In March 2020, Action Vice-Chair Professor Laura Lee Downs (EUI) received an ERC Advanced Grant for her project Social Politics in European Borderlands: A Comparative and Transnational Study, from 1870s to 1990s (SOCIOBORD).

The project seeks to reframe the history of welfare and social care in modern Europe by restoring to view the contributions of local actors – primarily families and associations – to shaping welfare systems in three European borderlands: Galicia, the North-eastern Adriatic and the Franco/Belgian/German border regions from the late 19th century to the 1990s. SOCIOBORD will focus on the co-construction of social assistance by public and private actors in three borderland contexts marked by social, cultural, economic, religious or ethnic diversity. Here, the reach of central states often fluctuated and a range of welfare structures, based on national, but also non-national forms of identity/solidarity (e.g., occupation or religion) flourished.

SOCIOBORD will realize its objectives by deploying the highly innovative triadic approach that emphasizes the dynamic relationships among three distinct actors – voluntary associations, families and states – who interact at different levels and in multiple ways in the construction of social protection. Inasmuch as it gives primary attention to local actors, the triadic approach assumes a bottom-up perspective. Yet it does so without ever losing sight of the state in its local manifestations. In this way, SOCIOBORD will recover the contributions of families and associations in developing new forms of social care as well as the forms of local knowledge that these civil society actors brought to their work.

The key to managing the extended geographical scope and long chronology lies in the project’s precise, carefully-chosen case studies, which allow for comparison across distant contexts while simultaneously tracing the transfer of ideas, institutions and practices of social action among the three regions (Middell 2000, 2013; Conrad 2016; Saunier 2013; Chambon, Johnstone and Köngeter 2016). Prof. Downs and her team have chosen to organize the research around a series of studies involving mobilizations of local actors on behalf of three groups of beneficiaries – children, working-class women and veterans. By combining the bottom-up perspective of the triadic approach with the focus on three objects of social action, the project creates a clear grid that will enable transversal and comparative analysis across the three borderlands.

“Rather than treating borderlands as peripheries, we approach them as laboratories for the development of social protection, thanks to the dense variety of actors competing for influence over their putative objects of assistance and for access to material resources,” said Prof. Downs. “We are eager to restore to view the vital role that families and voluntary welfare associations have long played in creating and delivering new forms of social welfare in Europe’s many borderland regions. For we believe that these borderland stories have much to tell us about the development of welfare in Europe more generally.”

Watch the 90-second trailer below and visit SOCIOBORD’s website to find out more about the project, its team and activities.