On Developing Comparative Nonprofit-Sector Theory: A Reply to Steinberg and Young, and Ragin

Lester M. Salamon, Helmut K. Anheier

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Responding to comments on "Social Origins of Civil Society," an article published in this issue of Voluntas, this article focuses on three critical issues that underlie cross-national theory building and theory testing in the field of nonprofit studies: the issue of definitions, the challenge of operationalizing key theoretical concepts, and the nature of the tests available to verify results. Regarding the first, the article defends the structural-operational definition used in The Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project against suggestions by the commentators that it either be expanded or narrowed, arguing that the alternative is either to broaden the focus beyond what is manageable or to make the bask yardstick vulnerable to changing political and policy shifts - a sure prescription for confusion. Regarding the question of operationalization, the article concedes that better measures of some key features of prevailing theories might be imaginable, but, since few of these are available, it cautions against letting the best become the enemy of the good in cross-national nonprofit theory testing. Finally, the article finds, in suggestions that multivariate techniques be used in testing various nonprofit theories, confirmation of its central argument that a contextual analysis of the sort embodied in the authors' "social origins" approach is needed to come to terms with the reality of the nonprofit sector cross-nationally. Taken together these comments underline the need to continue the kind of systematic data gathering and theory testing that the authors have undertaken, to utilize an interdisciplinary approach, and to link the study of the nonprofit sector to social analysis more generally.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)271-281
Number of pages11
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1998


  • Civil society
  • Comparative history
  • Comparative methodology
  • Cross-national comparative analysis
  • Democratic theory
  • Nonprofit theory
  • Social origins theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Strategy and Management


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