Economic Exchanges event, Goldsmiths, 17-18 September 2015


Economic Exchanges

17th-18th September, 2015

Goldsmiths, London

Organisers: Daniel Neyland, Sveta Milyaeva, Vera Ehrenstein

Funded by: ERC project MISTS

At this event, we will ask: What happens when Science and Technology Studies engages with the economic?

Further information on the event including a programme and abstracts can be found here:

At the event we will assess what STS work on ‘the economic’ could gain from an exchange with the broader STS community and vice versa. We will discuss the analytic utility of considering the economic in relation to STS research into legal and political formations, notions of embodiment, work on publics, consultation, issue formation and sociotechnical controversies, ideas of expertise, the performative turn, and what it means to move from scientific laboratories to sites of economic innovation.

The event will include four keynote speakers: Franck Cochoy, Sheila Jasanoff, Vincent Lépinay and Fabian Muniesa.

Alongside the keynote presentations will be a number of shorter presentations and discussions involving: Céline Cholez and Pascale Trompette, Joe Deville, Lilliana Doganova, Brice Laurent and Julien Merlin, Véra Ehrenstein, Christian Frankel, José Ossandón and Trine Pallesen, Noortje Marres, Sveta Milyaeva, and Gisa Weszkalnys.

The event is free to attend, but we do require registration for catering (etc). To register please send an e-mail (including any dietary requirements) to:

PhD STS Advanced Methods training at Cardiff‏

Advanced research methods in Science and Technology Studies (STS): Laboratory Studies

28-30th October 2015, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff Unviersity.

This short course is the first in series of training events, funded by the ESRC, offering advanced methods training relevant to Science and Technology Studies. In contrast to debates around different schools of thought (e.g. Sociology of Scientific Knowledge or Actor Network Theory), STS training tends to pay less attention to methodological issues. This course aims to remedy this, focusing on three different STS-specific methods: Laboratory studies, Interviews with scientists and Imitation Games.

This first course focuses on Laboratory studies, one of the first distinct points where the sociology of science began to develop its own methodological approaches, leading to such classic studies as Laboratory Life (Latour and Woolgar) or Changing Order (Collins).

Drawing on the extensive experience in ethnographic and qualitative methods at the Cardiff School of Social Science, this course will cover a theoretical component, contrasting the varying methodological positions underpinning classic laboratory studies (such as ‘naïve observation’ and ‘informed observation’) as well as a practical element, spending time carrying out observations in a lab. A key aspect of the course will be encourage students to develop ideas about those sites in which they plan to carry out their research.

Course staff include: Professor Harry Collins

                Professor Adam Hedgecoe

                Dr. Jamie Lewis

The course is suitable for PhD students and more experienced researchers.

This course is free of charge and travel bursaries are available for non-Wales DTC PhD students.

To reserve a place on this course, please contact Adam Hedgecoe <>

2nd EIASM Market Studies Workshop

All roads lead to Rome, and I suspect that social studies of entrepreneurship also lead to market studies. Therefore readers might be interested in this call for papers for the 2nd EIASM Interdisciplinary Market Studies Workshop in Howth near Dublin, Ireland, June 7-8, 2012. The deadline for a max. 3 page abstract is 27 January 2012. Invited guests will be professors Robin Wensley (Warwick, UK) and David Stark (Columbia, US). Apply here. More information here.

We particularly welcome in depth empirical studies of marketization processes in new areas and of major changes in existing markets. These settings provide excellent opportunities for reflection regarding the ordering devices, objects, models, representations, and tools that are set up and employed to propagate certain market forms over others, as well as the morality and values that underpin those instruments. In short, this workshop will revolve around the major questions of:

• What are the limits of market models and their realization?
• What practices are involved in (dis)ordering markets?
• What kinds of economic orders (markets or others) result from these efforts?
• What are the ‘civilizing’ effects of these orders, on markets, market actors and societies at large?
• What relationships exist between values realized in markets (for instance via the price mechanism) and the values underlying the marketization effort?
• What moral orders are used to justify marketization efforts?

Organising committee: Susi Geiger, University College Dublin, Debbie Harrison, BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo Hans Kjellberg, Stockholm School of Economics  and Alexandre Mallard, Ecole des Mines ParisTech

Entrepreneurs and networks

Marc Ventresca on entrepreneurship as assembly of heterogeneous elements. Hat tip to the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce.

Entrepreneurship and sex

Now there is an interesting topic! The reason I’m bringing this up is not to raise the issue whether becoming an entrepreneur leads to having more or less sex (although who knows, maybe there is something to it). It is also not about entrepreneurship in the adult industry. It’s not even about entrepreneurship and gender. Rather, what got me thinking about entrepreneurship and sex is this BBC News article about recent research on how “worms’ sex life yields advantage over parasites.” The article claims that this is the first convincing evidence on why reproducing sexually has an advantage over asexual reproduction:

Worms forced to reproduce asexually succumbed to a nasty bacterial infection and died.

The researchers say the results are the most convincing evidence to date for a key theory in evolutionary biology.

The theory holds that sex evolved because it lets organisms reshuffle their genes into new combinations to stay a step ahead of parasites.

Reproducing asexually – where organisms clone themselves – makes much more sense; there is no need for an organism to search and seduce a mate, fight off competitors, or risk contracting a sexually transmitted disease. (…)

And yet sex exists; the vast majority of animals and plants reproduce this way.

The link to entrepreneurship and actor-network theory–our main interests on this blog–lies in evolutionary theory. Schumpeter drew on biological evolutionary theory for his definition of entrepreneurship as the creation of new combinations. Latour also described himself as a Darwinian philosopher at the February 2008 Harman Review event. In The Science of Passionate Interests, Latour and Lépinay cite Tarde’s critique of Darwin’s evolutionary theory:

His mistake […] seems to me to have been in relying far more on the struggle for existence, a biological form of opposition, than on cross-breeding and hybridization, biological forms of adaptation and harmony. […] And […] a fertile hybridization, as an exception, is far neater than a hereditary accumulation of small advantageous variations, through competition and selection, to explain the formation of new types of life. (p. 36)

Later on Latour and Lépinay provide another Tarde citation:

And, certainly, it is good that Darwin’s genius pushed this paradox to its limit, for, at present, it is still established that natural selection, that excellent agent of purifying elimination, does not create anything and posits that which it claims to explain–living renovations–in the form of individual variations, and that the secret of these creations of life are hidden from our eyes in the depths of the fertilized egg instead of consisting in the outer shock of organisms fighting each other… (p. 44)

It does sound like the above research findings about the sex life of worms justify Tarde’s insight. What does all this mean for entrepreneurship though?

Schumpeter makes a sharp distinction between entrepreneurship as innovation (the creation of new combinations), and the mere reproduction of existing business models. Using the biological metaphor, it seems entrepreneurs producing innovations are reproducing sexually, while managers who replicate existing business models are reproducing asexually. Who or what would be though the parasites that infect non-innovative firms?

The problem with making this sharp distinction between differentiating and reproducing firms, as I’ve suggested in earlier posts, is that it ignores the fact that for the innovation to survive it actually needs adopters, those that ‘merely’ replicate the innovation (which is of course unlikely to be just a mere adoption and is probably more like an adaptation of the innovation). Although one could argue that adopters of an innovation are part of the overall wave or network of innovation, and therefore they are also guests at the sex party. Who are then those unfortunate asexually reproducing firms then, and what sort of parasites are causing their demise? How to identify both?

Maybe this is not as difficult as it sounds. Even from a pop culture point of view, entrepreneurial ventures and entrepreneurs are celebrated as sexy (Just think of Richard Branson’s Virgin, a company name that is almost an ironic reference to the sexy nature of entrepreneurship). Working for a start-up is risky and dangerous but also exciting and sexy, as opposed to working for a boring firm that is engaged in the repetition of formulas. Still, don’t we need boring firms and asexual reproducers as well to maintain and sustain the stability of the economic environment, which then creates the conditions for sexy entrepreneurship?

(In any case, I do hope all this talk about sex is not going to result in an orgy of spammers.)

Definitions of entrepreneurship

In The Handbook of Economic Sociology, Howard E. Aldrich has a good summary and evaluation of various definitions of entrepreneurship, most of which have also been alluded to on this blog already. According to Aldrich, there are four competing definitions of entrepreneurship:

  1. The setting up of high-growth and high-capitalisation firms (as opposed to low-growth and low-capitalisation ‘lifestyle’ businesses);
  2. Innovation and innovativeness leading to new products and new markets (the Schumpeterian tradition);
  3. Opportunity recognition (the Kirznerian tradition);
  4. The creation of new organisations.

According to Aldrich there are problems with all four of these definitions. There is a strong selection bias with the first two. Whether a firm has high growth and had introduced an innovation can only be established retrospectively and high capitalisation is no guarantee of high growth or innovativeness. I would add that the political consequences of these definitions are also far-reaching, as they may lead to government policies favouring firms that are already in a privileged position, rather than provide support where it’s more needed.

The second and third definition according to Aldrich also suffers from the problem of being applicable to a wide range of situations, with entrepreneurship just being one. The effect of that is most evident e.g. in the afterlife of Schumpeter’s concept, which became more popular in the theory of the firm as a way of describing the R&D function, corporate venturing and intrapreneurship, than new venture formation in entrepreneurship studies. According to Aldrich, entrepreneurship studies had forgotten Schumpeter.

The adoption of Kirzner’s notion of “opportunity recognition” also had a particular disciplinary effect: because “opportunity recognition” has to do with an entrepreneur’s alertness and alertness seems to be a something that happens in the mind, this stream of research turned entrepreneurship into a problem of cognitive psychology, preoccupied with the figure – but especially the mind – of the entrepreneur.

The problem with the fourth definition according to Aldrich is that it is difficult to delineate when actually new organisations emerge as new social entities. It is both a philosophical problem and a methodological problem. Nevertheless, this last definition has been gaining support in entrepreneurship studies and Aldrich also picks it as the one to zoom in on in the rest of his chapter.

What can we make of these rival definitions and corresponding theories and their consequences from an STS/ANT perspective? The problem of selection bias in the first two definitions makes them interesting candidates for considering the political consequences of those theories, and the current work-in-progress UK government policy of channelling support away from ‘lifestyle’ firms to those perceived as ‘high-growth’ firms provides an excellent case study.

At the same time Schumpeter’s theory of innovation/entrepreneurship as “the creation of new combinations” deserves renewed attention. An argument could be made for disentangling these two concepts and clarifying their relationship, bringing into the picture those new firms as well that adopt the “new combination” but in themselves may not fit the “high-growth” and “innovative” label. In effect I’m arguing about establishing a link between definitions 2 and 4 that would not be subject to the selection bias (i.e. empirical work would focus not only on the innovating firm that is already in a high-growth stage with its innovation in diffusion but on any enterprise that participates in some form in the adoption or distribution of the innovation, even if it’s a low-growth ‘lifestyle’ firm and therefore seemingly only a consumer or repeater of the innovation). The Schumpeterian concept of “new combinations of resources” also offers an opportunity to examine the nature and origin of those resources (both human and nonhuman) that are being combined, as well as the very activities and practices that are needed for creating a new combination.

Kirzner’s thoughts on entrepreneurship could also be revisited from a ‘new’ new economic sociology perspective. However, rather than focusing on the thought processes of the entrepreneur, it might be more interesting to focus on the aspect of Kirzner’s theory that deals with the relationship between the entrepreneur and the market and considers the entrepreneur as a market participant.

The fourth definition is of course naturally attractive to an STS-inclined researcher, considering that the emergence of new entities has always been a core interest of STS and ANT studies. When it comes to entrepreneurship however, it would be important to consider the same point as with the Schumpeterian theory, namely that the role of seemingly repetitive or imitative venture creations should not be disregarded in favour of the highly innovative or controversial ones. Perhaps a Gabriel Tarde quote can be helpful here:

The problem can be summed up as follows: to grasp as closely as possible the genesis of inventions and the laws of imitations. Economic progress supposes two things: on the one hand, a growing number of different desires, for without a difference in desires, no exchange is possible, and, with the appearance of each new, different desire, the life of exchange is kindled. On the other hand, a growing number of similar exemplars of each desire taken separately, for, without similitude, no industry is possible, and, the more this similitude expands or prolongs itself, the more production is widened or reinforced. (Psychologie économique, cited in Latour and Lépinay, p. 35)

Learning from the social studies of finance

The inspiration to start this blog to a large extent came from the Socializing Finance blog, which has set the example of how to practice the ‘new’ new economic sociology in a specific empirical domain, the financial markets in their case, thus aiding the development of the social studies of finance. I thought it would be interesting to see if a ‘social studies of entrepreneurship’ could also be delineated, bringing together sociological and anthropological approaches to entrepreneurship that are sympathetic to the insights of an STS-inspired economic sociology.

In my previous post I tried to distinguish such a focus on the social aspects of entrepreneurship from a focus on social studies of innovation, which have been a mainstay of STS research. I’ve been arguing that entrepreneurship as new venture creation deserves a distinct analytical attention, even if it concerns unglamorous small firms who are considered adopters or repeaters of innovation at best (but which nonetheless tend to contribute half of the GDP and employment in developed countries). Especially the distinction between ‘ambitious’ high-growth ventures and ‘complacent’ lifestyle businesses has become a politicised one, in fact with a £154 million per year price tag, as that is how much the UK government is cutting by withdrawing government support from those designated as the latter (see the quote from the white paper by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills).

How could a ‘social studies of entrepreneurship’ (SSE) learn from the social studies of finance (SSF)? Actually the flier [PDF] for the forthcoming SSF workshop with Daniel Beunza and Yuval Millo at the 2011 Academy of Management conference provides a good summary of the main features of SSF and thus could serve as a prompt for a reflection on how social studies of entrepreneurship could learn from their insights. Let’s take these points one by one.

SSF incorporates into a unified analytical framework three elements that affect the shaping and behavior of financial markets: performativity, materiality of markets and historical outlook. Performativity examines the impact that expert bodies of knowledge, such as accounting (Millo & MacKenzie, 2009), financial economics (MacKenzie & Millo, 2003) and management (Ferraro et al, 2005), have on the dynamics and the shaping of financial markets.

How could this issue of performativity be translated to the domain of new venture creation? I suppose the strong claim would be to say that specific expert knowledges on entrepreneurship and management perform the market for new ventures, directly affecting the rate of new venture formation in an economy. How entrepreneurs acquire their entrepreneurial expertise has been the subject of the nascent field of entrepreneurial learning and education, however it is a slightly different thing to say that specific theories perform new ventures. While there have been studies on the expansion of management knowledge, those have mostly looked at the role of consulting firms and educational institutions in the diffusion of management theories and practices. It would be interesting however to consider what specific institutions, disciplines and theories it takes to construct a new venture and in what sort of space does this actual performance takes place.

Materiality of markets pays particular attention to the technological (Beunza & Stark, 2004; Preda, 2006) artifacts through which prices are produced and market behavior is determined. (…) Among others, SSF scholars have referred to the spatial qualities of trading rooms and the computer programs used (Beunza & Stark, 2004) or the bodily presence and communication of pit traders (Zaloom, 2006) as determinants of market behavior. (…) Building on concepts from science and technology studies, SSF recognizes that financial markets are drenched in information and communication technology. This recognition motivated the SSF approach to look beyond human-to-human connections and to study how connections between machines and humans (e.g. market participants who use computerized pricing models) affect markets.

The material aspects of new venture creation have been long neglected in entrepreneurship studies. The focus is either on the cognitive capacities or personal and professional development of the individual entrepreneur, or on their access to human and social capital. The objects with which the entrepreneur and the start-up deal with and deal in generally do not enter the discussion, as they tend to be considered trivial. Instead, “material aspects” usually mean financial resources, the assumption being that if an entrepreneur has access to finance, he or she can have access to whatever material resources are needed. There is clearly an opportunity here to make a contribution to entrepreneurship studies by bringing objects into the discussion. Information and communications technologies today are just as an integral a part of a new venture as of financial markets, therefore the role of ICTs in new venture creation and their acquisition for and integration into an enterprise seem just as relevant and timely. Not to mention more complex quasi-objects (assemblages) that enterprises may be part of or are being constructed by.

The SSF approach also challenges the exclusive attribution of agency to individuals. In line with the work of cognitive scientist Edwin Hutchins (1995), SSF sees financial markets as an area dominated by distributed cognition, where the ability of an individual to make meaningful decision is framed by other actors, as well market devices such as models, analysts’ reports and computer systems (Beunza and Garud, 2007; Beunza, Hardie and MacKenzie,  2007).

This is a crucial point for entrepreneurship studies, as Juan and I discussed it in the comments section of the previous post. Entrepreneurship studies are in the clutches of the concept of the individual entrepreneur hero and its creative agency. Of course there have been attempts to break free from it by defining entrepreneurship as a business function instead (which, after Schumpeter and especially thanks to followers of Nelson and Winter, became synonymous with innovation that takes place mostly in corporate R&D departments) or in terms of socio-linguistic concepts like cognitive social capital and discourse. However, we still don’t have a good understanding of the main mechanisms at work through which entrepreneurial agency arises, if we suspend the assumption that this agency must coincide with the figure of the entrepreneur. That was certainly the assumption of the UK government when it decided to axe Business Link, the SME support agency, so we are being witnesses to an in vivo experiment as to what happens to entrepreneurial agency when a huge and powerful actor which played a central role in disseminating management practices among SMEs through its business advisers is completely disconnected from small firms.

The historical outlook of SSF is a methodological perspective that sees today’s financial markets as outcomes of historical processes. As such, to understand market dynamics, SSF necessitates the analyses of the long-duration process organizational history of markets and encourages a multifaceted study of intertwined arenas: regulatory, technological and commercial.

This focus on historical perspective would suggest that new venture creation at any given moment is the outcome of particular historical processes and therefore it would make sense to take the longitudinal view on the emergence of not only particular forms of entrepreneurial activity but also the settings within which it takes place. With ethnographic studies of small firms there is often the fear that the researcher will be limited to the “micro” setting, missing the macro aspects of the phenomenon. The ANT perspective is supposed to provide a solution for this, partly by avoiding the micro-macro distinction but also by insisting on the tracing of associations whether they lead near or far.

There is another interesting aspect of SSF which is not mentioned in the flyer: namely, the nature of markets as experimental devices, as testing sites. This is another area where a social studies of entrepreneurship could learn from SSF: by examining the ways in which entrepreneurs engage in experimentation and mechanisms and settings that allow for the testing of ideas, relationships, products, strategies etc. Closely related to that issue is the question of the relationship between a new venture and markets (that it buys from and sells to): what is the role of markets in the entrepreneurial process? What is the role of new ventures in these markets? The financial markets are themselves sites of entrepreneurship, therefore SSF studies of entrepreneurship in the financial sector would be of interest to social studies of entrepreneurship.

Finally, SMEs are totally dependent on the financial sector for their own existence and financing is an important aspect of setting up an enterprise and keeping it alive. One could say that the SME sector was the part of the economy that was most immediately affected by the recent financial crisis, because their interest rates for their overdraft were immediately increased and their access to additional financing was severally restricted, even before the redundancies at banks unfolded. Therefore there is a very strong relationship between what is going on in the financial markets (or even at the derivatives desks of investment banks) and the very existence of small firms and the possibility for setting up new ones. SSF could help with some insights in those areas as well.