ESR-project 5

Sunna Kovanen

Before joining RurAction, I studied human geography at the University of Eastern Finland and at the University of Turku. Perhaps thanks to my background in Finnish Lapland, I have been interested in the questions of regional development and local livelihood strategies in the peripheries throughout my studies. I approach them, however, as global challenges from the perspective of political economy. Therefore, I have also engaged in social and solidarity economy networks in Finland and Germany in civil life and professionally. Furthermore, I have been working in non-governmental organisations dealing with migration and civic education as well as in the EU-office of East and North Finland in Brussels. Most recently I accomplished a traineeship in financial management in a cooperative, which provides financial advisory and crowdfunding platform for social enterprises in Finland. The aim was to enhance my practical skills in social enterprise management, but I also participated in developing advisory, advocacy and community funding instruments. I have been participating and presenting at different conferences in Finland and internationally, as well as publishing texts on research dissemination platforms among others.

My research project
Work package 2: On a mission for the region. How social entrepreneurial actors tackle problems in structurally weak rural regions

Social entrepreneurship as a collaborative process

This research aims at expanding on an underexplored theme in the field of rural social entrepreneurship. There has been a strong focus on individual changemakers as drivers of social innovation, lacking empiric support and critical reflection. Therefore, there is a need to understand and analyse the “social” of the entrepreneurship better. This has been approached especially with rural and institutional sociology. Many studies of rural sociology, however, rely on the theory of rational action and tend to overlook the ambiguity and contradictory experiences of collaborative organising. In addition, the focus on local social structures has hidden the multi-scalar linkages of peripheral phenomena from sight. Applications of institutional sociology have, for example, highlighted how local action may be directed and co-opted by large-scale neoliberal policies. Local actors may, however, also benefit from connections to global civic movements, peer-networks and conscious consumers. Collaboration requires negotiation between different stakeholders, which has been shown as a crucial but especially challenging task for the long-term operation of the initiatives.

This research aims to understand the role which collaboration plays on a long term both for the sustainability of the entrepreneurship, as well as for its capacity to enact change. The main research questions are: a) What are the relevance and limits of collaboration for the long-term sustainability of rural social enterprises? B) How new sustainable practices are shaped, taken forward or limited by collaboration? The research draws on communities and networks of practice theories. It conceptualises social enterprises as nodes in the networks of diverse economic practices, aiming at introducing new practices to established networks with entrepreneurial action.

The research aims at identifying both locally particular as well as cross-regional patterns in collaborative dynamics. Therefore, it will be conducted with the method of comparative international case studies in the regions of Uckermark (Germany) as well as Baixo Alentejo (Portugal). Main methods will be semi-structured interviews and short-term participant observations with both internal and external participants of social enterprises. The main interviews will be expanded by freestyle network analysis. The focus will be on enterprises which have been operating in fields such as agriculture, agrotourism, processing of agricultural products and green care for at least 5 years.

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