Sub-theme 1.2. Social opportunities and social entrepreneurship

Sub-theme 1.2. Social opportunities and social entrepreneurship

Analysis of the literature in this field reveals a theoretical and an empirical gap; this sub-theme aims to address both. At the theoretical level, most studies to this date have relied on an individual level of analysis, drawing on traditional entrepreneurship theories and overrating the role of heroic individuals as the new drivers of societal change. Yet, social entrepreneurship often proves to be a collective endeavor involving various stakeholders in the community and beyond. Hence, other approaches, taking into account these collective dynamics, must be taken into account.

First, the “supply-side” part of nonprofit theories explores the rationale and motivations of setting up nonprofit organizations. An interesting contribution here is the connection between the personal motivations of potential entrepreneurs and the expectations of stakeholders (beneficiaries, funders, etc.) in demand of the creation of a social enterprise. The interactions between demand and supply may help to understand social entrepreneurship in a more macro and multi-actor context. Contra the traditional discourses in the field, it seems more realistic to view social entrepreneurship not as a unilateral endeavor initiated by “enlightened” individuals but as a collective process through which various actors committed to solving a particular social issue share resources and information.

A second related literature to which social entrepreneurship deserves to be better connected is community enterprise/entrepreneurship. The insights of this perspective seem particularly useful to better account for the role of community not only in identifying and exploiting societal opportunities, but also in participating in its strategy and governance in the longer term.

As for the empirical gap, it appears that few studies have empirically informed both the characteristics of social entrepreneurs and the processes through which they identify and exploit social opportunities. This sub-theme aims to contribute to the empirical research in this field. Given the paucity of empirically-grounded literature on these issues, this sub-theme adopts a qualitative and exploratory methodology, using cases to build theory.

Opportunity identification processes are examined in two fields: renewable energy sources and work integration. These two fields are contrasted in terms of their institutional context, age and entrepreneurial dynamics. In each field, a longitudinal study is to be led, consisting of regular semi-directed interviews with a small number of entrepreneurs. Interviews with support structures and document analyses at both the entrepreneurial and the field level complete the empirical material, especially on the institutional context of social entrepreneurship. Empirical data in these two fields is to be collected in Belgium, Denmark, Italy and the US, thanks to the input of the international partners. The exploratory study aims to formulate propositions on the processes of opportunity identification and exploitation in the context of social entrepreneurship. Suggestions are to be formulated as to how these propositions can be tested in other fields of social entrepreneurship and in other countries.