Paper for the inaugural ESPAnet conference
"Changing European Societies - ong>Theong> Role for Social Policy"
Organised by the Danish National Institute of Social Research
Copenhagen, 13-15 November 2003
ong>Theong> ong>Shiftong> ong>fromong> ong>Structuresong> ong>toong> ong>Processesong>.
ong>Caseong> ong>studiesong> on the symbolic and spatial dimension of the social services 1 .
by Lavinia Bifulco 2 e Tommaso Vitale 3
"We are at a moment . . . when our experience of the world is less that of a long life
developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects
with its own skin. … In any case I believe that the anxiety of our era has ong>toong> do
fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time."
ong>Theong> emergence of new acong>toong>rs and new problems is transforming social policies, in Italy and in
Europe. In very broad terms, these transformations can be summed up in the growing weight
acquired by three guiding criteria: integration, activation, localization. In their basic structure,
these three criteria mean that ong>toong>day social policies tend ong>toong> link different secong>toong>rs (assistance,
employment, local economic development, urban regeneration, environmental policies) and
their corresponding acong>toong>rs and operational areas, ong>toong> promote the auong>toong>nomy of the recipients
and ong>toong> make the most of the resources for action and governance that are active or attainable
at a local level (de Leonardis, 2003, see also Mingione, Oberti, Pereirinha, 2002).
With specific reference ong>toong> Italy, attention should be drawn mainly ong>toong> the reform of social
assistance passed in 2000 (law 328/2000) which, confirming the European trend, establishes
directives for change centring on: the promotional nature of the services and action;
integration between policies; co-operation between the different acong>toong>rs and institutions
(Bifulco, 2003; see also Benassi, Mingione, 2002). ong>Theong> trends connected ong>toong> these three
1 Paper written for the I ESPAnet Conference, Changing European Societies – ong>Theong> Role for Social Policy,
Copenaghen 13-15 November 2003. All comments are welcome.
2 Lavinia Bifulco is a professor assistant at the Department of Sociology and Social Research at the Università
Statale di Milano – Bicocca and a member of Sui Generis - Laboraong>toong>rio di Sociologia dell’azione pubblica. She
teaches Social Policy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .
3 Tommaso Vitale is a research fellow at the Università Statale di Milano – Bicocca and a member of Sui
Generis - Laboraong>toong>rio di Sociologia dell’azione pubblica. He teaches Social Service Planning. E-mail:
- 1 -
criteria are ambiguous and can develop in different directions. Nonetheless, taken as a whole,
they point ong>toong> the affirmation of an emphasis on the processes of social policies: what become
important are the processes through which the policies are designed and carried out, including
the processes by which recipients and citizens participate in the choices that regard them. ong>Theong>
re-ordering of the system of social services foreseen by the Italian reform of assistance takes
this direction, clearly centring on the conditions and organizational mechanisms that favour
interaction between the different figures involved. ong>Theong> weight, including the financial weight,
of the services seen as structures – i.e. as physical and organizational apparatus – tends ong>toong>
diminish, in favour of services and action undersong>toong>od as processes of social organizing 4 . ong>Theong>
organizational aspects of social policies are encouraged ong>toong> operate as processes of promotion:
processes of integration (between areas of expertise, measures, secong>toong>rs, acong>toong>rs) and processes
that make the most of the agency of those directly involved.
ong>Theong> aim of this paper is ong>toong> present a research carried out in the three-year period 2000-2002 in
two metropolitan areas, Naples and Milan, in order ong>toong> analyse if and how this change in the
regulation of social policies (ong>fromong> structures ong>toong> processes) takes concrete shape in the
organizational practices of the social services 5 . In order ong>toong> understand these potential
transformations, we observed the spatial dimensions of the social services and their potential
as generative facong>toong>rs. We thus attempted ong>toong> highlight the practices by which space is
organized, in the shift ong>fromong> structures ong>toong> processes. ong>Theong> theoretical hypothesis underlying our
research project is that the observation of the spatial dimension makes it possible ong>toong> identify
some of the conditions by which processes of terriong>toong>rial integration and empowerment of the
recipients take place, or fail ong>toong> take place.
ong>Theong> first part of the paper discusses organizational theory in order ong>toong> focus on the potential of
space ong>toong> act as a generative facong>toong>r and ong>toong> justify the specific attention given ong>toong> spatial variables
for the study of changes in social policies and services. In the second part, taking as our basis
the research carried out, we focus on the spatial dimension of the services, in order ong>toong>
4 From this point of view, two main patterns seem ong>toong> emerge: on the one hand the development of a way of
working based on projects, even personalized ones, and on the other the proliferation of market transactions
based both on the outsourcing of services ong>toong> profit and non-profit companies, and on the provision of cash
instead of services. Both patterns show the growing weight of contractual forms in the administration of social
policies in Italy.
5 ong>Theong> research is the result of collective work carried out at the Department of Sociology and Social Research at
the Università Statale di Milano – Bicocca, coordinated by Ota de Leonardis. As well as the authors, Massimo
Bricocoli, Laura Centemeri, Diana Mauri, Raffaele Monteleone all ong>toong>ok part in it. An initial presentation of the
project design and the main results were published in the volume edited by Lavinia Bifulco (2003). ong>Theong>
empirical analysis, using participant observation techniques, investigated fourteen cases. In Milan nine services
were observed: four residential services (two for children and two for the elderly) and five terriong>toong>rial services
(three for children and two for the elderly). In Naples five services were observed: two residential (one for
children and one for the elderly) and three terriong>toong>rial services (two for children and one for the elderly).
- 2 -
understand if and how a register of underlying attention ong>toong> processes emerges. Lastly, we shall
highlight some indications emerging ong>fromong> the empirical analysis, in particular as regards
practices of terriong>toong>rial integration and the empowerment of recipients.
1. ong>Theong> potential of space as a generative facong>toong>r
From the ‘70s onwards, growing importance was accorded in organizational theory ong>toong> an
approach aiming ong>toong> observe organizations not as structures, or machines, but as generative
processes. ong>Theong> procedural fabric of organizations and, in particular, its generative aspect are
highlighted by branches of study concentrating on organizational cultures and their cognitive,
symbolic and normative dimensions 6 .
In the approach we refer ong>toong>, the work of Weick (1979, 1995) is of particular importance, based
as it is on the concepts of “organizing” and “sensemaking”. Thanks ong>toong> these concepts, the
emphasis traditionally placed on functions and apparatus shifts ong>toong> processes of sensemaking
by which organizations create, know and recognize their own environments. By sensemaking,
organizations create environments and contexts for action, creating their own reality. From
this perspective, studying an organization means focusing on the relationships that develop
inside and outside it, the sense behind them and the “realities” that emerge ong>fromong> them.
This is the context that highlights the generative potential of space, a facong>toong>r that is normally
quite neglected in ong>studiesong> on organizations 7 . Like the other symbolic elements of
6 For over twenty years now, profound changes have been taking place in the theory of organizations. As de
Leonardis and Vitale (2001, 115) argue: “ a range of different approaches, without doubt heterogeneous, have
contributed ong>toong> challenging rational-instrumental logic – the so-called ‘paradigm of the goals’ – previously used
ong>toong> examine organizations, taking as their ong>toong>pics the symbolic, cognitive and normative dimensions of
organizational processes”. Research using these perspectives as a starting point has highlighted constitutive
aspects of organization that had been left in the shadows or neglected by the rational-instrumental approach.
ong>Theong>se aspects include: the “ambiguity” of the acong>toong>rs’ aims and intentions (March, Olsen, 1976); the prevalence
of the logic of “appropriateness” over the logic of rational choice (March, 1988); the wide range of different
strategies and reasons used by acong>toong>rs but not coherent with the aims of the organization (Crozier e Friedberg,
1977). Specific investigation of the cultural dimensions of organizations is based on different lines of study and
on a vast body of literature. We thus limit ourselves ong>toong> quoting some classic reference points: on the
relationships between cognition and organizational action, see Sims, Gioia et al. (1986); see also Weick (1995);
on the symbolic aspects, see Pondy et al. (1983); see also Alvesson, Berg (1992); on the institutional dimension
of organizations see Powell, DiMaggio eds. (1991); March, Olsen (1989). For an overview, see also Bifulco
7 More precisely, space was ong>fromong> the beginning of management and organization theory an important thus
neglected issue – just think of Taylor’s scientific management as spatial ordering or the Hawthorne experiments
as interior redesigning organizational space. Some important exceptions are the concepts of Goffman’s back- and
front stage (1959); Hedberg et al’s palace or tents (1976); Mol and Law’s conception of fluid space (1994);
Gagliardi’s aesthetic organizations (1996, see also Strati 1999). ong>Theong> theories of organizations have been
dominated by time-based views: change, stability, sustainability have all been discussed within the horizon of
time. ong>Theong> main issues have related ong>toong> processes unfolding in time. This leads ong>toong> a series of paradoxes. While
differing/contradicong>toong>ry things cannot happen in the same time, they can, nonetheless, in the same space.
- 3 -
organizations (language, rituals, technologies), space is a sign, a trace of the scaffolding of
meanings that gives direction ong>toong> organizational relationships. At the same time, space is a
medium for the processes of sensemaking: it helps ong>toong> create this scaffolding and thus exercises
pressure on the relations, shapes them and establishes their structures and the directions they
take 8 .
ong>Theong> generative power of space is centrally linked ong>toong> three dimensions. An initial dimension
relates ong>toong> the place of an organization in space, i.e. in a physical context, and ong>toong> the shape
assumed by the physical boundaries between organizations and contexts. A second dimension
relates ong>toong> the physical setting of the services: the characteristics of the spaces in which the
organization’s relations take place, the architecture and the criteria underpinning them. A
third dimension relates ong>toong> the artifacts (Gagliardi, 1990) such as the furnishings, images,
objects, decoration, equipment – material symbols or simply the non-discursive, material
aspect of organizations - which mark the context in the sense intended by Bateson (1976) and
which tell us what a place is, what sort of relations take place there, who we become when we
Throughout these three dimensions, space acts as the concrete and perceptible stuff of
sensemaking, contributing ong>toong> the creation of models of social organization (Bifulco, de
Leonardis, 2003). Its generative potential operates and produces recognisable effects in
different fields and in different ways, along a line ending in two opposite organizational
1. Organizations where the space is isomorphic ong>toong> that of ong>toong>tal institutions, i.e. which
segregate individuals in a separate world, reproducing the ‘object’ of their intervention
in their own likeness: psychiatric hospitals that reproduce the mad (instead of treating
them), prisons that reproduce delinquents (instead of recuperating them), institutes for
minors that reproduce problem children (instead of integrating them inong>toong> society).
Studies on ong>toong>tal institutions have thoroughly investigated their spatial dimensions and
Focusing on space, we are able ong>toong> understand more of the ambivalence and ambiguity of managing and
8 ong>Theong> approach ong>toong> the study of organizational space outlined here owes much ong>toong> the work of Pasquale Gagliardi.
His collection of essays (ed. 1990) and in particular his own contribution ong>toong> the volume (1990) are precious ong>toong>ols
when venturing inong>toong> an analysis of the symbolic and spatial dimension of organizations. It should also be pointed
out that this approach has considerable affinity with ong>studiesong> intending ong>toong> emphasise the physical dimension of
social life: see Douglas, Isherwood, 1979; Conein, Dodier, Thévenot (eds.), 1993. Of great interest are also
elaborations that apply this research perspective ong>toong> the study of organization in schools: see Derouet-Besson
1998, Normand 2000. In relation ong>toong> the social services, an initial formulation is ong>toong> be found in de Leonardis,
- 4 -
the way in which these operate, as well as the effects they produce. Two essential
references are the work of Erving Goffman (1961), who identified the importance of
artifacts in the rituals of mortification that take place in mental hospitals, and the
masterly work of Michel Foucault on Bentham’s Panopticon (1975), which sheds light
on the relationship between the form of the architecture and the form of power specific
ong>toong> the beginning of modern times. ong>Theong> influence of space on the pattern of institutional
self-reproduction is particularly evident when focussing on the physical configuration
of the relationship between inside and outside: the physical boundaries, walls, closed
doors, guarded or impossible ong>toong> enter. ong>Theong> image of the barrier wall well sums up
these configurations and their effects. ong>Theong> “barrier walls” remove the people inside
ong>fromong> sight and ong>fromong> social life, giving expression ong>toong> the action of segregation and
containment that defines these organizations, and confirming it. However, these
effects can also be linked ong>toong> the other spatial dimensions previously mentioned. ong>Theong>
design of the space inside certain psychiatric hospitals is, for instance, central ong>toong>
Rosenhan’s analysis of mental illness as “invented reality” (1973, see also
Watzlawick, Kreuzer eds., 1988). Furnishings, objects and the practice linked ong>toong> their
use are, as Goffman reminds us, a powerful means of stripping the self – something
that is perpetrated in mental hospitals.
2. Organizations with resilience, or capable of interacting with the environment,
transforming it and transforming themselves (Weick, 1993, see also 1976). Resilience
is an important requisite ong>toong> ensure that the generative potential does not congeal in the
channels of a circular reproduction of reality but, on the contrary, spreads ong>toong> create
new meanings, possibilities and contexts for action, i.e. a different reality (Lanzara,
1993; 1998). As for space, the image that best sums up the generative patterns and
effects coherent with this requisite is that of the “bridge-boundaries”. Bridgeboundaries
can be crossed both when entering and when exiting, facilitating exchange
between organizations and contexts and linking different worlds and organizational
fields (Wenger, 1998) 9 . Bridge-boundaries, being a field of action and interaction, are
in turn a requisite for processes of organization ong>toong> remain open and active and are thus
a resource for learning and changing in organizations (Bifulco, 1996).
9 We consider that an important contribution here is that by Michel Serres (1974), which is, however, widerranging
than the use we can make of it here, and deals with creative organization as the space in-between.
- 5 -
From what has been said up ong>toong> now, it can be seen that spatial variables are essential for an
understanding of the organizational changes in the social services. ong>Theong> theoretical background
previously outlined provides us with a set of conceptual ong>toong>ols for analysing the organizational
configurations of social policies and the spatial variables that influence them and the results
they generate. We shall now see how these conceptual ong>toong>ols can be used ong>toong> understand if and
ong>toong> what extent the shift ong>fromong> structures ong>toong> processes is taking concrete shape, coherently with
the regulaong>toong>ry indications ong>toong> be found in the European framework, as in the national context
mentioned in the foreword.
2. ong>Theong> Spaces of the Social Services for the Elderly and for Minors: case ong>studiesong> in Milan
As we said previously, the research focused on social services for the elderly and for children,
residential and terriong>toong>rial in Milan and Naples. Despite the terriong>toong>rial variations that
characterise Italian welfare, and which have not yet been modified by the implementation of
the recent reform regarding social assistance (law 328/2000), the local welfare systems in
Milan and Naples show common impulses ong>toong>wards transformation in their regulaong>toong>ry
structures. ong>Theong>se impulses cause tension in organizational balance and tend ong>toong> shape systems
of meanings and practice, although what actually happens in and between organizations does
not necessarily reflect the prevalent trends in policy. It is of some importance ong>toong> stress, here,
that our objective is not ong>toong> trace a smooth connection between policy trends and
ong>Theong> research project was thus formulated in order ong>toong> give priority ong>toong> the observation of
ambiguous combinations and controversial aspects. We therefore defined five groups of
variables for the observational reports used by field workers, all relating ong>toong> the spatial
dimension of the services.
A first group of variables regards the visibility of a service, its social image and the meanings
conveyed in the given context; a second group of variables insists on the configuration of the
physical boundaries of a service, on the extent of the passage inside-outside and vice-versa,
and the ways it operates; a third group of variables regards the functional configuration of
space, how and how far the latter expresses the specialist field of the service in question; a
fourth group of variables has ong>toong> do with the aesthetics of space, since the aesthetic quality of a
context, or its ugliness, has an important influence in processes which redistribute social wellbeing
or which, instead, confirm and reinforce inequality and social exclusion; lastly, a fifth
- 6 -
group of variables centres around plasticity (Micheli, 2002) and is linked ong>toong> conditions for
diversification, adaptability and resilience.
Visibility and Invisibility
We shall start with the physical configuration of the relations between services and contexts.
In the case of residential structures, this tends ong>toong> bear the stamp of separateness ong>fromong> the
surrounding context, non-accessibility and reciprocal unfamiliarity. We observe separate
worlds, which apply the logic of containment and segregation typical of ong>toong>tal institutions.
ong>Theong>re are two main variations:
1. In some cases the physical structures are visibile; more precisely, the walls are visible,
whilst what goes on inside them remains inaccessible and secret. ong>Theong> walls thus make
this role of containment and segregation visible and emphasise it. ong>Theong>se are separate
worlds that are clearly marked as such. Thus, for instance, a residential home for
children in Milan has high, brick walls, large but impenetrable windows, a main
entrance with a barrier. ong>Theong> meaning, which is forcefully expressed, is that of a place
of reclusion (Bricocoli, 2003b; Monteleone, 2003);
2. Other structures, instead, are invisible, because they are situated in areas that are not
much frequented, characterised by anonymous architecture, with hazy boundaries.
ong>Theong>y are not easily recognised and almost camouflaged in the city.
In both cases the relationship between structures and surrounding contexts is marked by
separateness. However, in addition, invisibility makes this separateness difficult ong>toong> recognise
and excludes the possibility of its becoming the object of attention and public debate.
In different forms, several terriong>toong>rial services are also marked by invisibility. In Milan, an old
people’s centre is housed in a highly visible, even imposing building, with a grand flight of
steps outside and an enormous, mushroom-shaped cover overhead. Yet it is difficult ong>toong> find
access ong>toong> the centre: the windowpanes are made of frosted glass, ong>fromong> outside not a trace can
be seen of what is happening inside. ong>Theong> centre attracts a large number of elderly people ong>fromong>
the neighbourhood; once across the threshold, noise and voices bear witness ong>toong> the intense life
going on inside. Nevertheless, this ‘life’ remains rooted in the service in question, indifferent
ong>toong> other possibilities for exchange and encounter with other services and other subjects,
isolated ong>fromong> the buzz of social life surrounding it (Centemeri, 2003).
- 7 -
Visibility is linked ong>toong> the physical boundaries of a given service. Boundaries are particularly
significant variables in the case if terriong>toong>rial services. Indeed, the more recent policy trends
emphasise the capacity of these services ong>toong> act within the terriong>toong>ry in an integrated manner,
combining fields of action and services. In this respect, apart ong>fromong> considerations of
visibility/invisibility, the physical conditions for the service ong>toong> be open and the relative
possibility of crossing the threshold ong>toong> enter or exit, have ong>toong> be taken inong>toong> consideration.
In most of the terriong>toong>rial services observed, traces of openness and accessibility are scarce.
Guarded access and closed doors are frequent. This is true of a service for the elderly but also
of the spaces used by a support service in schools for primary school pupils, both in Milan. In
both cases the boundary between inside and outside acts as a separating facong>toong>r, although the
services are apparently well integrated inong>toong> the terriong>toong>ry; the spaces of the service for the
elderly are in fact, “in the road” and the school support service is in the “oraong>toong>rio” (local
parish social centre) a traditional place for socialising (ibidem). Both services are actively
engaged in protecting access and therefore impenetrable and isolated. This protective action
can be associated with the fear of being invaded or the tendency ong>toong> select users as they come
in. In any case, the spaces are reserved exclusively for an exclusive public. ong>Theong> school
support service can be accessed only by children sent by the social services, included in a
particular age range and a particular category of hardship; only elderly people who pay the fee
can access the service for the elderly.
This configuration of spaces reveals and confirms the specialised nature of the service, which
is, indeed, explicitly declared by the operaong>toong>rs, and the correspondingly “exclusive” nature of
the users. ong>Theong> access ong>toong> the facility means access ong>toong> a specialist service which excludes
subjects, resources and experiences that are not pertinent ong>toong> it. Far ong>fromong> providing a wealth of
available or potential resources for action, the terriong>toong>ry is seen and used as an administrative
catchment’s area or a difficult frame in which ong>toong> operate (ibidem).
Instead, the physical characteristics of accessibility and permeability are normally associated
with an impulse ong>toong> invest in interaction between services and terriong>toong>ries and in exchange
between different subjects and experiences. Although they constitute a minority amongst the
cases observed, there are services that intervene actively on their boundaries ong>toong> facilitate
relationships, both incoming and outgoing. One example is ong>toong> be found in Naples, where a
play centre has recently been set up with premises in various neighbourhoods in the city, open
ong>toong> both “difficult” and ong>toong> “normal” children. ong>Theong> activities of the play centre take place both
inside and outside their own spaces, as in the case of the “Adopt a Square” initiative, in which
children, parents, voluntary workers and the staff of the play centre occupied a square
- 8 -
adjacent ong>toong> the centre’s premises, in order ong>toong> take care of it and make the most of it as a public
space (ibidem). In this case, the service is a space that is open ong>toong> the public and ong>toong> different
types of users, in theory ong>toong> all the citizens of the terriong>toong>ry; at the same time, the service also
looks outwards with a view ong>toong> spreading its activities and adding ong>toong> its relationships with the
ong>Theong> degree of specialization of a service is shown in the design of the premises inside and in
its functional configuration, and not only in its boundaries.
In general, when the relationship between the services and the surrounding contexts is
characterised by separateness, the inside setting is characterised by specialist areas: areas
devoted ong>toong> a single function (e.g. in an old people’s centre: the gym for gymnastics, the
kitchen ong>toong> eat in, the common room for social activities), separate areas for users and staff,
areas with several functions but for separate users, etc.. ong>Theong> emphasis placed on an area’s
specialist function tends ong>toong> reinforce the characteristics of a separate setting, and contributes
ong>toong> the isolation of the services ong>fromong> the surrounding social life. It’s generative power is
channelled first and foremost inong>toong> structuring the relations that take place there. A protected
residential structure with closed doors, specialist areas, common areas used only under the
supervision of specialised staff, generates relationships and practices of containment and a
population fit ong>toong> be contained. Amongst the residential structures observed, even the most
modern of them may reveal a spatial setting of this type: rigid separation inong>toong> areas that
confine the patient ong>toong> his/her own room (or rather bed) (Monteleone, 2003). Even areas
destined for social activity may, under certain conditions, be areas of containment
reproducing the user profile. This is what happens, for example, in a large residential structure
for the elderly in Milan, where the “bar” is a self-service machine, confined ong>toong> a tiny space
without windows and furnished with three small tables (ibidem).
Clearly, specialization in terms of space also reveals its generative effects in the terriong>toong>rial
services. A service designed as a specialised area for providing assistance – with the
receptionist’s desk, the waiting room, the offices for talks and the various desks assigning a
place ong>toong> everyone and defining who is who, etc. – generates relationships structured according
ong>toong> a single model, which is, indeed, that of assistance: a tie of dependency which establishes
those who suffer ong>fromong> some sort of incapability and those who have the task of defining and
treating this incapability. On the other hand, a service with “terrain vague” (La Cecla 1997),
that is space with functions that are not pre-determined, generates relationships that are open
- 9 -
ong>toong> surprises and casual encounters, generating opportunities for exchange between various and
dissimilar subjects (Bricocoli, 2003).
ong>Theong> objects, furnishings and decoration of social service premises are also important. Where
the surroundings are bare, anonymous and devoid of materials with which ong>toong> interact, the
sensorial deprivation they cause repeats the same pattern as that of ong>toong>tal institutions,
consisting of deprivation and the mortification of capabilities. This can also happen in the
case of a mandate for re-socialisation and social integration, as in the case of the children’s
Bare, ugly surroundings, equipped solely ong>toong> meet elementary needs and distinguished by a
few, anonymous objects, do, as we have mentioned, act as a form of deprivation which
mortifies people’s capabilities. However, even where there is a wealth of well cared-for
furnishings and decoration, people may only have a simulated experience of them, remaining
deprived of real experience. In some spaces the premises are richly furnished but the people
involved have slight dealings with the objects around them, since their ability ong>toong> use them,
their taste and their senses are hardly referred ong>toong> at all. Entitlements on objects and spaces – ong>toong>
choice and use them – is thus an important element for further improving the variable of
Some significant lines of investigation here come ong>fromong> the observation of an old children’s
home in Naples, housed inside a convent in the old city centre. In this case, a building that
came inong>toong> being as a place of seclusion has been transformed inong>toong> a space open ong>toong> the
neighbourhood; indeed, in some of the rooms the institute houses one of the previouslymentioned
city play centres (Monteleone, 2003). On the whole, as well as being open ong>toong> the
outside, the spatial setting is welcoming and there are open spaces inside, as well: the areas
where the children live are well cared-for, the kitchen is like that in a real house and there is a
large playroom where everything is accessible and can be used freely. Those living on these
premises have freedom (and possession) of movement, of space and in terms of the use of
objects; the structure defines itself and redefines itself as a space where people’s conditions
are transformed and where agency is promoted (Sen, 1992).
We shall dwell a little longer on the case of the children’s home in Naples. ong>Theong>
transformational power that it seems particularly blessed with develops along two axes. ong>Theong>
- 10 -
first axis is that of space: the spaces change according ong>toong> how the institute acts in its context,
and adapt ong>toong> objectives that evolve through time; the present structure is itself the fruit of the
transformation of a place destined for an extremely different use. ong>Theong> second axis regards the
more general patterns of organization and practice: we are ong>toong>tally removed ong>fromong> the patterns
of the circular and self-referential reproduction of an organization and find ourselves, instead,
in the presence of processes and strategies of organizing.
Adaptability and diversification are two ingredients of plasticity, a variable that indicates the
sum ong>toong>tal of processes through which spaces are transformed, responding ong>toong> the
transformations that they themselves induce in the field of action. Undersong>toong>od in this way,
plasticity leads us back ong>toong> the requisite of resilience previously introduced and is thus an
important facong>toong>r in processes of organizational change and learning.
Naturally, the other variables considered up ong>toong> now are deeply involved in plasticity: open or
closed doors, fluid or specialist areas, practices of using and re-using space. ong>Theong> combinations
of these different aspects may frequently not be linear. We may find services housed in rigid
settings, strongly linked ong>toong> the ground plan of the structure, which find it hard ong>toong> practise the
flexible and diversified use of space that they nevertheless pursue (for example in the choice
of decorations and furnishings). And again, a service that tends ong>toong>wards opening its doors
may, sometimes not only at the beginning, come up against the indifference or hostility of the
terriong>toong>ry in which it operates and may therefore be isolated and self-preserving despite itself.
Nonetheless, as in the case of the children’s home in Naples, services equipped with spatial
and organizational resilience tend ong>toong> operate as “building yards”, workshops for action that
then develops and spreads ong>toong> other places in the social context. Referring back ong>toong> the
literature, it is possible ong>toong> find conditions of this type even in the case of homes for the frail
elderly. ong>Theong>re are, in fact, services that respond ong>toong> the need for a home not through residential
institutions but by creating the conditions and capabilities necessary for living and organizing
in the urban fabric inhabited by those in question; apartments surrounded by services and
relationships that are chosen, organized, furnished and inhabited by those directly involved 10 .
3. ong>Theong> ong>Shiftong> ong>fromong> ong>Structuresong> ong>toong> ong>Processesong> and Capability Building.
We started out by remarking that the project for the re-ordering of social assistance recently
approved in Italy, in line with what can be observed at a European level, has opened up a
10 See Mauri (2003); see also Carlson (1999). It is worth emphasising a distinction that is decisive as regards
social quality (de Leonardis, 2002): the service is not the owner and manager of these premises but guarantees
the possibility of living there, including the possibility of social, health or sanitary assistance at home, if
necessary even for twenty-four hours a day.
- 11 -
“new season” for social policies in Italy (de Leonardis, 2003). A vital passage in this new
season is the the shift ong>fromong> the structures ong>toong> the processes for re-ordering the services and
social intervention outlined by the reform. Particularly in the areas of the services for the
children and the elderly, this new order explicitly tends ong>toong>wards criteria that incorporate this
shift, such as flexibility, diversification, listening ong>toong> and involving the recipients. In this way it
concentrates on the diversification and transformation of the services offered, as well as on
broadening the offer, and invests in several directions: ong>fromong> strengthening services provided
at home, ong>toong> the development of terriong>toong>rial services open ong>toong> the recipients and the community,
ong>toong> the upgrading of residential structures along community and family lines, ong>toong> experimenting
with economic contributions for the social reintegration of the recipients (Bifulco, 2003).
ong>Theong> intentions at the centre of the reform’s philosophy and the institutional devices connected
ong>toong> it obviously have ong>toong> come ong>toong> terms with the complexity and ambiguity typical of processes
of implementation or “translation” (Callon, 1986), giving rise ong>toong> a close-knit combination of
the old and the new.
Observation of spatial variables allowed us ong>toong> identify many traces of this intertwining. Above
all in children’s and old people’s homes. In many of these structures, which have indeed been
affected by “de-institutionalisation” measures for some years (de Leonardis, Mauri, Rotelli
1996), by “humanising” them and at the same time developing services at home, the logic of
separation and containment, typical of ong>toong>tal institutions, and their invalidating effects on
people, nevertheless continue ong>toong> exist. In other structures, the logic of separation and
containment is contrasted by the tendency ong>toong> make the most of people’s capabilities: space is
mapped out as a space for family or community life, and in any case is personalized; there is
the opportunity ong>toong> interact with the surrounding social environment.
Secondly, the terriong>toong>rial services. We have seen services of this type that seem ong>toong> be
inaccessible; services that separate people and remove them ong>fromong> social life; services that
stress their specialist nature, with the result that the deficits and lacks diagnosed become
realities (according ong>toong> the logic typical of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’) and produce
However, we have also seen services that invest in their internal relationships and those with
their social surroundings; services that attempt ong>toong> transform their boundaries, lowering the
threshold of access and populating them with acong>toong>rs and action; services that act as social
workshops and endeavour ong>toong> reverse the organizational mechanisms typical of assistance,
which tend ong>toong> generate dependence and chronic cases. In this sense, work on the service’s
- 12 -
space goes hand in hand with the work on capability building with the recipients of
assistance 11 .
To make the threshold of the services inong>toong> a bridge and avoid it being transformed inong>toong> an
impenetrable barrier protecting separate worlds, these social services attempt ong>toong> “populate the
boundaries”, investing in the outside area so that the outside invest in its services (Vitale,
2003). ong>Theong>y repair, convert and alter the premises of the ong>toong>tal institution and increasingly
endeavour ong>toong> reconstruct the relationships that link these areas ong>toong> the surrounding urban
context 12 . ong>Theong>y decide ong>toong> “care for and transform these contexts – generally hostile or
problematic – in order ong>toong> make them rich in relationships and capable of receptivity and
integration, thus able ong>toong> ong>toong>lerate the differences and contradictions that these benefits bring
with them” (de Leonardis, Vitale 2001: 126).
As stated previously, ong>fromong> an exploration of the issue of space we have acquired indications
as ong>toong> how, and ong>toong> what extent, transformational practices coexist along with conservative
practices or those actively engaged in adapting the new ong>toong> the old. From this perspective,
space has provided a sign of organizational cultures and practices. At the same time, we have
gained insights for identifying the specific importance of space with regard ong>toong> cultures and
practices and the difficulty or possibility of transforming them. Thus, ong>fromong> this second
perspective we have identified space as a facong>toong>r that creates meanings, that opens up or
impedes opportunities for action.
In conclusion, it still has ong>toong> be emphasised that the innovative organizational processes
observed – in first place those inspired by criteria of integration and capability building –
reveal a high degree of volatility. Organizational innovations can, in fact, only become
consolidated if they generate institutional learning in the local system of government, in the
standards and co-ordinating devices shared by the acong>toong>rs (Donolo 1997, Thévenot 2001). On
the other hand, these innovations have very slight margins for transfer or repetition: they do
not represent organizational models or services that can easily be extended in general ong>toong> other
terriong>toong>ries in the same format (Bricocoli, 2003a). However, it is the strongly incremental
11 ong>Theong> idea of empowerment as “capability building process”, ong>toong> make use of an important concept deriving ong>fromong>
Amartya Sen (1999, see also Donolo 2003), involves the ability of organizations ong>toong> combat and reverse the
invalidating conditions in which the users or clients of welfare invariably find themselves, and ong>toong> create agency.
ong>Theong> basic choice of a capability-building style is that of adopting a methodology of action whose final objective
is not that of distributing benefits in order ong>toong> fill a gap but of investing in making the most of the capabilities of
the welfare’s beneficiaries: daily practice involves a radical change in the style of assistance, no longer defining
the beneficiaries in terms of their weaknesses, needs and lacks (ong>toong> be defined and treated) but in terms of their
capabilities (ong>toong> be recognised and ong>toong> be developed by putting them ong>toong> use). See De Leonardis (2002).
12 As the president of one co-operative says, one parameter for evaluating the social quality of a service is “the
number of people who seek you out because they want ong>toong> collaborate on the organization of joint events.”
- 13 -
nature of these innovations that confirms that a register of underlying attention ong>toong> processes is
- 14 -
Alvesson, M., Berg, P. O. (1992) Corporate Culture and Organizational Symbolism, Walter
de Gruyter, Berlin
Bateson, G. (1976), Steps ong>toong> an Ecology of Mind, Chandler Publishing Company, Chicago
Beck, W., Van der Maesen, L., Walker, A. (eds.) (2002), Social Quality. A Vision for Europe ,
Kluwer Law, ong>Theong> Hague
Benassi, D., Mingione, E. (2002) Testing the Reddiong>toong> Minimo d'Inserimenong>toong> in the Italian
welfare system, unpublished paper for the International Labour Organization,
Bifulco, L. (1996), L’apprendimenong>toong> organizzativo nei servizi socio-sanitari. Pratiche di
cambiamenong>toong>, problemi e possibilità, Franco Angeli, Milano
Bifulco, L. (2002), Che cos’è una organizzazione, Carocci, Roma
Bifulco, L. (ed.) (2003), Il genius loci del welfare. Strutture e processi della qualità sociale.
Officina Edizioni, Roma
Bifulco, L., (2003) “La riforma italiana dell’assistenza: il disegno e le linee locali
d’implementazione”, in Bifulco, L. (ed.), pp. 29-43
Bifulco. L., de Leonardis, O. (2003), “La configurazione spaziale delle politiche sociali”, in
Bifulco L,, (ed.), pp. 44-60
Bricocoli, M. (2003a), “Abbassare la soglia. Organismi ricettivi e pratiche di rigenerazione
urbana a Vienna, Amburgo, Torino e Milano”, in Sostegno tra pari e servizi a bassa soglia,
Quaderno di Animazione Sociale, Edizioni Gruppo Abele, Torino
Bricocoli, M. (2003b), “Spazi dei servizi e spazi della città”, in Bifulco, L. (ed.), pp. 61-78
Callon, M. (1986), "Eléments pour une sociologie de la traduction. La domestication des
coquilles Saint-Jacques et des marins-pecheurs dans la baie de Saint-Brieuc", in L'Année
sociologique, volume 36, PUF, Paris.
Carlson , A. (1999), Où vivre vieux?, Fondation Re Baldovino, Bruxelles.
Centemeri, L. (2003), “Spazi e pratiche di integrazione nel terriong>toong>rio”, in Bifulco L., (ed.), pp.
Conein, B., Dodier, N., Thévenot, L. (eds.) (1993), Les objets dans l'action. De la maison au
laboraong>toong>ire. Raisons Pratiques, 4, Éditions de l'EHESS, Paris
Crozier, M., Friedberg, E. ( 1977), L’acteur et le système, Seuil, Paris
de Leonardis, O. (2002), «Social Markets, Social Quality and the Quality of Social
Institutions, in Beck, W., van der Maesen, Walker, A., eds., pp. 178-204
de Leonardis, O. (2003), “Le nuove politiche sociali”, in Bifulco L., (ed.). pp. 15-28
de Leonardis, O., Mauri, D., Rotelli F. (1996), “ Deinstitutionalisation, Another Way : ong>Theong>
Italian Mental Health Reform », in Health Promotion, 2, pp. 151-165
de Leonardis, O., Vitale, T. ( 2001), “Forme organizzative del terzo setong>toong>re e qualità sociale”,
in La Rosa M. (ed.) pp. 113-130
Derouet-Besson, M. C. ( 1998), Les Murs de l’école. Elements de réflexion sur l’espace
scolaire, Métailié, Paris
Donolo, C. (2003), Il distretong>toong> sostenibile. Governare i beni comuni per lo sviluppo, Franco
Donolo, C. (1997), L’intelligenza delle istituzioni, Feltrinelli, Milano
Douglas, M., Isherwood, B. ( 1979), ong>Theong> World of Goods, Basic Books, New York
Foucault, M. (1975), Surveiller et punir, Gallimard, Paris
Gagliardi,P. (1990), “Artifacts as Pathways and Remains of Organizational Life”, in.
Gagliardi P (ed.), pp. 3-38
Gagliardi, P. (ed.) (1990), Symbols and Artifacts: Views of the Corporate Landscape, Walter
de Gruyter, Berlin
- 15 -
Gagliardi, P., (1996) “Exploring the Aesthetic Side of Organizational Life”, in Clegg, S., et al.
eds., Handbook of Organizations Studies. Sage, London.
Goffman, E. (1959), ong>Theong> Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Anchor Books, New York.
Goffman, E. (1961), Asylums, Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co, New York
Hedberg, B., et al. (1976), “Camping on Seesaws: Prescriptions for a Self-Designing
Organization”, in Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 21, pp. 41-65.
La Cecla, F. (1997), Il malinteso, Laterza, Bari
La Rosa, M. (ed.), (2001), Le organizzazioni nel nuovo Welfare, Maggioli, Rimini
Lanzara, G. F. (1993), Capacità negativa, Il Mulino, Bologna.
Lanzara, G. F. (1998), "Self-destructive processes in institution building and some modest
countervailling mechanisms" in European Journal of Political Research, 33, pp. 1-39
March, J. G. (1988), Decisions and Organizations, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford
March, J. G., Olsen, J.P. (1976), Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations,
March, J. G., Olsen, J.P. (1989), Rediscovering Institutions, ong>Theong> Free Press, New York
Mol A., Law J. (1994), 'Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology', in
Social Studies of Science, volume 24, pp. 641-671.
Monteleone, R. (2003), “Le soluzioni residenziali: persistenze nelle trasformazioni”, in
Bifulco L., (ed.), pp. 79-93
Mauri, D. (2003), “Abitare”, in Bifulco L. (ed.), pp. 125-137
Micheli, G. (ed.) (2002), La nave di Teseo. La condizione anziana e l’identità nel
cambiamenong>toong>, Franco Angeli, Milano.
Mingione, E.., Oberti, M., Pereirinha, J. (2002), “Cities as local systems”, in Saraceno C.
(ed.), Social Assistance Dynamics in Europe, Policy Press, Brisong>toong>l
Normand, R. (2000), “La délégation aux objets dans le mobilier scolaire”, in Derouet J.-L.
(ed.), L’école dans plusieurs mondes, De Boeck & Larcier, Bruxelles
Pondy, L., et al. (eds.) (1983), Organizational symbolism, JAI Press, Greenwich (Conn.)
Powell, W.W., DiMaggio, P.J. (eds.) (1991), ong>Theong> New Institutionalism in Organizational
Analysis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Rosenhan, D.L. (1973), “On being sane in insane places”, in Science, 179, pp. 250-258
Sen, A. (1992), Inequality Reexamined, Clarendon Press, Oxford
Sen, A. (1999), Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Serres, M., (1974), Hermès 3. La traduction, Ed. de Minuit, Paris.
Sims, H.P., Gioia, D.A., et al. (eds.) (1986), ong>Theong> Thinking Organization, Jossey-Bass, San
Strati, T. (1999), Organization and Aesthetics, Sage, London
Thévenot, L. (2001), “Organized complexity: conventions of coordination and the
composition of economic arrangements”, in European Journal of Social ong>Theong>ory, n° 4, Sage,
Vitale, T. (2003), “Abbassare la soglia: confini e apprendimenong>toong>”, in Bifulco L., (ed.) pp. 136-
Watzlawick, P., Kreuzer F. (eds.) (1988), Die Unsicherheit unserer Wirklichkeit. Ein
Gespräch über den Konstruktivismus, Piper Verlag, München
Wenger, E. (1998), Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge
University Press, New York
Weick, K. (1976), “Educational Organizations as Loosely Coopled System”, in
Administrative Science Quarterly, 21, pp. 1-19
Weick, K. (1979), ong>Theong> Social Psychology of Organizing, Addison Wesley, Reading (MA)
Weick, K. (1993), “ong>Theong> Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: ong>Theong> Mann Gulch
Disaster”, in Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, pp. 357-381
Weick, K. (1995), Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage Publications, London
- 16 -