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Organizing Sustainably: Challenges and opportunities of cooperatives as an organisational alternative (Advert Reference: RDF22/BL/EIS/WEBSTER)

   Faculty of Business and Law

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  Prof Tony Webster, Dr Ziad Elsahn  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Recent global crises have ignited debates among academics, practitioners, and policy makers around how capitalism can be organised in a more humane way. Several streams of literature have investigated how firms can create long-term value by being equally concerned with economic, social, and environmental goals. Scholarly attention has so far mostly focused on social enterprises and hybrid organizations to understand how they manage the competing goals of achieving their social mission while remaining profitable. A more radical and well-established alternative that is based on democratic ownership and governance principles are cooperatives, which despite their significant contribution to world economy, have only received limited attention by organisation and management scholars.

A cooperative is an “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.” (International Cooperative Alliance, 2021). Because cooperatives governance structure and organising principles rest on democratic and shared control, ownership and decision making, they are often portrayed as suitable for strengthening local resilience, generating employment, and being mindful of environmental concerns, thus leading to more responsible forms of capitalism. Yet, it is argued that in competitive environments, these cooperative principles are difficult to uphold thus leading cooperatives to either degenerate into business-as-usual or hold to their cooperative values at the expense of their economic sustainability. But examples of successful cooperatives such as Mondragon in the Basque region in Spain, and Zespri in New Zealand show that they can achieve both economic and social sustainability. Yet our understanding of how cooperatives can develop organisational structures and processes to manage these competing goals remains limited.

This research will focus on how cooperatives manage the tensions emanating from pursuing economic sustainability while upholding their cooperative values. For example, how can cooperatives embed the competing market and cooperative values in their structures and processes? How can they manage the resultant identity conflicts emanating from these competing values? How can cooperatives internationalise while remaining true to their cooperative values? These questions can be addressed through either qualitative or quantitative methodologies, although the former can be more suitable. Part of the focus should be on the North East of England, and a comparative approach with case studies from other European regions is desirable. Developing policy implications for the UK at the regional and national levels should be one of the objectives of the study.

This project is supervised by Prof Tony Webster and Dr Ziad Elsahn.

Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere or if they have previously been awarded a PhD.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF22/BL/EIS/WEBSTER) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 18 February 2022

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Funding Notes

Each studentship supports a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2021/22 full-time study this is £15,609 per year) and full tuition fees. UK and international (including EU) candidates may apply.
Studentships are available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £9,365 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities.
Please also read the full funding notes which include advice for international and part-time applicants.


Webster, A. (2019). Co-operation and Globalisation: The British Co-operative Wholesales, the Co-operative Group and the World Since 1863. Routledge.
Webster, A., Shaw, L., & Vorberg-Rugh, R. (Eds.). (2016). Mainstreaming co-operation: An alternative for the twenty-first century?. Manchester University Press.
Wilson, J. F., Webster, A., & Vorberg-Rugh, R. (2013). Building Co-operation: a business history of the Co-operative Group, 1863-2013. Oxford University Press.
Webster, A., Wilson, J. F., & Wong, N. D. (2020). Commerce with a bit of ethics or ethics with a bit of commerce? The conundrum of British consumer co-operation 1863-1990. Journal of Management History.
Webster, T., & Kuznetsova, O. (2018). Harnessing Research for a 21st Century Co-Operative Movement. Journal of Co-operative Studies, 51(2), 37-42.
Webster, A., Kuznetsova, O., Ross, C., Berranger, C., Booth, M., Eseonu, T., & Golan, Y. (2021). Local regeneration and community wealth building–place making: co-operatives as agents of change. Journal of Place Management and Development.
Siedlok, F., Elsahn, Z., & Callagher, L. (2021). Managing Internationalisation Tensions in Producer Cooperatives. AIB Insights.
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