Reconstructing Social Enterprise 1: The Critical Turn in Social Enterprise Research

This post is the first in a series of four posts about the Reconstructing Social Enterprise seminar series:

… reviewing the extant literature there was an uneasy feeling that many social entrepreneurship scholars have been keen to reiterate political and media narratives with no or only minimal critical interrogation. As a result, the scholarly debate of social entrepreneurship purports the view that social entrepreneurship is a good thing and that, by extension, the more social entrepreneurs the better.

This quote from the summary version of Pascal Dey and Chris Steyaert’s paper, The Critical Turn in Social Enterprise Research,  sets the scene for both the paper and Reconstructing Social Enterprise as a whole. The ESRC seminar series brings together academics with an interest in social enterprise, policy people from social enterprise support organisations and social enterprise practitioners to address: “a reality gap between the idealised notion of social enterprise presented in academic and policy literature, and the day to struggles of those practising social enterprise.

Dey and Steyaert’s paper, as presented at the first seminar in Northampton in November 2012, maps four possible critical approaches designed to bridge that gap before considering the wider questions of how social entrepreneurship ‘might contribute to an alternative social, economic and cultural order’ and how research might support that.


The first critical approach to be considered is ‘Mythbusting’ which “probes whether what is casually said about social entrepreneurship (read myths) actually corresponds with reality.

There are the grandiose claims made for social enterprise: “Common mythical themes pertain to the way social entrepreneurship is related to, for instance, system-wide social change or to the sweeping eradicating of the intricate problems of our era (Cukier et al., 2011).

One specific myth mentioned in the presentation is Resource Dependency Theory (RDT) , which “suggests that social organizations switch to commercial activity to compensate declining government grants and/or private donations“. Current research suggests that few actually do so (successfully).

Equally important to a myth-busting approach is to talk about “things which are not mentioned” causing myths to develop as a result: “Emblematic in this regard is the issue of failure: failure has to this day remained under the radar of researchers (despite there being notable exceptions… ) which in turn fosters the (mythical) impression of social entrepreneurship being infallible or at least far more successful than it actually is.

The authors note that: “the hope of mythbusters is that the sacrifice of the myths of social entrepreneurship will lead to an incremental approximation of the truth“. It’s an approach that involves cutting through the crap.


The second critical approach considered is ‘Critique of power effects’ which is based on the idea that, having cut through the crap, the mythbusters may not arrive at ‘the truth’ but instead find themselves confronted with some more crap or, to be more specific, the dominant worldview and the powerful people who propagate it.

These critiques consider social entrepreneurship as a: “grand narrative or ideology which, in its usage by societal elites and powerful actors (Mason, 2012), presents dominant cultural and historical values and world-views as self-evident and natural, while rendering possible alternatives (read more egalitarian,  participatory, democratic, etc. values and vistas) unthinkable.

So, ultimately, it less important to ask whether ideas about social entrepreneurship are true than to consider how powerful people are using the overall idea of social entrepreneurship to support their political and economic agendas. 

To take one of the biggest examples, many governments are currently cutting public spending and opening up markets in public service delivery, while encouraging social organisations to become more business-like. According to this critique, social entrepreneurship, as defined by those governments, supports that agenda and helps to close down the space for that agenda to be challenged.

What’s social about social entrepreneurship? 

The third critical approach considered is ‘Normative critique’. These critiques reflect on social entrepreneurship  “in terms of whether and how it contributes to the common good, the good life or an inclusive sociality at large.

They question: “the ostensible win-win relationship between the two terms ‘social’ and ‘entrepreneurship’.” and consider whether it’s right to assume that: “that the single best way of solving the ills of the market is through the market.”

Some normative critiques ask whether the market-based approaches suggested by social entrepreneurship threatens the democracy of the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors. In doing so, they have:  “gone as far as to dispense with the term ‘social entrepreneurship’ for it seems to undermine the democratic spirit of the social sector (Eikenberry, 2009) or simply because it ingests the social: the “social in social entrepreneurship is too weak, and entrepreneurship is too managerialised (Hjorth, forthcoming).

“The witches-brew of actual practice”

The fourth critical approach considered is ‘transgression’. This approach is: “premised upon the assumption that the best way of practicing critique is to study carefully the witches-brew of actual practice (Brady, 2011), i.e., the complex, often paradoxical and ambivalent ways in which practitioners go about their everyday lives.

The critiques explore the ways that people actually running social enterprises and other voluntary sector organisations deliver their own critique of dominant ideas about social entrepreneurship by not being the people that politicians and sector leaders say they are, and not doing the things that politicians and sectors say they should do.

Transgression “testifies to the fact that the Discourses, grand narratives or ideologies of social entrepreneurship which inter alia demand that practitioners in the social sector become more flexible, risk-taking, perseverant, innovative, etc. are not blindly adopted by those working in the field (Curtis, 2008).

This approach could enable researchers to question, for example, the extent to which the fact that such a small percentage of social enterprises manage to ‘scale-up’ is actually down to the fact that – despite all the political pressure and hype to the contrary – many of them don’t want to.

These critiques do not assume that practitioners reject dominant ideas about social entrepreneurship in totality: “Whilst transgression might take the form of down-right resistance, it might also involve more nuanced, elusive reactions such as the ongoing struggles and ideological dilemmas taking place at the intersection of power and local action, where practitioners might simultaneously endorse and perpetuate certain spaces of constraint while rejecting others.

It seems unlikely that many social enterprise and voluntary sector practitioners would see their work as being an active rejection of ‘grand narratives or ideologies of social entrepreneurship’ but in running organisations with different priorities, structures and approaches to doing business to those promoted by those in power they are promoting a (possibly partial) alternative approach.

For example, give the dominance of the heroic model in social entrepreneurship theory, social entrepreneurs can provide the basis for a transgressive critique by being hard-working, not especially charismatic people who quietly get on with improving the situation in their local area.

Provocation and intervention

The paper argues that critique of social entrepreneurship is an ongoing process that: “needs to be approached not as a project (which has a clear beginning and ending) but as an open-ended endeavor (Derrida, 2001).

Ultimately, critique can itself play an active role in delivering social change: “the pressing task ahead is to move the critique of social entrepreneurship away from an exclusively contemplative and scholastic mode towards one whose objective is to provoke and intervene into how social entrepreneurship is both understood and practiced.

The authors suggest two possible ways to make this happen. One is by doing more ethnographic research, looking at how social entrepreneurs operate on a day-to-day basis, and interacting directly with end users of social enterprise products and services to find out that social enterprise affects their lives.

This authors point out that: “ethnography’s intimate fieldwork has critical potential in the way it gives voice to those people and perspectives who/which are conventionally not heard in academic discourse (such as beneficiaries but also social entrepreneurs; Hervieux et al., 2010).

Another method of provocative intervention in social entrepreneurship is action research. Like ethnography, action research into social entrepreneurship involves working directly with social entrepreneurs to see things from their perspective. The key difference being that: “A central component of action research is that it is not a priori clear where the research journey will lead or what sort of outcomes it will produce.

The result is: “Whilst the research trajectory is largely shaped by the participants, the responsibility of researchers is to explore how they can support a world becoming different.” So researchers work with social entrepreneurs and other participants to develop alternative approaches to social problems.

Is there an alternative?

For the authors: “The last and arguably most challenging task suggested here is related to the question how social entrepreneurship might contribute to an alternative social, economic and cultural order.

While social entrepreneurship is often heralded as an alternative (better) way of doing business, the authors suggest  that, in most cases, it is the same way of doing business and, at best, addresses the symptoms of economic failure rather than the causes: “at closer examination it appears more apt to suggest that social entrepreneurship is chiefly in line with a deeply uncontroversial version of capitalism (Boje & Smith, 2010).

In conclusion the authors argue that researchers: “… should not only identify the more radical examples of social entrepreneurship (i.e. those which do not immediately translate into support for the capitalist project) but actively create collective spaces and open platforms where such endeavors can be connected with the aim of articulating and negotiating (alternative) reality accounts and identities.

The second post in this series is published here.


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5 responses to “Reconstructing Social Enterprise 1: The Critical Turn in Social Enterprise Research

  1. Michael Roy

    You’ve summed that up exceptionally well, David. I can see a career in academia for you if you ever decide to jack in the social enterprise malarkey 😉

    Will I see you in Oxford next month? And you will have to come to Glaagow in December too, of course…


  2. Beanbags admin

    Thanks! Not sure about academia, although the regular pay and international conferences held in popular holiday destinations are both quite appealing! I’ll be in Oxford and hopefully Glasgow as well.


  3. Pingback: Impact, Wise Investing? | One Page Writer

  4. thanks David – was struck by the quote that opens your closing section – “The last and arguably most challenging task suggested here is related to the question how social entrepreneurship might contribute to an alternative social, economic and cultural order.“ owing to it being a call to arms that has been circulating throughout the wider co-operative movement for some decades now…
    the Society for Co-operative Studies are doing some interesting initial work around this in the UK, but there may be some merit in looking at the parallels to reconstructing social enterprise that are within the co-operative movement globally to gain some weighted perspectives?


  5. Pingback: Reconstructing Social Enterprise 2: Refusing the Market | Beanbags and Bullsh!t

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