September 26, 2018

What is the purpose of entrepreneurship research?

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A bit of an academic melting pot, we entrepreneurship researchers have backgrounds that range from management science and economics through to sociology and ethnography. Consequently, we bring a rich and diverse set of approaches to the study of businesses and those who start them, run them and harvest or close them. In both research and teaching we tend to use the term ‘entrepreneurship’ to describe these activities, as do the policy-makers. This entrepreneurship varies enormously though, from that which disrupts and revolutionises markets, through to the piece workers and contracted labour. Yet, despite all our knowledge and expertise, the focus of studies remains relatively narrow, with all these different perspectives focused on one type of entrepreneurship – the type governments want to encourage and support, the type with the potential to innovate, to grow and to create jobs and new sectors and reinvigorate industries.

Perhaps this focus is linked to the reasons why we conduct research in entrepreneurship. There are our institutional reasons of course – we have to publish for REF and we have to be active contributors to the international research community to define ourselves as ‘successful’ academics. And there are the intrinsic reasons – we like researching, we like discovering. There is also ‘the mission’ – the idea that the knowledge we create is somehow informing the communities of interest – the policy makers, the practitioners, the supporters of enterprises and entrepreneurship. The focus on the business growers and innovators therefore seems reasonably sensible when you consider the contribution we might make to this part of the sector; we are contributing knowledge that will help to support and grow our economy and that will develop wealth and make social contribution.

But I wonder if we have got so focused on the contribution that might be made amongst the growers that we have forgotten the wider mission of those who engage in research in social studies (and business is a social study, only humans in societies do business). What about criticality? What about challenge? Knowledge and education in wider society are largely based on hegemonic, normative and western ideas about entrepreneurship as an activity conducted to create financial value and wealth by individuals. The research community knows this is simplified and largely inaccurate; we know people start firms for a whole variety of financial, social and personal reasons. Yet there is little research engagement with outcomes beyond those with financial and economic value-adding potential. But the social outcomes can also be substantial – consider the disproportionately high rate of entrepreneurship amongst disabled people for example, and the potential outcomes for that group in terms of personal and social identity, the use and development of skills, as well as financial measures including the cost benefits of enabling economic participation.


At Edinburgh Business School we have as wide a set of backgrounds amongst our business research team as any. Keen to contribute, we are investing time and resources in helping those from the school and the university with highest knowledge and education to develop economically contributory entrepreneurial firms. But we are also committed to inclusive study of business and entrepreneurship. The reality in western democracies at the moment is that while entrepreneurship can be the vehicle to innovation, transformation and wealth, it is also the work context of lowest wages and greatest exploitation. Since we are complicit in the idea that self-employment and business can be called entrepreneurship, we have a duty to include inspection of that which may, inconveniently, not fit the rhetoric of the hegemonic wealth-generating entrepreneur. To that end we have ongoing studies of the lived experiences of being self-employed or in business and living in poverty. We are also conducting studies of the related policy environment, as those without employment are pushed to start firms, often with no resources, low skills and in highly contested markets. These studies require inspection from diverse perspectives, and indeed, a critical lens. In addition, unlike most other studies in business, these explorations are made challenging by focusing on ‘hard to reach’ groups. If you are seeking information from people who consider their businesses and their lives to be successful they tend to be quite forthcoming. This is not the case with those who do not, and this includes those scratching a living from entrepreneurship. In that respect, any hints or tips or even referrals would be gratefully received.

So, the central message of this short piece? We are enormously advantaged in entrepreneurship studies by the diversity of scholars amongst us. Equally diverse is the entrepreneurship community. Anyone can start a firm. And all kinds of people do and do so for all kinds of reasons and with all kinds of outcomes, some of them great, but some of them not so great. There is much to explore in entrepreneurship studies, from how to stimulate and support the potential growers through to how to support entrepreneurship as a work context for those who seek to sustain rather than grow their firms, including how this may vary by demography. There are also some inconvenient truths in entrepreneurship though, and this part of the story needs told – and challenged – too if we are to really develop knowledge of use to policy, practice and social life.