Antonin Wagner (sociologist)

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Antonin Wagner presenting his retirement lecture

Antonin Wagner, in the early 1990's, was a Swiss sociologist who played an important role in the formation of the International Society for Third Sector Research (ISTR). He was present, when a group of scholars involved in the study of organizations outside the confines of the state and the market met 1992 in Budapest, the capital of a newly emerging democracy in Central Europe. They agreed that ‘third sector’ was the most widely accepted concept underpinning the study of such organizations and that the abstract term represented a convenient substitute for the many other, culture-bound labels, such as ‘nonprofit’, ‘nongovernmental’, ‘independent’, ‘voluntary’ and the like in use at the time. Hence, the ad-hoc Board Meeting decided to name the research organization it was about to launch ‘International Society for Third Sector Research’. As Chair of ISTR’s Program Committee, Wagner contributed to the success of the first two international conferences, which took place 1994 in Péc (Hungary) and 1996 in Mexico City. There, Wagner was elected as the second of only two 4-year presidents (1997 to 2000) which helped the newly created organization find its footing in a global arena. An important step towards reaching this goal was made, when Wagner invited ISTR to hold its third international conference 1998 in Geneva (Switzerland), the home of many international nongovernmental organizations.


Wagner’s birthplace is Lucerne, a quaint city in the central part of Switzerland, where he was born on October 23, 1937, into a working-class family, then consisting of his father Anton (a railroad worker), his mother Cécile (born Imbach) and sister Hedwig (born 1935). The two Wagner siblings represented only the third generation (paternal grandfather born in 1865, father born in 1897) of proud Swiss citizens, counted since 1848, when Switzerland was formed (with Napoleon’s help) as a modern state and the world’s second liberal democracy after the United States. However, due to the depressed situation of the Swiss economy during the 1930s and the following war years the promises of liberal citizenship did not immediately come to fruition for the Wagner family in what socio-economically was a class-divided society.

With this kind of a background, it was—in the Swiss context of the mid-1900s—all but foreseeable that as a young adult ‘little Anton’ (the meaning of Wagner’s first name ‘Antonin’) would engage in an impressive, albeit meandering, educational trajectory. At the age of 21, he joined the Collège de Philosophie and Theology of the Dominican Fathers in La Sarte (Huy, Belgium). There he was, in addition to becoming acquainted with the medieval philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, also exposed to the existentialism of Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Heidegger. After having concluded his philosophical studies with a Master Thesis on Jasper’s philosophy of history, Wagner moved on to the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), where the Dominican Fathers—not unlike those in La Sarte—run a theological program, again based on Thomas Aquinas. But instead of fully immersing himself in a somewhat outdated theological tradition, Wagner used Scholasticism as a stepping stone of sort for a Master Thesis, which appeared in print in an abbreviated form under the title Ist das Wort ‘Gott’ tot? (Is the term ‘God’ dead?) (Wagner, 1966/67). In his analysis he followed the Anglo-Saxon approach of melding theology with the philosophy of language, at a moment when Time Magazine in its issue of April 8, 1966, provoked its readership with the question printed on its cover in large red letters “Is God Dead?”.

After a couple of years dedicated to the Catholic ministry dealing with poverty in an urban environment, Wagner felt the need to complement his philosophical/theological approach to the world with a more science-based perspective. Following this impetus, he signed up in 1965 for a Program in Economics at the University of Zurich, focusing on public finance. His doctoral thesis (Wagner, 1971), which he submitted in 1971, demonstrates that Wagner’s writing was not any longer inspired merely by the Bible, but also by the Declaration of the Peoples of America (1972), launched 1961 in Punta del Este, "(t)o reform tax laws, demanding more from those who have most, to punish tax evasion severely, and to distribute the national income in order to benefit those who are most in need, while, at the same time, promoting savings and investment of capital".

Soon after having defended his doctoral thesis, Wagner moved for his post-doctoral studies in 1973 to the United States. As a visiting scholar in residence at the Center of Research for Economic Development (CRED) at the University of Michigan he began working on a newly emerging issue at the time, to which he wanted to dedicate his habilitation thesis (a second doctoral thesis required in many European countries for teaching at the university level): the impact on the Third World of the system of flexible exchange rates that high-income countries began applying, once the Bretton Woods monetary system had collapsed in 1971. Following his sojourn of two years in the United States Wagner returned to Switzerland and submitted his habilitation thesis (Wagner, 1977) to the University of Zurich; after its acceptance, the Department of Education of the Canton of Zurich granted him the venia legendi (the right to lecture) in the domain of economic policy, with a focus on fiscal and development policy.

Professional Career

This pinnacle of Wagner’s meandering educational trajectory represented also the beginning of his professional career. After so much exposure to academia in different countries, languages and disciplines, he felt the need to break out of the ivory tower of the scientific endeavor and ready ‘to change the world’, albeit without completely giving up his affiliation with the University of Zurich. His dream of becoming a ‘pracademic’, a combination of practitioner and academic, was fulfilled, when in 1974 he was asked to accept the position of Dean (Rektor) of the Zurich School of Social Work. This career change brought with it not only the hoped-for exposure to practical involvement with social issues, but also a new focus of research, away from the ‘Third World’ in the South, towards the ‘Fourth World’ of the poor living within societies of high-income countries of the North.

This new perspective had an impact on Wagner’s thinking as an economist in that the instrumental way, in which reason is being used in what also has been termed a ‘dismal science’, began giving way to a more intentional use of this ultimate human faculty. It is this shift towards a different understanding of economics that in the course of his 25 years of Deanship at the Zurich School of Social Work guided Wagner on a path towards third-sector research. Not unlike Rawls (1999) with his concept of public reason, he argued in favor of state and non-state actors setting goals to improve the living conditions of the poor and to make having agency a reality for them. This new orientation of his research became apparent early on in his deanship in a textbook on social policy (Wagner, 1985a) and later in his role from 1989 to 1995 as Chair of the Swiss National Research Program 29 Wandel der Lebensformen und Soziale Sicherheit (Changing Forms of Life and Social Security). Furthermore, this new way of thinking led to a series of publications in international journals, focusing on the size, role, and impact of the third sector in Switzerland (Wagner, 1985b; Wagner, 1990) as well as on the particular division of labor between the public and the third sectors in a country known for its federalist structure and the autonomy it grants to local communities (Wagner, 1992; Wagner, 1995).

The New School: Reconstruction through Citizenship

In 1999 The New School in New York offered Wagner a teaching/research position at the Milano School of Management and Urban Policy. What led to the invitation was the reputation as an expert for the global Third Sector, Wagner had built for himself in his role as Program Chair for ISTR’s first two Conferences and later as the organization’s President from 1997 to 2000. Reading about The New School’s legacy of societal reconstruction through citizenship made Wagner aware of the privilege that was bestowed upon him at his birth as a citizen of a liberal democracy. This insight persuaded him that he should use his teaching at The New School to enlighten the students. As they often saw themselves as white or black, as immigrants or natives, as religious or secular, but rarely had a civic identity, he tried to attract their attention to the awesome rights, but also the binding obligations, that come with the institution of citizenship. On extended strolls through the city of New York and inspired by the sentence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that “(h)ouses make only a town, citizens make a city”, he began to reflect about the original meaning of citizenship as a local institution. It is based on the willingness of the city’s inhabitants to acquiesce to having their personal autonomy and their free acts—insofar as they impact their neighbors—curtailed by government in an equitable way, so that life in proximity of one another becomes possible. In his courses Wagner translated this self-reflection into a conversation with the students, in the course of which they explored together the relationship between local and national citizenship, understood as the principle that underpins countrywide social policy and nonprofit management.

The twofold interaction he entertained, between New York and himself as an inhabitant of the City on the one and between students and himself as a teacher on the other side, raised doubts in Wagner concerning the approach ISTR (himself included) took in the early 1990s to focus on organizations insofar as they form a sector apart from the government and the market. Rather, he began emphasizing their role as intermediaries between the state and its citizens as well as between the government as the ultimate form of collective action and individuals exposed to the market place. However, it was not Third Sector Research as such that made Wagner uncomfortable. Unlike others, who considered this research paradigm as ‘semantically American’ and as ‘beginning to unravel’ (Taylor, 2010: 5, 6), Wagner, as an economist, remained indebted to it. However, what he took issue with was the paradigm confusion that in his opinion had occurred beginning in the new century, as substituting for ‘third (or ‘nonprofit’) sector’ the term ‘civil society’ had become a common usage of language. It was this fashion of treating concepts (such as ‘third sector’ and ‘civil society’) as mere labels that motivated him in a recent article (Wagner, 2012) to initiate a critical discourse about scholarship relating to intermediate organizations. In it he argued that ‘third sector’ and ‘civil society’ are not mere labels of language, but distinct, albeit mutually enhancing, research paradigms: one (addressing decentralization of public administration) representing a positive, the other (dealing with delegation of power from the state to its citizens) a normative strand of research relating to what he termed ‘intermediate organizations’.

To get a more complete picture of the methodological issues at stake Wagner raised, the editor of the journal Voluntary Sector Review, in which the article was published, invited a group of researchers with international reputations to provide commentaries in a later issue (Vol. 4, Nr. 3). As is often the case, when scholars defend the ‘turf’ of their expertise, the reaction to the critical discourse Wagner had launched, was mixed. In his response to these reviews Wagner (2013) was careful not to play the two research paradigms against each other, but rather to emphasize complementarities, insofar as shifting back and forth between the two paradigms can provide for a fuller understanding of intermediate organizations and thus induce a more encompassing managerial practice. But he also insisted that using terms such as ‘third sector’ and ‘civil society’ as interchangeable labels risks turning paradigm shift into paradigm confusion. The blurring of boundaries, he warned, will reduce the capacity of recognized scientific achievements to provide effective solutions for management and policy.

An image of Magritte's "Pipe" used by Wagner for teaching that a non-profit is not in itself an organizational reality, but only an image—a linguistic representation—of such a reality

In addition to participating with his publications in a lively scientific discourse, Wagner was also interested in harnessing his insights when teaching in the classroom. His course of Nonprofit Management for beginning students provided ample opportunities to deal with intermediate organizations by using different epistemological lenses, while at the same time searching for complementarities between diverse perspectives. This was especially important when passing in his management course from the modus ordinandi of categorizing organizations) to the modus operandi of managing organizations. To make himself understood, he used to show the students a slide of René Magritte’s painting La trahison des images (The treachery of Images). It shows a pipe (to smoke) with the sentence written underneath ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (‘This is not a pipe’). Based on this slide he explained to them that ‘nonprofit organization’ is not in itself an organizational reality, but only an image—a linguistic representation—of such a reality. Like the world of organizations in general, nonprofits in particular cannot be judged as effective or ineffective, as trustworthy or untrustworthy, as accountable or unaccountable based on its linguistic appearance, but only when tested, tried out and dealt with by managing them.

At the end of the spring term 2014 Wagner stepped down from his teaching position at the New School. The photo exhibited at the beginning of this text shows him delivering his retirement talk in the lecture hall, decorated in the early 1930s by the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco with four frescos dedicated to the ideal of universal brotherhood of men. Embracing this theme Wagner admonished his audience of executives, faculty and students to always stay true in teaching and learning to The New Schools' centennial legacy of societal reconstruction through citizenship. In recognition of his services rendered to the university the Board of Trustees conferred on June 13, 2014, to Antonin Wagner the title of Emeritus Professor of Management.

Literature quoted in the text

Declaration of the Peoples of America (1972) in: Collection of documents, legislation, descriptions of inter-American organizations, and other material pertaining to inter-American affairs, compiled by Barry Sklar and Virginia M. Hagen, Washington, U.S. Govt. Print Office.

Rawls, J. (1999) ‘The idea of public reason revisited’, in J. Rawls, The law of peoples, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: pp. 129–80.

Taylor, R. (ed.) (2010) Third sector research (published in cooperation with the International Society for Third Sector Research), New York, NY: Springer.

Wagner, A. (1966/67) ‘Ist das Wort Gott tot?‘ (Is the term ‘God‘ dead?), in: Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie, Vol. 13/14, pp. 93-98.

Wagner, A. (1971) Steuerprobleme der Entwicklungsländer (Tax Problems of Developing Countries), Zürich: Schulthess Polygraphischer Verlag.

Wagner, A. (1977) Verwaltete Währung: Krise und Reform des internationalen Währungssystems unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Entwicklungsländer (Managed Money: Crisis and Reform of the International System of Exchange Rates and its Impact on Developing Countries), Reihe Bankwirtschaftliche Forschungen, Vol. 39, Bern and Stuttgart: Verlag Paul Haupt.

Wagner, A. (1985a) Wohlfahrtsstaat Schweiz (Welfare State Switzerland), Bern and Stuttgart: Verlag Paul Haupt.

Wagner, A. (1985b) ‘L’évolution du budget sociale de la Suisse’ (The evolution of the social budget of Switzerland), in: Revue française des affaires sociales, Vol. 39, Nr. 4, pp. 39-57.

Wagner, A. (1990) ‘The Nonprofit Sector in Switzerland: Taxonomy and Dimensions’, in: The Third Sector: Comparative Studies of Nonprofit Organizations, edited by H. K. Anheier and W. Seibel, Walter de Gruyter, pp. 303-312.

Wagner, A. (1992), ’The Interrelationship Between the Public and the Voluntary Sectors in Switzerland: Unmixing the Mixed-Up Economy’, in: Government and the Third Sector, Emerging Relationships in Welfare States, edited by B. Gidron, R.M. Kramer and L.M. Salomon, Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1992, pp. 100-119.

Wagner, A. (1995) ‘Reassessing Welfare Capitalism. Community-Based Approaches to Social Policy in Switzerland and the United States’, in: Journal of Community Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 45-63.

Wagner, A. (2012) see Bibliography subpage

Wagner, A. (2013) see Bibliography subpage