Latour on new combinations

A friend from Cambridge wrote to remind me that Latour also uses the term “new combinations” on p. 38 of Pandora’s Hope. When I looked it up I realised that I did have that passage marked but I totally forgot about it. It comes at an important moment in Latour’s “Circulating Reference” chapter, where he is describing the process of scientific innovation, the moment when the botanist ‘translates’ specimens of plants into scientific reference, which she can only do because the specimens have become “mobile and recombinable” (which is of course itself a reference to Latour’s notion of “immutable and combinable mobiles” in Science in Action):

Hardly surprising, then, that in the calm and cool office the botanist who patiently arranges the leaves is able to discern emerging patterns that no predecessor could see. The contrary would be much more surprising. Innovations in knowledge naturally emerge from the collection deployed on the table (Eisenstein 1979). In the forest, in the same world but with all of its trees, plants, roots, soil, and worms, the botanist could not calmly arrange the pieces of her jigsaw puzzle on her card table. Scattered through time and space, these leaves would never have met without her redistributing their traits into new combinations [my emphasis].

This concept of innovation as the creation of new combinations is thus very similar to that of Schumpeter (for whom entrepreneurship is “the carrying out of new combinations”). However, the problem with both conceptions is that they tend to equate innovation with entrepreneurship (in fact Schumpeter subsumes both in his overall concept of ‘economic development’). To be fair to both Schumpeter and especially Latour, they both make the crucial point that invention does not equal innovation, meaning that innovation requires “getting things done” (says Schumpeter), or “translation” (in Latour’s lingo). Still, even if we account for the energy required to disseminate the initial invention or innovation and we will call this dissemination ‘entrepreneurship,’ this inevitably creates a distinction between the type of entrepreneurship which comes up with original innovation that gets disseminated on a global scale, and the type of entrepreneurship which is merely a local adoption of this global innovation or a repetition of some older business model. Another way to put that distinction is high-growth businesses (which are turning the initial new combination into a global network) versus lifestyle businesses, mom-and-pop shops or SMEs that remain ‘local’ repetitions of a more or less stable size. On the one hand you have the likes of Google (the initial “new combination” or innovation that turned into a high-growth global enterprise), on the other hand you have the vast army of SMEs that stay small for ever and in the above sense can’t be considered “entrepreneurial” because their particular “new combinations” never turn into global networks.

Why is this distinction a problem? For one, my (work-in-progress) study of the latter type of small firms revealed that owners-managers of small firms very much think of themselves as entrepreneurs and consider their local “mere repetitions” entrepreneurial. So who is to tell them that “No, in Schumpeter’s sense you are not an entrepreneur”? Okay, one could say that that is a mere semantic point, those small business owners must be using the term entrepreneur ‘incorrectly’. The other problem is that if you observe how these micro-enterprise owner-managers assemble their firms, it does very much look like they are creating new combinations out of heterogeneous resources, it’s just that these “new combinations” are not as radically ‘new’ as let’s say Google’s algorithm and therefore are unlikely to be replicated globally. So this raises the issue of novelty (When is a combination “new”?) and also the issue of potential, as clearly some “new combinations” can effect much vaster rearrangements of the world than others.  Finally, this distinction between “truly entrepreneurial” firms and “not really entrepreneurial” firms (or high-growth firms and lifestyle firms) has some important political consequences. In the UK for instance, this distinction has just been used as the reason (or excuse) to axe Business Link, the government’s enterprise support agency, whose task was to support SMEs:

The Business Link regional services, provided by the RDAs [Regional Development Agencies], have been the principal channel through which businesses have been able to access the Government’s business support offer. (…) At £154 million per annum, the costs of this support have been high and the generalist nature of these regional services means the support has often been poorly targeted, for example, towards so-called “lifestyle” businesses that have no aspiration to grow. (Local Growth White Paper [PDF], p. 41)

I am not actually saying that innovation and entrepreneurship should be thought of as totally separate. Clearly the two go hand-in-hand, and one could say, following Schumpeter’s point but especially Latour’s concept of translation, that there can’t be innovation without entrepreneurship (i.e. the putting in place of institutions that mediate the innovation). However, at the same time we should also acknowledge that even the creation of a small, lifestyle business is an entrepreneurial act: it is a new combination, even if its ‘newness’ is of a different kind. Not to mention that often it is these small lifestyle firms that end up disseminating global innovations in the first place, by adopting them: they are the network that mediates the highly original “new combination.” So that is yet another reason why we shouldn’t exclude small firms, SMEs, or lifestyle businesses from the concept of entrepreneurship.

This distinction between high-growth firms that produce original innovations and ‘lifestyle’ SMEs that are mere adopters or repeaters of innovations points to the thorny philosophical issue of how to conceptualise the relationship between difference and repetition and then how to translate that to this problem of defining what entrepreneurship is. In their 2009 pamphlet on Gabriel Tarde (The Science of Passionate Interests), Latour and Lépinay provide some interesting pointers in this regard:

Difference and Repetition is both the title of Gilles Deleuze’s thesis and Tarde’s fundamental principle. Invention produces differences; repetition allows for their diffusion; conflict is inevitable; no pre-established harmony allows for a solution (…): it is necessary to invent yet other solutions in order to temporarily generate other inventions, which, by repeating themselves, will produce other differences, and the cycle will begin again. That is the fundamental rhythm, the back beat that, alone, allows economic activity to acquire realism. (p. 39)

This passage suggests that, if we substitute Schumpeter’s “economic development” for Latour and Lépinay’s “economic activity,” then the cycle of invention, repetition, opposition and adaptation (as also described on p. 34) are all necessary for economic development to take place. New venture creation (for which we can reserve the term entrepreneurship) is necessary for all these movements to take place, hence it would make sense to distinguish it from the overall invention and innovation (network) that is being created and repeated and eventually modified.

I suppose what I’m arguing for is both a conceptual distinction between entrepreneurship and innovation and terminological discipline not to confuse the two, even though the two concepts are inherently interdependent.


6 Comments on “Latour on new combinations”

  1. A really powerful post Peter!

    My points here are more about the figure of the “entrepreneur” in the Schumpeter literature. As you are reserving here the term entrepreneurship for new venture creation maybe these points are not really relevant but in any case could offer some support to think this phenomenon.

    Following Akrich et all (2002), Schumpeter’s original idea of entrepreneur (a very humanist understanding of the phenomenon) expressed in the “The Theory of Economic Development” is replaced for a sum of different interventions (Akrich et all, 2002:188). This is true even in the later work of Schumpeter (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy) where he definitely talk more about markets than “creative destruction”. So the entrepreneur is not any more this figure of an individual virtues, “but become collective virtues”. There Akrich, Latour and Callon talk about “multitudes”. As the puts it: “is more and more a result of a collective activity and no
    longer the monopoly of an inspired and dedicated individual” (opus cit., 189).

    In the other hand, the idea of entrepreneur is contestable from a more critical or political lecture. As Jones and Spicer put it in their work “Unmasking the Entrepreneur”. Here the authors called for a serious understanding of the entrepreneur figure as is now being selling by the political actors within the Neoliberal Capitalism as in your example of Business Link.

    So I suppose that there are two problems in the use of the Entrepreneur as a concept. First, the whole political discourse that reproduced a capitalist model and second, this distributed characteristic of the innovation phenomenon where the entrepreneur is just one of the actors that is participating.
    Maybe we have to consider a third way to talk about the entrepreneur and the innovation, following Deleuze and actually Latour. The innovation process and the entrepreneur are part of and “agencement” or following Serres of a “mixture”.

    I’m not saying that the distinction is not interesting. What I’m saying is that this mixture is maybe more difficult to dissolve…

    What do you think?

  2. PE says:

    Thanks Juan, and welcome to the blog!

    Yes, I agree with you that a lot of different things are mixed into the existing definitions of entrepreneurship in the domains that are concerned with it. Actually it has been a standard feature of papers on entrepreneurship to lament this state of affairs, saying how this has been holding back the development of the field for decades.

    But I think there are some deep-seated reasons why this is the case. Clearly the figure of the entrepreneur and the status of new venture creation and the relationship between innovation and entrepreneurship are at the heart of the capitalist model and therefore disentangling this conceptually is never going to be an easy affair, as there are a host of controversies stabilised on that site. So rather than settle the debate too quickly, perhaps what’s needed is to open Pandora’s box.

    I deliberately didn’t mention the figure of the “entrepreneur” in my post because, as you rightly say, it has been one of the inhibitors of development in this domain and even Schumpeter backed away from it in the end. However, much of the discussion still assumes that a theory of entrepreneurship is a theory of the entrepreneur, and as you say, the cultural and political discourses reinforce that. This is why I also think that ANT as a research method is an interesting way to approach the problem of entrepreneurship, as it can help avoid this trap and show how entrepreneurial agency is distributed and how it comes about.

    But even ANT-inspired studies tended to focus on the innovation aspects of this problem, and most of the case studies deal with scientific innovation or large-scale successes or failures. However, I think it would be also interesting to see how entrepreneurship works in less glamorous cases, such as the SMEs that provide half of the GDP and half of the employment in many developed economies.

    Thanks for the heads up on Jones and Spicer. I haven’t read them but I’m going to get a copy. This review of the book is interesting:

  3. I totally agree with your point about the big opportunity of ANT -and in general STS- about the studies on innovation and entrepreneurship in nascent companies!

    More in general, I think that there is a sort of tendency of study big projects and the answers of the ANT always fit as the perfect explanation of the failure or the success of those projects.

    And yes, to settle the debate too quickly is the wrong path/strategy. In any case, to open Pandora’s box is absolutely necessary in order to understand the difficulties of the “mixture”. Maybe what we have to reflex about is where is this location of the action and how this distribution permits the avoidance of a Neo-liberal entrepreneur concept. And here the point is also how to avoid to be co-opted by the very same flexible system as Capital is. A good point here is the critic of the idea of network that appears in the “New Spirit of Capitalism” mainly focus on the use by the American Economic Sociology on network analysis but nonetheless a critic of any approach -as ANT- as a new rhetoric of Capitalism.

    Finally, I suppose that a program in the study of the product innovation or technological innovation in nascent company could offer some clues in the study of the entrepreneur phenomenon. So I see the opportunity of cross connection between those research programs.

  4. Thomas Hoholm says:

    Good post, and fine blog! Another way to frame your suggestion to apply ANT to the study of entrepreneurship: ANT may help us ask new questions and suggest new propositions (sorry for the slight positivist language here) to entrepreneurship studies. And this, I would argue, is greatly needed.

  5. PE says:

    Thomas, thanks for the kind words.

    You make a good point. An ANT approach might help in reframing some of the core debates in the discipline of entrepreneurship studies itself. After all many of them seem to be organised alongside some very familiar dualisms like agency-structure, micro-macro, individual-collective etc., to which ANT does have some good answers.


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