I realise now what’s been irking me about current research on social entrepreneurship. There’s a lot of it, but I haven’t read anything that’s vaguely idealistic.
Technical scuffles about the definition of social entrepreneurship wholly miss the point about the concept; they have some token value in academia’s echo chamber, but they don’t come close to discussing what matters: values and ideals.
Social entrepreneurship is whatever you want it to be. For neo-liberals it is a way of responsibilising citizens to self-organise their welfare needs in the absence of a retreating state. For those on the centre-left (of which I count myself) it is about identifying solutions which the private, orthodox third and public sectors have failed to, for a range of institutional and sector-specific reasons. It is not a question of replacing the state and universal provision in health, education and welfare, but combining the best of third sector heart, private sector head, and public sector mission to solve specific problems for specific groups. It’s about human-centred problem solving grounded in collaboration as much as competition, with an emphasis on sustainable rather than immediate impact. It’s about trailblazing a new mode of business practice which understands that financial value creation doesn’t necessarily have to come at the expense of social and environmental value.
There’s no elegant way to compress that into a discourse-defining statement, and I would resist it anyway. What it is, though, is an attempt to elevate social entrepreneurship research above the drudgery of techno-legal skirmishes over definition. Instead of a futile attempt to understand the what of social entrepreneurship, why don’t we spend a little more time exploring the why?