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What We Mean When We Say ‘Entrepreneurialism’

ENTREPRENEURIALISM, noun.

/ˌɑːn.trə.prəˈnʊr.i.ə.lɪ.zəm /


Entrepreneurialism: It’s Ugly but It Gets You There


Does the term ‘entrepreneurialism’ strike you as peculiar? You are not alone. At first glance, the expression may come across as awkward and doesn’t seamlessly integrate into our everyday language. Management scholar Peter Armstrong (2005, p. 8) speaks of it as a “rather ugly term” and the political scientist and public intellectual Robert Reich felt the need to clarify its meaning by distinguishing “product entrepreneurialism” from “paper entrepreneurialism,” with only the latter being responsible for manipulating the economy (Reich, 1983, pp. 140-172)





As a concept in scholarly research, entrepreneurialism is even more puzzling. In many instances, it is used to describe the ability to start new businesses and thus synonymously with entrepreneurship (Gillen, 2016; Gladstone & Lee, 1995; Stabrowski, 2017). However, since approximately the 1970s, the applications of the term entrepreneurialism have broadened markedly. Rather than describing solely the process of starting new companies, entrepreneurialism also refers to entrepreneurial attitudes, entrepreneurial mindsets, and a way of thinking and acting in the world. In the words of anthropologist Carol Freeman (2014, pp. 6, 16), “the very premise of entrepreneurship as fundamentally an economic enterprise began to shift toward a broader concept of entrepreneurialism, related but not limited to the fact of owning and running a business […] it has become a mode of labor and a way of life.” Other scholars confirm that “[t]he entrepreneur has turned into a metaphor that now refers to a vast number of entrepreneur-like social practices” (Marttila, 2012, p. 2) and into “a normative model of social life” (Irani, 2019, p. 1).


In other words, entrepreneurialism frames how we look at and act in the world.

But even among scholars who use entrepreneurialism in this way and as distinct from entrepreneurship, several complementary and some competing understandings continue to coexist. Some scholars use the term entrepreneurialism to foreground policy in their analysis. Amin & Malmberg (1994, p. 229) observe “a general shift in emphasis at national policy level, from the philosophy of interventionism to entrepreneurialism”. Peter Armstrong (2005, pp. 8-9) suggests to use entrepreneurialism specifically “to signify that the promotion of entrepreneurship is, above all, a policy.” He sees in this use of entrepreneurialism a way to ditch the conceptual baggage associated with competing terms, most notably ‘discourse’, which he considers too broad for scholarly research (p. 7).


Caliskan and Lounsbury (2022) and Bröckling (2016) disagree. They prefer to think of entrepreneurialism as a discourse and find it important that researchers start unpacking the mechanisms by which it operates. For them, “the discourse of entrepreneurialism” is defined as “a style of thinking and economic intervention that invites actors to pursue their interests by drawing on a limited notion of agency that locates itself in an imaginary economic universe independent of institutions, broad social contexts, and identity considerations.” (Caliskan & Lounsbury, 2022, p. 43). While these scholars are not opposed to describing entrepreneurialism also as an ideology, they find this “tortured” (Caliskan & Lounsbury, 2022, p. 46) concept inferior to discourse.


Other entrepreneurialism scholars are less troubled by the intellectual history of ideology. Eberhart et al. (2022, p. 23) introduce entrepreneurialism precisely as “a new ideology” that informs “what we believe is appropriate work and what rewards should accompany it” (p. 13). Bromley et al. (2022) even use the compound “entrepreneurial ideology” to describe the power of entrepreneurialism and how it spread widely in multiple sectors and geographic locations. Indeed, the linguistic link between entrepreneurialism and ideology is indisputable. As Michael Freeden (2003, p. 1), a political scientist specializing in the study of belief systems, points out: “When people hear the word ‘ideology’, they often associate it with ‘isms’ such as communism, fascism, or anarchism.” As the ‘ism’ of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurialism lends itself to an explicit analysis as ideology.


 

Fundamentally, all concepts with the suffix ‘ism’ serve as a means of categorizing knowledge and behaviors. They frame a debate “by reducing complex ideas or practices to fit under one heading” (Kurunmäki & Marjanen, 2018, p. 273). According to historian Reinhart Koselleck (2004, pp. 80, 248-249), ‘isms’ are also concepts that since the mid-19th century successfully incorporated future expectations. Being future-oriented, they became useful for articulating positions that can politically mobilize people. Concepts ending in ‘ism’ “share in common the facts that they only partially rest upon accumulated experience, and that the expectation of the coming time is proportionally greater the lesser such experience becomes.” Entrepreneurialism certainly fits that description. It is “not something that exists but something that ought to be brought into existence.” (Bröckling, 2016, p. 20). Like other ‘isms’, it serves as an imagination or vision of the future that can mobilize people and legitimize ways of thinking, speaking, and acting in the world.


Over time, the practices that entrepreneurialism foregrounds have increasingly gained acceptance. Entrepreneurial activities are portrayed as a motivation for individuals to undertake risks and reap rewards from them. Poverty and unemployment are redefined as a deficit in entrepreneurial initiative, while certain welfare measures become suspicious for promoting anti-entrepreneurial behavior (Armstrong, 2005). Under this wide umbrella, entrepreneurialism permeated multiple sectors and geographies. Research on countries as diverse as Germany (Bröckling, 2016), India (Irani, 2019), China (Lindtner, 2020), and Barbados (Freeman, 2014) show varieties of entrepreneurialism – even if not all authors use the term entrepreneurialism to describe the phenomenon.


A more consistent use of entrepreneurialism, however, would have many advantages. The underlying idea of entrepreneurialism as an ideology responds to calls to contextualize entrepreneurship and situate its study within wider societal institutions rather than focusing on the traits of individuals (Lubinski et al., Forthcoming; Wadhwani et al., 2020; Welter, 2011; Welter & Gartner, 2016). While it is fair to say that, at present, there is a certain semantic promiscuity to entrepreneurialism, we think that the elasticity of the term is in many ways part of its success story and should become an object of analysis. We hypothesize that ‘playing the entrepreneurship card’ performs ideological functions that scholars can identify, trace, and explore. As part of this agenda of ideology critique (Ogbor, 2000), the very elusiveness of the term is key to understanding it. Paraphrasing a famous Volkswagen commercial from the late 1960s, we think about entrepreneurialism as “[i]t’s ugly, but it gets you there.” And, as scholars, we are curious to learn how entrepreneurialism does it and where exactly it is getting us.

Guideposts: Nationalism as Analogy

While entrepreneurship scholars are starting to distinguish between entrepreneurship and entrepreneurialism, there are limited options at present for how to study them. We propose to find inspiration for a future research agenda in an analogy.


We think about the relationship between ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘entrepreneurialism’ as analogous to the more firmly established relationship between ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism.’

When political scientists or historians use the term ‘nation,’ they usually refer to the status of belonging to a nation-state or national community, which can be established by law, custom, or cultural association. ‘Nationalism,’ by contrast, is defined as a set of beliefs and symbols expressing the identification with a given national community (Hobsbawm, 1992; Smith, 2010). Similarly, we think about ‘entrepreneurship’ as the person of the entrepreneur or the process of entrepreneuring, whereas we use ‘entrepreneurialism’ to describe the ideology of entrepreneurship or, in other words, a set of beliefs, rituals, and symbols related to or derived from entrepreneurship.


Next, we look to the expansive and mature scholarly literature on nationalism to find inspiration for the research field of entrepreneurialism. Specifically, we have identified four such inspirations from nationalism research that we respectively describe as (i) entrepreneurialism as imagined community, (ii) historicizing entrepreneurialism, (iii) invented traditions of entrepreneurialism, and (iv) entrepreneurialism as political power play.


(i) Entrepreneurialism as Imagined Community


In a classic of nationalism research, political scientist Benedict Anderson (1983) eloquently argues that nations are not natural or objective entities but are socially constructed and imagined by their members. They exist as “imagined community.” Even in very small nations, members will never all know each other. Yet, there is a bond between them; “in the minds of each other lives the image of their communion.” (p. 49) Anderson suggests that this shared identity is fostered through cultural symbols, such as language, literature, and rituals, as well as the media. Specifically, he points to the role of print media in the spread of national consciousness, as printed materials like newspapers and novels create a sense of simultaneous belonging among diverse individuals and, over time, produce expectations for what a nation should look like. For Anderson, this led to the emergence of “a ‘model’ of ‘the’ independent nation state”, which became available for pirating” (Anderson, 1983, p. 81). It was composed of several universal elements that scholars were able to describe – a unified national interest, a delimited national space, and the ideal of self-determination – and helped connect and mobilize different emerging nation states in their quest for independence (Lubinski, 2023a).


We find it worthwhile exploring a research agenda that sees entrepreneurialism as similarly socially constructed and with the potential for creating bonds of belonging. Existing studies of entrepreneurialism that relate this ideology to nation building (Irani, 2019) or class consciousness (Freeman, 2014) would suggest this line of inquiry—but it may even go beyond these specific cases. For many people buying into the values of entrepreneurialism as a guiding principle for ordering and evaluating life choices, there may be a community aspect to the associations attached to entrepreneurialism. Did entrepreneurialism create such community and if so, how? Are specific medias involved in promoting such bonds between like-minded individuals? And which actions and behaviors does this community value and enable, and which are being stigmatized and defamed?


Looking at nations and nationalism as an analogy also raises the question of how universal the ideals of entrepreneurialism are. Jones & Spicer (2009, p. 2) remind us that “thinking about entrepreneurship has been remarkably lacking in creativity and innovation. Entrepreneurship has become a mantra that has worked, paradoxically, by repetition of the same.” This suggests that entrepreneurialism, like nationalism, has universal elements that travel between communities, sectors, and geographies. Is there an entrepreneurialism ‘model’ that is available for reproducing across the globe, potentially becoming as successful as the ideal type of the nation state that Anderson describes? And if so, can we distinguish entrepreneurialism’s universal elements from its idiosyncratic local adaptations to better understand the phenomenon of entrepreneurialism in its specific and varying contexts? Indeed, effectively placing its subject within a historical context has been one of the most notable achievements of nationalism research, as we will discuss in the next section.


(ii) Historicizing Entrepreneurialism


One of the great strengths of nationalism research is how successfully it has historicized its object of study. Scholars have argued that nationalism was the result of a “complex ‘crossing’ of discrete historical forces” (Anderson, 1983, p. 4). Nationalism emerged at a specific moment in time and became a rallying cry for a number of late industrializing countries and many colonial and semicolonial territories (Geyer & Bright, 1995; Smith, 2010). While each region and country of the world had an idiosyncratic nationalist movement, shaped by local developments and conditions, their similar structure and competitive logic were also part of a larger transformation of the world. Nations around the globe not only observed but also supported each other and bonded in their quest for national independence, giving meaning to their and other’s quest by using the ideology of nationalism.


Much of what we have learned about entrepreneurialism so far suggests that entrepreneurialism, too, resulted from a unique crossing of discrete historical forces. Reviewing the existing literature on entrepreneurialism, there is a strong consensus that entrepreneurialism emerged in the context of neo-liberalism. “The glorification of the entrepreneur”, argue Bromley and colleagues (2022, p. 56), “is particularly concentrated in recent decades – since the 1980s – and thus emerges during the triumphal ‘neo-liberal’ period in global society following on the end of communism.” Neo-liberalist approaches have in common a critique of excessive government, suspicious of political intervention and in favor of free market forces. In the words of Foucault (2008, p. 116) “a state under the supervision of the market rather than a market supervised by the state.” The neoliberal agenda – from rolling back the state and welfare systems, to celebrating the market, marketizing the public sector and education, and transferring responsibilities from governments to individuals – seems to naturally merge with the ideal type of the entrepreneur and what we perceive and value as entrepreneurial action. The prevailing view among scholars is, thus, that the surge in entrepreneurialism was not a spontaneous shift in public sentiment but rather the result of a neo-liberal political agenda.


While this link to neo-liberalism may seem obvious, it is also limiting as an approach because it elucidates one ideology by relying on another, collapsing entrepreneurialism and neo-liberalism into one another and assuming for both that their contours are clear and relatively static. Indeed, the contrast between a past that predated neo-liberalism and a present that is consumed by it, is one of the repeatedly used explanatory factors for entrepreneurialism. Many scholars make historical and temporal arguments to illustrate how entrepreneurialism rose to prominence – in work relations (Eberhart et al., 2022), UK policy decisions (Armstrong, 2005), state support for self-employment (Bröckling, 2016), or nation building (Irani, 2019), always closely connected with the advancement of neo-liberalist governments and policies. While this approach has worked well for identifying entrepreneurialism as a phenomenon, it is less useful for exploring the mechanisms by which entrepreneurialism works, how it integrates into specific sectors, cultures, and geographies, or how concretely it engages temporality and connects past, present, and future.


Nationalism researchers can once more serve as an inspiration for these questions because they have carefully distinguished between the ideal type of the nation and its various local manifestations. Entrepreneurialism scholars may be well served to similarly engage with the many different versions of neo-liberalism that arguably created the breeding ground for entrepreneurialism. As Bröckling (2016)’s work exemplifies, there are important variances between different versions of neo-liberalism. Ordo-liberals in Germany advocated for competition as “a means of establishing order and exercising control in the narrow sphere of a market economy … but not a principle on which a whole society can be built” (Röpke, 1950 [German original: 1942], p. 181). By contrast, the US Chicago School points to competition as a driver of human behavior and is thus inclined to expand this logic to other areas of life.


A more detailed exploration of how entrepreneurialism emerged in different contexts may help scholars understand varieties of entrepreneurialism and how they evolve over time. One desirable outcome would be to distinguish the ideal of entrepreneurialism and the many locally colored manifestations and evolutions. Another outcome is a thorough historicizing of the phenomenon of entrepreneurialism and a convincing periodization. We believe that capturing entrepreneurialism as a phenomenon requires us to see it as a response to unique historical situations or challenges, while remaining curious about how its core ideas were then transplanted and merged with other political agendas.


(iii) Invented Traditions of Entrepreneurialism


Seeing an ideology as the product of a specific moment in time, however, does not mean that proponents would not relate it to a suitable historical past, often an invented one, as historian Eric Hobsbawm (1983) shows. In the influential work on “Invented Traditions”, Hobsbawm and his colleagues demonstrate how ideologies, such as nationalism, often establish a link to the past and use history as a “legitimator of action” (p. 12). Hobsbawm argues that many elements of national identity are not ancient customs passed down through generations but are deliberately crafted or “invented” to serve specific social and political purposes.


Did entrepreneurialism, too, become legitimized by references to a (possibly invented or re-articulated) past? Or did proponents of entrepreneurialism use methods of distinction to separate their present from prior historical eras and actions? There are many empirical settings that could be worth exploring in light of entrepreneurialism’s invented traditions. For example, the entrepreneurship journal Journal of Business Venturing, in its inaugural issue, started with an article by then US president Ronald Reagan (1985) titled “Why this is an Entrepreneurial Age”. In it, Reagan outlined an earlier “entrepreneurial age” in the period between the Civil War and the Depression, roughly 1865 to 1930, and then asked its readers to get inspired by his depiction of this time to “think boldly” and imagine the world some forty years ahead. Noting the ‘rhetorical history move’ (Lubinski, 2023b; Suddaby et al., Forthcoming) of mobilizing the past to envision the future, we think it necessary to ask:


Which thinkers or bodies of knowledge did entrepreneurialism bring along on its rise to prominence? Which histories make entrepreneurialism attractive or unattractive to people? And which processes of invented tradition can help us better understand entrepreneurialism and its rhetorical power?

(iv) Entrepreneurialism as Political Imagination and Power Play


Finally, we find it useful to think of entrepreneurialism also as a constructed imagination of entrepreneurship, similar to the processes described by Edward Said in his work Orientalism. Said introduces imaginations of ‘the Orient’ as a collection of knowledge with a specific history and an established vocabulary, ultimately creating an “accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness” (Said, 1979, p. 39). He argues that Orientalism is not merely a scholarly field studying the East but is also a form of cultural and political domination. By serving as an ‘ism’, or umbrella term, for a set of assumptions, stereotypes, and cultural representations, Orientalism was a way to exoticize the East and justify colonialist and imperialist endeavors, without ever making the process look political. Said’s work helped scholars understand Orientalism as a political power move. The thinking that Said exposed separated ‘East’ from ‘West’, ‘us’ from ‘them’, while making this consequential distinction seem like a natural proposition.


Understanding the political nature of seemingly neutral and natural language is also at the core of entrepreneurialism research. Like Orientalism, entrepreneurialism is not just a scholarly field studying business creation or venturing. It is also a way of marking certain behaviors, objectives, and articulations as more important or more opportune than others. Entrepreneurialism created a grid for filtering knowledge that has become widely accepted. As a lens for looking at the world, entrepreneurialism understands the self as a flexible entrepreneurial project that can never be fully realized and thus remains eternally in formation (Bröckling, 2016; Freeman, 2014). It prioritizes autonomy, acting independently and free of constraints, over social safety or community concerns. Rather than mobilizing in grassroot social movements, people articulate their desire for social change in entrepreneurial prototypes and flexible experiments (Irani, 2019). These are just a few examples of the way entrepreneurialism filters knowledge and serves as “a set of interpretative schemes with which people … are expected to regulate their behavior” (Bröckling, 2016, p. xi). The research field on Orientalism inspires us to ask: How was it important to the rise of entrepreneurialism to make all of this seem ‘natural’, as in: not constructed for a specific political purpose? And which effect, if any, did it have when critics challenged entrepreneurialism’s claim to be a-political?


Seen as a political power move, entrepreneurialism can also contribute to our understanding of how entrepreneurs construct context, focusing on the interplay of context and the agency of entrepreneurs (Welter & Baker, 2021). To the entrepreneur, the lens of entrepreneurialism turns the world into creative material that submits to entrepreneurial will. Like the knowledge system and narratives of Orientalism modify how we see the world as clearly structured in East vs. West, entrepreneurialism suggests a hyper-agentic actor who is always in process of restructuring the world to become context for entrepreneurship – on the individual level of personal self-improvement and on the communal level of entrepreneurial networks (Jack & Anderson, 2002).


To sum up, we posit that like nationalism, entrepreneurialism describes a set of practices and a collection of cultural symbols, codes, and expressions. We may call it a discourse, if we define discourse broadly, like political scientist Jacob Torfing (2005, p. 14), as “an ensemble of cognitive schemes, conceptual articulations, rhetorical strategies, pictures and images, symbolic actions (rituals), and structures (architectures), enunciative modalities, and narrative flows and rhythms.” However, stressing the parallels to nationalism, we prefer to think of entrepreneurialism as an ideology – a typical ‘ism’ – that combines experiences with expectations of a coming age, projecting powerfully into the future. We thus define entrepreneurialism as follows:


Entrepreneurialism is an ideology that looks at entrepreneurial principles and practices as integral components of a lifestyle that can never be fully realized but remains forever in formation. Entrepreneurialism is powerful because it validates particular rhetoric and conduct within society, portraying the entrepreneur as an appealing identity that connects market principles with aspirational self-improvement and political virtue.

The Way Ahead


Much of the existing research has highlighted the ideology of entrepreneurialism as an example of “how people become trapped by ideas that serve specific sets of interests” (Ogbor, 2000, p. 609). Many of the adverse consequences of entrepreneurialism have been pointed out, including how it socializes failure, how it marginalizes alternative approaches, how it normalizes expectations for the gender of entrepreneurship, how it feeds social inequality, and fails to make room for community approaches. Broadening the range of stories we tell about entrepreneurship (Brattström & Wennberg, 2022) can help uncover implicit assumptions of this research and expand the field. Who is not included in the vision of entrepreneurialism? Or how do people include themselves in the ideological story of entrepreneurialism? Like all ideology critique, entrepreneurialism research’s first goal must be to create space for critical voices by fighting the normalization of what we mean when we say entrepreneurialism. If it isn’t self-evident, how do people use and mobilize the ideology of entrepreneurialism? How does entrepreneurialism enable some forms of behavior over others?


At the same time, taking inspiration from nationalism research points towards an agenda that shines light on entrepreneurialism as a historical and social force. It allows us to ask questions about entrepreneurialism as an imagined community that resulted from a specific historical time period and engaged its past to project powerfully into the future, raising a host of new research questions. Like most ‘isms’, entrepreneurialism gives order to our world by categorizing knowledge and forms of behavior, rethinking how we look at the context for entrepreneurial action.


Undoubtedly though, entrepreneurial ideas are more complex and diverse than recognized by people using entrepreneurialism at present. As ugly as the term may be, it helps fitting diverse ideas and forms of understanding under one umbrella, which in turn gives them political power by uniting people and policies. Given its prominence, understanding and challenging this process is important for how we envision the future of work, business, and society and for debating which version of individual and collective well-being we prioritize going forward.



 

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