Making sense of the social
Social entrepreneurship has grown as an area of practical and academic importance. There is a general consensus that what social entrepreneurs do is important to solving grand sustainability challenges or tackling intractable social problems. Whilst no doubt the case in a number of contexts, there is at least anecdotal evidence that the activities and impact of social entrepreneurs is not always as idealistic as this narrative suggests. For example, a number of media outlets report the failure of PlayPumps, a technology deployed in a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to access clean drinking water through a children’s playroundabout, which did not take into account diverse community dynamics, leading the solution to fail.
The dominant approach in the literature to date has focused on the many ways in which the‘social’ can be tackled through a diverse range of ‘entrepreneurship’ approaches. However, inthis paper, we propose that the ‘social’ is not well understood and we should not assume it’sneutrality in such entrepreneurial endeavours. To uncover the different approaches to the‘social’, we draw from the theoretical framing of social justice developed by Amartya Sen and the literature on sensemaking. In doing so, this paper helps unpack the differing ways in which social entrepreneurs make sense of social problems.
We conducted 15 in-depth interviews with Chilean social entrepreneurs. They were selected based on their unfamiliarity with the social context they were engaging with to help understand the diverse ways in which entrepreneurs can engage with such environments. Through our analysis, we discovered 2 types of approaches to sensemaking social problemsas aligned with Sen’s perspective of social justice.
In the first type of approach, labelled an arrangement perspective, social entrepreneurs doconformist problematizing, with closed parameters of solution space with institutional partners that align themselves with their goals. First, conformist problematizing involves identifying a social problem which is defined by the institutional context (e.g. a reduced local government service). The social entrepreneur is non-adaptive to new information about that problem so the parameters of the solution space remain closed. As this is an approach to solving an institutional problem, the key collaborative effort for the social entrepreneur is byaligning with those institutions who provide support and legitimacy to their efforts.
In the second type of approach, labelled a realization perspective, social entrepreneurs doreflective problematizing, with open parameters of the solution space with partners through acollaborative approach. Through reflective problematizing they are always considering thenature of the social problem they’re attempting to address because the parameters of the solution space are open through their co-creation and collaborative behaviour.
We also identify a third sub-approach to sensemaking social problems which involves socialentrepreneurs following the first type of approach before experiencing a ‘critical juncture’that suddenly reorients their thinking towards the second type of approach. We believe this may be social entrepreneurs realizing that their initial approach does not capture the complexity of real-world social problems.
From a practical perspective, our findings imply that the good intentions of social entrepreneurs are not sufficient to understanding how social problems can be tackled. Whilst our findings do not demonstrate any disastrous outcomes, we believe there is reason to treat the perceived outcomes of social entrepreneurship with a degree of caution. Indeed, it seems reasonable that policy-makers, investors, incubators, suppliers, clients and others scrutinise the approach to social problems as much as the business model or entrepreneur pursuing the solution to it.
Our findings shed light on the literature on social entrepreneurship by showing that we should not take for granted the intentions of social entrepreneurs, under the assumption that all such individuals/firms behave the same way towards social problems. Our theoretical framing allows us to consider the different ways in which entrepreneurs embed approaches to social justice within their framing of social problems.