Contradictions in social enterprise: do they draw in straight lines or circles?

SEANOR, P., BULL, M. and RIDLEY-DUFF, R. (2007). Contradictions in social enterprise: do they draw in straight lines or circles? In: Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship Conference, Glasgow, 7-9 November 2007.


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This paper provides a critical perspective on the discourse surrounding the concept of social enterprise. The paper shifts the lens away from numbers to consider how actors see themselves as social enterprises. The authors make sense of the foundations upon which the concept of social enterprise and entrepreneurship is ‘drawn’ – quite literally – by considering linear models and diagrams that analyse social enterprise on a continuum between non-profit (mission) and profit (market) orientation.

A great deal has been made of the success and growth of social enterprise. The imagery in the literature reflects an emphasis on growth resulting from ‘the rising tide of commercialisation of non-profit organisations’ (Dees, 1998) with the result that the CBI now includes over 50,000 organisations in a social enterprise sector (SBS, 2005). Despite reports of rapid growth, there is awareness that ‘take-up of social enterprise model … is patchy and fails to reflect the enthusiasm with which it is discussed’ (Stevenson in Westall & Chalkley 2007). We ask why?

A methodological approach involving visual drawings by actors reveals stories and sensemaking experiences of social enterprises. Open conversations enabled the researchers to gain deep insights that would not have been as insightful through a quantitative approach.

The key findings suggest: Firstly, participants report tensions when pursuing social and economic goals simultaneously. Secondly, whilst some welcome opportunities that are emerging, others perceive substantive threats to the third sector. Thirdly, Social enterprise emerges as a diverse and heterogeneous movement located at the boundaries of public, private and voluntary sectors. At each boundary, different constitutional forms and practices are seen.

In conclusion, it is argued that the linear perspective itself gives the impression that there is a ‘patchy’ take up of social enterprise. A heterogeneous perspective reveals that theory and policy development is patchy, rather than social enterprise practices.

The unique contribution this research paper offers is within the depth of enquiry and insight into the actual practices provided from those within the field. The critical perspective is taken from the literature and discussed in the settings of the actors in the field which provides practitioners, business support agencies and academics with a different level of empirical investigation that captures an originality and narrative that has barely been explored before.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Uncontrolled Keywords: social enterprise, empirical research, visual data, theoretical models, drawings, sensemaking
Research Institute, Centre or Group - Does NOT include content added after October 2018: Sheffield Business School Research Institute > People, Work and Organisation
Departments - Does NOT include content added after October 2018: Sheffield Business School > Department of Management
Depositing User: Ann Betterton
Date Deposited: 12 Nov 2008
Last Modified: 18 Mar 2021 14:04

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