This document has been made available in electronic format by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)

March, 1998
(Source: ICA Review, Vol. 91 No. 1, 1998, pp.84-91)

Towards a Human-Scientific Theory of Action on Co-operation
by Kai Blomqvist*

Some Questions
Astonishment is the starting point for doing research. You are surprised about something and you ask a question: Why is this so?

My question concerned the Swedish consumer co-operatives. Until the 1980s they could show an impressive record of unique initiatives for the benefit of consumers. Why this obvious creativity? was my question. And when this "golden age" of the Swedish consumer co-operative movement seemed to peter out, my question became: Why does this creativity not seem to be regenerated? And eventually, the major question in my mind became: What is a co-operative action?

As I turned to existing co-operative research, I found little about the co-operative action itself. Most studies were concerned with the prerequisites of co-operative action, such as market conditions, organizational matters, or the results of the actions, e.g. productivity, co-operative innovations, etc. The knowledge consisted of accumulated general rules for conducting co-operative activity. It did not help me much to understand the meaning of the co-operative action. It told me what a "good" co-operative is supposed to be, not how to become a "good" co-operative agent. So I did what seemed to be close at hand: I interviewed some of the co-operative leaders who had been chief executive officers at the time when the consumer co-operative movement was flourishing. As you can only perceive events stemming from actions, not the action itself which gives meaning to what the actor is doing, my study of the co-operative managers consists of their stories about what they did when they acted co-operatively, as they worked in co-operative insurance, retail, housing, and funeral societies. Their stories had to be interpreted by me to make me understand what a co-operative action is.

A Co-operative Agent
In my interview study of the consumer co-operative managers, my main question was: How did they act as managers of co-operative enterprise? The interviews gave me a snapshot picture of an "ideal type" of a co-operator who is innovative to the benefit of members and consumers. By systematizing the views and professional experiences of these managers, I found fragments of "a consumer co-operative theory of action". Such a theory concerns three areas:

i) The persistent consumer perspective;

ii) The personal consumer co-operative disposition to act;

iii) Organizational prerequisites or places where the consumer co-operative experience (i and ii) can be regenerated and further developed. I call this part of the theory "the co-operative topos".

Persistent Consumer Perspective
The persistent consumer perspective consists of a summary of the themes I found in the interviews with the general managers:

- A broad perspective on consumer needs;

- Ideology combined with practical action;

- Independence from other interests than the consumer interest.

The essence of this perspective is the will to do things which will enhance the consumer interest; to do what is good for member and consumer households. This is the highest value and the true meaning of it all.

Effectiveness and efficiency are always related to this goal. And the keyword is the persistency - or stubbornness or obstinacy - in trying to achieve this goal.

Looking closer at this perspective, one finds that it includes an ability to perceive what is relevant from a consumer point of view in a concrete situation. This perception leads to a judgement: "this is good" or "this is not so good", considering the needs of the consumer. In doing this, the agent also makes a distinction between unreflected desire and a consumer need that has been the object of careful consideration. And his judgement is elaborated together with others, in a kind of "public sphere".

By constantly making judgements of this kind, the agent creates both his own identity and the "world" he wants to live in. This is the ethical and political aspect of the co-operative phenomenon. It could also be called the change or the creative aspect, by the fact that the agent's perception and judgement not only concern the existing state of affairs but also that which does not exist so far, but would be possible to realize by doing something new to benefit the consumer. Thus, the agent enters unknown areas and takes risks.

Because of constantly changing conditions affecting the needs of consumers, this act of searching - a kind of a quest - has to go on, constantly. The consumer co-operative must also continuously be reconstructed, like all other forms of co-operatives. The extent to which this has to be done depends on the breadth of its aims and ambitions, and on how it defines its stakeholders and delimits its impact on the world around it.

Personal Consumer Co-op Disposition to Act
The personal consumer co-operative disposition to act could also be called the "consumer co-operative personality". It is one of the key variables in this consumer co-operative theory of action.

The ingredients are parts of the personal characteristics of the consumer co-operator. Firstly, he has "the co-operative view well grounded in his heart and the consumer perspective in his spine". This means that there is a union of certain values, tendencies to think and act, ways of doing things, and intentions behind the actions. There are right ways of doing things, at the right places and at the right time, based on personal experience. In short, it is his way of doing things.

Another ingredient is his openness to new ideas
Consumer co-operation started to change the consumer's situation for the better. Thus a "consumer entrepreneurship" is intrinsic to the consumer co-operative idea. In comparison to profit-directed entrepreneurship, it is constantly combined with the persistent consumer perspective (or, in other words, the household economic perspective). In fact, the "art of consumer co-operation" could be called the ability to combine a stubborn consumer perspective with entrepreneurship.

A third ingredient in the consumer co-operative disposition is the trusting and co-operative personal spirit of the agent. It is true democracy in nature and in all relations with others.

Finally, the disposition also contains the role of a co-operative educator. His every encounter offers an opportunity to talk, to deliver hidden or unspoken knowledge and to educate others.

A common idea about the consciousness of an agent is that beliefs based on perceptions form his understanding of the situation and leads to a rational choice between different ways of acting. More plausible, is to regard the agent's understanding of the situation as often unconscious and not articulated, but still rational, being part of his practical knowledge and reason. It is an understanding, involving body and feeling, and often shared with others, especially in actions requiring common efforts.

This embodied understanding makes things and actions meaningful to the agent. Furthermore, it makes it possible for him to adhere to principles. But the principles are only representing earlier actions. It is the embodied understanding and the situation-dependent meaning which are the real causal factors of his current action.

Practice means an on-going interpretation of principles. Co-operation only exists through co-operative acts being performed and is continuously being renewed and changed by these acts. Principles can only exist together with a tacit, unarticulated understanding that activates the principles. Practice is also necessary to regenerate and activate the institutions which, basically, are only articulated rules. In these respects, co-operation is like the human language.

To act "well" as a consumer co-operator, requires definite virtues, based on the stubborn consumer perspective. Together, these virtues form a disposition to act which becomes a life-style.

It is a practical reason, a knowledge based on experience which makes the agent observant of certain qualities in a context-bound situation, and react emotionally, create his judgement, and with due regard to principles, finally choose what to do.

The Co-operative Topos
Organizational prerequisites or places where the consumer co-operative experience can be regenerated to new generations of co-operators is the third area of the suggested theory. These are places where the meaning of co-operation can be formed, established and developed.

The interviewed managers had at their disposal co-operative schools and many other places where they could meet colleagues and develop a consumer co-operative culture, depicted in the fragments of a consumer co-operative action theory. In a deeper sense, they had what in Greek is called 'a topos' - 'a common place'.

A topos can be regarded as a belief, experience and value source which helps us to orient ourselves. It provides us with a common ground to exchange thoughts and makes possible a true dialogue about common matters where meaning can take form. The word "place" suggests that it could be a geographical site, like a co-operative college, but in the sense of being a place filled with stories and an on-going exchange of experiences about co-operative actions, not a conglomeration of buildings. The building of the tower of Babel that was interrupted by the confusion of tongues, symbolizes the opposite of a common topos.

To preserve and develop a co-operative topos and regenerate it in the next generation of co-operators, you need a continuous dialogue about the practice of co-operation, using examples from daily situations and through repetitious learning by doing. To achieve this, you need arenas where it can be done. You also need rhetorical skills to define the meaning and the limits of the co-operative actions. And to do this in a real democratic spirit, assymetric power relations between those involved must be absent.

The co-operative education is an important part of creating and preserving a common topos. It concerns the question of how the co-operative business logic is recreated in the minds of the members, employees and the other stakeholders of the co-operative.

When education is carried out by action, and by reflecting on the actions taken, a disposition to act in new situations can be created. As described above, this is a form of assimilated knowledge which also creates an identity and a view of the world. It is a type of competence that is not only a technical skill but also a way to think, a meaning-creating practical wisdom or a judgement capacity. And it is a kind of knowledge that is just as rational as the scientific knowledge of true statements and technical skills.

There is ample evidence that co-operative education is most effective if learning situations are provided in the normal day-to-day functioning of the co-operative. In fact, this type of co-operative education seems to be more effective than more formalized approaches. It also has positive effects on the economic development of the organization as the advantage of the co-operative principles are built into the daily running of the enterprise.

Aristotle and Co-op Theory
At the time when I was trying to interpret the meaning of my interviews to figure out the basic character of co-operative action, I joined a group of researchers which has developed a research programme called "a human scientific theory of action and planning". I found their Aristotelian theory of knowledge pertinent, as it had to do with the kind of knowledge that the co-operative agent acquires.

Practical Reason
According to Aristotle, man has LOGOS - reason/"word-ability"/thought - not primarily to find out what is true but what is right/wrong, good/bad,useful/not useful, etc. In other words, LOGOS is principally man's practical and meaning-creating rationality, used by him to build the "good" society together with others.

Logic is the basis for theoretical knowledge and natural science. To study human phenomena, we need an equivalent theory of knowledge for practice. As man is a communicative animal, using LOGOS to create his world and his "good" society together with others, Rhetoric can be regarded as the science of knowledge of man's communicative ability, to be used in his practical life.

In practical theory we study, not to find out what the good is, but in order to become good, to become a good actor. Thus, in co-operative theory we study, not to find out what co-operation is but to become good co-operators, to acquire a certain kind of knowledge.

Knowledge as an activity is the object of study for the practical reason. It is a competence that is shown in action and by what the actor is doing, sometimes inadequately called "tacit" knowledge. It is a kind of knowledge geared towards solving concrete problems in situations open to choice. By doing that, the actor gains a concrete and unsayable experience and ability to see and perceive the general in the particular and to act on it in the right situation and at the right time.

Aristotle's term for this ability or competence is Phro'nesis. It is the "how" of the actor, "the way in which" he does things. It is difficult to grasp, because it is not conscious. It is like the spoken language, considered as that which acts.

Phro'nesis is more like an "art" or a "wisdom" to act, than a technical skill. The good doctor is good because he cures a sick patient, not because he knows pathology. He has competence, an art of curing, based on experience.

That it should be possible to use this kind of practical reason in the economic sphere of society, to a larger extent than was common in the middle of last century, was obviously one of the starting points of the co-operators in Rochdale. The basic idea of co-operative action being the effort to handle economic matters in a democratic dialogue with rhetoric as the main means to reason about needs, about what is right and wrong, and about what to do together.

The co-operative action is, accordingly, "the way in which" the co-operator does what he is doing. It is neither the products and services, events, organizational set-up, etc., nor the principles, market conditions or other prerequisites. Co-operation is about meaning. The co-operator creates his world by giving it a meaning, using his competence which is unconscious and invisible but which is shown in the results where the meaning of co-operation is created.

The good co-operator is, like the good doctor, good not due to his knowledge of principles or various scientific theories or techniques, but because of his co-operative meaning-creating activity, bringing into being something good out of the infinite, latent multitude of meanings, existing beside the more obvious cost/benefit and utility meaning of co-operative action.

Phro'nesis must be interpreted as the intention behind the actor's doings. In an action theory of co-operation, I try to show how the co-operator does things, but I can only do this by expressing it as a what. When I study it and try to express it, I do it in sentences composed of nouns. I make a noun of something that really is a verb, or rather an adverb. In this way, I try to grasp and communicate that which explains the character of the actor and the quality of the result of his action. For example, I describe his stubborn consumer perspective, his disposition to act and the co-operative topos.

The acts that my interviewee tells me about would possibly not occur, if a certain agent had not possessed a stubborn consumer perspective on how to run a co-operative business. And, furthermore, the act would not have occurred if this agent, in his earlier life, had not been part of and learned from a co-operative topos with its definite values and beliefs about household needs and economy.

How you develop this kind of knowledge is, of course, a very pertinent question that has to do with pedagogics, rhetoric and the concept of "topos", understood as the unsaid or unexpressed basis for our beliefs and actions.

Man and Society
Besides being the man who created many of the basic concepts we still use today, Aristotle also presented us with a view of man and society that seems to pinpoint fundamental characteristics of the co-operative phenomenon.

In his Politics, Aristotle describes how the households moved from strict self-sufficiency to exchanging goods and services between themselves. This created a local community that became self-sufficient. At the same time, the exchange value of products, the individual accumulation of money and the increasing exploitation of man by man characterized this economy.

To build a community, requires a plurality of different kinds of men and households. According to Aristotle, it also requires a certain kind of relationship between people which he calls "friendship". He points out that friendship is based on difference, where the participant's individuality is preserved in the relationship, not like the love relationship where individuals tend to be lost in a kind of fusion.

Consensus in a friendship relationship is not a matter of having the same opinion, but seeing different aspects of things, although from the same perspective. And it concerns the question of reaching decisions about what is right and useful and how to act.

The co-operative model that the Pioneers created, consists of independent men and households that are different but who are trying to develop their self-sufficiency and independence by joining together. They form an association of persons, not a unitary community, like collective utopias of various kinds, nor a collective organization of anonymous capital-owners.

The co-operators are individuals and households who preserve their individual responsibility, and who use their different experiences, their virtues and wisdom to reach consensus about decisions on what actions to take. Thus, it is quite appropriate, from an Aristotelian perspective, that the traditional English legal form for this type of organization is "Friendly societies". Use of a Co-op Action Theory
What practical advantages does a co-operative action theory have? If a new co-operator asked me what to observe in running his co-operative, I would make the following preliminary recommendations, inspired by the theory I am trying to develop.

Remember that co-operation is meaning-creation! It is a kind of entrepreneurship. It is neither a technique, following rules/principles, nor a science, following abstract laws. It is an art, an ability to see the general in the particular and act upon it. By apprenticeship it can be learned from the practice and reflections of experienced and "wise" co-operators.

To learn to become a good co-operator is like the learning required to become a good doctor: learning by doing or experience learning. By learning to act co-operatively, a co-operative disposition to act is reproduced. To do this you need the right pedagogics and you need to build co-operative learning into the daily operation of your society.

To build co-operation, you need to create common arenas, both inside and outside the organization, where people can meet and develop a common "topos" with room for a variety of co-operative meanings and where even creative paradoxes can flourish.

Study rhetoric and use dialogue to develop a "common sense" of things! But it has to be real communication between equals to carry the meaning. (Remember that dialogue is not discourse between two persons. That would be called "duologue". Dialogue means "through LOGOS" - dia LOGOS in Greek. And remember that dialogue is the quality of the content of the discourse: it should be enriching and meaningful.)

Do not forget the wider ethical and political implications of co-operation! For example, participate in the local community and its local meaning creation. Do not act as profit-oriented businesses that move away to pastures where the grass appears to be greener.

Do what the ICA Tokyo congress decided - try to operationalize "basic procedures" of your particular co-operative branch, so that you can better measure your achievements, monitor them and report them in a social audit of interest to all stakeholders of your co-operative.

* Former member of the International Board of the Swedish Society for Co-operative Studies and Secretary of the ICA Research Committee, Mr. Blomqvist is now retired but involved in research together with colleagues in a newly-formed Swedish Research Co-operative.