Alejandro AGAFONOW

Agafonow, Alejandro (2018). “Setting the bar of social enterprise research high. Learning from medical science,” Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 214 (October), pp. 49-56 (CNRS 1 / FNEGE 1).

Why did you write this paper?

The field of social enterprise has so far attracted the attention of few science-minded academics. On the pretext of the social sciences being fragmented into different paradigms, the use of methods and logics of inquiry which are not akin to genuine scientific probes are condoned by many.

Some believe that doing social science is about finding correlations, and little effort is put in telling accidental correlations apart from those concealing true causal mechanisms. Others, that doing social science is a matter of turning mental constructions of reality around, and in doing so helping grieving social groups to break free from oppressive institutions.

Although my research is motivated by a dissatisfaction with the misrepresentation of social enterprises that both approaches promote, this paper takes issue with the mental-construction approach only, showing how a focus on stakeholders’ interpretations about their experience with social enterprises produces unsatisfactory results.

To mention one of my favorites, the mental-construction approach posits that the contribution of social enterprises lies in the creation of meaningful employment according to their employees’ opinion. But it turns out that many non-social enterprises also create meaningful employment according to the Glassdoor Employees’ Choice Awards, which rates employers considering the opinion of employees about how meaningful their jobs are.

It seems that, after all, there is nothing special about social enterprises if they can simply mirror what for-profit enterprises do. That social enterprises appear to have no added value compared with other forms of organization, is the unfortunate consequence of an approach that can only scratch the surface of social enterprises.

How did you come up with your idea?

The idea was sparked off by the effort scientists put — particularly in the domain of life sciences and medicine — in distinguishing symptoms from deeper states that lie at the bottom of a pathology. When a symptom is wrongly taken for the manifestation of a certain pathology (and let us remember that many pathologies share the same symptoms), it is considered to be a false positive, which scientists strive to avoid.

Similarly, social enterprises share many characteristics with other kinds of organizations. It is, however, surprising that some attribute importance to these characteristics without realizing that they are superficial manifestations of deeper organizational phenomena. It is our role as social and organization scientists to dig deeper into organizational phenomena that, despite being unique, may not look any different when topping out at the most superficial layer of the organization.

In a sense, it is like if a medical doctor focused on the study of fatigue while failing to notice that it can be the manifestation of both completely normal, as well as pathological physiological processes. Fatigue is normal when it is the product of physical exercise, but it is pathological when it manifests as a consequence of dysfunctional blood cells that carry less oxygen.

What can we learn from your paper?

First and foremost, that there are good reasons to embrace the so-called mechanistic explanations in the social sciences and in social enterprise research in particular, because these kinds of explanations have played a crucial role in identifying false positives in other sciences concerned with hierarchical or layered phenomena similar to organizations. The authors I criticize remain focused on the most superficial box of the layered system that social enterprises are, thus laying their work open to false positives. The outcome is that these authors mistake symptoms for the presence of a condition.

Secondly and in a less intuitive fashion, that we are in need of what I call a beneficial function account of social enterprises, where the relevance of social enterprises does not results from stakeholders’ reasons to patronize a social enterprise per se, but from the functions of social-enterprise mechanisms in conjunction with a value judgment that such mechanisms have specific benefits compared to alternatives.


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