Challenges in research methods and international comparisons in social enterprise research: Learnings from the 6th EMES summer school

| From the 19 to 22 of June 2018, scholars, professors, 30 PhDs, and early stage researchers gathered near Marseille to discuss methodological issues in Social Enterprise research. Presentations shed light on the nature of social entrepreneurship and social enterprises, social and solidarity economy. One of the topics we found particularly interesting for our own research within the RurAction project was the international comparative perspective. Therefore, the focus of this blog post will be on this topic.

Thierry Berthet, Martine Gadille, Giorgia Trasciani, and Michela Giovaninni giving an informal workshop on activist engagement and research praxis (photograph by Marina Novikova)

With international comparison in mind, it is important to consider the advantages, and challenges as well as practical recommendations that keynote speakers have discussed during the training school. The experiences shared in this blog are inspired by participation in keynotes, group sessions and round-table discussions.

International comparison

International comparison can be used to learn more about social phenomena in today’s’ global world. Looking at processes and developments on a micro scale requires at the same time a consideration of the larger context. This contributes to a more nuanced perspective regarding the ways in which social enterprises operate and the challenges they are facing. However, international or transnational comparison faces methodological problems, because knowledge developed by such an approach to research seems hardly generalizable. Research can be carried out on similar phenomena, but different contexts may determine the meanings and trajectories of such phenomena. According to Mercier’s (1) keynote, scholars interested in transnational approaches should consider cross-national comparison as a subject rather than a method.

Some methodological issues in international comparison that concentrate on ‘doing research from a distance’ can be distinguished. The first is ‘false comparison’, which suggests that no homogenous comparison is possible; in other terms this is ‘comparing apples to oranges’. The second issue pertains to conducting research from a distance. The implications are that the researcher often relies on secondary data such as literature, online material or surveys, among others. Reductiveness can be a result of this as well as an obstacle to form conclusions.

When it comes to comparative research in the field of social entrepreneurship, all the above-mentioned issues must be taken into account, since organizational, political, institutional, and cultural contexts shape social entrepreneurship paths (Defourny and Borzaga, 2001; Puumalainen et al., 2015). Whilst social enterprises can offer solutions to improve social conditions, empower people and contribute to local development, they also differ from each other in terms of legal recognition and institutional structures. This implies that comparative studies should be informed by this variation and designed accordingly, since the context is key to understanding societal problems, and, in turn, identifying solutions. This is particularly important for the study of structurally weak regions, especially the rural ones, which are undergoing processes of economic recession, loss of population due to out-migration, and social and geographical separation. Moreover, in comparison to ‘predominantly urban’ or ‘intermediate’ regions, ‘predominantly rural’ regions, might be considered economically less productive, providing access to a limited amount of goods and services as well as fewer opportunities for higher education and qualified job offers.

Importance for RurAction

RurAction is a research and training network that focuses on social entrepreneurship and its innovative solutions to the problems affecting structurally weak rural regions in Europe. Since rural regions face similar problems, while at the same time dealing with them in different ways, RurAction takes a comparative perspective. The aim of the network is to find an appropriate research approach to specific contexts (e.g. political, economic, social) and to compare processes or phenomena of interest. One of the main challenges for RurAction researchers is to get deep knowledge of a new field. Since various regions in seven countries – Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Poland –  are operational fields within the RurAction network, each of the individual researchers has to focus on two or three specific national and regional contexts. That is why a crucial insight from Marthe Nyssens was to  ”always rely on context and get knowledge from the field”. Another substantial step in the course of any research is to search for the information in secondary sources and gather as much of them as possible before, during and after the fieldwork. Another issue raised by the keynote speakers was the ‘translation’ problem: understood as the ‘translation’ of concepts and its adaptation to a specific context. An example of this can be various understandings of a social enterprise depending on legal forms, the institutional environment in which SEs operate etc. This process helps researchers to clarify how concepts, ideas, and phenomena should be interpreted in a specific (political, economic, social, cultural) context.

Presentation „ISCEM International comparison of social enterprises models“ by Marthe Nyssens (photograph by Marina Novikova)

According to Nyssens’ keynote speech, being involved in comparative studies of complex phenomena such as social entrepreneurship comes with inevitable challenges. Aligning concepts, contexts, knowledge and communication styles among research teams is one challenge which we also face in our project. Nyssens also emphasized that despite these challenges  “the journey is important, not the destination”.

We would like to thank the organizers of the 6th EMES Training School for the opportunity to be a part of a great exchange among PhD students, scholars and researchers. This allowed us to gain new knowledge and experience on social entrepreneurship research and critically reflect on its methodological issues. The number of fruitful discussions suggest that there is no single way to do international comparison in the field of social entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, the encouraging conclusion might be formulated as follows: be aware of the varieties in contexts, search for information on cases under study everywhere, and enjoy the journey!

Nicole van Doorn & Marina Novikova

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Defourny, J., & Borzaga, C. (2001). The emergence of social enterprises in Europe. Bruxelles, EMES, European Network.

Nyssens, M., 2018. ICSEM International comparison of social enterprises models, Keynote speech at the 6th EMES Training School, June 2018, Marseille.

Mercier, D., 2018. The international comparison in the social sciences: from societal analysis to transnational analysis, Keynote speech at the 6th EMES Training School, June 2018, Marseille.

Puumalainen, K., Sjögrén, H., Syrjä, P., & Barraket, J. (2015). Comparing social entrepreneurship across nations: An exploratory study of institutional effects. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences/Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l’Administration, Vol. 32, No.4, pp 276-287.Seigel, M. (2005). Beyond compare: comparative method after the transnational turn. Radical History Review, Vol. 2005, No. 91, pp 62-90.