close relationships between people who individu-
ally love and cherish one another. Strictly speaking, we would have to iden-
tify a “fourth sector.” In order not to add to the confusion, we will continue
to make use of the “third sector” term, keeping in mind that is somewhat
CHANGE AND TRANSITION IN THE THIRD SECTOR
While such a positive definition of the third sector is to some extent clarifying,
it is faced with the problem that there are shifts between the quadrants and
domains, which come in a variety of forms. “The lines delimiting the sector
have frequently been subject to challenge and revision, as funds and responsi-
bilities have shifted back and forth among business, nonprofit, and govern-
ment organizations. Reaching consensus on the very definition of nonprofit
and voluntary sector is difficult because many of the core features and activi-
ties of nonprofits increasingly overlap and compete with those of business and
To begin with, the mechanisms that determine the dynamics within the
quadrants and domains appear to be shifting to other quadrants and domains,
making it hard to say what it means to be in one segment or another. The mar-
ket idealtypically organizes cooperation and the allocation of goods and ser-
vices by means of competition (based on the exit mechanism); the state
typically relies on hierarchy and other coercive forms of authority (held in
check by the mechanism of voice), and community is associated with care and
754 Brandsen, Van de Donk, and Putters
altruism (which, forcing Hirschman’s scheme a bit, could be related to the
notion of loyalty). Yet many services and goods provided by third-sector
organizations appear to be coordinated by a mixture of exit and voice and loy-
alty. This is why many organizations and governance systems found in the
third sector are hybrids that defy the “pure” coordination mechanisms of the
Salamon identifies three causes for such crossovers: 1) Changes from
“below” (bottom-up), initiated by organizations and individuals undertaking
activities in order to strengthen their position in claiming certain goods and
rights; 2) incentives from the outside—professional and voluntary activities
are encouraged by churches or humanitarian, social, or ideological groups
and/or governments supporting those activities (e.g., subsidizing them) in order
to promote a sense of community and individual responsibility; and 3) support
from above—governments encouraging public–private partnerships and
hybridity in order to provide public goods more responsively and efficiently.
Another potential cause of change is the “logic of provision,” the requirement
and options generated by the technical characteristics of goods and ser-
vices. For instance, information asymmetries related to health care ser-
vices, often named as a reason for its present mode of nongovernment or
nonprofit form of organization, are changing because of the potential of infor-
Partly as a result of such dynamics, (elements of these) organizations
shift between quadrants and domains. They appear to do so at an increasing
rate, making it hard to pin them down permanently within one of the domains
or quadrants. Well-known examples are charities that have evolved from
informal groups selling goods to pay their bills to professional organiza-
tions competing with commercial companies. In an absolute sense, there is
of course nothing new about fuzziness, especially not in Continental
Europe. However, in recent times, more and more actors have appeared to
end up in these hybrid, fuzzy quadrants. Consequently, not only is the third
sector divided into many segments, but these segments are also increasingly
dynamic and hybridic, to the point that the distinctions between them are of
diminishing significance in an empirical sense. If anything, change and
metamorphosis characterize the current third sector. This, perhaps more so
than static characteristics, must be regarded as one of its distinguishing
THE INTANGIBILITY OF COMMUNITY, MARKET, AND STATE
As border markers, the three domains of market, state, and community are
themselves part of the third sector’s identity. If the third sector is what com-
munity, market, and state are not, what are they exactly? But this, too, is not
easy to define.
Griffins or Chameleons? Hybridity in the Third Sector 755
The market domain is increasingly difficult to pin down. The prevailing image
of markets (and the behavior of the idealtypical actor in this domain, the com-
mercial firm) is based on neoclassical economics, an approach that still domi-
nates economic studies and has informed many state policies of the 1980s and
1990s. This approach is based on a number of assumptions: that direct social
relationships between actors are nonexistent or irrelevant, as the interaction
between actors is coordinated by the aggregate relation of supply to demand;
that actors are rational only in an instrumental sense, maximizing their own
utility; and that their preferences are stable and exogenous. The approach
also assumes that these conditions are universal and unchanging (in other
words, applicable to every single market). Defined so specifically, the market
is indeed a domain that is clearly distinct from the rest of society. But must
such assumptions be accepted as realistic markers for identifying different
empirical domains? The image of markets presented by neoclassical economic
approach has been vigorously criticized at a fundamental level, especially by
economic sociologists. The gist of such criticism is that actual markets are
not so very different from other social spheres.
Activities on real markets, like any social action, are embedded in a his-
torically and geographically specific context rather than a universal void. Mar-
kets vary widely in terms of product characteristics, regulatory regimes, and
cultural conceptions.[28,29] For instance, the logic of the housing market, with
its limited mobility of supply and demand, differs dramatically from, for
example, the salt market because of the nature of the product in question.
Some markets are subject to a relatively light legal regime, while others (espe-
cially where public services are concerned) are strongly regulated. For some
goods that are potential commodities, such as women and children, the market
mechanism is not generally considered the appropriate coordination mecha-
nism. The standards for what is considered “good performance” differ
between markets and over time (a phenomenon beautifully revealed in
Fligstein’s The Transformation of Corporate Control). In short, the variety
between markets is astounding, making it hard to capture them within a sim-
The implication is that, unlike what the idealtypical image of the market
suggests, actors are not related only through aggregate supply and demand.
Research shows that other mechanisms of coordination are at work within
markets, including those generally associated with the other domains.
Granovetter, for instance, has highlighted the role of social networks in the job
market. In the relations between large companies and their networks of
suppliers, there is often a strong element of coercion.(35) Fligstein’s previously
mentioned study shows how large American firms effectively imposed cognitive
conceptions of what is proper market behavior (e.g., the basis of competition) on
smaller firms. Indeed, there are even elements of loyalty in family-based
756 Brandsen, Van de Donk, and Putters
cross-national networks of small business as studied in South East Asia. In
other words, the intrusion of seemingly alien mechanisms within the third sec-
tor also appears to be a feature of the market—which calls into question
whether these are really alien mechanisms or, alternatively. the notion of a
single dominating type of coordination was too simple in the first place. While
supply and demand relations are an important variable, the market embraces a
more complex constellation of mechanisms.
This raises the interesting question whether there is such a thing as a mar-
ket rationality in social behavior, comparable to the caring element associated
with the third sector. In the second chapter of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft,
Max Weber attempts to identify a distinct, formal type of market rationality
that can exist within a specific institutional context, including the develop-
ment of a rationalized state and legal system. However, the diversity of
contexts, actors, and mechanisms involved in market transactions may prevent
such a rational, impersonal market rationality from ever existing in prac-
tice. One could speculate that this is especially unlikely in an economy
increasingly dominated by services rather than (industrial) goods. Be that as it
may, the doubt surrounding the nature of the market domain makes it less use-
ful for (negatively) identifying the third sector.
Similar problems relate to the domain of the state. The idealtypical image of
the (actors in the domain of the) state is less well-defined than that of the mar-
ket, but it is often treated as a single entity, relying on the mechanism of coer-
cion, its powers only tempered by different types of coercion (e.g., the
combination of hierarchy and formal rules within bureaucratic organizations).
One could level similar arguments against this concept as against the idealtyp-
ical market: it is more varied than the monolithic notion of “the state” would
suggest, and there are different mechanisms at work in coordinating the
actions of its components.
In public administration research, notions of the state as a single entity
have long been disproven. Such a concept may be useful in political philoso-
phy, but in practice there is no such thing as the state. There are numerous pol-
icy areas focused on widely different services such as health care, social
security, infrastructure, development aid, and education. Each area contains a
wide variety of organizations of different shapes and sizes, with different for-
mal powers, capacities, cultures, and histories. These can all be characterized
as state, but it tells us little about what they do and how they do it. In addition,
it is increasingly recognized that analytical policy cycles are empirically diffi-
cult to distinguish. Wilson’s classic essay suggested a distinction between pol-
itics and administration, but others such as Weber convincingly demonstrated
the inherently political nature of administrative agencies.[37,39] Nor is it feasible
Griffins or Chameleons? Hybridity in the Third Sector 757
to envisage too sharp a separation between decision-making and implementa-
tion, as much of the substance of policy is actually created “on the ground,” by
the agencies and individual officials who are in direct contact with citizens.
From this perspective, organizations involved in implementation (including
nonprofits and businesses) could be regarded as components of the state appa-
ratus, although most of these actors themselves would never agree to such a
definition. The (postwar) drive to involve nonprofits and commercial busi-
nesses in the implementation of public policy has made the boundaries of the
state distinctly fuzzy. “The thread of governance runs through all the web of
social life in varying forms, in varying units.”
Empirically, the division between the public and private domains appears
clearer within Anglo-Saxon countries, where there is a stronger public/private
distinction, with residual and strictly public services. In Continental Europe it
has never been so clear-cut, as nonprofits have from early times on been
involved in the public services. In addition, there is a long corporatist tradi-
tion, involving representative associations (particularly trade unions and
employers’ associations) in economic and social policymaking, It has not
been uncommon to delegate major aspects of political decision-making and
even supervision over implementation to such actors. This makes the bound-
ary problem more acute in the Continental context, although it is to some
extent typical of all states.
Even within what are usually considered unambiguous parts of the state
(e.g., ministries) there are various mechanisms of coordination at work. An
obvious example is the significance of personal networks among public
officials and between officials and politicians. In many societies, such net-
works, informal communities such as family or tribal ties, are of key impor-
tance in explaining how state policy is shaped. One would have to have a very
naïve image of government to believe that this does not affect policymaking.
Some have analyzed bureaucratic politics on the basis of market models,
framing the actions of officials in terms of a budget-maximizing function.
While one should not stretch such economic models too far, there is ample
evidence to indicate that government departments compete among themselves
for scarce resources.
In sociology, communities are normally defined as primary groups: a community
is a small social group whose members share personal and enduring relation-
ships. Most of the time, this sphere is seen as consisting of families and
friends, but tightly-knit neighborhoods and other informal groups could also be
seen as part of this domain. Communities are associated with forms of coordi-
nation in the context of what are usually closed and small groups, locally based
and relying on intense, long-term and face-to-face contacts that tend to involve a
758 Brandsen, Van de Donk, and Putters
broad set of activities. Bonds of love and strong loyalty are the idealtypical mech-
anisms of “social coordination” in this domain. As Pessers puts it: in the domain
of community, it is not the “do ut des” [I give that you may give] that regulates
social interaction, but the “do quia mihi datum est.” [I give because much is
given to me.] Caring for each other is a matter of affective reciprocity.
Although community is less of an abstraction than market or state, one
must nevertheless guard against interpreting it as a unitary and clearly
bounded domain. Communities have in practice taken many forms, depending
on culture and historical circumstances. In addition, there have been social
developments (e.g., individualization, increased mobility) that have contrib-
uted to the fragmentation of traditional communities. These have been widely
studied as part of the more general context of modernization processes and
hardly need elaboration here. Recently, the growing use of the Internet has
given rise to all kinds of virtual communities that transcend the local context
in which communities traditionally operate. In addition, mechanisms associ-
ated with market and state have increasingly penetrated the community
domain. The proliferation of government policies and programs in particular
has meant that many community groups have gone through a process of pro-
fessionalization and formalization, bringing them closer to the organizational
domains of market and state. Even in the family sphere, the ancient bulwark
of intimacy, the boundaries are becoming less clear. For instance, one can
increasingly see elements of market logic penetrating this domain as a conse-
quence of the introduction of individualized vouchers for health care or educa-
tion services. More generally, developments in the welfare state often have a
direct influence on relationships within families and on the scope of informal
care provided by family members. All in all, community as a domain is
also difficult to demarcate, though arguably less so than market and state.
The third sector may be hybrid, fuzzy, and miscellaneous, but so are the other
domains and the actors we find there. While one could identify segments
(actors) that are closer to the idealtypes, there are similar problems of frag-
mentation, unclear boundaries, dynamics, and mixed coordination mecha-
nisms. It makes the third sector itself even harder to describe. All this leads us
to the question whether it is at all useful to keep looking for a satisfying defi-
nition for a (third) “sector,” an issue that will be discussed here.
Hybridity as an inevitable and permanent characteristic
In light of these difficulties in defining the third sector, one must be open to
other, more radical options. It is questionable whether further, more refined
Griffins or Chameleons? Hybridity in the Third Sector 759
typologies based on structural characteristics of domains and organizations
could do justice to the developments that we are currently seeing. A more sat-
isfactory conceptualization will have to incorporate these problems into itself.
So far, the increasingly hybrid and changeable nature of organizations and
arrangements in the three domains has been treated as a complication that
frustrates presently dominant analytical concepts. Alternatively, it could be
regarded as a feature of these organizations and arrangements. There is no
reason to believe that the different domains will empirically move closer to
their idealtypical representations; quite the reverse. If this is the case, then per-
haps the fuzziness is not fuzzy at all; it is not the fog that obscures our vision,
but the very thing we have been trying to discern.
This calls for a different perception of hybridity, one that makes the term
rather awkward: we must speak of new forms in an old tongue. In Ovid’s
Metamorphoses, life forms continuously evolve into one another, with perma-
nent and nonlinear change as the pervading theme of the narrative. There
has been discussion as to whether the philosophical vision behind the verse
(supposing there is one) emphasizes the changeability and intangibility of
form—which would make it a classic piece of postmodernism—or whether it
implicitly celebrates the unchanging essence that passes between different
physical forms. Both interpretations seem plausible enough, though they may
in fact not be in opposition. What makes Arachne’s transformation from
woman to spider such a striking image is that, despite the change of shape, her
essential quality as a weaver remains. One aspect of her has remained constant
where others have changed, but we only define the weaving as an essential
aspect because it was central to the current institutional context, a weaving
contest. In other words, whether one regards the metamorphosis as an embod-
iment of change or permanence is really a question of focus.
The metamorphosis metaphor is a compelling one, but what we suggest
here in relation to hybridity is something different: the permanence does not
exist in spite of the change, and vice versa, but it exists in it.
The griffin and the chameleon
This point can, as is often the case, best be illustrated with reference to ani-
mals. Let us consider two creatures, the griffin and the chameleon. The griffin
is a mythical beast with the head, forepart, and wings of an eagle, and the
body, hind legs and tail of a lion. It is a fantastic creature that can only be
described in terms of its constituent parts, which by implication means that it
has no clearly defined identity of its own. In Platonian terms, there is no
“idea” of a griffin. In our own terms, it is a hybrid creature. Let us next con-
sider the chameleon. This, too, is a strange animal. Never mind its whip-like
tongue, or its odd gait—it changes color. It is popularly known as an animal that
adapts itself to its environment, blending in seamlessly with its surroundings.
760 Brandsen, Van de Donk, and Putters
Sometimes it is as green like a frog, sometimes red like a fox, occasionally as
black as a black rabbit, yet no one would suggest that it is constituted by those
animals. It is nothing more or less than a chameleon. We accept its hybrid
nature as its own, as a key part of its identity—unusual, perhaps, but not a
freak accident. We may have to do the same for many organizations and
arrangements that we find difficult to identify on the basis of traditional con-
cepts: accept and understand them as they are, not in terms of static idealtypes.
The implication is that a new classification of the third sector would be
based on other dimensions than was previously the case. Just as the chame-
leon is identified by its strategy of changing color, so hybrid organizations
could be classified by their strategies, as methods of adaptation to conflicting
demands. Accordingly, if there are demands from multiple environments (or
multiple demands from the one environment), the strategy will be aimed at
reconciling those demands. Management will be a balancing act, and various
solutions may be explored. In practical terms this can take the shape, for
instance, of loosely coupling different organizational units so that each can
meet a different demand or attracting managers with particular personal pro-
files.[49,50] Different forms of reconciliation could serve as the basis of new
classifications, in which organizations and groups would be defined not so
much by static formal characteristics or motives as by their ways of coping
with tensions and contradictions. Classifications should also be possible at
higher level of aggregation, such as the level of governance arrangements in a
specific policy area. Hybrid arrangements, such as quasi-markets, attempt to
combine elements from the market, state, and nonprofit domains through a
variety of combinations, some of them more successful at resolving tensions
between these elements than others.
The essence of the third sector
What of the third sector, in such a conceptualization? It is an empirical ques-
tion how approaches to coping with change and multiplicity are related to
(segments of) the third sector. There will probably be at least a partial overlap
between the “old” and “new” categories. But one would have to be specific as
to the nature of this connection. The question is to what extent third sector
organisations are characterized by specific ways of coping with hybridity and
change. In other words, is there a specific “third sector” rationality? A com-
mon view of third sector organizations (which also underlies the previously
described typology by Van de Donk) is that they are all in one way or another
caring organizations, providing services or goods with a “dual” public (collec-
tive) and private (individual) nature. Intuitively, this makes sense: the desire
to work not-for-profit, voluntarily, and/or for a better society seems funda-
mental to any definition of a third sector. The (notion of) voluntary care is
generally inspired by values such as solidarity, responsibility, dignity, justice,
Griffins or Chameleons? Hybridity in the Third Sector 761
and the recognition of mutual dependence. However, in practice this caring
feature can be difficult to pin down, as different types of motives are usually
mixed, or could be construed as purely self-interested. Is it a type of substan-
tive rationality, or just a particular kind of formal rationality, or does this dis-
tinction make no sense?
If there is a specific third-sector rationality, one must also be able to
determine how and why it originates. There may be only particular institu-
tional contexts within which such a rationality can exist. A third sector ratio-
nality may (also) derive from the characteristics of the goods and services, the
logic of provision. Each good and service has particular characteristics,
whether technological or cultural, that may favor one type of approach or the
other. If there is indeed a typical third-sector rationality, which could be fos-
tered under certain institutional conditions, then one could hypothesize that it
combines more successfully with some products and services than others.
Indeed, one could conceive of a dialectical relationship between the institu-
tional logic and the logic of provision and delivery. Changes in the logic of
provision may put pressure on the broader institutional setting in which these
organizations operate. For example, the caring element involved in medical
and personal services may encourage arrangements that involve third-sector
It is also possible—and one must be open to the possibility—that no typi-
cal third-sector rationality as such can be identified in what organizations
actually do. In that case, it might be more appropriate to think of the third sec-
tor as a central area of society wherein tensions between competing values and
methods of coordination are exacerbated or resolved, in a more or less com-
plex portfolio that inevitably has to combine the various rationalities and
mechanisms relevant for the production of social services and goods. There
will be no fundamental distinction between what we intuitively regard as
third-sector organizations and those organizations that we regard as state or
market. Such a message might not receive a warm welcome among political
and scientific advocates of the third sector, but if there is no empirical basis to
prove otherwise, this is what we must necessarily conclude.
Adopting an open research strategy
It is likely (we believe) that there is such thing as a specific third sector
approach to hybridity and change, an approach that sets it apart as a distinctive
category of organizations. However, if this is to be proven, it will be as much
the outcome of the empirical process as its starting-point. At present, third
sector research often focuses on a number of “hardcore” actors (e.g., local vol-
unteer groups) that appear to embody the “caring” approach, and to a lesser
extent actors that are intuitively third sector, but on the fringe (social entrepre-
neurs, charities operating on markets, bureaucratized nonprofits). This situation
762 Brandsen, Van de Donk, and Putters
is quite similar to research on states and markets, which also tends to focus on
the actors that appear to be closest to the idealtypes, like government depart-
ments. While such movement within discrete scientific and political spaces
has its own merits, it is not the most fruitful avenue for bringing out the
essence of the third sector. It is not the “safe” core cases that are interesting
for this purpose, but the fuzziest cases, those that can be found on the fringes
of the domain. Rather than attempting to carve a specific niche, with clear
boundaries, it may be more effective to search out the border areas and make
them as problematic as possible.
In terms of research strategy, we should not study easily identifiable
cases, but instead look where the tension between the logics of the different
domains is expected to be highest. The strategy should be one of treading
into the no-man's land between the domains and challenging commonly
held notions about where the boundaries are. This, of course, exposes one
to the risks of being shot at from one of the surrounding scientific camps, or
of treading on conceptual and methodological landmines. However, it
would arguably make third sector research a more interesting field for
social science and public administration at large: rather than a residual
category, it would become central to understanding the interplay of institu-
tional constellations in society, as well as a fruitful meeting ground for var-
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