Social origins theory explains variation between civil societies by power relations between socioeconomic classes and by path dependencies. There have been few systematic reflections on which dimensions of civil society depend on these factors and can thus be explained by the theory. With the help of a historical narrative of the eventful history of Vienna’s civil society, in which traditional, liberal, social democratic, statist, and corporatist patterns feature, we tentatively identify ten such dimensions: CSOs’ original founding dates; fields of activity; societal roles; reliance on volunteers and paid staff; political and religious affiliation; the relationship with government when engaging in advocacy; organizational governance structures; socioeconomic characteristics of CSOs’ workforce, board members, and service recipients; CSOs’ funding sources; and CSOs’ sizes. We suggest that civil society research would benefit from the anthropological approach of deriving etic categories for comparing civil societies and explaining the similarities and differences between them by consolidating single case studies that analyze the development of specific civil societies from an emic perspective.

Civil societies across the globe come in different shapes and sizes. They are characterized by a particular prevalence of certain types of organizations and practices. Consider the following two vignettes from contemporary Viennese civil society. Readers coming from different backgrounds will recognize different aspects in them as similar or dissimilar to what they know about civil society elsewhere:

In January 2018, around two hundred “thought leaders” gathered in the stylish Sky Lounge of Raiffeisen International Bank to celebrate the launch of Impact Transfer by Ashoka, a new initiative to promote social entrepreneurship. Its goal is to bring social innovations from around the world to where they are needed. Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for All, had flown in from the United States to stand on the podium as a showcase social entrepreneur. Flanked with representatives from consulting firms such as PWC, she told how she had scaled her approach to improving education to forty-six countries: future leaders work for limited periods as teachers for disadvantaged students at public schools. The CEO of Teach for Austria, who founded this offshoot in 2011, was also on the stage. “The founding of Teach For Austria was possible because we used the concept and know-how of Teach For America and Teach First UK,” he says (Ashoka 2022). Teach for Austria is a nonpartisan and religiously unaffiliated limited liability corporation. Large corporate donors and philanthropic foundations contribute substantially to its funding (78 percent); there is some public funding (21 percent), as well as a small number of private donations (1 percent) (Teach for Austria 2022). The organization’s board consists of representatives of corporate donors and foundations.

In November 2019, a different ceremony took place in Vienna, in the imperial halls of the Ministry of Education. Representatives of three umbrella parents’ associations (PAs) celebrated the centennial of PAs in Austria: the Austrian Federation of Parents’ Associations at Public Compulsory Schools, the Federal Parents’ Association for High Schools, and the Federation of Catholic Parents’ Associations. Iris Rauskala, minister of education at the time, praised the role of parents in education in her welcoming speech. The top official responsible for schools lauded the long-standing cooperation of school partners at all levels of education. A historian, one of the all-volunteer board members of the Catholic association, presented the eventful one-hundred-year history of PAs in Austria. PAs are well-known; almost every pupil in Austria knows about the PA at their school. Every parent is invited to join the association at the beginning of the school year. The association acts as the collective voice of parents toward the school principal, collects membership fees from parents, and redistributes the money to low-income families to fund school expenses. Usually, PA members meet once a year for an official meeting to discuss school affairs, followed by an informal get-together at a nearby pub. The historian went on to tell about the genesis of this taken-for-granted institution; for most of the audience, this history was new. In their statements, all three association presidents called for an even stronger legal anchoring of parental representation in education politics. One representative recalls: “The event was characterized by mutual appreciation and commitment to shaping the future of education, together” (NÖ Landesverband der Elternvereine 2019).

In the first vignette, we saw civil society organizations (CSOs) with no explicitly political or religious affiliation; they are limited liability companies funded mainly by big businesses and foundations; they provide services to the needy to compensate for government failure. The second vignette shows CSOs that are more typical for Vienna and Austria. These are associations with broad membership and strong democratic structures. They are funded mainly through membership fees and somewhat affiliated with a political party or the Catholic Church. These CSOs provide services and community-building for their members and represent members’ interests in close cooperation with the state. It is common in Vienna and the rest of Austria to find multiple organizations acting in the same field of activity but having different political or religious affiliations (“pillarization”; see Hellemans 2020).

Hence, focusing on salient characteristics of CSOs such as their relationship to the state and organized religion, governance structures, funding sources, and the roles they fulfill for society allows us to engage in comparative research. We can find regularities and surprises among civil societies worldwide and proceed to ask questions that will be of broad scholarly and practical relevance. Nevertheless, comparative civil society research has so far engaged in little reflection on what characteristics should be considered most relevant in comparative research, and why. Comparisons have often focused on macroeconomic indicators pioneered by the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project (Salamon et al. 2017, 26; also see Salamon and Anheier 1998; Anheier and Salamon 2006).

In this article, we contribute to comparative civil society research by proposing how to systematically identify relevant dimensions for comparison. In particular, we aim to sharpen the understanding of differences that can be explained by social origins theory (Salamon and Anheier 1998). We will suggest a tentative list of ten such dimensions: CSOs’ original founding dates; fields of activity; societal roles; reliance on volunteers and paid staff; political and religious affiliation; the relationship with the government when engaging in advocacy; organizational governance structures; socioeconomic characteristics of CSOs’ workforce, board members, and service recipients; CSOs’ funding sources; and CSOs’ sizes.

To derive these dimensions, we build on two theoretical traditions: anthropological debates about emic and etic approaches to comparing cultures (Goodenough 1970; Sanday 1979) and social origins theory (Salamon and Anheier 1998). We develop our argument by analyzing the social origins of Viennese civil society and drawing conclusions about dimensions of civil society that may be of use as categories for comparative civil society research. Vienna is well suited for this purpose due to its turbulent history, which provides exemplary periods for all typical civil society patterns.

For our analysis, we are guided by the following research question: how have changing power relations between socioeconomic classes shaped the present state of Vienna’s civil society? We develop a historical narrative, drawing on secondary historical sources, primary survey data collected in 2019–20, and secondary data sources about contemporary civil society. We conclude this article by suggesting ten dimensions of civil society that may be utilized in qualitative or quantitative analyses of single or multiple civil societies in other settings, and that may be refined into categories for comparative civil society research.

Comparison—of different cultures or civil societies—has been a shared interest of anthropology and Salamon and Anheier’s social origins theory (SOT) of civil society development (1998). SOT has advanced our understanding of commonalities and differences between civil societies by critically amalgamating various socioeconomic theories. In a nutshell, Salamon and Anheier (1998) proposed size and funding sources as two critical dimensions along which civil society sectors vary. Consequently, they distinguished four civil society patterns: liberal (low reliance on government funding and a large civil society sector), social-democratic (high government funding, small sector), corporatist (high government funding, large sector), and statist (low government funding, small sector). Depending on how class struggles among the working class, middle class, rural peasantry, and landed elites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had played out, different civil society patterns emerged in response to these conflicts. Over time, SOT has generated a considerable amount of somewhat controversial yet fruitful academic debate (e.g., Evers and Laville 2004; Ragin 1998; Steinberg and Young 1998; Wagner 2000).

Researchers have applied SOT to contexts beyond Europe and North America and criticized the focus on nineteenth- and twentieth-century class struggles. Kabalo (2009) analyzed civil societies in Israel, India, and various African and Middle Eastern countries and revealed that focusing on traditional class is less relevant for societies that had long been under colonial rule. There, social dividing lines such as kinship, caste, religion, geographic affiliation, colonial rule, changes in ruling authority (also see Lee 2005 on social origins of civil society in Hong Kong), and diasporas are more pertinent.

Consistent with these advancements, Salamon and Sokolowski (2017) generalize SOT and clarify that power relations between socioeconomic classes shape dimensions of civil society. Those classes—yet in a Weberian, not a Marxian sense—denote people who occupy a similar social position. Governments are also conceived as actors in power relations, not merely representing other classes. The patterns formed by such power relations during critical turning points persist over extended periods, even though the forces that have initially produced them may no longer exist. Such path dependence persists because it is easier to expand existing institutional arrangements than create new ones. Moreover, Salamon and Sokolowski (2017) add a fifth civil society pattern (“traditional”) and suggest that more patterns might exist.

In this extended version of SOT, Salamon and Sokolowski (2017) also switch from using the term “corporatism” to using the term “welfare partnership.” Corporatism is a complex concept in political science, whereas the term “welfare partnership” is rather indeterminate. We will adhere to the term “corporatism” to refer to civil society patterns where government commissions CSOs to deliver welfare. However, we differentiate between classical corporatism, where the state collaborates with CSOs to preserve premodern arrangements (Salamon and Anheier 1998), and neocorporatism, where different political forces collaborate and CSOs not only provide government-funded services but also influence the policies that regulate these services (Pauly et al. 2021).

SOT has been criticized for using too narrow a set of indicators to characterize civil societies (e.g., Lee 2005): the size of their paid and volunteer workforce, their contribution to GDP, their engagement in service or expressive fields of activity, and the composition of their revenues. As Donoghue (2009) argues, this focus probably stemmed from SOT’s origin as an alternative to economic theories. Tucked away in a footnote, however, it was already stated in the seminal article that

other facets of nonprofit operations could also have been examined, including the number of organizations, the beneficiaries they serve, the composition of their governing boards, the size of their memberships, their internal styles of operation, their adherence or nonadherence to certain values, and many more. The variables we selected provide, however, the most basic measures of the scope and structure of this sector and therefore seemed the most fruitful to pursue at this stage of theory building. (Salamon and Anheier 1998, 217) 

Salamon and Sokolowski (2017) also sketch avenues to more comprehensively capture the dimensions of organized civil societies. Yet obtaining multifaceted data is challenging for comparative research, and therefore SOT’s original and extended versions suggest dimensions for mapping civil society that appear constrained by data restrictions. Hence, comparative empirical work is still in its infancy. While on the side of explanatory factors, SOT is clear about the relevance of various socioeconomic classes of high, middle, or low status, and the power relationships among them (Salamon and Sokolowski 2017, 82–83), the side of the factors to be explained is still in progress. SOT aims to broadly explain the “dimensions,” “contours,” and “shapes” of civil society. However, in empirical research, they are still reduced to crude economic indicators of GDP share and government spending for welfare. This creates a challenge: civil society’s meaning and relevant aspects vary depending on local realities (Evers and Laville 2004). How should we compare different civil societies if we do not want to paint them with the same brush of widely available economic indicators? What aspects should we single out? How can we avoid arbitrarily selecting aspects that merely reflect data availability or idiosyncratic inclinations of researchers?

It is impossible to resolve this dilemma fully, but anthropological literature on cross-cultural comparison may help. For a long time, scholars of anthropology have used the concept of emic and etic approaches to debate commonalities and differences between cultures (Sanday 1979): Emic analysis involves identifying and describing elements and patterns of a culture in its own terms, analyzing “from a native’s point of view” (Malinowski 1922, 19), producing “thick descriptions” not aiming to generalize across but within cases (Geertz 1973, 26). Etic analysis, in contrast, applies—hopefully—universal theoretical concepts, or at least deliberately chosen theoretical concepts from other contexts. Consequently, any comparison requires etic concepts. However, to develop universal concepts for comparison, emic strategies are indispensable: “[…] emic description requires etics, and by trying to do emic descriptions, we add to our etic conceptual resources for subsequent description. It is through etic concepts that we do comparison. And by systematizing our etic concepts we contribute to the development of a general science of culture” (Goodenough 1970, 112). Herein, similarities with the hermeneutic circle are apparent (Ginev 1998). Typologies of cultures that can be used for comparative work must eventually rely on etic—or, in other words, universal and cross-culturally generalizable—concepts (Sanday 1979, 536). Otherwise, we have many fascinating thick descriptions but no comparative research. We apply this insight to search for broadly relevant dimensions to compare civil societies: For our emic analysis, we develop a detailed historical narrative. Thereupon, we suggest ten dimensions that may be refined into etic categories for comparative civil society research.

Above, we pointed out parallels between comparative studies of cultures and civil societies. However, their dissimilarities have methodological implications too: studies of cultures are concerned with understanding how individual members conceive the cultural patterns that prevail in their environment. Their method’s core is to investigate how members of a culture interpret their world. In contrast, comparative civil society research is about descriptions of (civil) societies; individual members of civil society would therefore not suffice as informants. Hence, comparative civil society research cannot simply adopt the well-developed methods of anthropology.

We use historical narration as method instead (Gotham and Staples 1996; Kipping, Wadhwani, and Bucheli 2014). With an eye toward SOT, we develop a narrative about how power relations among socioeconomic classes, and ensuing path dependencies, have shaped Viennese civil society. Being familiar with a particular civil society, we give a historical account of how it has developed, highlighting events leading to the emergence of particular dimensions that we consider salient and characteristic of that civil society today. We start at the very beginning of civil society in Vienna and recount relevant events that have brought about what we, as “natives,” consider its relevant features today. A narrative necessity is created that develops a momentum of its own and forces us to flesh out specific points. The narrative operates “as an instrument of mind in the construction of reality” (Bruner 1991, 6). Or, as Mullins put it, we use SOT “to structure an exploration” (Mullins 2000, 256). With its key idea of civil society being shaped by antagonisms and coalitions between socioeconomic classes, SOT is particularly suited to such a narrative approach. We thereby rely on the logic of qualitative research but use quantitative data, where possible, to develop our arguments. With this approach, we follow the suggestion by Ragin (1998) that comparative research on civil society should move in a more historical and qualitative direction (see also Mullins 2000).

To develop the historical narrative, we draw on secondary historical sources, primary survey data we collected in 2019–20, and secondary data sources about contemporary civil society in Vienna. Within the scope of this article, we cannot draw on historical primary sources. We could make a stronger case if we had been able, for example, to use primary archival data (such as the central register of associations) that documents the founding and dissolution waves of CSOs that no longer exist today, and any changes in CSOs’ bylaws and the missions stated therein. Our primary data is limited to existent organizations as they present themselves today. We strive to avoid any biases that may arise from this limitation by using secondary historical sources about organizations that no longer exist (e.g., Keller 2016; Czeike 1992b) or that still exist but have undergone substantial changes (e.g., Achrainer et al. 2011; Marens 2005).

Primary data were collected as part of international research cooperation—the Civic Life of Cities Lab (CLC), exploring how CSOs in and around cities worldwide contribute to society (www.civiclifeofcities.com). In particular, our analysis employs online survey data on CSOs in the Vienna metropolitan region, which comprises some 2.6 million people living in three federal states (Vienna, Lower Austria, and Burgenland) and 211 municipalities. This region is home to almost 30 percent of the total Austrian population.1

The sampling was carried out in two steps: (1) a random, representative sample from all CSOs in the region and (2) a random sample of additional large CSOs (annual budget of €25,000 or more) in the region. Eligibility criteria were set according to Salamon and Sokolowski (2016)—that is, we sampled self-governed private organizations with restricted profit distribution and noncompulsory participation. Purely grant-making foundations were excluded from the sample. In this article, we will discuss foundations based on secondary data. For the representative sample, we used the Austrian register of associations (Vereinsregister) and the Austrian companies register (Firmenbuch), accessed via Compass-Verlag GmbH. The second sample was drawn from the data provider Herold. This database is not representative, but it provides information on the annual budget of many organizations, otherwise not publicly available, and allows us to target large CSOs. Any large CSOs included in the first sample were excluded from the second one. Table 1 shows key descriptives related to the sampling process.

Table 1. Sampling Descriptives.
 (1) Representative sample (2) Nonrepresentative sample of large CSOs 
Sample size 889 415 
Inactive CSOs 177 10 
Effective sample 712 405 
Completed surveys 358 235 
Response rate 50.3% 58.0% 
 (1) Representative sample (2) Nonrepresentative sample of large CSOs 
Sample size 889 415 
Inactive CSOs 177 10 
Effective sample 712 405 
Completed surveys 358 235 
Response rate 50.3% 58.0% 

The survey serves various purposes and includes a wide range of questions on CSOs’ practices and goals. It was addressed to the CEO or executive director. The majority of respondents completed the survey online, and about a fifth asked to complete it with our assistance via telephone or in person. All participants were guaranteed anonymity. Therefore, in this article, all references to specific organizations or individuals have been taken from public sources.

In the following, we produce an emic narrative of how changing power relations between different societal groups have shaped Vienna’s civil society over time. We continually relate historical events to the present state, thus identifying path dependencies. Following from this narrative, we unravel dimensions of civil society that appear relevant from an emic perspective.

Civil society in Vienna is multifaceted, which is not unique. Many analyses from a SOT perspective find mixed types (e.g., Mullins 2000; and various country chapters in Salamon et al. 2017) or even new independent types (e.g., Lee 2005). We suggest that the original four ideal civil society types are nonetheless helpful for comparison if applied from a dynamic perspective: power relations in society shift at times, leaving traces in dimensions of civil society closely in line with what SOT suggests, and so over time, multifaceted civil societies emerge.

In support of the claim that history weighs heavily on the shape of civil society in Vienna, we begin with some circumstantial evidence: The founding years of existent CSOs demonstrate the influence of historical events. Shortly before or after upheavals of the balance of power, there are founding waves or founding slumps of organizations that roughly fit the patterns proposed by SOT. We illustrate this in Figure 1 and have labeled the corresponding periods with terms associated with SOT. In the following analysis, we will dwell on the nature of each period.

Figure 1. Original founding dates of CSOs.

Data source: CLC representative sample, n=358.

Figure 1. Original founding dates of CSOs.

Data source: CLC representative sample, n=358.

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The Traditional Period until 1848

Salamon and Sokolowski (2017) describe the traditional civil society pattern as emerging under power relations where landed elites exercise hegemonic influence over society’s social, economic, and political life. An exploitative, primarily agrarian production prevails. Under these circumstances, a civil society small in scale emerges focused on service provision and supported mainly through the paternalistic charity of dominant classes. This description rings largely true for the Vienna metropolitan region until the nineteenth century. Landed elites consisted of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church. Catholic charity had played a significant role since the beginnings of the Habsburg Empire, and the aristocracy often commissioned religious orders to help those in need (e.g., for health and education). These orders survived world wars, periods of totalitarianism, and the transition to today’s republic almost entirely unscathed (e.g., Gatz 1997; Spalová and Jonveaux 2018).

Furthermore, some secular philanthropy began to take place starting in the period of enlightened absolutism (mid- to late eighteenth century). Aristocrats or other wealthy citizens (often ennobled) would set up charitable foundations with close ties between the endowing members of the elite and the state. Hospitals, educational institutions, homes for the needy, and the like were established (Doležalová 2017; G. Schneider 2017). Some of them are still active today: for example, the Theresian Academy (Theresianum) was founded in 1746 by Empress Maria Theresia as a school to prepare talented young men for civil service (Theresianum 2022). This, however, did not result in path dependency. Foundations are hardly a funding source for contemporary CSOs in Vienna (1 percent of total sector funding; see Table 5). That is due to many disruptions: many foundations were subjected to state administration after World War I, were expropriated through the Aryanization of Jewish assets by the National Socialists, or became insolvent during the First or Second World War (H. Schneider, Millner, and Meyer 2010, 4). A milieu of wealthy philanthropists that would continue the tradition of private philanthropic foundations did not grow back in comparable size.

The traditional period was not only characterized by paternalistic philanthropy. During this time, also, the nucleus of the next period emerged: a self-confident middle class demanding more political rights developed in cities (hence the etymological roots of “civil society”). The first precursors of a middle-class civil society were in the form of sodalities and guilds that developed in the Middle Ages (cf. Keller 2016). Sodalities were associations of academics—affiliated with the University of Vienna, founded in 1365—who jointly engaged in religious, artistic, or research activities. Guilds were associations of urban artisans and merchants who oversaw their craft or trade. A living trace of this period is rifle guilds. In these organizations, which today mainly preserve folklore, members of the middle class originally joined together to provide for defense against foreign enemies, such as the Magyars and the Ottomans, who ravaged the Vienna region several times.

The quest for civil liberties gained momentum with the enlightenment movement and the transition to modernity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Associations such as Masonic lodges were founded in Vienna (Aux Trois Canons, 1742). Their ideals of freedom, equality, fraternity, tolerance, and humanism inspired many famous Viennese freemasons, such as Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Members’ work in those member-serving associations of the middle class was not remunerated, in contrast to the delivery of charity, which relied to a considerable extent on “paid professionals,” if it is appropriate to apply this term to the nuns, monks, priests, teachers, and physicians.

The Liberalization Period from 1848 to 1918

According to social origins theory, a liberal civil society pattern emerges when the middle class becomes hegemonic, and neither landed elites nor the working class are in a position to mount an effective challenge (Salamon and Anheier 1998; Salamon et al. 2017). Under such power relations, a civil society characterized by professional organizations and upper- and middle-class philanthropy emerges, aiming to reduce the extremes of social distress. In Austria, such hegemony of the middle class never developed. Until the end of the monarchy in 1918, landed elites kept their grip on political power. Working-class rights remained severely curtailed. However, around 1848 the power of the middle class undoubtedly increased, and corporatist arrangements were not yet in place. Therefore, we see a liberalization period.

As the capital of the empire, by far the largest city, and the breeding place of the emerging financial aristocracy, Vienna played a leading role in this period. In March 1848, the first of a series of revolutions broke out in the city, in step with bourgeois-democratic uprisings in many other parts of Europe. The revolutionaries’ goals were a democratic constitution, more rights for the various ethnic groups within the Habsburg Empire, freedom of the press, and more political rights for the middle class (Mazohl 2016, 401). The revolution was violently suppressed, though it should not be regarded as a failure since decisive changes were achieved (e.g., abolition of basic subservience, the principle of equal rights for nationalities; Mazohl 2016, 406). Collective agreements and political rights for workers could be won for the first time during the revolution. However, the new absolutism suppressed all democratic movements until 1860 (Pellar 2014, 13). Then, triggered by the military defeats in Italy, the emperor realized that new absolutism had failed and asked the imperial council to advise him on the composition of a new institution (Roider and Wagnleitner 2022), starting a seven-year process that produced a couple of constitutional drafts.

Finally, in 1867, Emperor Franz Joseph proclaimed a new constitution that granted freedom of assembly and the right to found associations (Ackerl 2019, 43). However, associations were not yet allowed to have political goals (such as labor unions; Pellar 2014a, 13). With the new legislation, legal forms became more clearly separated: Associations became relatively easy to register, but they had to perform “idealistic” (i.e., not profit-oriented) activities. Other legal forms (partnerships, corporations, and cooperatives) faced more stringent registration requirements and were soon operated almost exclusively for profit-making purposes. Due to the new freedom, the number and variety of CSOs, particularly associations, in Vienna increased dramatically.

More than 150 years later, associations are still the predominant legal form for CSOs in Vienna (Table 2). Many associations have a broad membership base; 87.4 percent of the CSOs in the representative CLC survey have members. Moreover, as Table 5 shows, membership fees are the most important source of funding for CSOs in Vienna (46 percent of total sector funding). The legislation, which had been fought for by the middle class, created a path dependency that made the membership association the most common form not only for middle-class civil society organizations but for others as well.

Table 2. Legal form of CSOs in Vienna.
Legal form Representative sample (n=358) Nonrepresentative sample of large CSOs (n=235) 
Association 100.0% 90.0% 
Limited Liability Corporation  8.6% 
Cooperative  0.6% 
Established under foreign or international law  0.6% 
Stock Corporation  0.3% 
Legal form Representative sample (n=358) Nonrepresentative sample of large CSOs (n=235) 
Association 100.0% 90.0% 
Limited Liability Corporation  8.6% 
Cooperative  0.6% 
Established under foreign or international law  0.6% 
Stock Corporation  0.3% 

Data source: CLC survey, n=593.

The liberalization period also left a mark on CSOs’ internal practices. Today, many organizations have elaborated democratic practices (see Figure 2), which largely stem from the tradition that originated in the nineteenth century. In German, this form of organizing is also known by the bespoke colloquial term Vereinsmeierei. The term refers to the attitude that membership and participation in associations are of utmost importance. Such participatory practices include presidents being elected by a broad membership base, and formally structured general assemblies with written minutes made public to all members.

Figure 2. Prevalence of democratic organizing practices.

Source: representative CLC sample, n=308.

Figure 2. Prevalence of democratic organizing practices.

Source: representative CLC sample, n=308.

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Looking at CSOs founded in the liberalization period and still operating today, we do not quite find what SOT predicts for a classical liberal pattern. For liberal societies, Salamon and Sokolowski (2017) assume a prevalence of professionalist associations and charities supported by the middle and upper class to ameliorate the plight of the needy. These kinds of associations were indeed founded, but corporatist structures have shaped the way government interacted with professional and industry associations. In terms of fields of activity, the strongest legacy from the liberalization period is associations in expressive fields. These were founded mostly by the German-speaking Catholic middle class, but also by the working class, the Jewish minority, and other ethnic minorities from various parts of the multiethnic Habsburg Empire. They mirrored but also rivaled the associations of the German-speaking Catholic middle class. Later, working-class associations became consequential for making social democracy one of the elements of pillarization.

The city of Vienna grew exponentially, reaching its all-time population high of 2.1 million in 1910 (Weigl 2000). Middle- and upper-class charity continued to be delivered mainly by Catholic orders. New charities were founded in response to the social question that became increasingly virulent as industrialization expanded (Voegler 2006). For instance, two of today’s largest social service organizations (the catholic Caritas and the independent Österreichische Gesellschaft vom Rothen Kreuze, the predecessor of today’s Red Cross) originate from this period. Catholic charity played an important role in legitimizing aristocratic privilege while at the same time denouncing the avarice of the rich and encouraging charity as restitution from the elite for the benefit of the poor (Marens 2005, 287). As a result of political reforms, the Protestant Church was granted a legal status almost equal to the Catholic Church (Schöpf and Stakanova 2015). Protestant charities such as the predecessors of today’s Diakonie (see Table 3) were founded.

The ascending middle class embraced the new freedom to establish business associations. The highly influential Federation of Austrian Industry (Verein der Industriellen, today active under the name of Industriellenvereinigung) was founded in 1862 to represent the big private companies in manufacturing industries (Industriellenvereinigung 2022). Associations to promote the interests of other industries (e.g., pharmacists and booksellers) were founded too. Yet the middle class demanded more participation in policy-making as well. The monarchy wanted to promote economic development but no democracy. As a solution to this conundrum, chambers of commerce were provisionally established in 1849. Their tasks were to assess laws and promote trade and commerce, in which they were widely independent of government influence. Their elected members were merchants and tradespeople. These chambers proved so successful that they were retained and gradually differentiated, and their influence expanded. They have become one of the nuclei of democratic structures in Austria and also laid the foundation for Austria to develop into a welfare state with strong corporatist elements during the twentieth century (Rossmann 1972).

Business and industry associations are still an integral part of organized civil society (10 percent of all CSOs; see Figure 3). CSOs in the category “business and professional associations, unions” are business and industry associations with businesses as their members (5 percent), labor unions (1 percent), and professional associations with individuals as their members (3 percent). The chamber of industry and commerce and the chamber of agriculture regularly cooperate with the business and industry associations in their fields. These associations cover the entire spectrum of business activities in a relatively fine-grained manner (e.g., there is a special association of asphalt road builders, paint retailers, insurance companies, etc.). Often there are formal or personal links between the chamber and its affiliated associations. They collaborate in representing the interests of their members vis-à-vis the state and thus influence economic policy (Pütz 1966, 39:39, 7).

Figure 3. Share of CSOs by field of activity, manually coded according to the International Classification of Nonprofit Organizations (ICNPO) (Salamon and Anheier 1996).

Data source: CLC representative survey, n=358.

Figure 3. Share of CSOs by field of activity, manually coded according to the International Classification of Nonprofit Organizations (ICNPO) (Salamon and Anheier 1996).

Data source: CLC representative survey, n=358.

Close modal

The new freedom to establish associations led to an expansion of the expressive (in the sense of Gordon and Babchuk 1959 and Frumkin 2002) though not explicitly political fields of activity: arts, adult education, sports, leisure, and recreation. These are among the largest fields in Vienna’s civil society today (see Figure 3). Some of the organizations founded at the time are still prominent today: For instance, the Austrian Alpine Association (Österreichischer Alpenverein) was founded in 1862 to spread knowledge of the Alps, encourage a love for them, and facilitate travel in the area. All-male societies and fraternities flourished, such as the 1876-founded predecessor of today’s still politically influential Austrian Cartels Association (Österreichischer Cartellverband). The Austrian Automobile, Motorcycle and Touring Club (Österreichische Automobil-, Motorrad- und Touring Club, ÖAMTC) was founded in 1898 as an elite club of automobile-driving gentlemen. Today, it is the country’s largest CSO in terms of members (see Table 4) and is basically a nonprofit roadside assistance service. The Vienna Concert Hall Society (Wiener Konzerthausgesellschaft) was founded in 1910 to provide “a place for the cultivation of noble music, a rallying point for artistic endeavors, a house for music and a house for Vienna” (Wiener Konzerthaus 2022).

During this period, class distinctions were strict, and nationalism was on the rise. The German-speaking and Catholic aristocracy and upper middle class frequented the elite associations. Therefore, workers, Jews, and ethnic minorities founded their own sports and leisure associations. Immigrants from the non-German-speaking parts of the Habsburg Empire sought to foster their emerging national identities. Associations, such as the Czech sports association Sokol (“Falcon,” founded in 1867 and still active today) and the Czech Komenský school association (Komensky-Schulverein, founded in 1872 and still active today) were established for this purpose. Moreover, in an increasingly anti-Semitic climate, the sizeable and growing Jewish minority in Vienna (12 percent of the population in 1890; Rabinbach 1975) founded alpine and sports associations (such as Hakoah, founded in 1909 and still active today). Many of these associations had a Zionist orientation and intended to strengthen Jews for building a Jewish state in Israel/Palestine (Kos 2009, 357).

Members of the working class were prohibited from forming labor movement organizations with explicitly political goals (Pellar 2014). However, workers could establish sports associations and educational societies. Sports associations were very popular and continue to be so to this day (see Figure 3). Figure 1 shows a large number of organizations dating back to 1889. In that year, two federated sports associations were founded—one bourgeois, one working class—which today have numerous independent local chapters in the region, all tracing their origins back to that year. Workers’ educational societies (Arbeiterbildungsvereine) organized educational activities, mutual insurance schemes against illness and unemployment, and recreational activities such as choir singing and team sports. Despite political repression, these organizations sought to mobilize workers in the struggle for democratic rights such as the right to vote and freedom of the press (Czeike 1992a, 139). Workers’ sports associations (Arbeitersportvereine) also aimed to strengthen their members physically. Hiking and mountain climbing were popular and laden with rivaling ideological projections. Workers hence founded their own alpine association, the Friends of Nature (Naturfreunde). When they went hiking, they sang not just songs about nature but also workers’ songs, and often combined their hiking tours with protests against forest owners (Kos 2009, 355).

Considering this founding wave of organizations, an emerging pattern of pillarization (Hellemans 2020) can be discerned that lingers in civil society to this day: multiple organizations working on more or less the same issues or offering the same services but rooted in different political ideologies, religions, or ethnicities.

The Social-Democratic Period from 1918 to 1934

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the constitutional monarchy became increasingly untenable as a political compromise. The multiethnic Habsburg Empire stumbled into the First World War and did not survive it. It dissolved into nation-states, and the primarily German-speaking First Austrian Republic was founded in 1918. The country was reduced to a fraction of its former size. Vienna remained the capital and was now oversized and overly cosmopolitan for the small, mostly rural, and agrarian country. From now on, the development paths of civil society in Vienna and the rest of the country strongly diverged, and the divergence was to end in a civil war. The matter began peacefully, with a compromise between political representatives of the middle and upper classes and representatives of the working class. Austria’s first democratic government was a coalition of the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Social Party, hoping to keep the vulnerable young Austrian state stable. This new government reached several important compromises. Political associations were legalized, which was essential for the development of the labor movement. The chambers of trade and commerce were complemented by a chamber of labor (Rossmann 1972). As a stronghold of the Social Democratic Party, Vienna was made an independent federal state in 1922, separate from surrounding Lower Austria, where the Christian Social Party was dominant. This separation created leeway for the Viennese government to engage in pathbreaking social reforms, enabled by independent fiscal policy. The era of “Red Vienna” (coined as a scare term by political opponents) or, as Social Democrats branded it, “The New Vienna,” began. At the federal level, however, the Social Democrats left government in 1920 and did not return until after World War II.

Unlike the rest of Austria, Vienna in that period was mostly characterized by power relations that according to SOT lead to a social democratic civil society pattern (Salamon and Sokolowski 2017): Landed elites were weakened by war, whereas the working class, which had grown due to industrialization, was energized and relatively unified under the leadership of the Social Democrats. A working-class culture flourished, not least thanks to leisure associations formed in the previous period. In aspiration to a typical social democratic civil society pattern, the new social democratic city government wanted social welfare services as a right of all citizens, delivered directly by government. It encouraged CSOs in expressive fields such as arts, culture, recreation, sports, and advocacy.

A prominent example from this period is social democratic education reformer Otto Glöckel, who strove to abolish compulsory religious education and to merge the bourgeois high schools with the middle schools for the rest of the population into one common school for all six- to fourteen-year-olds. The Christian Social Party, Catholic organizations, and even the professional associations of middle school teachers opposed his plans. By creating an alliance between schools and parents, Glöckel intended to gain more understanding and approval for his far-reaching reform ideas. Thus, in 1919, he issued a decree to school principals that encouraged the formation of parents’ associations. In many schools, principals and parents embraced this idea. Soon enough, the Catholic organizations called for sending their own people to the boards, not to leave PAs to the Social Democrats. Glöckel was unable to implement his grand reform plans, but as shown in our introductory vignette, he left a lasting impression on Austrian civil society by initiating PAs (Krawarik 2019).

At the heart of the New Vienna project was municipal social housing. Extensive public housing complexes were erected, which still characterize the housing situation in Vienna today and made quality housing affordable for broad sections of the population. These municipal buildings did not include churches, in sharp contrast to the integral role of the Catholic Church in the rest of Austria. Instead, the buildings contained party branches of the Social Democratic Party, libraries, maternal counseling centers, kindergartens, and other social and educational institutions. City government provided new public services, such as hospitals, sports facilities, swimming pools, kindergartens, schools, and even holiday resorts in the countryside for city children (Mattl 2010).

Associations of the labor movement flourished in Vienna. Their primary goal was to form the “new human being” through education and culture. Progressive education of the masses, and especially of children, was supported by various Viennese intellectuals (e.g., Paul Felix Lazarsfeld, Marie Jahoda, Otto Neurath) and associations such as the Friends of the Children (Kinderfreunde, founded 1908 in Graz and 1910 in Vienna and still active today). They organized leisure activities for children to learn solidarity and active engagement. They opened children’s homes and founded a magazine, libraries, their own book publishing house, a private school, and kindergartens.

However, the social-democratic pattern did not last. Unlike in ideal-type social democratic societies, the political position of the working class was fragile in Vienna. The city was a social-democratic enclave within a rural nation-state with a large peasantry that sympathized not with the urban working class but with the Catholic Church. The New Vienna project was met with resistance from the Christian Social side from the very beginning. Especially since the 1930s, it also faced attacks from National Socialists, who came to power in Germany in 1933 and were working to seize power in Austria. What is more, the project was unable to solve prevailing problems for major parts of the population. Although it was propagated as the promise of an all-encompassing welfare state, fiscal resources always remained insufficient, not least thanks to obstructions by the political opponent at the national level. Unemployment and poverty were rampant; a large part of the population still lived in squalid tenements. Catholic charities such as Caritas still had more than enough work to do (e.g., take care of neglected youth and operate soup kitchens). Many Viennese labor movement intellectuals were of Jewish origin, which contributed to fears among the bourgeois and rural population about a Jewish Bolshevik threat.

There was much unease about the tremendous cultural changes of the time. A nostalgic, rural, and agrarian-oriented homeland movement blossomed as a countermovement to the progress-oriented, urban-rooted labor movement. The ethnically homogeneous Austrian nation-state was invented. Traditional costume clubs (Trachtenvereine) enjoyed popularity, in part also among the working classes and in the Jewish milieu, where Viennese dressed up as country folk to recreate a supposedly more harmonious and wholesome rural world (Nikitsch 2010). Many associations (e.g., the Austrian Alpine Association) started formally excluding Jews from their membership (Nielsen 2013).

The Statist Repression Period from 1934 to 1945

Since the 1920s, confrontations between the major political camps—Social Democrats, Christian Socials, and National Socialists—had become increasingly violent. In 1933, the Christian Socials undertook a successful coup d’état, starting the period of the authoritarian Federal State of Austria, also known as Austrofascism or Ständestaat, which was followed by annexation to Germany in 1938.

Under these authoritarian regimes, Viennese civil society took on a statist shape. According to SOT, the conditions leading to such a pattern quite accurately fit Vienna’s case: premodern landed elites and the Catholic Church retained power in Austria and Vienna, the economy stagnated, and the country’s sovereignty was threatened. After a five-year reign of Austrofascists with a restorative agenda, National Socialist Germany annexed Austria. As suggested by SOT, CSOs were severely restricted. CSOs now could only operate in a narrow range of service fields and morale-boosting expressive activities. After a bloody civil war in February 1934 and a failed coup d’état by the National Socialists in July of the same year, the Austrofascist regime banned the Social Democratic, National Socialist, and Communist Parties and all associations affiliated with them.

In this period, an event with far-reaching consequences was the Concordat of 1933, signed by the pope and the Austrofascist government. This treaty under international law granted the Roman Catholic Church in Austria a status under public law and certain rights. It is still valid today. In the wake of increasing religious diversity, the Concordat has led to similar rights for all religious congregations (e.g., state-funded religious instruction in public schools, state-funded teachers in nonprofit schools run by legally recognized religious denominations). As a result, most organizations that administer religious services and rituals are under public law today. Established by special laws, these organizations technically do not have the autonomy to decide on their own dissolution and thus do not fall under the mainstream definition of CSOs (Salamon and Sokolowski 2016).

Under pressure from National Socialist Germany, the Austrofascist government legalized the National Socialist Party in 1936, only to be replaced in power by the Nazis in 1938 and to be banned itself. Austria vanished in 1938 and became Ostmark of the Third Reich, which allowed only a few CSOs (such as the catholic Caritas) to continue providing welfare services under hostile conditions. Some organizations in expressive fields collaborated with the regime, such as the Alpine Association (for a self-critical reappraisal of this past, see Achrainer et al. 2011) and many traditional costume clubs (Trachtenvereine). Vienna, however, was transformed into a civil society desert for the most part. From March 1938 to April 1945, all forms of unions were banned. There was only the German Labor Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront)—a surveillance tool that also offered sports, culture, and recreation to keep workers compliant (Pellar 2014, 43).

Bilateral Neocorporatism from 1945 to the 1970s

In 1945, the Third Reich was defeated by the Allied forces of the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Bombs had destroyed large parts of Vienna. The Nazis had murdered or displaced the Jewish population and persecuted political dissidents of all stripes. The Allied forces separated Austria from Germany and divided it into four occupation zones. They also prescribed denazification measures, and thus Nazi successor parties were banned. Social Democrats and Christian Socials (now renamed the Austrian People’s Party) had learned lessons and were now controlled by the occupying powers to prevent authoritarian developments in the left or right direction (Rathkolb 2016, 536). People were war weary, and in a Freudian textbook example of repression, many simply wanted to put the difficult time and complicity in Nazi crimes behind them.

A corporatist regime, which had been seeded in the liberalization periods by the many chambers, business associations, and trade unions, burgeoned out of these newly ordered power relations. In a classical corporatist regime, the state plays a core role in funding welfare delivered through CSOs and preserves the status of many premodern institutions, especially organized religion (Salamon and Anheier 1998, 227). According to SOT, such a pattern develops when the working class has reached a substantial size and strength, but not enough to displace the dominant position of landed, industrial, or commercial elites. This quite aptly describes the situation in Austria in 1945. One hypothesized consequence for the dimensions of civil society is that new organizations aligned with elites will be established to wean workers away from socialist-oriented ones and provide “safer” alternatives. Another is that government-funded welfare services will be expanded to appease working-class demands. These services, however, will be delivered by CSOs, not government. The result would be a sizable civil society sector, heavily subsidized by the government, and focusing primarily on service, not advocacy (Salamon and Sokolowski 2017).

In Vienna, where the Social Democrats were very influential, the welfare state developed somewhat differently. Thus, a relatively balanced, pillarized version of corporatism developed, where conservative and social democratic forces collaborated to reach compromises. Such a pattern has been called neocorporatism (Pauly et al. 2021) and is distinct from the older antidemocratic corporatist pattern. In neocorporatism, CSOs provide services and actively shape the policies regulating these services. They are organized in federal organizations that, through institutionalized channels, seek negotiated agreements with the government. Hence, this pattern secures a mutual stabilization of exchanges between government and other social spheres. The government holds a central position, but other social spheres do not lose their functional autonomy (Pauly et al. 2021). Neocorporatism aptly describes the new arrangement in Vienna. It should be noted that this arrangement was based on two large and clearly segregated pillars: the social-democratic working class, on one side, and the alliance between the upper and the middle class, the rural peasantry, and the Catholic Church, on the other side. We hence label this period bilateral neocorporatism. Data from our representative survey shows that today almost a quarter of CSOs collaborate with the government in advocacy.

To avoid violent class conflicts and economic setbacks, the two major parties developed the system of social partnership as a unique manifestation of corporatism. Some of the social partners are chambers regulated by public law (e.g., for employers, employees, farmers, and various professions). Others are associations, including the Federation of Trade Unions (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, founded in 1945) and the Federation of Austrian Industry (Industriellenvereinigung). Until the 1990s, social partners had enormous influence in regulating salaries, tariffs, fees, and prices. Due to the liberalization of the Austrian economy enforced by European integration, the social partnership lost influence. Nevertheless, this system still shapes Austrian politics today: legally anchored chambers represent the interests of employees and employers, and each government is wise to consult with the social partners before making important decisions. Due to their political affiliations, social partners are also strongly represented in parliament and play formal roles in lawmaking.

As expected in a classical corporatist pattern, new social service organizations were established as alternatives to social democratic ones. However, state welfare provision was also expanded, and CSOs of all stripes were granted access to the provision of state-funded services. Many new social service organizations were initially founded to deal with problems caused by the war. For example, Children in Vienna (Kinder in Wien) was founded in 1948 to feed hungry children. Today, it is a major operator of kindergartens in Vienna. Following the tradition of CSOs affiliated with political parties, Children in Vienna is close to the Austrian People’s Party. In 1947, the still active Hilfswerk (affiliated with the Austrian People’s Party) and Volkshilfe (affiliated with the Social Democrats) were founded to help children and returning prisoners of war, and alleviate hardship caused by the war (Table 3).

Table 3. Austria’s largest social service providers.
  Original founding date Political or religious affiliation Number of employees Annual financial turnover (in million €) 
Caritas 1897 (Germany) 1901 (Vienna) Roman Catholic 16,384 919.0 
Diakonie (Diaconia) 1968 (merge of diaconal organizations founded in the late 1800s) Lutheran Protestant 9,000 480.0 
Hilfswerk (Aid Agency) 1947 People’s Party 9,194 358.6 
Rotes Kreuz (The Red Cross) 1880 Independent 10,236 769.1 
Volkshilfe (People’s Help) 1947 Social Democrats 9,000 306.4 
  Original founding date Political or religious affiliation Number of employees Annual financial turnover (in million €) 
Caritas 1897 (Germany) 1901 (Vienna) Roman Catholic 16,384 919.0 
Diakonie (Diaconia) 1968 (merge of diaconal organizations founded in the late 1800s) Lutheran Protestant 9,000 480.0 
Hilfswerk (Aid Agency) 1947 People’s Party 9,194 358.6 
Rotes Kreuz (The Red Cross) 1880 Independent 10,236 769.1 
Volkshilfe (People’s Help) 1947 Social Democrats 9,000 306.4 

Source: Sozialwirtschaft Österreich, personal communication, 19 January 2022.

With great vigor, many of the associations in expressive fields that the Austrofascists or National Socialists had previously banned were reestablished. With the reestablishment of traditional associations from the monarchy and the interwar period, and the founding of the Austrian Federation of Trade Unions (ÖGB) in 1945, the big players of the Austrian association landscape were complete. The seven associations with the largest membership in Austria today (see Table 4), all of which are headquartered in Vienna, had been founded.

Table 4. Austria’s largest associations (strongest in members).
Association Members Founding year Party affiliation 
Total number As a share of total population 
ÖAMTC Österreichischer Automobil-⁠, Motorrad- und Touring Club (Austrian Automobile, Motorcycle and Touring Club) 2,250,132 25.2% 1898 People’s Party 
ÖGB Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund (Austrian Federation of Trade Unions) 1,216,810 13.6% 1945 All parties with own factions, Social Democratic majority 
ASKÖ Arbeitersportklub Österreich (Austrian Workers’ Sports Club) 1,039,289 11.7% 1924 Social Democratic Party 
Österreichisches Rotes Kreuz (Austrian Red Cross) 1,035,054 11.6% 1880 Independent 
ASVÖ Allgemeiner Sportverband Österreich (umbrella organization of independent sports associations) 997,314 11.2% 1949 Independent 
Sportunion (umbrella organization of Christian Democratic sports associations) 921,279 10.3% 1889 People’s Party 
Österreichischer Alpenverein (Austrian Alpine Association) 545,541 6.1% 1862 Traditionally closer to People’s Party, increasingly independent 
Association Members Founding year Party affiliation 
Total number As a share of total population 
ÖAMTC Österreichischer Automobil-⁠, Motorrad- und Touring Club (Austrian Automobile, Motorcycle and Touring Club) 2,250,132 25.2% 1898 People’s Party 
ÖGB Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund (Austrian Federation of Trade Unions) 1,216,810 13.6% 1945 All parties with own factions, Social Democratic majority 
ASKÖ Arbeitersportklub Österreich (Austrian Workers’ Sports Club) 1,039,289 11.7% 1924 Social Democratic Party 
Österreichisches Rotes Kreuz (Austrian Red Cross) 1,035,054 11.6% 1880 Independent 
ASVÖ Allgemeiner Sportverband Österreich (umbrella organization of independent sports associations) 997,314 11.2% 1949 Independent 
Sportunion (umbrella organization of Christian Democratic sports associations) 921,279 10.3% 1889 People’s Party 
Österreichischer Alpenverein (Austrian Alpine Association) 545,541 6.1% 1862 Traditionally closer to People’s Party, increasingly independent 

Source: CSOs’ official websites.

For the majority of the population, a phase of growing prosperity and improved social standards began in the mid-1950s. People now had more and more leisure time. Although consumer-oriented leisure activities became increasingly popular, so did associational life. However, in contrast to its former progressive image, associational life (in sports clubs, savings clubs, various hobby clubs, etc.) began to have a quirky, sometimes even old-fashioned, feel. The tradition of organized leisure in associations continues to this day. Various associations have been and still are being founded to pursue any serious leisure in conviviality, from samba drumming to live-action role-playing or researching paranormal phenomena.

Today, community-building is still very important, not only in leisure clubs but in almost all kinds of CSOs in Vienna: building trust, promoting regular interactions, and providing a place for people to feel a sense of belonging. Eighty-two percent of our representative sample’s CSOs consider all three of these facets of community-building as essential or at least as a desirable side effect of activities that support their mission. However, community-building most often occurs within intentionally or unintentionally homogeneous groups, with the sharpest segregation occurring along ethnic lines (using first language as a proxy; see Figure 6) but also age, gender, and other diversity dimensions.

Another dimension that suggests Viennese civil society is an amalgam of a neocorporatist and a social-democratic regime is the composition of CSOs’ workforce in terms of volunteers and paid staff. The extension of government welfare driven by social democracy has changed the workforce composition considerably. Figure 4 shows the ratio of paid staff to volunteers in Viennese CSOs by field of activity. In health services, many CSOs engage in ambulance and emergency medical services. Volunteers account for 79 percent of the workforce in that field. Conversely, CSOs providing social services have a strong standing in corporatist arrangements and rely greatly on paid staff (63 percent of the workforce). In education, CSOs operate in niches: public organizations deliver the bulk of paid work in this field, while CSOs (e.g., PAs) rely on 91 percent volunteers.

Figure 4. Ratio of paid staff to regular volunteers in CSOs’ fields of activity.

Data source: CLC survey, n=322.

Figure 4. Ratio of paid staff to regular volunteers in CSOs’ fields of activity.

Data source: CLC survey, n=322.

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Austria’s strong two-party system did not only push Vienna civil society somewhere between a corporatist and a social-democratic regime. Vienna’s bilateral neocorporatism is also characterized by a pillarization of civil society that occurred across fault lines of both political and religious versus anticlerical convictions. The main pillars were the Catholic Church (i.e., the largest and most powerful religious group) on the one hand and the Social Democrats on the other. This was due to the traditionally close ties between the ruling aristocracy and the Catholic Church, and later between the Christian Social Party and the Catholic Church. Social democracy had been shaped by an anticlerical orientation for a long time. Politics and religion were thus closely linked.

Today, pillarization especially characterizes the social service field (see Table 3), with large numbers of paid staff (see Figure 4) and a high proportion of government funding. In civil society as a whole (see Figure 5), pillarized organizations are more than counterbalanced by large numbers of organizations without any particular political or religious affiliation.

Figure 5. Percentage of CSOs officially affiliated with political parties or religious denominations.

Data source: CLC representative survey, n=358.

Figure 5. Percentage of CSOs officially affiliated with political parties or religious denominations.

Data source: CLC representative survey, n=358.

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Multilateral Neocorporatism from the Late 1970s Onward

In the late 1970s, power relations shifted once again. The two-pillar structure of the social-democratic working class and the alliance between the middle and the upper class, the rural peasantry, and the Catholic Church was dissolved. A new liberal middle class emerged, driven by generational change, educational expansion, general prosperity, and the decline of agriculture and manufacturing in favor of the service sector. The Catholic Church lost its ideological grip. The economic elite became increasingly global. The influx of migrant workers and refugees created a new, fragmented—and, to a large extent, disenfranchised—working class. Based on widespread fears of excessive immigration, the extreme right gained influence. Various social groups confronted each other, but none dominated, leading to a new corporatist compromise. Accordingly, the neocorporatist path was continued but modified to balance numerous different groups. We hence label this period multilateral neocorporatism. In such a constellation, SOT (Salamon and Anheier 1998; Salamon and Sokolowski 2016) and other concepts about CSOs’ roles in neocorporatism (Pauly et al. 2021) suggest a large and substantially government-funded nonprofit sector, in which CSOs would be involved in both services and advocacy. This applies to Vienna.

Organized civil society is indeed sizable in the Vienna region today. When we drew our sample in 2017, there were approximately 22,000 associations, 282 nonprofit corporations, 29 nonprofit cooperatives, and 121 nonprofit foundations (based on data provided by H. Schneider, Millner, and Meyer 2015, VereinsCompass, and the Austrian company register). This makes for about one CSO for every 116 inhabitants.

In such arrangements, SOT suggests that government funding will be critical for social services, health, and education. In Vienna, the issue is somewhat more complicated (see Table 5): Government is indeed the major funding source in these fields when looking at the total volume of funding. However, if one looks at the average CSO in the field of health, education, or social services, government funding is less important than membership fees and commercial income. This is because there are many small education, health, or social service CSOs that receive little government funding, and a few large ones that receive a lot. For the CSO sector as a whole, the government provides 23 percent of total funding volume, and 17 percent of funding for the average CSO.

Table 5. Sources of funding.
 Average composition of funding at the level of organizations Funding source as a share of total sector funding 
 All fields of activity Health, social services, education, research All fields of activity Health, social services, education, research 
membership fees 40% 38% 46% 4% 
commercial revenue 21% 20% 20% 25% 
government funding 17% 19% 23% 53% 
private donations 12% 12% 5% 13% 
donations from business 5% 6% 4% 3% 
other funding sources 3% 2% 1% 1% 
foundations 2% 2% 1% 1% 
 Average composition of funding at the level of organizations Funding source as a share of total sector funding 
 All fields of activity Health, social services, education, research All fields of activity Health, social services, education, research 
membership fees 40% 38% 46% 4% 
commercial revenue 21% 20% 20% 25% 
government funding 17% 19% 23% 53% 
private donations 12% 12% 5% 13% 
donations from business 5% 6% 4% 3% 
other funding sources 3% 2% 1% 1% 
foundations 2% 2% 1% 1% 

Source: CLC, n=334.

A high level of advocacy is one of the characteristics of neocorporatism. Here, the new complexities of a shift from bilateralism to multilateralism play out most distinctively. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a first crack in the old order occurred with youth protests. Vienna had become a stuffy city at the periphery of Western Europe, cut off from its neighbors by the Iron Curtain. Vienna’s population had been declining since 1910 and was to reach its historical low in 1988 (Bauer and Himpele 2022). There were few cultural and entertainment opportunities for young people in Vienna. A leftist alternative movement developed. Young people, many of them students, squatted in old houses and established cultural centers there. These centers became stages for music and performing arts, but provided also alternative childcare and school facilities, advocacy and community building (e.g., feminist organizations, organizations for gays and lesbians). Since the end of the Second World War, Vienna had been governed by the Social Democratic Party with an absolute majority; the city government was relatively sympathetic to the occupations and partly legalized them. Several of these institutions (e.g., the WUK, Amerlinghaus, Arena) still exist today with some financial support from the city government and have become established parts of Vienna’s culture.

In 1978, the Austrian Green Movement was born. Environmental activists, many of them from Vienna’s alternative Left, protested against the launch of a nuclear power plant in Zwentendorf near Vienna. In a referendum, the Austrian population voted against nuclear power, and Austria henceforth committed itself to refrain from producing nuclear energy (Rathkolb 2016, 557, 561). In 1984, protests against a hydroelectric power plant that would destroy the Hainburger floodplain near Vienna ensued. Once again, the protest was successful, and the government gave in. Numerous environmental CSOs have emerged ever since. A new political party, the Greens, was founded (Rathkolb 2016, 561). In Vienna, the leftists dominated the Green party for many years, many of them coming from the alternative milieu active in the squatters’ movement. Until today, there has been a high awareness of ecological issues in Vienna. For example, Fridays for Future is active in the city and, together with other environmental CSOs, is currently engaged in a battle with the city government over a new urban highway.

Further cracks in the old order were caused by immigration and the concomitant rise of the Far Right. Since the 1960s, Vienna has once again become a city of immigrants. As the economy grew, but women’s participation in the labor market lagged, a labor shortage developed. The solution was to bring in “guest workers” under interstate agreements with Turkey and Yugoslavia. Though intended as temporary labor migration, most of these workers did not return to their countries of origin. They stayed and started families. Refugees from the Yugoslav wars caused another large wave of immigration in the 1990s. Austria joined the European Union in 1995, which led to an influx of labor migrants, especially from eastern EU countries. Since 2000, a growing number of refugees have come, mainly from Chechnya, Afghanistan, and other Asian and African countries. A tragic climax was the refugee crisis in 2015, with thousands of refugees from Syria; the war in Ukraine is leading to a new climax. A disproportionately large number of migrants and refugees settled in Vienna, contributing further to its multiethnicity. Native Austrians founded CSOs dedicated to helping and integrating newcomers. Migrants themselves founded associations for socializing, mutual support, and fostering cultural heritage. For instance, the Muslim community built its religious infrastructure upon associations: mosque associations fulfill religious, social, and political roles. Some of these CSOs aim to influence politics by mobilizing their members. Autochthonous Austrians and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, sometimes in collaboration, founded new organizations to address threats of Islamism and persecution of Christians in other countries. During this time, however, right-wing populist and extremist attitudes and resentments toward foreigners increased (Simsa and Rothbauer 2016). New Far Right CSOs have been founded, such as the Identitäre Bewegung, which uses the tactics of new social movements to fight against multiculturalism and immigration.

Today, a third of Vienna’s population are first-generation immigrants with a native language other than German (Statistics Austria 2020), and nearly 50 percent have some non-German-speaking migration background (Stadt Wien – Integration und Diversität 2020). This increased ethnic and religious diversity has had various effects on civil society: all major CSOs (see Table 4 and Table 3) more or less intensely promote integration and peaceful coexistence, although overcoming xenophobic tendencies within their ranks is a challenge. As Figure 6 shows, two-thirds of CSOs have no volunteers or paid staff with a first language other than German. On average, 18 percent of CSO beneficiaries are non-German native speakers, and only 10 percent of the workforce have a native language other than German, which is in discrepancy with Vienna’s overall population. Only 6 percent of the CSOs are roughly representative of the local population, with a workforce comprising between 40 percent and 60 percent non-German native speakers.

Figure 6. Composition of CSOs’ workforce (employees and volunteers) and beneficiaries (target groups) with regard to first language.

Source: CLC, n=330.

Figure 6. Composition of CSOs’ workforce (employees and volunteers) and beneficiaries (target groups) with regard to first language.

Source: CLC, n=330.

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Increasing diversity pushed the Viennese government toward including more diverse CSOs in the delivery of welfare. Since Catholic, Protestant, and Social Democratic service providers had been granted equal access to public funding for the delivery of services, new players from the alternative movement and new ethnic and religious minorities claimed equal access. They could hardly be denied this on legal or moral grounds. The field of education was especially attractive in this regard. Today, the national government pays teachers’ salaries in private schools of all legally recognized religious denominations, and the Viennese government funds kindergartens from a wide variety of CSO providers, regardless of their political or religious affiliation. When Muslim providers expanded in these fields around 2010, there were several scandals about indoctrination and embezzlement of public funding in Muslim kindergartens. After public debates about society’s common ground for education, Vienna’s government developed stricter procurement regulations and oversight procedures to prevent practices that could endanger children and social cohesion.

All of this fits the neocorporatism concept well. New forms of philanthropy, like Ashoka and Teach for All from the introduction to this article, would be typical of a liberal civil society pattern. They, however, do not occupy a large section of the sector, regardless of whether we look at number of organizations, sums of money raised, number of employees, or number of volunteers. The lack of charitable foundations and an Anglo-Saxon-style corporate social responsibility tradition offers some explanation (cf. Meyer and Höllerer 2010). The vast majority of Austria’s super-rich (Sempelmann, Voss, and Lampl 2021) are not interested in venture philanthropy. Most of them show philanthropic activities, if at all, only in the form of some sport, arts, or science sponsorship.

With this analysis, we have aimed to contribute to comparative civil society research by fostering a debate about what dimensions of civil society might be most relevant and insightful for pinning down similarities and differences across civil society sectors. In particular, we have aimed to sharpen the understanding of what might be relevant dimensions of civil society for which the differences can be explained by social origins theory. For this purpose, we have taken inspiration from anthropological insights about how to derive etic categories for comparison between many cases from emic analyses of single cases, and have hence engaged in an emic analysis of the development of civil society in the Greater Vienna region.

As “natives” who are deeply familiar with this particular civil society, we have created a narrative to trace its eventful history from its origins to the present day. We have structured this narrative from an SOT perspective, recounting the rise and fall of various classes, the changing struggles and coalitions between them, the path dependencies and ruptures. Vienna is particularly suited for such a perspective, because its eventful history relates to the full gamut of civil society patterns covered by the original formulation of this theory (Salamon and Anheier 1998): from traditional beginnings, to a liberalization period, to the social democratic period of “Red Vienna,” to statist repression, and finally to neocorporatist developments. This analysis supports the key tenets of SOT: When particular classes are dominant, they shape state and civil society according to their ideological preferences. When power is approximately balanced between groups, compromises are negotiated or fought for. In this process, path dependencies have an effect, since building on existing arrangements is easier than creating new ones. In the case of Vienna, we find that like sediments in geology, each period in the development of the city has left traces in today’s organized civil society.

Let us take a step back from this historical narrative to see what dimensions of civil society we as “natives” have singled out as relevant to mention as outcomes of changing power relations and path dependencies. We suggest ten such dimensions: (1) Original founding dates are informative because they enable uncovering possible founding waves or slumps. (2) Organizations’ fields of activity are of key interest because, under some conditions, they are restricted to welfare services and regime-friendly expressive activities. Under other conditions, expressive activities can blossom. Distinguishing between service and expressive fields may suffice, but a more nuanced distinction, such as the categories of the ICNPO (Salamon and Anheier 1996), is more instructive. Even more refined distinctions may be beneficial (e.g., professional associations, business associations, and unions). (3) The societal roles of organizations—whether they engage in service provision, advocacy, or community building—are another relevant dimension (Moulton and Eckerd 2012; Neumayr et al. 2009). These roles must not be confused with fields of activity because various societal roles can be fulfilled in all sorts of fields of activity. (4) The role of volunteering and paid staff in various fields of activity reflects the division of labor between civil society and the public sector due to liberal, social democratic, or corporatist arrangements. (5) Affiliation to political parties and organized religion enables conclusions about corporatist arrangements. (6) Engagement in advocacy in collaboration with or in opposition to the government is indicative of corporatist or other arrangements. (7) The governance of organizations is interesting because high-status groups rely on elitist forms, whereas middle- and low-status groups tend to found organizations with democratic internal structures. The legal form can be an indicator, as associations and cooperatives are more amenable to democratic structures, whereas foundations and corporations, by default, tend to imply more closed structures. Organizations’ internal practices are another important aspect of governance. (8) Socioeconomic characteristics of the groups that actively participate in CSOs and the groups that receive their services are of interest too. Besides active participation in paid work and volunteering, participation in CSO boards seems particularly relevant. Depending on the context of the study, various lines of division can be important for delineating groups. Lines of socioeconomic class, ethnicity or race, and religion might be widely relevant. (9) Funding sources of CSOs are relevant because they are an outcome of power struggles and enable CSOs to more or less autonomously pursue their constituents’ interests. Besides the proportion of government funding, we suggest looking at membership fees, commercial revenue, individual donations, donations from businesses, and foundation funding. (10) The size of CSOs, particularly regarding their overall budgets and membership figures, is relevant because, like the composition of funding, it is an outcome of power struggles and a power base. Curiously, the absolute size of organized civil society in terms of employees or percentage of GDP hardly seemed important in our analysis. This may be due to limitations in our analysis or idiosyncrasies of the Vienna case, or this aspect is simply not very informative.

These ten dimensions for comparing civil societies serve as an invitation to further debate, to be challenged or complemented by emic perspectives from other civil societies. By consolidating a variety of emic views, research could arrive at a comprehensive and widely acceptable set of etic categories for comparing civil societies and explaining the similarities and differences between them. Social origins theory can be useful for this purpose, if it is viewed not as a static theory for categorizing civil societies, but as a dynamic lens for historical processes. Further research on questions emerging from this theory should therefore consider not just quantitative cross-sectional comparative studies but also qualitative studies of historical processes as methodological tools (similar to suggestions by Mullins 2000; Ragin 1998).

Florentine Maier is a senior researcher at the Institute for Nonprofit Management at WU Vienna. She is also a board member of npoAustria. Before her habilitation in business administration, she completed a doctoral program in social and economic sciences as well as a master’s degree in commerce and Chinese language at WU. She studied Sinology and Chinese language at the University of Vienna and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen University, and was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. Florentine Maier works at the Civic Life of Cities Lab, which studies civil society and nonprofit organizations in cities. Her research focuses on the impact of managerial and democratic organizational practices on the social contributions of NPOs. Her work has been published in Organization Studies, Organization, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Voluntas, and Social Policy and Administration, among others. Berta Terzieva is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Nonprofit Management at WU Vienna. She studied sociology at the University of Vienna and socioeconomics at WU Vienna. Before starting her PhD, she worked in the higher education research field, focusing on students’ social and economic conditions and underrepresented groups in higher education. She is currently working at the Civic Life of Cities Lab, which studies what nonprofit organizations in and around cities do for society. Her research focuses on the civic engagement of immigrants and the impact of different organizational practices on diversity in NPOs. Michael Meyer is a professor in the Department of Management at WU Vienna. He heads WU’s Department for Management, the Competence Center for Nonprofits and Social Entrepreneurship, and the Institute for Nonprofit-Management. He is also a member of the executive board of the EUCLID network and of the Stanford PACS Civic Life of Cities Lab. His current research focuses on urban civil societies, managerialism, nonprofit governance, civic participation (volunteering, giving), and social entrepreneurship. His teaching and training activities also embrace organization theory, leadership, and organizational behavior. On all these topics, he has (co-)authored and edited more than two hundred scholarly publications (https://bach.wu.ac.at/d/research/ma/1147/#publications, https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4253-0064).

Florentine Maier and Michael Meyer contributed to the presented idea. Florentine Maier and Berta Terzieva contributed to data analysis. All three authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

This research was made possible by grant P 33229 from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). We draw on data collected by multiple researchers, and we are especially grateful to Christian Burkart, Leila Cornips, Dominik Karner, and Lisa Schmidthuber. Moreover, we thank the entire global Civic Life of Cities Lab for careful reading and excellent comments on earlier versions of this article.

Data will be made available by the authors upon request, providing the anonymity of participating individuals and organizations.

1.

The delineation of the Vienna metropolitan region was based on the concept of Stadtregionen (Wonka and Laburda 2010). Population data retrieved from the Stadtregionen project website: https://www.stadtregionen.at/wien.

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