Spring School at Zeitz, Germany

A “market” of methods and a myriad of possibilities for social enterprises:
A rural perspective

Kloster Posa in Zeitz | photograph by Mara van Twuijver

Kloster Posa in Zeitz | photograph by Mara van Twuijver

| From 5-8 June the RurAction consortium has celebrated its first Spring School entitled “Social Enterprises – Troubleshooter of Social Problems?”. The four-day event took place within the inspiring premises of Kloster-Posa (http://www.kloster-posa.de/ ) in Zeitz (Germany). Senior scholars, early stage researchers (ESRs) and practitioners exchanged ideas and practices about social enterprises, social innovation and rural development. Kloster-Posa, that provided the background for this exchange, is a community initiative run by a group of families and young adults to initiate new communal and cultural life in the town. Their activities include amongst others cycles-in cinemas, seminars, art exhibitions and environmental education programs for children. To sustain the activities, the team of Posa runs a café, farm shop and wine terrace, with own wine produced at the monastery premises.

Among the different sessions, there were seminars on methodology and a market of research methods. Our visions of the world (ontology) and what we can know about this world (epistemology) were translated into words and shared among the group members. Is there a real world out there or is everything dependent on human interpretation? Is it possible to acquire objective and universal knowledge or is all knowledge subjective and dependent upon time and historical events? Discussing these questions led to two important realisations.

The seminar room in Zeitz | photograph by Mara van Twuijver

The seminar room in Zeitz | photograph by Mara van Twuijver

First of all, a general agreement arose that reflecting critically on one’s ontological and epistemological position matters. One’s position about the world and knowledge will determine the topics chosen to research, the type of questions asked, the methods employed to gather data and the way of presenting the results acquired. As academic researchers, it is our responsibility to be clear about our positions in order to contribute to the academic debate in a transparent manner. A second important realisation was the big diversity in our ontological and epistemological positions. Within RurAction, some ESRs believe (yes, this is a matter of believing) that there is no (social) reality beyond the subjects’ constructions and that knowledge produced is subjective, specific and time and context dependent. Key is thus to study the discourses produced by subjects. In contrast, others believe in the reality of facts and the possibility of acquiring objective knowledge, mainly through representative samples and quantitative methods. In between these two positions, some believe that there exists a real world independent from humans’ mind but that the only way of producing knowledge is through the interpretation of this reality by subjects. These interpretativist, positivist and critical realist positions were confronted, obliging every one of us to show our skin as researchers (Furlong & Marsh, 2010). As a result, the 10 PhD-projects currently running through RurAction will not represent a coherent body of methodology. They will show the possibility and the importance of addressing a phenomenon from a myriad of perspectives, with each of the projects representing a valuable insight into the development of this research field.

monastery in Zeitz | photograph by Mara van Twuijver

The ruin of the old monastery in Zeitz | photograph by Mara van Twuijver

This plurality is not only present within the RurAction consortium, but it seems characterizing for the field of social entrepreneurship in general. It was also a theme in some of the keynotes provided (Hulgård, 2018; Ridley-Duff, 2018). It seems that, different positions shape this recent and pre-paradigmatic field of study (Kuhn, 1970). Simplified, some defend a neoliberal discourse in which the (capitalist) market is the main point of reference and the success or failure of social enterprises (SEs) is assessed by their capacity to enter in already established markets or open new ones. This position mainly focuses on the way in which social entrepreneurs acquire financial resources in order to pursue their financial independence, using it as a means to produce social impact. On the other hand, some defend a view of SEs more linked to the solidarity economy. This perspective is focused on the plurality of the economy and the relationships within its markets. Beyond the (capitalist) market, the economy is also shaped by reciprocal and redistributive transactions. In this case the social impact is pursued through changes in the access to resources by vulnerable (previously excluded) groups and changes in the relations between these groups and other sectors/institutions of society.

In looking back on the successful Spring School, there are two issues within the SE field that we would like to reflect upon here. Firstly, it is common in many presentations on SEs start with a reference that states that SEs are about social change (yes, we are also guilty of this). However, what is understood as social change is rarely presented. Even though this conceptualization is of great influence on the way in which SEs can be perceived. Social change can focus on improving the lives of some specific individuals. In this case the initiatives usually do not need to challenge the current institutional structures and power relations of society. It is assumed that these function well and that they just need to be slightly readjusted to include these specific individuals. However, if social change refers to changes in the institutional structures that condition our ideas about what is possible/legitimate and what is not in our society, SEs necessarily need to address an institutional and power relations changeThese possess completely different challenges and expectations on SEs.

This relates to our second point of reflection. The rise of social entrepreneurship and social enterprises is often attributed to a market-failure. Some scholars have a tendency to apply regular market principles like growth and financial sustainability directly to the SE-field. We would like to argue that, especially from a rural perspective, believing that the (capitalist) market is the principal mean to promote the inclusion of vulnerable groups and an inclusive development seems both unrealistic and an excessive burden/responsibility for the population living within these areas. Lagging rural areas and great parts of the population living within these areas have to deal with structural deficits such as a lack of infrastructures, access to services, outmigration, etc.. These deficits have been created by development led by a (capitalist) market that aims to concentrate capital, labour and land for the sake of efficiency and productivity. Within an European context this market driven development has created wealth and technological development, but has failed in the redistribution of its outputs/outcome, therefore increasing the inequalities within territories and social groups (Bock, Kovac & Shucksmith, 2015). Especially since the last financial crisis started in 2007/2008. Believing in the economic market as the means to solve the problems created by its own market-failure is like trusting that the banks are able to solve the financial crisis that they have created. Unfortunately, this reasoning seems to resemble the reality in which we are living.

We are grateful to the organisers that the Spring School in Zeitz gave us the possibility to critically reflect on matters like these. It is our responsibility as social scientists to analyse how different initiatives are developing within the SEs field and how they affect the population and territories that they address. It is our responsibility to show through transparent methodologies and rigorous analysis how different alternatives within the SEs field develop and to shed light on the ethical and political positions that are behind them. In order to do so, we can only celebrate the plurality within the different projects that are running through RurAction, and within the wider academic community. Because if there is one thing that despite all the different positions and believes we can agree on after this Spring School, it is that sound academic debate is needed to expand our knowledge in this field.

Lucas Olmedo & Mara van Twuijver

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