If one more person asks me what social entrepreneurship is I’m going to print a series of vests I can wear under my clothes emblazoned with the words “don’t ask me, I’m only an academic”.
It’s not only that I’m sick of being asked for a definition (which is always expected to be pithy and authoritative, as though I was being asked for the chemical symbol for copper). It’s also that I firmly believe it refers to a spectrum of practice which can only be properly understood through example.
Unsurprisingly, there is now a burgeoning sub-set of academic research dedicated to investigating exactly why social social entrepreneurship is such a slippery concept. The general gist of this research concludes that despite its essentially contested and ambigious nature, and despite the fact that social entrepreneurship is really a conglomeration of asymmetric and incompatible terms, social entrepreneurship is coherent enough to constitute a valid area of research. Hoorah!
What’s that? You think such research is self-indulgent academic navel-gazing? How rude.
Now I don’t like dismissing other people’s work (actually I very much do like doing that, but let’s suspend disbelief for a moment) , but I think such questions (and answers) aren’t hugely helpful to the sector as a whole – even its academic dimensions.
I would like to propose that a more edifying and illuminating avenue of research would explore the nature of social entrepreneurship itself. The academic literature to date has largely sought to define social entrepreneurship as a process – a means of achieving sustainable social change. The frameworks deployed to explicate social entrepreneurship have therefore focussed on the various components of social entrepreneurship: individuals (understood through psycho-social approaches) innovations (depersonalised and detached from individuals) or investments (very management science orientated).
Organisations, by comparison, have been relatively under-researched. This is despite a rich tradition of organisational studies (straddling sociology and anthropology) in the third sector. We don’t know very much about how socially entreprenuerial organisations behave, beyond the often destructive obsessive control of founding entrepreneurs. Neither do we know how such organisations understand themselves, particularly in regards to their distinction from mainstream business organisations or charities. Research has been heavily weighted towards the motivations and behaviours of founding individuals with a blind spot towards the organisations spawned from these moments of creation. Questions of how social entrepreneurship is practiced, both on an everyday, molecular level and in response to operational challenges (“failure”, competition, growth) are perhaps more urgent that abstract conceptual wrangling, but remain under-explored. There are related questions of how organisational behaviour itself shapes the discourse of social entrepreneurship, and whether it is such behaviour (as much as outcomes) which defines what the field is and how it is positioned vis-a-vis other entities in the social and mainstream economy.
One of the obvious reasons is that such research is hard to conduct; access, ethics and the like come into play and are potential deterrants. So is the time investment – empirical research of this nature demands long term commitment to the field. Nonetheless, if academic research into social entrepreneurship is to evolve beyond a preoccupation with process to a consideration of practice, this is one of the roads it will have to go down.