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Contextual Entrepreneurship: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

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  • Rutgers Business School - Newark and New Brunswick

Abstract and Figures

The need to contextualize research in entrepreneurship has become an important theme during the last decade. In this monograph we position the increasing prominence of "contextual entrepreneurship" research as part of a broader scholarly wave that has previously washed across other fields. The challenges and promises we face as this wave carries us forward are similar in many ways to the challenges faced by researchers in other fields. Based on a review of the current context debate among entrepreneurship scholars and a selective review of other disciplines, we outline and discuss issues in theorizing, operationalising and empirically studying contexts in entrepreneurship research. Researchers have made rapid and substantial - though uneven - progress in contextualizing their work. Unsurprisingly, there is healthy disagreement over what it means to contextualize research and how it should be done, which we see as expressions of competing implicit theories of context. We argue that no overarching theory of what context is or what it means is likely to be very successful. Instead, we suggest briefly that it may be useful to adopt and develop what we label a "critical processapproach" to contextualizing entrepreneurship research.
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CONTEXTUAL ENTREPRENEURSHIPAN INTERDISCIPLINARY
PERSPECTIVE
Ted Baker and Friederike Welter
Abstract
The need to contextualize research in entrepreneurship has become an important theme during
the last decade. In this monograph we position the increasing prominence of “contextual
entrepreneurship” research as part of a broader scholarly wave that has previously washed across
other fields. The challenges and promises we face as this wave carries us forward are similar in
many ways to the challenges faced by researchers in other fields. Based on a review of the
current context debate among entrepreneurship scholars and a selective review of other
disciplines, we outline and discuss issues in theorizing, operationalising and empirically studying
contexts in entrepreneurship research. Researchers have made rapid and substantial – though
uneven – progress in contextualizing their work. Unsurprisingly, there is healthy disagreement
over what it means to contextualize research and how it should be done, which we see as
expressions of competing implicit theories of context. We argue that no overarching theory of
what context is or what it means is likely to be very successful. Instead, we suggest briefly that it
may be useful to adopt and develop what we label a critical process approach” to
contextualizing entrepreneurship research.
Keywords / JEL codes: L 26 – Entrepreneurship. Contextualizing entrepreneurship,
entrepreneurship theory, research methods; critical entrepreneurship studies
This is the final accepted manuscript of: Ted Baker and Friederike Welter (2018), "Contextual
Entrepreneurship: An Interdisciplinary Perspective", Foundations and Trends® in
Entrepreneurship: Vol. 14: No. 4, pp 357-426. http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/0300000078
Table of contents
1. The Goldilocks Problem in Contextualizing Research: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right? ...... 1
2. Challenges and Promise .............................................................................................................. 2
2.1 Context Unbounded? ............................................................................................................ 2
2.2 Contextualizing Entrepreneurship Research – Self-Reflections and Advice from the Field 7
3. Progress in Contextualizing Entrepreneurship Research ............................................................ 9
3.1 Who and Why Contexts ...................................................................................................... 12
3.2 Where Contexts ................................................................................................................... 19
3.2 When Contexts .................................................................................................................... 22
3.3 Limitations of the Incipient Theory of Entrepreneurship Contexts .................................... 24
4. Progress in Empirically Studying Contextual Entrepreneurship .............................................. 30
4.1 Challenges for Contextualized Research Approaches ........................................................ 30
4.2 How to Contextualize Research Approaches ...................................................................... 35
4.3 How to Operationalize Contexts? ....................................................................................... 43
5. Outlook and Agenda for Future Research ................................................................................ 44
5.1 Contextualizing as Problematizing the Taken-for-granted ................................................. 45
5.2 Toward a Critical Process Approach .................................................................................. 47
References ..................................................................................................................................... 50
List of tables
Table 1: Contextualizing entrepreneurship research and theory
Table 2: Contextualized research approaches selected insights from other disciplines
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1. The Goldilocks Problem in Contextualizing Research: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right?
To claim that something has been “taken out of context” is to suggest that it is fallacious. Who
would claim that our research is better when it ignores or otherwise misrepresents the effects of
context on the inferences we put forth? Consistent with this logic, there has been growing
interest in contextualizing research, with authors across many disciplines promoting the benefits
of grounding our theoretical inferences more thoroughly in the places and circumstances of our
empirical observations (e.g., Akman 2000; Akman and Bazzanella 2003; Bamberger 2008; Bates
1976; Dilley 1999a; Duranti and Goodwin 1992; Johns 2001, 2006, 2017, 2018; Scharfstein
1988, 1989; Schegloff 1997; Turner et al. 1994; Van Dijk 2008; Wyer and Srull 1986). Over the
last decade or so, this wave of interest has washed across the field of entrepreneurship (e.g.,
Boettke and Coyne 2009; Hjorth, Jones, and Gartner 2008; Ucbasaran, Westhead, and Wright
2001; Welter 2011; Welter and Gartner 2016; Zahra 2007; Zahra and Wright 2011; Zahra,
Wright, and Abdelgawad 2014).
In the current monograph, we expand on this interest in hopes of generating some new
insights about why and how we might go about contextualizing entrepreneurship research. While
we have few quarrels with the prior work, here we attempt to frame the issues, the progress that
has been made and the substantial challenges that remain with a view toward calling for future
work that takes more of what we call a critical process approach to contextualizing
entrepreneurship research.
2
2. Challenges and Promise
In this section, we draw in a stylized manner on the recent intellectual history of some fields that
embraced issues of contextualization much earlier than entrepreneurship and especially on
commentaries by observers of these fields (e.g., Dilley 1999; Scharfstein 1989). On this basis,
we make the argument that, taken to extremes, contextualization can become a dead end or
worse. We then examine some progress that entrepreneurship researchers have made in bringing
a contextualizing lens to their work and ask briefly whether our current theoretical approaches
are likely to prove adequate.
2.1 Context Unbounded?
Johns’s (2006; 2017) essays1 are among the most coherent and influential statements of why and
how context matters for organization studies writ large. His work provides an initial impression
of how theoretically and empirically unbounded the quest for contextualization can become.
Drawing upon a number of earlier authors (e.g., Capelli and Sherer 1991; Mowday and Sutton
1993; Rousseau and Fried 2001), he defines context as “situational opportunities and constraints
that affect the occurrence and meaning of organizational behavior as well as functional
relationships between variables…(Johns 2006, 386). He immediately complicates matters by
arguing that the effects of any element of context are themselves depending on context, noting
for example that elements of context may be offsetting in their effects and that depending on
overall “system” states, small changes in context can have small or very large effects.
In his distinction between “discrete” and “omnibus” contexts (also see Welter 2011) Johns
(2006) shows that context can include both particular variables that we include in our models,
1 The first is a theoretical piece in the Academy of Management Review. The second represents John’s reflections
on the first paper after it won AMR’s “decade” award as the most important paper the journal published in 2006.
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but also everything that might matter but that is not included in our models. In one sense, then,
“omnibus context” depicts the entire universe of “omitted variables” (Johns 2006, 388) that
characterizes any modeling strategy. Exacerbating this, he points to the problem of sampling-
induced range restriction on key variables, suggesting that when curvilinear effects exist, a low
level of a variable effectively represents a different context than a high value on that variable. If
our data do not contain the full range of values on a variable that exerts curvilinear effects, the
study is therefore contextually constrained. Johns also shows that while context is typically used
to point to characteristics at a higher level of analysis than the focus of a given study (e.g., how
an industry affects an organization within it) but can also point to characteristics at a lower level
(e.g., how employee demographics affect organizations). Strikingly, Johns provides several
examples of context-driven “sign reversals,” in which the effect of some variable for example
the effect of tuition reimbursement programs on turnover, switches from positive to negative
depending on the presence of associated promotion activities.
Understanding and accounting adequately for context is made still more daunting by its
multi-dimensionality. Invoking Allport’s (1937)“list of 17,953 trait names to describe people”
Johns (2006, 391) argues that these have been usefully consolidated to the “big five.” He points
to the extreme multidimensionality of context – noting for example that as early as 1963, Sells
provided a “list of 236 elements that might describe a total stimulus situationand notes that no
consolidation of contextual dimensions as useful as the “big five” has yet to occur2. Furthermore,
because complex configurations in which “context effects can comprise both main effects and
interactions between context variables and substantive variables of interest” – prevail, even a
simple recitation of the permutations and combinations that might be expected to matter could
2 A quick scan of psychologically oriented journals in organization studies suggests that consolidation around the
Big Five may be overstated. There are still many studies of specific traits, many of which do not have a clear and
obvious place within the Big Five.
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quickly become overwhelming. Of course, everything is not connected to everything else. But
even the question of which elements do not matter to some configuration – the empirical
question of “loose coupling” – is mind boggling in imagination.
For better or for worse, in our reading John’s list points to, but understates the magnitude of
the challenge of contextualizing our research. Recall that his definition of context is, “situational
opportunities and constraints that affect the occurrence and meaning of organizational behavior
as well as functional relationships between variables” (Johns 2006, 386). Most of the discussion
by organization scholars to this point has focused, implicitly or explicitly, on functional
relationship between variables and how they affect the occurrence of behavior. In a broad sense,
however, much of the serious scholarly reflection on context – perhaps especially by cultural
anthropologists, linguists and philosophers of science – has tousled with issues and differences of
meaning.
Johns (2017) draws specifically on recent work in entrepreneurship to further complicate
matters by showing how an objectively similar environment can mean very different things to
different people. He draws on the example of Powell and Baker’s (2014) study of founders in the
textile and apparel industry, which demonstrated that differences in the structure of individual
founders’ identities shaped whether they enacted the same objective adversity as a threat to
accommodate, a challenge to counter or an opportunity to embrace. These differences in the
definition of the situation in turn drove their firms’ strategic responses to the adversity they
faced. This is in many ways similar to Baker and Nelson’s (2005) description of entrepreneurial
bricolage, which showed how a refusal to enact the limitations imposed by dominant definitions
of resource environments drove differences in the meaning of what was “at hand” and thereby
how entrepreneurs were able to respond to the resource constraints they faced. In both of these
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studies, differences in how founders enacted the same objective environments led to large
differences in the meaning the context held for them and for their behavior.
More broadly, as Dilley (1999b, 1) points out “Ever since Malinowski, anthropologists have
chanted the mantra of ‘placing social and cultural phenomena in context.’Anthropologists, as
well as scholars from a variety of liberal arts disciplines such as philosophy, history and literary
studies have debated and struggled over how to choose and delimit their contextualization of
both descriptions of and inferences regarding the cultures and artefacts they study. These
debates, which are too rich and varied to summarize easily, have persisted through the rise of
structuralism, post-structuralism, post modernism and a variety of other competing schools of
thought and have resulted both in rich insights and numerous dead-ends.
For example, a large body of relevant research centers on the manner in which different
languages may structure and shape how native-born speakers perceive and understand the world,
and the extent to which the meanings and understandings that result are commensurable (e.g.,
Bates 1976; Duranti and Goodwin 1992; Labov 1970; Levinson 2003). Considered more
broadly, this is a key and persistent issue for anthropologists and other social scientists: what are
the limits of understanding and “translating” one culture to make it understandable for members
of another.
These arguments extend as well to subgroups within particular cultures. For example, some
“standpoint” theorists suggest that members of dominant and advantaged groups in any society
are unlikely to be able to understand the perspectives or lived experiences of disadvantaged
members. The disadvantaged members, however, are likely to be better able to understand their
own experiences, those of more privileged members and in turn the society as a whole because
their disadvantage requires them to take into account both the position of the dominant members
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and their own position (e.g., Collins 1986; Harding 2016; Hartsock 1983). While such
perspectives focus on showing how one “standpoint” can be epistemologically superior to others,
generating something close to objective truth, others suggest that there is no such defensible
standpoint for anyone to inhabit. Numerous authors have pointed out how an emphasis on
contextualizing research can lead easily to extreme forms of relativism (Culler 1983; Dilley
1999a; Scharfstein 1989) and an infinite regress in which any attempt to apply a contextualizing
lens on existing theoretical or descriptive claims is itself immediately subject to being
undermined by its own failure to be fully contextualized.
There is a certain irony to this story. It typically begins with the optimistic and critical desire
to take into consideration differences in shared circumstances that characterize different groups
of people and to understand and respect cultural, subcultural, racialized, gendered, religiously-
based and other differences. When the “other” is conceptualized in terms of group membership
of some sort, consideration of how groups differ in circumstance and perspective can often
generate new insights. Indeed, this is what we are about to suggest is happening in
entrepreneurship research. When taken to an extreme, however, it can lead to radical forms of
individualism, in which consideration of the massively complex multidimensionality of context
and resulting proliferation of unique standpoints renders each individual opaque and ultimately
unintelligible to every other (Scharfstein 1989). Although this work often takes the form of
seemingly esoteric and obscure (to many of us) academic debates among philosophically-minded
scholars, practical reflections of such thinking can be seen, for example in recent struggles
among some members of feminist movements to come fully to terms with transgender women
(Goldberg 2014) and perhaps even in tensions over claims about transgender versus transracial
identities (Brubaker 2016). Similar tensions exist in current conversations about the meaning and
7
possibilities of university research and education in places where people are trying to build post-
colonial nations (Jagusah 2001; Omoyele 2017). Considered in more abstract philosophical terms
one scholarly epistemological dead end of extreme contextualization is solipsism, the radically
individualized perspective in which there is no apparent way for anyone researchers included
to know or understand anything or anyone but themselves.
2.2 Contextualizing Entrepreneurship Research Self-Reflections and Advice from the
Field
Having descended rapidly (and without much nuance) down this rabbit hole of radical
contextualization, it may be refreshing to return to the sunlit environment of contemporary
entrepreneurship scholarship. Here, the world is very different indeed. While we have just argued
that taken seriously, the challenges of contextualizing research can quickly become
overwhelming, in a practical sense, scholars have barely explored what is possible in
entrepreneurship research. For example, Gorgievski and Stephan (2016) found only 8 of 142
papers studying the psychology of entrepreneurship examined context. More generally, a spate of
recent papers and books on context in entrepreneurship can be roughly characterized as
exploring the contours of useful opportunities for entrepreneurship researchers to attend more
effectively to context. It is clear that entrepreneurship researchers are not about to fall into the
abyss of infinite regress and solipsism.
The emergence of a focused and explicit discussion about context in entrepreneurship
research is relatively new. Early on, Ucbasaran, Westhead, and Wright (2001, 67) provided a
trenchant critique of the tendency of entrepreneurship researchers to treat “the social, economic
and political infrastructure for entrepreneurship as externalities”. They suggested that the field
needed additional studies that explored entrepreneurial behavior across differing organizational
8
contexts and under differing external environmental conditions. Since this time, scholars have
become more self-conscious about the need to consider differences in context as potentially both
constitutive of and constituted by entrepreneurial behavior and outcomes (Frese 2009; Welter
and Gartner 2016).
Entrepreneurship scholars’ answer to the strategic question of how we should go about
contextualizing our work has generated a number of general suggestions along with sensible lists
and typologies of contexts to be taken into consideration. For example, Zahra and Wright (2011,
75) suggest that we attend to context in terms of four dimensions: spatial, time, practice and
change. Zahra, Wright, and Abdelgawad (2014) refine and extend the initial typology to
incorporate organizational, ownership and governance dimensions.
Drawing on Whetten (1989), Welter (2011) points our attention to questions of “where” and
“when” as key points of departure for understanding context in entrepreneurship (see Table 1 for
selected examples of research). She identifies four dimensions of where: business, which has
been the default context for most entrepreneurship research; social which incorporates networks,
households and families; spatial which highlights, for example, urban versus rural places or
communities; and institutional. To these she adds two dimensions of when: temporal and
historical.
Welter (2011) also notes that each element of context can be proximate or distal: for example
regulatory features of the institutional environment can operate at local, regional and national
levels. And these can be inconsistent. Consider, for example, the current state of regulation of
marijuana in the United States: it is legal for medical use in many states and legal for recreational
use in a few, but it is illegal everywhere under national statutes. Welter’s discussion also
emphasizes that contextual dimensions are interdependent and intertwined, implying that
9
configurations of elements matter. Of the where dimensions Welter delineates, business and
social dimensions are probably most common in contemporary entrepreneurship research. Of the
when dimensions, history is, in our opinion, still too frequently simply ignored. Temporality of
any sort is more often assumed than studied and still too frequently pointed to as a “direction”
for future research in cross-sectional studies that call upon others to do longitudinal work.
Perhaps ironically, the calls for longitudinal studies often seem to come from senior scholars
who attempt to point the mantle of responsibility to junior faculty who still need to worry about
their tenure clocks. Apparently, scholars’ sense of the importance of temporality may be out of
alignment in more ways than one! This brings us to our next section, where we review in more
detail the progress made in contextualizing entrepreneurship research and in moving towards a
theory of contexts.
3. Progress in Contextualizing Entrepreneurship Research
Johns (2017) celebrates what he sees as the substantial progress that has been made in attending
to context in organization studies overall. Entrepreneurship research has moved forward in
parallel. For example, studies have sought to disentangle the structural (Baker, Gedajlovic, and
Lubatkin 2005; Baker and Powell 2016), spatial (e.g., Korsgaard, Müller, and Tanvig 2015;
Müller and Korsgaard 2017) and temporal dimensions of contexts (e.g., Lippmann and Aldrich
2016a; Lippmann and Aldrich 2016b), and have also emphasized the importance of history in
contextualizing entrepreneurship (e.g., Wadhwani 2010; Wadhwani 2016).
Overall, studies that make a start towards theorizing context have accumulated, albeit slowly,
over the past few years. We are particularly encouraged by studies that move beyond simple,
linear, single level regression models and attempt instead to grasp the non-recursive,
simultaneously top-down and bottom-up characteristics of the phenomena they investigate. Even
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more so, researchers have increasingly left the comfortable and familiar environs of technology-
enabled, growth-oriented ventures run by entrepreneurs with a sole focus on financial returns and
able to attract adequate resources to fuel their journeys. We have more often left the figurative
“Shark Tank” and “Dragon’s Den” behind, allowing us to encounter a fascinatingly broad range
of founders and contexts. To date, there are numerous studies from different parts of the world
that highlight the inventive and creative agency of entrepreneurs dealing with what are often
turbulent, hostile and resource-constrained institutional contexts. Table 1 collects selected
examples of studies which have investigated strategies of informal entrepreneurs; analyzed the
interactions of entrepreneurs with varied institutional contexts; looked at founder identities and
examined and expanded our understanding of entrepreneurial resourcefulness. Research
continues to demonstrate how consideration of socio-spatial and institutional contexts can
generate novel explanations for variations in the behavior of entrepreneurs – including, for
example, new insights into the differences between women- and men-owned businesses (e.g.,
Baughn, Chua, and Neupert 2006; Coleman 2016; Elam and Terjesen 2010; Gupta, Turban, and
Pareek 2013; Welter and Smallbone 2008, 2010).
Rough indicators of this progress in contextualizing entrepreneurship also include several
recently published anthologies that showcase the current – empirical and theoretical
understanding and applications of a contextualizing lens in entrepreneurship research. For
example, in the volume on “Entrepreneurship in Context”, edited by van Gelderen and Masurel
(2012), eight out of 17 chapters examine contextual influences on entrepreneurship, whilst five
chapters look into agency themes. Ramirez-Pasillas, Brundin, and Markowska (2017) classify the
22 chapters in their anthology into three groups: seven chapters contextualize the “top-down
driving forces for entrepreneurial practices”, another eight chapters contextualize bottom-up
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processes by analyzing how entrepreneurs influence their contexts, and seven chapters apply a
“hybrid” perspective, emphasizing the interactions between top-down and bottom-up dynamics.
Other edited volumes analyze entrepreneurship in specific spatial contexts (e.g., Mason et al.
2015; Van Ham et al. 2017) or focus on the intersections between socio-cultural contexts and
factors such as gender in shaping entrepreneurship (Yousafzai et al. 2018). Such volumes
together depict an increasingly differentiated understanding of the complexities of
contextualizing entrepreneurship theories and empirical research.
The sociologist Rachel Rosenfeld, reflecting on the state of much gender research in the
1980s and 1990s, criticized the approach she called, “add gender and stir.3” It is one thing to
contextualize our theories by adding this or that control variable, or adding even rich descriptions
of research sites. It is quite another to begin to develop theory about contextual elements
previously largely taken for granted and to develop theory about them…that is: to theorize
contexts. Drawing on Whetten (1989), Welter (2011) distinguishes between contextualizing
theory and theorizing context. In her interpretation, the former is mainly the application of
situational and temporal boundaries to theories in entrepreneurship, which requires a great deal
of useful comparative research. In contrast, the notion of theorizing contexts focuses on asking
broader and more challenging questions of our theories, for example, by resisting the urge to
blithely “control” away dynamics that we do not fully understand. The drive to theorize contexts
can help us to discover new insights that are based not just on filling random oversights and gaps
in prior work, but also on addressing patterns and voices that have been systematically
downplayed. Theorizing context requires the disciplined attempt to ask our theories to address
broad-ranging questions regarding who is involved in entrepreneurship as well as where, when,
3 Doctoral Seminar on Sociology of Gender, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1995, author’s course
notes)
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how and why they come to be involved and with what consequences to them and to others
(Welter 2011 and Table 1). In the following subsection, we discuss recent work, some of which
moves beyond contextualizing theory toward theorizing context, organizing our discussion in
terms of who, where, when, how and why.
3.1 Who and Why Contexts
A central outcome of theorizing context is the lens it provides on entrepreneurial agency. Whilst
most (earlier) studies on contextual entrepreneurship did not pay (much) attention to the agency
of entrepreneurs in adapting to or even changing their contexts, recently, there has been growing
focus on how entrepreneurs interact with and enact contexts (e.g., Baker and Welter 2017; Pret
and Carter 2017; Shaw, Wilson, and Pret 2017; Spedale and Watson 2013; Watson 2013).
13
Table 1: Contextualizing entrepreneurship research and theory
Context dimensions
Contextualizing
entrepreneurship
Examples of research studies
Useful concepts
Who
Individual / team,
community,
business
Doing context: How do
individuals,
communities, businesses
interact with where and
when contexts? How do
they adapt and/or change
where contexts? Why do
individuals, communities
and businesses interact
with contexts?
strategies of informal entrepreneurs (e.g., De Castro, Khavul,
and Bruton 2014; Han, Nelen, and Kang 2015; Webb, Ireland,
and Ketchen 2014; Welter and Xheneti 2015; Williams and
Nadin 2013; Williams and Shahid 2014); interactions of
entrepreneurs with varied institutional contexts (e.g., Fisher et
al. 2017; Mair and Marti 2009; Manolova and Yan 2002;
McCarthy and Puffer 2016; Puffer, McCarthy, and Boisot
2010; Smallbone and Welter 2001; Sutter et al. 2013; Tracey
and Phillips 2011; Welter and Smallbone 2011); founder
identity (e.g., Powell and Baker 2014, 2017) and
entrepreneurial resourcefulness (e.g., Corbett and Katz 2013;
Misra and Kumar 2000; Powell 2011; Welter, Xheneti, and
Smallbone 2018)
Institutional
entrepreneurship,
entrepreneuring,
identity
Where
market
How where contexts are
constructed? Why does
the where context impact
on entrepreneurship?
Most entrepreneurship studies. For example, recent special
issue in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice on sector, cf.
introductory article by De Massis et al. (2017)
Relational
geography,
embeddedness,
linguistic studies,
14
households,
families
Networks (Anderson, Dodd, and Jack 2010; Jack, Dodd, and
Anderson 2008); households (Alsos, Carter, and Ljunggren
2014; Carter et al. 2017; Carter and Ram 2003); families
(Bettinelli, Fayolle, and Randerson 2014; Welter et al. 2014)
cognitive science
communities,
neighbourhoods,
industrial
districts, clusters,
country
Rural places (Korsgaard, Ferguson, and Gaddefors 2015;
Korsgaard, Müller, and Tanvig 2015; Müller and Korsgaard
2017); communities (Gaddefors and Cronsell 2009; Gaddefors
and Anderson 2017; Johannisson 1990; Johannisson and
Nilsson 1989; Peredo and Chrisman 2006); neighborhoods
and cities (Mason et al. 2015; Van Ham et al. 2017)
culture,
regulatory and
normative
institutions
Boettke and Coyne (2009); De Castro, Khavul, and Bruton
(2014); Henrekson and Sanandaji (2011); Smallbone and
Welter (2001); Welter and Smallbone (2011); Welter and
Xheneti (2015); Welter, Xheneti, and Smallbone (2018);
Williams and Vorley (2015)
When
How when contexts are
constructed? Why does
the when context impact
on entrepreneurship?
Aldrich (2009); Bird and G. Page West (1998); Fischer et al.
(1998); Gielnik et al. (2014); Lippmann and Aldrich (2016b)
Time geography,
history studies
Berghoff (2006); Berghoff and Möller (1994); Colli (2012);
Hjorth and Dawson (2016); Ocasio, Mauskapf, and Steele
(2016); Wadhwani (2016)
Source: Authors, based on the typologies of Welter (2011) and Whetten (1989).
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An important version of using a contextual lens to examine agency involves studies that
analyze entrepreneurship as a driver of social change (see Table 1). Research has looked at, for
example, how communities engage in entrepreneurship and change their socio-spatial contexts
(e.g., Gaddefors and Cronsell 2009; Johannisson and Nilsson 1989; Peredo and Chrisman 2017;
Steyaert and Hjorth 2006; Welter, Trettin, and Neumann 2008). Community entrepreneurship is
not limited to narrowly delimited socio-spatial contexts. For example, Johnstone and Lionais
(2004) identified the local embeddedness of community entrepreneurs as well as their
willingness and ability to interact with the “outside” world as enablers of social change.
Korsgaard, Ferguson, and Gaddefors (2015) suggest the same enablers for individual
entrepreneurs. They illustrated how rural entrepreneurs combined their access to local resources,
which were a result of their close spatial embeddedness, with seeking non-local resources when
required. Entrepreneurs can also contribute to changing place identities and reputations. For
example, McKeever, Jack, and Anderson (2015) show how entrepreneurs, by drawing on their
social bonds and their affinity to community, do context in creating, renewing and reifying a
positive identity of their place. Where entrepreneurs are not (fully) embedded locally, they are
quicker to re-locate outside of their place, creating bridges between contexts (Korsgaard, Müller,
and Tanvig 2015).
In a classic paper applying an ethnomethodological lens, West and Zimmerman (1987) show
gender to be something that people accomplish through everyday interactions, labeling this,
“Doing Gender.” When we theorize gender in entrepreneurship, this allows us to see how doing
gender is not simply some “limitation” of being a woman or a mana zero versus a one on some
dummy variable – but is instead an ongoing accomplishment. What is an ongoing
accomplishment, whether of one woman alone or women embedded in enabling communities,
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can be altered by the people involved. For example, place-based context frequently challenges
some women to break out of norms that constrain their entrepreneurial behavior (Gunnerud
1997, 265). Welter and Smallbone (2010) illustrate the norm-breaking behavior of women
entrepreneurs in a post-Soviet context, where they openly defy societal norms ascribing
traditional gender roles to, for example, their choice of industry. Some of these women also turn
gender stereotypes into a forum for creative play, opposing and re-interpreting the predominant
male image of entrepreneurship as shown by Bruno (1997, 63-4). We find it useful to apply the
lens of “doing context” (Baker and Welter 2017) to highlight the ways in which context is not
something that just “is” for entrepreneurs but instead is something they enact and construct, often
in idiosyncratic ways, typically through routine interactions.
The stream of literature on so-called “institutional entrepreneurship” is explicit and
sometimes even quite grand in its attempts to understand forms of entrepreneurial agency that on
occasion extend to institutional change (e.g., Battilana, Leca, and Boxenbaum 2009; Leca and
Naccache 2006; Li, Feng, and Jiang 2006; Pacheco et al. 2010). Other scholars, however, have
been critical of this concept on the basis that it does not take context seriously enough. Clegg
(2010, 5) argues that the institutional entrepreneurship literature is de-contextualized because “it
(…) focuses overly on a few champions of change and neglects the wider social fabric in which
they are embedded. Nelson Mandela may have been an institutional entrepreneur in South
Africa, but without the long struggle, armed resistance, and civil disobedience campaigns of the
ANC, he could not have achieved much.” The concept of institutional entrepreneurship does not
fully capture the complexities of the interplay between context and individuals (Aldrich 2010),
because it neglects the reflexivity of agents and the messiness of institutional change, by
portraying “heroes and successes in a linear time line” (Weik 2011, 472). Extending this, in their
17
cross-disciplinary review of institutional entrepreneurship research, Welter and Smallbone
(2015) suggested that researchers avoid the heroic-sounding label of institutional entrepreneur in
favor of broader study of institutional change agents and the role that everyday entrepreneurs
may or may not play in shaping intentional institutional change.
Regardless of such criticism, case studies applying an institutional entrepreneurship
perspective also allow us to start theorizing why entrepreneurs do context. For example,
Bjerregaard and Lauring (2012) show that entrepreneurs have to manage institutional tensions, in
this case the tensions between the requirements of a modern market economy and a traditional,
rural culture. In both cases they studied, entrepreneur’s extended families were both a resource
and a hindrance to entrepreneurship in a context in which witchcraft still informed individual
actions in important way. One of the entrepreneurs they studied was quite effective in “bridging
institutional contradictions” (Bjerregaard and Lauring 2012, 31), by distancing himself from
local traditions and thus openly bringing in new values, while the other entrepreneur draws
heavily on traditional normative patterns to ensure legitimacy for his entrepreneurial activities.
“Doing context” here, as in many other cases, is less a clean break with existing institutions than
it is an incremental process of bricolage (Lévi-Strauss 1966), a “co-mingling containing changed,
reused and new templates” as suggested by Stål (2011). Entrepreneurial agency in such cases is
more a matter of enacting the environment one inhabits by bracketing some features and
highlighting others as the context to which one will respond (Powell and Baker 2014, 2017;
Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld 2005).
Contextual discontinuity and boundary crossing shape who does context and why.
Individuals whose daily life positions them as insiders in some contexts and outsiders in other
contexts often act as change agents. For example, Mutch (2007) narrates the story of Sir Andrew
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Barclay Walker, who pioneered directly managed pubs in England during the late 19th century.
Because of his Scottish background, Walker was able to see beyond existing and taken-for-
granted managerial practices and organizational models such as the tied tenancy system still
prevailing at that time in England. This allowed him to introduce a novel and innovative business
model.
Other instances where contextual discontinuity enables entrepreneurs to become change
agents can be found in cross-border, diaspora or transnational entrepreneurship, with
entrepreneurs acting as boundary-spanners across several diverse contexts (e.g., Terjesen and
Elam 2009; Xheneti, Smallbone, and Welter 2012). Riddle and Brinkerhoff (2011) present the
case of Thamel.com, founded by a Nepali diaspora entrepreneur who introduced a new business
model (e-commerce) to Nepal and its diaspora, and thus contributed to changing several
regulatory and normative institutions. Thamel.com also contributed to changes to the norms and
values of Nepali society, as, for example the interaction with lower caste individuals. All this
has, again, been a slow and incremental process, supported by the legitimacy, credibility and
reputation the entrepreneur had earned in his host and home society.
Overall, contemporary work demonstrates a variety of ways in which the non-recursive
relationships between entrepreneurs and the contexts in which they operate shapes both who they
are and why they behave in the rich and often idiosyncratic ways that careful observation reveals.
Much of this work is reminiscent of classical sociological research on the “marginal man” (Park
1928), which examined identity construction processes and conflicts among individuals and
groups embedded in distinct cultures. This presents a rich arena for future work on the dynamics
of founder identity (Fauchart and Gruber 2011; Powell and Baker 2017).
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3.2 Where Contexts
Entrepreneurial behavior is strongly shaped by founders’ embeddedness in both social structural
and institutional contexts (Granovetter 1985a; Polanyi 1957). Sociologists and institutional
economists delineate numerous sorts of embeddedness that condition economic action. For
example, political embeddedness (Zukin and DiMaggio 1990) and formal respectively regulatory
institutions (North 1990; Scott 2008) mold the sources and means of economic action. Cultural
embeddedness and informal / normative institutions reflect collective understanding and
interpretations and shape economic behavior (Denzau and North 1994). Social embeddedness
comprehends the impact of interpersonal networks and relations on economic actions
(Granovetter 1985b, 2005), whilst cognitive embeddedness reflects the “ways in which the
structured regularities of mental processes limit the exercise of economic reasoning” (Zukin and
DiMaggio 1990, 15-6; similar Denzau and North 1994). Entrepreneurship research has applied
an admixture of embeddedness constructs, using these as important ways to characterize
differences across the place in and through which entrepreneurship takes place (see Table 1).
Research has studied, for example, the institutional contexts for women’s entrepreneurship (e.g.,
Langevang et al. 2015; Yousafzai, Saeed, and Muffatto 2015), the mixed embeddedness of
ethnic firms (e.g., Kloosterman, Van der Leun, and Rath 1999; Ram, Theodorakopoulos, and
Jones 2008) as well as family embeddedness (Basco 2015; Poggesi, Mari, and De Vita 2015).
More recently entrepreneurship researchers have begun to emphasize the construction of
where contexts through, for example, individual perceptions and cognitions (e.g., Brännback and
Carsrud 2016; Gartner 2007), language and talk (e.g., Clarke and Cornelissen 2014; Parkinson,
Howorth, and Southern 2017) and social interactions (e.g., Fletcher and Selden 2016; McKeever,
Jack, and Anderson 2015; Steyaert 2016). Research that attends to the social construction of
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contexts promises a more balanced view. Such balance is established in some other, typically
more technical disciplines, for example, in informatics and computer science (Akman 2000;
Dourish 2004), in linguistics (Bates 1976; Labov 1970) and in cognitive science (Chun and Jiang
1998; Perkins and Salomon 1989). Entrepreneurship studies have drawn our attention to the
impact on opportunity recognition and exploitation of interactions between cognitions, social and
institutional contexts (Fletcher 2006; Jack and Anderson 2002; Koning 2003). Such a perspective
emphasizes the links between individual cognitions, interpretations and entrepreneurial behavior
(Gartner, Carter, and Hills 2003). This theme has been picked up by conceptual studies that
attempt to characterize the complex relations between cognitions and contexts (e.g., Brännback
and Carsrud 2016; Chlosta and Welter 2017; Elfving, Brännback, and Carsrud 2009, 2017). For
example, Clarke and Cornelissen (2014, 387) bring classic arguments from anthropology and
linguistics (see Whorf 1956) to bear by noting that language shapes entrepreneurial cognitions
and vice versa: “Language is not just a code for communication or simply an outward
representation of thought, but is inseparably involved with processes of thinking and reasoning
(…).” Related work has looked, for example, into sense giving and its influence on venture
support (Cornelissen, Clarke, and Cienki 2012).
Where contexts also are constructed through the emergence and change of shared
interpretations at local or supra-local levels. From an institutionalist perspective, Kalantaridis
(2007) suggests localized interpretations of institutions as antecedents of differing
entrepreneurial behavior, all of which, in the long run, may contribute importantly to institutional
diversity at the macro level. Thornton and Flynn (2005) suggest that the social and institutional
boundaries of place, reflected in cultural rules and shared local meanings, contribute to defining
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the local neighborhoods and communities which are the primary domains of many young
ventures.
Human geography points to how places are made through language. Tuan (1991) discusses
how words alone, for example, the naming of a place, can render formerly invisible objects
visible. He furthermore illustrates how the contexts of speech add to its function and impact on
behavior: “Thus, warm conversation between friends can make the place itself seem warm; by
contrast, malicious speech has the power to destroy a place’s reputation and thereby its
visibility.” Again, entrepreneurship research is lagging behind. Although Gartner (1993)
suggested early on that “words lead to deeds” in setting up a business, entrepreneurship research
has only begun to discover the role of language in constructing the places where
entrepreneurship may take place.
For example, Hechavarría et al. (2017) examine gendered linguistic structures and the
persistent gender gap in early stage entrepreneurial activity. They find that those countries that
have a language with sex-based systems and gender-differentiated pronouns experience a greater
gender gap in entrepreneurship. The authors surmise that gender stereotypes appear to be
reinforced by gendered linguistic structures, thus discouraging women from taking up
entrepreneurial activities. Parkinson and Howorth (2008) show that entrepreneurs may
appropriate or re-write the overarching discourse on social entrepreneurship when the public
rhetoric of (social) entrepreneurship differs from the lived experiences of social entrepreneurs.
Parkinson, Howorth, and Southern (2017) also highlight the role of language in constructing
contexts. They focus on the practice of talk at the community level and investigate how language
influences the imagery and reputation of entrepreneurship in specific places. Overall, the
substantial body of work in other fields, along with the nascent body of research in
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entrepreneurship seems consistent with the assertion that in many ways, places are constructed
through the stories we tell ourselves and one another.
3.2 When Contexts
Temporality is invoked – implicitly or explicitly whenever researchers develop process models
and explanations. Our discussion of the agency of entrepreneurs in shaping and reshaping
contexts already hinted at this. For example, the concept of “entrepreneuringinherently
considers dynamics over time (Steyaert 2007). The transdisciplinary perspective of time
geography offers one intriguing means for theorizing the temporal context of entrepreneurship.
Pred (1984) characterizes place as a process that is reproduced and constructed through time in a
manner that involves social, cultural institutions, and individual biographies and activities,
creating an astonishing rich interweaving of time and place. Reviewing the major works of time
geography, Stam (2016, 102) concludes that “With time geography the dialogic between the
entrepreneur and new value creation can be analyzed, within an ongoing process and situated
within a specific context.” To date, little work in entrepreneurship has taken this direction.
Scholars readily acknowledge the importance of time both in distinctions such “nascent”
versus “operational” ventures and through a variety of attempts to posit stage models of
entrepreneurial development. Nonetheless, explicit consideration of time has been sparse and
scattered (see Table 1). Already in 1998, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice published a
special issue on “Time and Entrepreneurship”. Whilst some of the papers applied a simple
commonsense understanding of time as linear and sequential (e.g., Cooper, Ramachandran, and
Schoorman 1998; Das and Teng 1998; Lévesque and Maccrimmon 1998), others introduced
radically different conceptualization of the temporal contexts for entrepreneurship. For example,
Fischer et al. (1998) described a social constructionist perspective on time in high-growth
23
ventures, or Slevin and Covin (1998) modeled the relations between time, complexity and
transitions, studying high-growth new ventures and stable ventures. Surprisingly, the interest in
temporal contexts that seemed to be gathering steam in the late 1990s seems to have dissipated
until recently when researchers (e.g., McMullen and Dimov 2013; Morris et al. 2012) began
insisting that we move from conceptualizing entrepreneurship as act towards understanding it as
journey. Many entrepreneurship researchers still appear to resist or to find difficult the
conceptualization of temporal contexts as socially constructed and non-linear.
Lippmann and Aldrich (2016b), in contrast, emphasize the differences between clock time
and our individual and socially constructed and shifting sense of time. Fletcher and Selden
(2016, 86) conclude that time and process are inherently linked to each other, and that
individuals are able to “connect to the past, present and future dimensions of an activity in the
momentary present.An appreciation for history is also currently gaining some traction in
entrepreneurship research. Business and economic historians (e.g., Jones and Rose 1993; Jones
and Wadhwani 2006; Wadhwani 2016) as well as entrepreneurship scholars (e.g., Aldrich 2009;
Landström 2015; Landström and Lohrke 2010) have started to systematically introduce historical
considerations and historical methods into entrepreneurship research. Wadhwani (2016, 67)
emphasizes that the “turning to the past” needs to recognize that entrepreneurs use historical
contextualization – i.e., they do historical context – in ways that differ importantly from how
researchers take account of history.
Again, the entrepreneurship field is following in the wake of other disciplines, including
management and organization studies (for an overview see Bucheli and Wadhwani 2014;
Godfrey et al. 2016; Ingram, Rao, and Silverman 2012; Kipping and Üsdiken 2015). Scholars
applying institutional theories have had a longer tradition of considering historical aspects as an
24
influential factor on entrepreneurship. For example, studies have demonstrated the importance of
path-dependent entrepreneurial behavior (i.e., behavior drawing on historically embedded norms
and codes of conduct) in unstable institutional contexts (e.g., Manolova and Yan 2002; Welter
and Smallbone 2003; Welter and Smallbone 2015), as well as the role of path dependency in and
for the development of family firms (e.g., Lubinski 2011). Research on entrepreneurship in
emerging economies has illustrated how entrepreneurs draw on historical meaning in adapting to
or defying institutions and changing them in their favor (e.g., Bjerregaard and Lauring 2012;
Mair and Marti 2009; McCarthy and Puffer 2016; Miller et al. 2009; Puffer, McCarthy, and
Boisot 2010; Sutter et al. 2013; Tracey and Phillips 2011; Welter and Smallbone 2011).
Such studies point to the role of history for “doing contexts”. As Wadhwani (2016) suggests,
historical contextualization of institutions and individuals allow a close look at how contexts
change over time because of entrepreneurial behavior. He points to studies of industry
emergence and evolution and to the driving effect of entrepreneurship on growth and structural
change such as creative destruction as potential research topics. History, of course, invokes not
just when, but who, why, where and how, thus bringing us to the end of our attempt to illustrate
recent progress in contextualizing entrepreneurship by applying Welter’s (2011) framework.
Even in this quick review, it becomes apparent that the typology is a useful heuristic for
assessing the state of the art, but that the development of a theory of entrepreneurship contexts
has only just begun.
3.3 Limitations of the Incipient Theory of Entrepreneurship Contexts
In section 2 we assembled a series of arguments in support of the thesis that in a very broad
sense, “context is everything” and that extreme versions of “contextualizing” or
“contextualization” can rapidly lead to an infinite regress in which it becomes very unclear what
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is figure and what is background. As Steyaert (2016) notes, literary and cultural studies have
been a prime example of this, with context “an endlessly contested concept, subject to often
rancorous rehashing and occasional bursts of sectarian sniper fire” (Felski 2011, 573). In some
social science fields, for example, cultural anthropology, the struggle over contextualization has
been recognized as equivalent to some of the problems of extreme relativism, allowing scholars
little secure place to stand, even temporarily. Scharfstein (1989, xi) describes “the issue of
context” as laying “an intellectual burden on us that we cannot evade but that can become so
heavy that it destroys the understanding it was meant to further.” In our opinion, some of the
excesses of postmodernism also provide fair warning against such relentless attempts to
deconstruct scholars’ every claim and to value the deconstruction more than that which it takes
apart.
In Section 3 so far, we showed that entrepreneurship research has experienced an outpouring
of essays that examine and proselytize for greater emphasis on context and a deluge of studies
that take one or more elements of context into consideration. Taken together, such essays and
studies represent the rudiments of an incipient theory of entrepreneurship contexts. We chose to
adopt the Welter (2011) framework, because it appears to be the broadest and most influential to
date. At various points in our consideration of recent work using this framework, it became
apparent that it is difficult to classify aspects of contexts into questions of who, why, how, where
and when. For example, who and why often seem largely inseparable, because questions of who
I am and who I want to be drive extremely heterogeneous founder motivations (Powell and
Baker 2014): who and why are thereby inextricably intertwined and attempts to rip them apart
are likely to stall progress. Even more broadly, work bringing deeper historical understanding,
extending to a variety of ways of understanding temporality, requires simultaneous consideration
26
of who, why, how, where and when. Taken as a whole, this work threatens to overwhelm the
boundaries of the typology provided by Welter (building on Whetten 1989) and to reinforce the
seemingly unbounded problem of context as described in Section 2. To use a non-technical term,
progress toward the development – still largely implicit – of a theory of entrepreneurship
contexts has been somewhat willy-nilly.
To be sure, despite the whirlwind tour provided in Section 3, most entrepreneurship research
is currently a long way from the excesses of the drive to contextualize. Implicitly, many of our
theories and concepts still assume that entrepreneurship is the same all over the world, regardless
of cultural, institutional, social and spatial contexts – in other words: we have managed to create
and we still maintain a highly de-contextualized research field, which also influences not only
our teaching, but also the advice we give to entrepreneurs, those supporting them and policy-
makers. Hjorth, Jones, and Gartner (2008, 81) observe that entrepreneurship research has been
characterized by a search for “‘general laws’ of entrepreneurship which might transcend context,
and in doing so has been tempted by accounts of entrepreneurship that are removed from context
and are thus decontextualised.” This is true not only of scholarly work but of popular and
influential practitioner accounts as well. For example, Brännback and Carsrud (2016) report that
even Steve Blank, the inventor of the “lean start-up model”, acknowledges the context-
specificity of his model, which stems from his experiences as serial technology entrepreneur and
investor in Silicon Valley. But we nonetheless repeatedly see it viewed and taught as if it were an
easily universalized normative model for creating new organizations. From this perspective, we
are quite sympathetic to Ucbasaran, Westhead, and Wright’s (2001, 68) aspiration to contribute
to “an integrated, theoretically driven and comprehensive framework” for studying contexts in
entrepreneurship.
27
Unfortunately, we believe that such a framework may be beyond our grasp. The experience
of other fields attempting to grapple seriously with issue of context is that the infinite regress and
the slippery slopes of relativism are forever on the near horizon. Our perspective therefore builds
instead on Welter’s (2011, 177) characterization of the challenge: “I suggest that a
contextualized view on entrepreneurship asks for an interdisciplinary perspective, as the solution
cannot be to develop an overarching theory of entrepreneurship in all contexts, but rather
working with disciplines like anthropology, sociology, and others, which possess some of the
tools and concepts entrepreneurship scholars need to explore the variety, depths and richness of
contexts.”
Our stance remains positivistic in the sense that our interest is in developing theoretical
explanations that reflect in useful ways social realities that exist outside of our theoretical
explanations of them. But we are wary of all explanations that present themselves as “the truth”
or on some singular path to find it. And we are especially allergic to “contingency” approaches
to contextualization that operate – implicitly or explicitly – under the assumption that the
purpose of contextualizing is to somehow either to remove or “control for” context in a manner
that let’s very simple universal truths emerge and be stated, or that complexifies theories by
adding contingencies. As Steyaert (2016, 33) notes, “After all, the notion of context was invented
to turn analysis away from its universalistic ambitions and to overcome the problems of
contingency theory – with its quasi-endless series of contingent factors that could interfere with
the generalizability of causal relations.”
Most of us would prefer to develop theories that are accurate, simple, and general.
Unfortunately, we all face unavoidable tradeoffs in the simultaneous pursuit of these goals.
Organization scholars are most likely to have learned this lesson from Weick (1979), who
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credited the underlying ideas to Thorngate, and his “postulate of commensurate complexity.”
Thorngate (1976) in turn developed these ideas in his commentary on a dialectic between Gergen
(1973) and Schlenker (1974). To greatly simplify their arguments: Schlenker was arguing that
our theories could make a great many assertions that would be largely unconditionally true,
across most or all contexts. Gergen was arguing instead that we could say very little that was
unconditionally true. Thorngate (1976, 405) responded with a kind of synthesis by observing,
“The more conditionals we add to a theory, the more specific and less parsimonious it
becomes, approaching the limit of a series of statements each of which describes a single
event … At this limit, description and explanation become synonymous. If our explanations
are to be more than “mere” descriptions of historical events, then we must determine how
many conditionals (variables, parameters) our theories must have in order to give a general,
accurate account of social behavior. Will a three-parameter theory suffice? A 27-parameter
theory? When can we safely state that a phenomenon occurs ‘in general’? When should we
add a conditional to describe how ‘it depends?’”
Dilley (1999b, 9) puts this more succinctly, arguing that we are “caught between the Scylla of
contextual relativism and the Charybdis of ‘extreme sameness and objectivity’.” Early German
philosophers and social theorists drew similar contrasts between “nomothetic” explanations that
generalize across instances and “idiographic” explanations that fully explore particular cases
(Campbell 1975; Dilthey 1989; Weber 1978; Windelband 1893).
In such framings, contextualization creates complexity in the service of accuracy and also
in service of the generality of an entire, perhaps quite complex, body of theory. A fully
contextualized theory might be a descriptively accurate rendering mirroring rather precisely the
features of some social world, capturing a full set of contingencies that might shape the manner
29
in which these features influence whatever outcomes we were interested in explaining. For
example, if some factor for example, the prevalence of malaria – were important in some
contexts but not at all in others, a fully contextualized theory would include constructs that fully
moderated the impact of this disease. Few entrepreneurship scholars would carry arguments
about contextualization to such lengths, and not many have pushed strong versions of relativism
but the debate nicely sets up the question: given that we can’t attend to the full multiplicity and
heterogeneity of context in our research or theories (Welter 2011), what sorts of context matter
most? How do we usefully avoid the potentially unbounded demands of contextualization and
instead harness the “contextual turn” in entrepreneurship research in a useful way?
Overall, our assessment is that typologies such as those outlined by Zahra and Wright
(2011); Zahra, Wright, and Abdelgawad (2014) and by Welter (2011) have been useful guides to
entrepreneurship research. They seem to have helped move contemporary research somewhat
away from the too naïve search for general laws of entrepreneurship regardless of context
(Hjorth, Jones, and Gartner 2008). Such typologies will continue to remain useful as general
checklists for the sorts of dimensions of our research that might benefit from tilting the balance
away from simplicity and towards accuracy and perhaps generality. We are increasingly
concerned however, that even such checklists and typologies can rapidly become too complex.
For example, the “institutional” dimension is itself an extraordinarily rich construct, as witnessed
by the dominance and increasing complexity institutional approaches to organizational theory.
The history dimension can quickly become similarly overwhelming in its nuance and
complexity; any treatment of history is also highly susceptible to contestation. Much the same
can be said about the elements of any such typology of elements or dimensions of context.
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4. Progress in Empirically Studying Contextual Entrepreneurship
In Section 3, we described progress in theoretical perspectives that focus on language,
perceptions and cognitions and enactment suggesting that these emphasize the construction and
co-creation of contexts, as well as their fluidity. Whilst theoretically, entrepreneurship
researchers have started to embrace the heterogeneity, multiplicity and non-recursive dynamics
of contexts, our research approaches still typically fall short. Which are the best methodological
approaches to research contextual entrepreneurship? How can we best capture the richness and
diversity of contexts and the interactions between entrepreneurs and contexts? What about the
role of the researcher in context research? How do we think about and develop contextualized
propositions and hypotheses? How do we think about units of analysis and temporality? In much
contemporary research, contextualization is relegated to adding a (or many!) control variable, or
providing a short description of research context. In this section, we briefly outline some of the
challenges for contextualized empirical research, and then we turn to a selective review of
relevant methodologies and research approaches from other disciplines as well as some
promising methods adopted by entrepreneurship researchers.
4.1 Challenges for Contextualized Research Approaches
Contextualizing research is “in,” in the sense that it is fashionable to talk about the need to do
more of it, but how do we go from acknowledging its importance to applying its lessons in our
empirical work? Some of the primary challenges in developing a contextualized research
approach are to capture the softer and socially constructed elements of contexts reviewed in
section 3, their multiplicity and multi-level nature and the non-recursive links between contexts
and entrepreneurship (Welter 2011). We see four major challenges to be dealt with in developing
contextualized research approaches.
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Towards a different understanding of context(s). Social anthropology has highlighted context
as an analytical device “(…) by means of which anthropologists are able to reveal hidden
meanings and deeper understandings, or to forward certain kinds of interpretation and particular
forms of explanation” (Dilley 1999b, 3). In entrepreneurship research, we often invoke a simpler
understanding: we ask what exogenous factors, such as industry, cultural, regional and socio-
economic factors impact on entrepreneurship. We mostly “control for” these factors by adding
proxies for them to our regressions. However, conceptually, as we reviewed in section 3, the
frontier of contextual entrepreneurship research has moved from such a circumscribed meaning
of context towards a richer understanding which allows us, at least theoretically, to understand
context as fluid, temporally uneven, occurring on many levels, and as a social construction which
is influenced by language, cognitions and the actions of entrepreneurs and the people with whom
they interact. Our usual methods and models are pretty good at controlling for the effects of
specific exogenous variables. However, the richer theorization of context that entrepreneurship
scholars continue to develop is too seldom reflected adequately in our empirical work.
A multiplicity of contexts and levels. The messiness and complexity of entrepreneurship
derives from questions of who is driving it? A community? A family? An individual? Different
social networks are invoked, spanning, friends, family, community, varied stakeholders. These
are embedded within and affect special, regulatory and normative contexts at community,
regional national and broader levels. These sorts of complexities raise fascinating and potentially
fecund questions about our approaches to empirical research. What are the most useful units of
analysis for driving the contextualization of our work? How do our choices affect trade-offs
between simplicity, accuracy and generalizability? Which methods adequately capture multi-
level relations? Can we find novel and effective ways to combine qualitative, interpretive and
32
deductive approaches? These questions are just a starting point for the methodological
developments that we need to link arm-in-arm with the path-breaking work being done to rethink
approaches to developing robust approaches to contextualizing our work. In the iterative process
between theoretical and methodological process, it is time to ask: how do we go about creating
the methodological approaches that will be necessary to build a body of knowledge and
understanding that takes full advantage of the richness of the contexts in which entrepreneurship
takes place.
Towards contextualizing research approaches. Theoretically, we have come to realize that
contexts are fluid and changing over time, and that entrepreneurs “do context” (Baker and Welter
2017) in that they co-create and enact their contexts, draw on their cognitions and individual
interpretations of contexts and contribute to changes over time. But, much of our research still
treats context as a given and focuses on establishing causal links between one context, for
example, place, and entrepreneurship – perpetuating, at least implicitly, a rather static and one-
sided and sometimes simplistic understanding of entrepreneurial actions as influenced by
contexts. By recognizing that our work can never be “fully contextualized” and abandoning the
hope of some fully blown theory of entrepreneurial context, we can instead move towards
treating our contextualizing efforts as a tool, an approach, a way to deepen our understanding
through challenging what we think we know.
For example, Welter (2011) describes a young female entrepreneur in rural Uzbekistan, with
training in traditional crafts, whose father’s death forced her to become an entrepreneur. She
opened up a home-based business offering traditional costumes, allowing her to support her
family as its sole source of income. Seen with the eyes of a scholar focused on the research on
women entrepreneurs in a Western context such as the U.S. or Europe, her work might be
33
categorized as: Typical female-owned venture in a low-growth industry with low barriers to
entry. This industry was chosen because she is young and a woman, thus lacking (access to)
financial capital and, probably, also to other resources such as social capital and human capital.
Contextualized interpretations might read this in a variety of different ways that usefully
challenge our presumptions and also lead us to attend to empirical factors that might otherwise
escape our notice or appear trivial. For example: A young woman in post-Soviet rural
Uzbekistan (i.e., considering the socio-spatial and normative contexts together with historical
antecedents) was not allowed to operate outside of her home before marriage. Her training in a
traditional craft offered her the possibility to work from home and simultaneously earn an
income. Evaluating the business development over time (i.e., considering the temporal context)
demonstrates that she by no means owned a low-growth business, or at least not in the
derogatory way we might categorize someone as having “failed” to grow in other context. She
developed her venture into a family business. She persuaded both of her younger sisters to train
in adjacent traditional crafts so that they could offer a complete product portfolio over time. She
also set up a school to teach other girls to sew, thus not only achieving a level of personal
emancipation for herself through entrepreneurship, but also contributing to changing the
normative and social contexts within her village over time (Welter 2011; Welter and Smallbone
2008). This example illustrates the value of applying a critical process approach to
contextualization in our empirical research: As soon as we see entrepreneurship “out of our
familiar context”, if we are fortunate, new interpretations and meanings may start to emerge
which allow us to question important taken-for-granted assumptions and judgments that may
underlie established theories and concepts.
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Doing context as researchers. Contextualizing also implies that we start questioning our own
role in contextualized entrepreneurship research. As researchers, we need to not only know about
contexts, but “do contexts” – which requires us to rethink our methodological approaches in
studying contextualized entrepreneurship. Zahra and Wright (2011) argued that contextualized
research practices would change our research approach, methods and operationalization. Instead
of “controlling for” context, it would become part of the story or the story itself. The role of the
researcher would change towards being more engaged, which has consequences for the choice of
methodological approaches as well as analytical techniques. The scope of propositions would be
bounded but also enriched by context instead of trying to capture entrepreneurship as a
homogenous universal phenomenon. At the very least, being open to contextualization requires
also being open to discovering new meanings and themes that our research designs did not
anticipate. A similar logic leads Chlosta (2016) to suggest “contextual treatment” for our
research methodology in order for us to be able to empirically study and understand the role of
contexts in entrepreneurship and for entrepreneurship research.
Zahra and Wright (2011) propose engaged scholarship as one means of establishing closer
connections to the phenomenon we wish to study. This would in turn influence our research
approach and operationalization. Which elements of context become important in practice and
thereby become central elements of our models? Which elements shape case selection in
inductive work? Which remain as lightly theorized or untheorized control variables? Such
challenges require methods that promote better visibility into the processes through which
contexts are constructed and enacted and into how entrepreneurs do context by interacting with,
interpreting and enacting their social, spatial and institutional contexts (Baker and Welter 2017).
We suggest that we need to be aware of the duality between us and the objects of our research
35
(Baker, Powell and Fultz, 2017): as researchers we are simultaneously influenced by our own
contexts and we “do contexts”. We decide on what counts as context – we choose what will be
rendered as primary elements of context and we choose what will be considered less important
elements or ignored.
4.2 How to Contextualize Research Approaches
What research approaches are adequate to contextualize entrepreneurship? Brännback and
Carsrud (2016, 21) emphasize that our “research methods seem to have become a context in
itself, irrespective of whether those methods are the best fit with our research questions”, and
irrespective of whether they are context-sensitive. Chlosta (2016, 118) argues that
contextualizing implies a different way of seeing and understanding the world, that it means
being bold and entrepreneurial when choosing research approaches and “thinking in terms of
interactions and changes instead of linearity, causality and direct effects”.
There has been a longstanding debate in other fields as to which research approaches and
methods can help to capture context and to best contextualize, developing long before the
entrepreneurship field became interested. Communication and media research, socio-linguistics,
information science and human-computer interaction studies have each turned to
ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, and other interpretative and narrative methods (e.g.,
Bazzanella 2002; Labov 1970; McHoul 2008) which encourage researchers to simultaneously
look at talk, action and interaction, embodiment and artifacts within and across contexts as well
as to observe how individuals construct their contexts. Table 2 presents examples from our
selective review of other disciplines. Discursive research approaches such as discourse analysis,
and conversation analysis in combination with ethnomethodology to collect contextualized data
feature prominently. A main theme running through the different studies refers to the active
36
construction of contexts, through language and non-verbal interactions. For example, de Kok
(2008) shows how a cultural context is not only out there, but actively constructed by those
familiar with the culture (in her case the Malawian respondents), also in reaction to her as
interviewer being an outsider to the country and its culture. Other studies use approaches that
point to the interactions among those who do contexts (Broth 2008; Broth and Mondada 2013;
McHoul, Rapley, and Antaki 2008), the role and importance of non-verbal language, interactions
and movements and artifacts in doing context (Dourish 2004; Dupret and Ferrié 2008); and the
importance of not only analyzing doing context, but also visualizing context (Bar 2004).
Table 2: Contextualized research approaches selected insights from other disciplines
Source
Approach
Study
Main theme
Usefulness for
entrepreneurship
research
Bar
(2004)
Neuroscience
Conceptual /
review
Develops a model
for contextual
facilitation, i.e., how
we see objects in
context
Seeing context
Broth
(2008)
Conversation
analysis,
interaction
analysis (i.e.,
movements
and non-verbal
gestures)
Live production
of a French
interview
television show
Illustrates context as
a dynamic and
interactional
phenomenon,
accomplished by its
participants
Doing context as
collaborative practice,
non-recursive links
between contexts and
context-inhabitants
Broth and
Mondada
Conversation
analysis of
Video
recordings of
Illustrates the
complex facets of
Doing context as
embodiment, talk-in-
37
(2013)
spatial
movements
guided tours
contexts in both
static and dynamic
perspective
(multimodality,
space and mobility)
interaction
Construction of where
contexts
de Kok
(2008)
Conversation
analysis,
discourse
analysis,
ethnomethodol
ogy
Interviews about
infertility in
Malawi
Draws attention to
how respondents
build cultural
context in situ (886,
901)
Doing context,
constructing where and
when contexts through
language and as
reaction to outsiders
Dourish
(2004)
Ethnomethodol
ogy
Analysis of how
computational
settings can be
made sensitive
to contexts
Develops an
interactive and
contextual model of
human-computer
interaction (HCI)
Role of artifacts
(computers and
technology) in creating
and doing contexts
Dupret
and Ferrié
(2008)
Discourse
analysis,
conversation
analysis,
ethnomethodol
ogy
Analysis of a
parliamentary
debate in Syria,
2003, on family
law
Illustrates the
interactions between
speech (language),
audiences,
procedural rules
Multiple contextual
features and their close
interactions
Role of researcher and
their background
knowledge for
interpreting contexts
McHoul,
Rapley,
and
Antaki
(2008)
Conversation
analysis
Conceptual /
review
Texts can only be
understood within
respectively with the
knowledge of their
contexts
Researcher doing
context
Source: Authors.
38
In the entrepreneurship field, we do see a useful increase in the use of reflexive and practice-
based, interpretative and phenomenologically inspired approaches (Baker, Powell, and Fultz
2017; Berglund 2015; Chalmers and Shaw 2017; Gartner 2007; Hjorth and Steyaert 2004; for an
overview see: Neergaard and Leitch 2015; Neergaard and Ulhøi 2007). We also see greater
embrace of multi-level modelling approaches, which can be quite explicit in taking context into
account in novel ways. We are particularly excited by approaches that embrace equifinality,
reaching the outcomes in which we are interested, especially work applying fuzzy set qualitative
comparative analysis (e.g., Muñoz and Dimov 2015). Conceptually, we believe that there are
close ties between contextualization and the sorts of causal complexity such approaches
accommodate. Technological advances also provide the basis for useful methodological
innovations, such as “experience sampling,” in which person-level data are collected repeatedly
in real time (Uy, Foo, and Aguinis 2010). Further use and development of these and other
promising approaches (Kraus, Ribeiro-Soriano, and Schüssler 2017; Muñoz and Dimov 2015)
are not only enriching the empirical context literature, but can also help further the ongoing
theoretical discussion. For example, the notion of equifinality is largely anathema to the norms of
thinking about and modeling patterns in our data, and ideas about multi-levels of causality and
their modelling become particularly interesting in the face of emergent phenomena such as a new
organization. When do the founders and organization go from being one and the same to being
two separable levels?
Bengt Johannisson was a pioneer in using research approaches which allowed a better
understanding of the context in entrepreneurship and especially the agency of entrepreneurs in
relation to their contexts. His focus on entrepreneuring and on interpretative and enactive
research methodologies (Fletcher 2011; Steyaert and Landström 2011) supports the notion of
39
entrepreneurs “doing contexts”: His work on entrepreneuring adopts a process perspective on
entrepreneurial actions and sees the entrepreneurs as active constructors of the contexts in which
they operate (Johannisson 2011; Steyaert, Hjorth, and Gartner 2011). Such research approaches
put processes and the dynamics of contextual entrepreneurship into focus. For example,
Gaddefors and Anderson (2017) use a longitudinal study of a small rural town in Northern
Sweden, where they have conducted field work over ten years, in order to illustrate the complex
interactions between this particular context and entrepreneurship, using this to make somewhat
broader inferences. The authors conclude that elements of context become an inseparable part of
the entrepreneurial process.
Discursive approaches allow a close look at the role of language in legitimizing
(entrepreneurial) actions and behavior, within particular contexts as well as in the construction of
contexts. Berglund (2015, 476) suggests that by engaging with discursive resources individuals
construct, re-construct and enact their storylines and narratives. Through storytelling, for
example, “(…) entrepreneurial actions and events receive their meanings” (Berglund 2007, 87).
Research using storytelling, narratives and discourse analysis contextualize by illustrating that
and how different contexts are part of the story, also over time, (e.g., Fletcher 2006; Fletcher and
Watson 2007a; Fletcher and Watson 2007b; Hjorth and Steyaert 2004). For example,
entrepreneurship research drawing on discursive approaches has illuminated the creation of
entrepreneurial identities through narratives (Foss 2004) as well as legitimacy building in a new
venture (O'Connor 2004). Other studies looked at the interactions between individuals and
contexts. Cohen and Musson (2000) explored how individuals working in a small business were
influenced by and reproduced the overarching public enterprise discourse, whilst Parkinson,
40
Howorth, and Southern (2017) use discourse analysis to analyze the perceptions towards
entrepreneurship within a ‘deprived’ community in the UK.
Smith and Anderson (2007) suggest that we also draw on semiotics in studying
entrepreneurship. Their semiotic model allows us to construct and see meanings from signs and
expressions, be it visual, print- or film/television based or textual. Related research has, for
example, looked at how famous entrepreneurs visualize and re-story their entrepreneurial
identities (Boje and Smith 2010) or studied visual imagery, showing how images shape our
understanding of what constitutes women’s entrepreneurship (Smith 2014) or entrepreneurship in
general (Smith 2015). Some research analyzed media discourses of (women) entrepreneurs,
illustrating their embeddedness in institutional, historical and social contexts (e.g., Achtenhagen
and Welter 2007; Achtenhagen and Welter 2011; Eikhof, Summers, and Carter 2013). Other
studies combined discourse and linguistic analysis, looking at, for example, metaphors and their
role in creating contextual meanings of entrepreneurship (e.g., De Koning and Drakopoulou-
Dodd 2002; Dodd 2002; Dodd, Jack, and Anderson 2013; Hyrsky 1999; Ljunggren and Alsos
2001).4
Complementary to discursive research approaches, Berglund (2015, 480) suggests
phenomenological approaches that study the life-worlds of entrepreneurs, because those
illustrate in-depth how individuals “experience and enact certain phenomena or situations”. The
author critiqued cognitive and discursive methodological approaches for the inherent risk of
downplaying the ambiguity and uncertainty of real-life entrepreneurship, advocating instead for
phenomenological approaches that allow us to capture more of the richness of the lived
experiences of entrepreneurs (also see Drakopoulou Dodd, Pret, and Shaw 2016). Pret and Carter
(2017) explicitly pursued an interpretative phenomenological approach, investigating the lived
4 For a how-to guide on how to apply these techniques see Drakopoulou-Dodd and De Koning (2015).
41
experiences of 10 craft entrepreneurs that supported community and social growth. Their study
illustrates the interaction between various contexts and their influence on entrepreneurial
behavior: The analysis shows why industry and community embeddedness can result in
entrepreneurs feeling responsible for collaborating and sharing resources with competitors.
Also, case-based research implicitly draws on phenomenological approaches and the lived
experiences of entrepreneurs, allowing us to capture the complex interactions between
entrepreneurs and their multiple contexts. For example, Baker and Nelson (2005) showed how
entrepreneurs in resource-constrained environments made do with exploiting resources other
firms had ignored or rejected, thus demonstrating the social construction of resource contexts.
Müller and Korsgaard (2017), in their study on rural entrepreneurs in Denmark, outline how
entrepreneurs relate to their spatial contexts, continuously and creatively reinterpreting and
recombining resources. Some entrepreneurs were able to connect – bridge – across spatial
contexts, as a result creating new business opportunities for themselves and others. Studying
individuals who are engaged in informal cross-border activities in European borderlands, Welter,
Xheneti, and Smallbone (2018) identify the patterns and outcomes of individual resourcefulness
in unstable institutional contexts. Their study shows the variations of how individuals interact
with their contexts, in utilizing the intangible resources found in spatial, socio-cultural and
institutional contexts. These and similar studies highlight the value of case-based methods for
exploring the agency of individuals in relation to their contexts.
Other research has used ethnographic methods, again, albeit implicitly following the
methodological debates from other disciplines (see Table 2 above), but also pre-empting the
recent call for more ethnography in entrepreneurship studies5. For example, Wigren (2003)
5 See the papers from a 2017 Princeton-Kauffman Conference on expanding understanding of business creation by
bringing more ethnography into the mix at https://www.princetonkauffman2017.com/
42
explores the famous “spirit of Gnosjö”, a famous industrial district in Southern Sweden, through
ethnographic methods: She lived in the region, immersing herself not only in the workings of the
industrial district, but participating in the daily life of the community. Her results illustrate how
people’s interpretation may differ from their (entrepreneurial) behavior, both depending on the
respective contexts they are part of as well as whether they live and work inside or outside the
industrial district. The author also provides deep insights into the good and bad facets of contexts
and entrepreneurship. Others apply auto ethnography in studying entrepreneurship in its social
contexts as, for example, Engstrom (2012) who uses a self-narrative where he critically writes
and simultaneously reflects on his story into entrepreneurship, concluding that such a prosaic
approach to entrepreneurship allows us to capture its inherent sociality.
McKeever, Jack, and Anderson (2015) draw on ethnomethodology, including participant
observation, to look at the role of entrepreneurship in changing communities. The authors
explored the situated practices of entrepreneurs in two depleted communities in Northwest
Ireland. Their study demonstrates the high level of contextual awareness of entrepreneurs, where
entrepreneurs not only used resources available in the community for their business, but also
gave back to their places by being involved in a wide range of community activities which
addressed social and economic concerns in that particular place. Similarly, Jack et al. (2010) and
Anderson, Dodd, and Jack (2010) demonstrate the value of longitudinal research approaches.
Jack et al. (2010) map the emergence, change and evolution of a network for new entrepreneurs
over six years by combining participant observation, interviews and survey data, whilst
Anderson et al. (2010) identify networking practices of entrepreneurs evolving throughout the
growth process.
43
Chalmers and Shaw (2017) suggest a research approach that combines ethnomethodology,
conversation analysis and insights from the “practice turn” in organization studies, as context-
sensitive methodology which, they argue, would provide new insights onto contextual
entrepreneurship. Their emphasis lies on the interpretation, and, inherent in this, the individually
different understanding and construction of contexts. The authors make a strong case for
researchers to be aware of whose understanding of contexts they analyze (i.e., their own or the
entrepreneur’s understanding?) and to widen our knowledge of contexts beyond our own pre-
conceptions.
4.3 How to Operationalize Contexts?
Steyaert and Katz (2004, 193) aptly summarize the challenges the operationalization of contexts
of entrepreneurship faces, stating that: “The true measure of entrepreneurship in a society as a
whole needs to sample across multiple sectors, domains and spaces.” With regard to contextual
entrepreneurship, we face an additional difficulty, namely whether we can measure context at
all? Brännback and Carsrud (2016, 20) emphasize that “It is awfully hard, if not impossible, to
translate a context into a set of easily measured variables.” And yet, this is exactly what for a
long time, most entrepreneurship research, in studying contexts, has done: include a single
context variable which depicts contexts as, for example, network, industry, region, culture or
country. Studies on the everyday or the collective nature of entrepreneurship emphasize the
diverse contexts in which entrepreneurship takes place (e.g., Johannisson 1990; Korsgaard and
Anderson 2011; Peredo and Chrisman 2006; Rehn and Taalas 2004). Not surprisingly, however,
few research studies – even now – acknowledge non-recursive relationships and try to bridge
different levels of context, not least because of methodological challenges and the time and
resource constraints that plague many, especially junior researchers.
44
Researchers also seem to agree that it is not necessarily the individual or the business which
is the best unit of analysis to study contextual entrepreneurship. But they do not seem to agree on
which unit of analysis are more or less useful. A wide array of units of analysis have been
suggested, ranging from the context at large (e.g., Gaddefors and Anderson 2017; Johannisson et
al. 1994) to units of analysis which incorporate some, but not all contextual elements such as the
household and/or wider family (e.g., Alsos, Carter, and Ljunggren 2014; Anderson, Jack, and
Drakopoulou Dodd 2005) or socio-spatial contexts as reflected in communities (Hindle 2010),
rural entrepreneurship (Korsgaard, Ferguson, and Gaddefors 2015) or entrepreneurial regions
(Gaddefors and Cronsell 2009). To us, the quibble about the adequate unit of analysis is less
important – this should be determined by the research question and research aims, as usual. What
is much more important for an adequate operationalization of context is to decide how context is
being treated. This includes whether it is viewed as endogenous or as, which has been more
typical, exogenous, or whether elements of context are operationalized as having aspects of both.
5. Outlook and Agenda for Future Research
We view ourselves as part of a community trying to contribute to a common body of work, using
a common and evolving body of tools and methods. We don’t think approaches that essentialize
demographic or cultural differences among researchers or differences between researchers and
those they try to study are compatible with this goal. When they go so far as to undermine the
sense that we can usefully build a common body of knowledge using a common set of methods
and tools, in our assessment they become useless (and boring). At risk of being too dismissive, if
you claim that there can be no shared truth, we can reject your claim on its own terms and get
back to doing research. Gender, race, social class, sexuality, language, nationality and class can
45
and do frequently “matter” to the empirical challenges of trying to do research6. However, we
view these as practical challenges and opportunities, which different researchers will have more
or less success in overcoming, rather than as categorical barriers to common understanding.
5.1 Contextualizing as Problematizing the Taken-for-granted
Despite our confidence that entrepreneurship is now a legitimate field (Baker and Welter 2016),
we are still relatively young and subject to (re)-discovering issues with which many other fields
have previously grappled and with which some continue to grapple. Contextualization is one
such issue. While it is central to the fields of social anthropology and linguistics, it also plays an
important role in the development of many other disciplines, including neuroscience or indeed
creative fields such as fine arts photography. We have drawn in a very limited way on a few of
these fields in this monograph. We suggest, however, that there is still a great deal that
entrepreneurship researchers can and should learn from a more thoroughgoing attempt to bring
the lessons of other disciplines to the context (pun acknowledged) of entrepreneurship research.
At the most basic level, we see the process of contextualizing as a means of “problematizing”
existing work: any delineation of contexts functions as a set of heuristics for decentering taken
for granted facts and assumptions and most particularly for challenging specific forms of
intellectual complacency7. Importantly, however, we see this problematizing not as a primarily
destructive or radically relativizing process that seeks to undermine confidence in our knowledge
or understanding, but more as part of the process of “constructing opportunities for contribution”
(Locke and Golden-Biddle 1997). As Locke and Golden-Biddle (1997, 1029) showed in their
6 For a very straightforward example, see Baker, Powell, and Fultz (2017) on how researchers’ age and gender may
shape what entrepreneurs say and do not say to them.
7 In many ways, by challenging accepted understandings, contextualization can be a driving force of scientific
progress.
46
grounded theoretical study of (qualitative) papers in Academy of Management Journal and
Administrative Science Quarterly:
(…) in order to establish contribution, organization studies manuscripts must re-present
and organize existing knowledge so as to configure a context for contribution that reflects
the consensus of previous work. The presence of existing knowledge legitimizes a
research area by underscoring the intellectual resources devoted to it and, at the same
time, provides a theoretical orientation for present investigations… manuscripts must in a
sense turn on themselves, subverting or problematizing the very literatures that provide
locations and raisons d’etre for the present efforts.”
In this sense, the sort of problematizing that contextualizing processes can achieve are an
important part of what entrepreneurship scholars do every day when they convince reviewers and
editors that their research makes an interesting contribution. The same holds for Murray Davis’s
classic (1971, 309) paper in which he argues that “Interesting theories are those which deny
certain assumptions of their audiences, while non-interesting theories are those which affirm
certain assumptions of their audiences.” Contextualizing processes are an important means for
achieving empirical denial of prevalent scholarly assumptions.
The connections are perhaps even more obvious in Alvesson and Sandberg’s (2011, 252)
arguments that “contextualism and non-contextualism” (along with other bifurcations) become
“important methodological resources to open up and scrutinize assumptions underlying
established theories, including, to some extent, the favorite theory of the problematizer”
(Alvesson and Sandberg 2011, 252). Our main point here is that contextualization is part of a
non-recursive research process in which what we think we know is problematized in ways that
lets us seek better and more interesting answers.
47
Another, perhaps more subtle point is common to these papers. Each treats seriously the
notion that research is something that we do and which we strive to do rather than just a
disembodied set of accumulated papers. That is, each of these three papers is talking about what
it takes to get reviewers and editors to think that your work is interesting and that it makes a
contribution worthy of being published in some particular outlet.
From this perspective, as we argued in Section 4 “context” is primarily determined by the
researcher’s focus and attention. One element of this context is therefore the literature the
researcher invokes while constructing their opportunity for contribution. Extending this, another
important element of context is determined by the researcher through the choice of the object of
study, which implies a unit of analysis and thereby renders much of the surrounding activity at
lower and higher units of analysis as implicit, as background, perhaps as “controls” in
quantitative work or as elements of case selection in qualitative work (Yin 2013). Researchers
live in a world of prior scholarship upon which they draw both for ideas and in order to position
the results of their work as having merit. They work for universities that are embedded in socio-
political realities that shape both who they are and how they behave. Their personal biographies,
scholarly, personal and political commitments, their research communities and whatever is
current in their fields all contextualize their work. Overall, then we argue that the process of
problematizing prior work – which is at the core of a process approach to contextualizing
research is in fact already core to the overall project and project of entrepreneurship research.
5.2 Toward a Critical Process Approach
The opportunity to contextualize our work is apparently limitless and in comparison, our
capacities and resources for doing entrepreneurship research are limited. Generic calls to
“contextualize” our research may therefore be counterproductive to the extent that the decision to
48
“contextualize” comes at the expense of other research goals. We are particularly concerned that
demands for contextualization could become blunt tools in the hands of reviewers.
Contextualization is not a good in itself, but should be valued when a researcher – or a critic
can point to a clear rationale for why investing in the contextualization of some stream of
research or findings is likely to add value in some specific ways. In this sense, contextualization
is one of many competing goods in terms of the pursuit of empirical research.
Much of the research we have described above is “critical” mostly in the sense that it
implicitly or explicitly – interrogates and denotes boundaries and limitations of prior research. In
some cases, however, it is critical in a way that reveals something important about the overall
contextual landscapes on which we ground our studies and in which entrepreneurship takes
place. For example, the entire body of research on women’s entrepreneurship over the last 30
years can be taken as a critical revelatory corrective for a whole series of taken-for-granted
assumptions it has faced. Unfortunately, at this point in the emergence of entrepreneurship
research, theory and practice, critical lenses are tremendously underdeveloped, albeit emerging
slowly (e.g., Tedmanson et al. 2012; Verduijn et al. 2014), and critical voices and perspectives
remain too much on the margins, quieted or silenced in our mainstream discourse. For a variety
of reasons, much entrepreneurship research serves as a reflection of powerful legitimating
interests and perspectives (Baker and Welter 2017; Welter et al. 2017) including both too broad a
sense (Baker and Powell 2016) and too narrow a sense (e.g., Al-Dajani et al. 2015; Al-Dajani
and Marlow 2015; Rindova, Barry, and Ketchen 2009) of entrepreneurship as emancipation. We
suggest that efforts at contextualization may serve us best when they uncover and give voice to
perspectives that may otherwise remain unheard not because they are uninteresting but because
they are illegitimate or contrary to interests in maintaining the status quo. Much of the
49
entrepreneurship that occurs at many times and in many places is infused by dynamics of power,
domination, oppression, inequality and violence and these are too often ignored or taken for
granted both in our research as well as by most of the people we study, who are typically on the
privileged side of such dynamics. Given our conclusion that an adequate general theory of
entrepreneurship contexts is beyond our grasp – and probably not even a useful goal – we
speculate that a critical process approach to theorizing contexts is likely to be the best we can do.
50
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... Some types of entrepreneurship remain obscure and at the periphery, not in the mainstream, to the extent that they are easily considered as not being entrepreneurship activities (Baker and Welter, 2018;Lagarde, 2006). The socio-economic and spatial nature of disadvantage brings about social hierarchy, positioning some groups such as women, youth, older people, migrants, and the unemployed as particularly underprivileged in relation to the main society (Martinez Dy, 2020). ...
... The author's work "The Achieving Society" (1961) attempted to question why some succeed while others fail as a crucial way to study key economic development, the growth of the firm, and the distribution of income (Casson 1982, p. 10 Gartner (1985Gartner ( , 1988 criticizes the assumption that all entrepreneurs are similar, claiming that diversity among entrepreneurs can be greater than the differences between entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs and between entrepreneurial firms and nonentrepreneurial firms. Gartner has also contributed to the shifting of some relevant entrepreneurial research questions from the "who" to the "how" of entrepreneurship development (Gartner, 1980;Baker & Welter, 2018). As one of the early proponents of definitions of entrepreneurship that focus on the details: Schumpeter, J. A., & Nichol, A. J. (1934). ...
... The leading works of "Who"is the entrepreneur's position in the context. Context is not something that just "is" for entrepreneurs but instead is something they enact as a construct, often in idiosyncratic ways, typically through routine interactions (Baker & Welter, 2018). In line with this perspective, many authors evoke the need to "give voice" to "other" entrepreneurs, the less privileged, those at the margins of society (Gartner, 2013). ...
Thesis
La contextualisation gagne de l’importance dans le domaine de l'entrepreneuriat en tant qu'instrument permettant d'étudier les variations des modèles de l'entrepreneuriat à travers les contextes. Cette étude vise à comprendre comment un écosystème entrepreneurial peut être créé dans un espace socio-économique non conventionnel comme celui des réfugiés marginalisés résidant dans un camp. Par ailleurs, les études récentes sur l'entrepreneuriat illustrent que les réfugiés commencent à être étudiés séparément des autres immigrants économiques. Toutefois, l'étude de l'entrepreneuriat des réfugiés est encore dans un stade embryonnaire et nécessite une enquête plus approfondie reliée au contexte en raison surtout de l'hétérogénéité des réfugiés. Cette recherche doctorale utilise une approche qualitative et constructiviste qui permet de saisir la complexité et la diversité des processus entrepreneuriaux des réfugiés. Elle est basée sur deux études exploratoires: une étude pilote et une enquête sur le terrain. Ce travail utilise des approches écosystémiques et de théorie de bricolage qui permettent de considérer un large ensemble de facteurs contextuels. Les résultats révèlent que l'absence de valeur devient une opportunité de créer de la valeur avec les ressources disponibles et identifient les ressources essentielles qui sont la clé de la création et de l'évolution de l'écosystème entrepreneurial du camp de réfugiés. Ainsi que rôle des différents acteurs dans la co-création de cet écosystème entrepreneurial local basé sur un camp.
... This line of research emphasizes the activism of the institutional context and the individual's passive legitimacy perception. For example, the context can shape the cognitive framework and intuitive perceptions of stakeholders through reflexive isomorphism (Gupta et al. 2020;Welter, Baker, and Wirsching 2019;Baker and Welter 2018;Xie, Chenting, and Zhou 2018). The second focuses on entrepreneurs' cognitive processing processes and emphasizes their active judgement, such as active evaluative modes (e.g. ...
... neural alarms) that are activated when social entrepreneurs face cognitive conflicts (Tost 2011;Mitchell et al. 2015). However, the existing literature ignores the fact that individual and situational characteristics interact and does not truly understand how social entrepreneurs interact with the situation to influence the legitimacy judgement of social entrepreneurship (Baker and Welter 2018;Forsstrom-Tuominen, Jussila, and Goel 2019;Welter, Baker, and Wirsching 2019;Pret and Carter 2017). ...
... The interaction of uncertainty and entrepreneurial passion has no significant impact on relational legitimacy. In terms of direct effects, this paper verifies the negative effect of uncertainty on entrepreneurial engagement and the positive effect of entrepreneurial passion on entrepreneurial engagement, revealing the limitations of analysing the decision-making process of entrepreneurial engagement from a single perspective (Hörisch, Kollat, and Brieger 2017;Baker and Welter 2018;Mitchell et al. 2015). ...
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Theorizing embeddedness requires sensitivity to the dynamic and multi-layered contexts of entrepreneurship. Social or network embeddedness influences how social and for-profit entrepreneurs leverage resources within their local environment, and institutional embeddedness explains how the (social) entrepreneurial environment is shaped by societal structures. To understand social innovation (SI) processes–meeting social needs, transforming social relations, and reconfiguring institutional structures–we need to account for social and institutional embeddedness. This paper explores how institutional structures shape the environment for SI, influencing social networks and how actors within organizations are able to respond to contextual changes. Ethnographic case studies of two UK social enterprises uncover different levels and types of embeddedness influencing social organizations. We connect macro and micro interactions using a Polanyian view of embeddedness, placing SI within institutional structures and examining how reciprocal social relationships are critical to SI’s transformative potential. Findings reveal the interconnectedness of embeddedness, whereby embeddedness in institutional structures led to a breakdown of the social embeddedness necessary for collectivism critical to SI. Our multi-layered analytical approach has potential beyond understanding SI, making theorizing sensitive to processes of embeddedness of entrepreneurship in other contexts. © 2022 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
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