ntrepreneurship and Small Busine
s, Vol. X, No. Y, xxxx 1
Copyright © 20XX Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
Ontologies and epistemologies in ‘knowing’ the
nexus in entrepreneurship: burning rice hay and
College of Business
Colorado State University
Ft. Collins, CO 80523-1275, USA
Fax: (970) 491-3522
Farmer School of Business
Miami University, USA
Abstract: The distinctive domain of entrepreneurship has been defined as the
nexus of the entrepreneur and opportunities. We argue that this definition, as
well as dominant research in entrepreneurship, is rooted in a Western
perspective situated in market-based economies. In order to further the
understanding of the dominant assumptions of the nature of the nexus
(ontology) and our understanding of the nexus (epistemology), we interpret and
reinterpret a case of an entrepreneurial venture in Vietnam. We propose that a
multi-paradigm analysis in entrepreneurship will yield insights that are
applicable to a more global perspective of entrepreneurship.
Keywords: international entrepreneurship; entrepreneur opportunity nexus;
philosophy of science; ontology; epistemology.
Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Sarason, Y. and
Conger, M. (xxxx) ‘Ontologies and epistemologies in ‘knowing’ the nexus in
entrepreneurship: burning rice hay and tracking elephants’, Int. J.
Entrepreneurship and Small Business, Vol. X, No. Y, pp.xxx–xxx.
Biographical notes: Yolanda Sarason is an Associate Professor at the
Colorado State University. Her research interests include social
entrepreneurship, venturing in transitional economies, organisational identity
and philosophy of science. She was a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam 2015–1016.
Michael Conger is an Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Farmer
School of Business at Miami University. His research and teaching focus on
how entrepreneurial action can contribute to solving social and environmental
problems and the ways in which social enterprises are changing the role of
business and organisations in society.
This paper is a revised and expanded version of a paper entitled [title]
presented at [name, location and date of conference].
Comment [t1]: Author: If a previous version of
your paper has or iginally been presented at a
conference please complete the statement to this
effect or delete if not applicable.
2 Y. Sarason and M. Conge
“In agricultural entrepreneur Trang Tran’s native Vietnam, farmers
traditionally burn the straw and husks that remain after the rice harvest. This
practice happens at least twice a year for two months at a time, releasing
noxious smoke and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Tran’s solution:
using rice straw to cultivate mushrooms. Her social enterprise Fargreen is
standardizing the process and teaching farmers how to recycle their own
agricultural waste and improve their livelihoods.”
“Rice straw burning is something that happens every harvest season, and it
happens all around us. It’s been done for many years, and it’s considered the
most convenient way of getting rid of waste. Straw is perceived as having no
value – farmers just want to get it out of the way as soon as possible in order to
prepare for the next crop. In Vietnam, 20 to 50 million tons of rice straw are
burned annually, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Obviously
this contributes to climate change, but the more immediate problem is that local
people inhale the matter, causing serious health problems in communities –
particularly in babies. Poor communities are most affected, and of course they
have the least money for health care.”
“When rice straw is being burned, it’s very smoggy, and it’s hard to breathe. It
also blocks visibility. A lot of car accidents happen during harvest season. It’s
crazy – whenever I have to travel from my home to Hanoi for work, or come
home during harvest season, rice straw is being burned along both sides of the
road and it is very dangerous for drivers…”
“We looked into the various ways other researchers have considered to deal
with rice straw. But because we grew up in the community as well as working
in development, we could see from the local perspective that the problem is far
more complex than just the act of burning. You have to ask, ‘What is the
motivation for farmers? What’s in it for them not to burn?’ If there’s nothing in
it for them, and burning saves time so they can prepare for their next crop, then
you can’t blame them for wanting to continue.
“So we tried to think a bit differently – what can we offer the farmers that
would make it worth it for them not to burn? In between rice seasons, most of
the farmers we work with – many of them women – have to travel to the city to
find employment. They don’t have skills to compete in the job market, so all
they can get in cities are low-level jobs – picking up trash for recycling and so
on. If they can stay on their land and cultivate a profitable crop between rice
seasons, it would alleviate a lot of hardship.”
fight-climate-change/ (accessed 23 June 2015).
The focus of entrepreneurship research has been on the nexus of the entrepreneur and
opportunities (Scott and Venkataraman, 2000). There has been a dominate thread of
research that focuses on the nature of opportunities. This stream has served to focus the
field’s attention on the deeply social nature and institutional nature of entrepreneurial
opportunity (Venkataraman et al., 2012). Addressing the nature of the nexus there has
been calls to make explicit the ontological and epistemological assumptions in
entrepreneurial research (Sarason et al., 2006, 2010). Indeed, the field has moved toward
greater clarification in explicating the philosophical foundations of the nature of
Ontologies and epistemologies in ‘knowing’ the nexus in entrepreneurship 3
opportunities (e.g., Alvarez and Barney, 2007, 2010; Alvarez et al., 2012; Ramoglou,
2013; Randerson et al., 2016; Suddaby et al., 2015).
Despite this progress, we suggest that the field of entrepreneurship has remained
dominated by a Western perspective. This is evident from the seminal work of
Schumpeter (1934) and Kirzner (1978) to the current state of the field. We argue that
these Western paradigms hinder our understanding of entrepreneurship in a multicultural
setting. The focus on the ‘entrepreneur’ as one individual reflects an individualistic
orientation common to Western cultures as opposed to collectivist cultures (Begley and
Tan, 2001). Moreover, the focus on opportunities has been with a short-term orientation
with emphasis on financial performance. This is also more common to Western cultures
that have a long history of market-based economies (Dana, 1994).
Our goal is to highlight these assumptions by interpreting and reinterpreting case of
Fargreen – a social venture in Vietnam. Vietnam represents a South East Asian country in
which private enterprise is thriving within a state-controlled sector (Dana, 2007). Thus, it
is a unique setting to explore the venturing process embedded in a different cultural and
economic system. By illustrating these paradigms within a Vietnamese setting, the
boundaries of Western paradigms can better be explored. We will interpret and
reinterpret the nexus of Trang’s founding of Fargreen in Vietnam from the perspective of
four different paradigms. In viewing the same situation through different lenses, we
intend to illustrate how each paradigm offers a distinctive view with unique insights.
We begin by presenting the four major paradigms emerging in entrepreneurship
research. These four paradigms are:
1 logical positivism
2 pragmatism/critical realism
3 critical theory
4 sensemaking/social constructionism.
Throughout our discussion we will refer to the case presented above: Trang’s founding of
Fargreen in Vietnam. Our intention is not to use this case to develop or prove our theory,
but to provide illustrative examples of the concepts we wish to convey. Subsequently we
compare and contrast these paradigms arguing that clarity of paradigms will help insure
that we are asking the right questions in our entrepreneurship research (Gartner, 1988;
Dana and Dana, 2005). We conclude by exploring how making paradigms explicit as
well as taking a multi-paradigm approach have provocative implications for
2 Dominant paradigms in entrepreneurship research
Johnson and Duberly’s (2000) typology of philosophical foundations in management
research is useful in yielding insight into entrepreneurship research (see Figure 1). These
management scholars describe the major paradigms that have been used in management
research and categorised them based on ontological and epistemological assumptions of
objectivity and subjectivity (see Figure 1).
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4 Y. Sarason and M. Conge
Figure 1 Ontological and epistemological assumptions of dominant paradigms in management
Source: Adopted from Johnson and Duberly (2000, p.180)
We discuss each dominate paradigm and present how they are represented in
entrepreneurship research. In order to make the discussion of paradigms more tractable,
we discuss how the case of Trang and the development of Fargreen could be seen through
these different lenses.
A positivist perspective assumes an objective ontology and objective epistemology
(Johnson and Duberly, 2000). This paradigm dominates natural science and has been
broadly adopted by social scientists, including entrepreneurship scholars. The researcher
is seen as objectively studying an objective reality, and therefore can stand back and
observe the world without bias. The aim of this research is to identify casual explanations
and fundamental laws that explain regularities in human social behaviour. The evaluation
of the research would involve a focus on issues surrounding internal validity, external
validity, reliability, and operationalisation. Theory can be tested and research focuses on
producing accounts that measure the relationship of variables in the independent reality
[Johnson and Duberly, (2000), p. 39].
Increasingly, there have been critiques of this paradigm. Among the issues raised is
that this approach strips context from the variables being studied. Moreover, there is
difficulty in applying general data to individual cases, which is known as the
nomothetic/ideographic disjunction (Guba and Lincoln, 1994). Perhaps more importantly,
there is no recognition of the subjective, values-based nature of theory and the
understanding of facts.
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Ontologies and epistemologies in ‘knowing’ the nexus in entrepreneurship 5
In entrepreneurship research, the positivist worldview has historically dominated
research on the nexus of entrepreneur and opportunity. This view can be seen by
Scott and Venkataraman’s (2000, p.218) definition of the distinctive domain of
entrepreneurship as being “the study of sources of opportunities; the processes of
discovery, evaluation, and exploitation of opportunities; and the set of individuals who
discover, evaluate, and exploit them”. This traditional view presumes that the
entrepreneur and the opportunity are separate and distinct from each other. Thus, the
nexus is the study of entrepreneurs as they interact with opportunities in their
environment. This tradition portrays entrepreneurship as the effective filling of market
gaps and imperfections. As exemplified by Schumpeter (1934) and Kirzner (1978), many
extant theories of entrepreneurship focus either on the environment as typified by
economic theorists (Arrow and Debreu, 1954; Baumol, 1990; Leibenstein, 1978) or the
entrepreneur as exemplified in studies that take a psychological or cognitive perspective
(Begley and Boyd, 1987; Forbes, 1999; McClelland, 1967; Randerson et al., 2016;
Shaver and Scott, 1991). These researchers from the economic or behavioural tradition
reflect the assumption that the entrepreneur and opportunities are separate and distinct
from one another.
Most recently in the positivist vein, Davidsson (2015, 2016) has offered a
reconceptualisation of the entrepreneurship nexus. In this work, he argues that slow
theoretical development of and empirical streams deriving from the nexus is a reflection
of the complexity and incoherence of the opportunity construct as it has emerged from
the original framework proposed by Scott and Venkataraman (2000). Davidsson’s plea
for greater construct clarity in entrepreneurship research and his proposed set of three
alternative constructs – external enablers, new venture ideas, and opportunity confidence
– are positivist appeals. He emphasises the importance of empirical tractability,
discriminant validity of the entrepreneur and opportunity constructs, greater
generalisability across entrepreneurship studies, and consistency of perspective within
each individual researcher’s stream of work. Davidsson identified these shortcomings in
the discovery view of opportunity, native to the positivist perspective (Davidsson, 2015;
Eckhardt and Shane, 2013; Shane, 2012), and also engaged directly in debating
proponents of other paradigms including Ramoglou and his colleagues realist perspective
on opportunities (Davidsson, 2016; Ramoglou and Tsang, 2015), Alvarez and Barney’s
creation view (Alvarez and Barney, 2007; Alvarez et al, 2012; Davidsson, 2015), and the
‘evolving idiosyncrasy view’ [Davidsson, (2015), p.682; Dimov, 2011; Sarason et al.,
The positivist would view Trang’s discovery of the opportunity to grow and sell
mushrooms from this objective perspective. Currently, Trang uses the funds from
business plan competitions to finance her venture. In this paradigm, it is assumed that
there was an opportunity existing in the environment (the need for branded mushrooms in
Vietnam) and that Trang ‘discovered’ this opportunity, ‘evaluated’ the opportunity
through the competition process, and is now beginning to ‘exploit’ the opportunity. Many
of the accolades and resources that Fargreen has garnered have been from the view of the
entrepreneur being separate and distinct from opportunities – and that Trang, through her
relatively rare entrepreneurial abilities, discovered this opportunity. The judges of these
competitions laud Trang as the classic entrepreneur who is unleashing knowledge and
resources that will benefit local farmers and solve social issues related to Vietnam’s
6 Y. Sarason and M. Conge
emerging economy. The definition of success will be measured by the economic viability
of the venture and her ability to attain her social goals.
2.2 Pragmatism and critical realism
The pragmatists and the critical realists come from different philosophical traditions, but
both assume an objective ontology and a subjective epistemology (Johnson and Duberly,
2000). That is to say, both acknowledge the nature of the nexus as objective; however, we
can only know it subjectively. We discuss both since while pragmatism is more
commonly drawn upon by entrepreneurship scholars, critical realism is more commonly
drawn upon by other social scientists.
The pragmatist perspective (Dewey, 1938; James and Kuklick, 1907/1981) focuses on
the interaction between an ever-fallible, socially constructed understanding of reality and
the constraints of an objective natural world. Meanings about objects, actors, and
relationships are constructed and driven by human agency (and its associated bias), but
are inevitably fated to converge in the direction of the true nature of these things.
Collectively, our subjective epistemology veils truth – in the absolute sense – from us.
However, we can understand reality’s ‘tendencies’ instrumentally, deemphasising
causality and instead focusing our attention on predicting outcomes of interactions
(Dewey, 1938). The evaluation of any theoretical position, then, is based on its ‘practical
adequacy’ – the extent to which it has pragmatic utility confirming or disconfirming our
biased consensus understanding. For example, we may never understand the true nature
of gravity or other physical forces, but centuries of scientific inquiry allow us to predict
their effects well enough to send spacecraft to targets many millions of miles away with
remarkable accuracy. More to the point of our current discussion, our understanding of
these forces – limited as it is – makes further scientific inquiry of these and other
phenomena possible. From the pragmatist’s view, knowledge is neither objective nor
wholly self-determined. Rather, understanding is a social activity best achieved by
focusing on practice, action, interaction, and the outcomes or artefacts thereof.
Venkataraman et al. (2012) navigated in the philosophical space outlined by the
pragmatist and the critical realist in their presentation of entrepreneurship as the science
of the artificial (Sarasvathy, 2003; Venkataraman et al., 2012). Their theorising draws on
both Dewey’s notion of instrumentalism (1938) and Simon’s (1969) ideas about using the
language of design and a focus on the applied as a lens for scientific inquiry. They argue
that the nexus can be best understood as the interface between entrepreneurial
opportunity, the purpose or goal of the entrepreneur(s), and the ‘boundaries’ (a la
pragmatism) of the natural world around them. For Venkataraman and his colleagues,
then, actions and interactions become the essential foci of entrepreneurship research
going forward. From this point of view, the ontological nature of opportunities (e.g.,
whether they are created or discovered), as a matter of practical interest, is less important
than the interplay between the actions and interactions of stakeholders and the pragmatic
influence of the context in which the opportunity emerges.
In focusing on actions and interactions, Venkataraman et al. (2012) expand our view
of the nexus beyond the bounds of the individual entrepreneur and opportunity and open
the possibility of the myriad relationships that weave through the nexus. They do so, in
part, by drawing on the Davidsonian (2001) conception of the intersubjective nature of
reality. This can be seen in their example of what makes someone finding a $100 bill on
the sidewalk an opportunity. They hold that three conditions must be met:
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Ontologies and epistemologies in ‘knowing’ the nexus in entrepreneurship 7
1 the bill has to exist and someone has to find it (objective person-opportunity nexus)
2 someone who comes upon it has to know it is a $100 bill (subjective interpretation of
3 other people have to acknowledge its value – that is, the value of the bill depends on
someone else being willing and able to exchange something of value for it based on
extant shared understandings of its place in the world (intersubjective basis for a
In the same way, entrepreneurial opportunities arise not merely in a nexus with the
entrepreneur, but also through the social interactions in which he/she is embedded.
Critical realism has been identified with authors such as Bhaskar (1986) and Archer
(2003). Bhaskar holds that knowledge is constructed but differentiates the constructed
knowledge from objects. The active agent holds a central role in this relationship, but
with reference to continuous interaction with an external ‘reality’ which can constrain or
facilitate human action. The paradigm helps explain how actors are the creators of social
systems, yet at the same time are created by them. An example of a theory rooted in
critical realism is structuration theory, which presents the agent as being simultaneously
enabled and constrained by social structuring (e.g., Giddens, 1984). This perspective is an
attempt to provide the conceptual means of analysing the often delicate and subtle
interlacing of reflexively organised action and institutional constraint (Sarason et al.,
2006; Sarason et al., 2010). More recently, Ramoglou and his colleagues offered a realist
perspective on entrepreneurial opportunity focused on the ‘actualisation’ of opportunities
(Ramoglou, 2013; Ramoglou and Tsang, 2015; Ramoglou and Zyglidopoulous, 2015).
This view can be traced back to Bhaskar’s ideas about the multiple domains of reality –
the real, the actual, and the empirical (Bhaskar, 1975) – and accounts for all possible
opportunities. The metaphysical existence of opportunities does not depend on whether
they are attractive, practical, or can be understood or measured ex ante. These real
opportunities are independent of the entrepreneur, yet it is through an entrepreneur’s
actions that they are realised. In this way, Ramoglou and his colleagues challenge the
positivist discovery view of the nexus as well as the creation view and engage with
Davidsson’s arguments as described above. Debates with proponents of each of these
perspectives are ongoing (Alvarez et al., 2014; Alvarez et al., 2012; Davidsson, 2016;
Ramoglou, 2013; Ramoglou and Tsang, 2017; Ramoglou and Zyglidopoulos, 2015).
Effectuation, first introduced by Sarasvathy (2001), is a prominent theoretical
framework within the entrepreneurship literature based on the tenants of pragmatism and
critical realism as well as in the science of the artificial. In this framework,
entrepreneurship is viewed as method (Sarasvathy and Venkatarman, 2011). As such,
entrepreneurial skills can be learned and entrepreneurial principles practiced by anyone,
much like any other applied methodology. Given these assumptions, it is not surprising
that an emphasis on design thinking and effectual logic in entrepreneurship education
(e.g., Neck and Greene, 2011; Read et al., 2010) has emerged in parallel with the rise of
effectuation in entrepreneurship research (e.g., Perry et al., 2011; Read et al., 2009).
For the pragmatists and critical realists, Trang, as the entrepreneur, constantly
interacts with the world of opportunities. She continuously seeks to understand her world,
and in communicating her understanding she affects others’ understanding of their own
world, which in turn affects her understanding of her world again. Initially the business
model for Fargreen was very simplistic. Through feedback from Western-oriented
8 Y. Sarason and M. Conge
audiences her business model became more complex and financially focused, resulting in
Trang winning over $450,000 in prize money from business plan competitions. These
funds allowed Trang to start Fargreen in Vietnam, where now she interacts in the world
of opportunities in a Southeast Asian environment. She interacts with other agents whose
world concept has not been based in a free market economy, and her challenge at this
stage is to continuously evolve her business model and influence stakeholders with her
evolving understanding of their world of opportunities in Vietnam. The critical realists
would focus on how and why Trang’s perspective of the ‘problem’ of pollution from
burning rice grass evolved to be viewed as an ‘opportunity’ that could be exploited. This
would fit the critical realist’s and the pragmatist’s perspective, as it illustrates the
evolution of the interpretation and reinterpretation of the same phenomena.
2.3 Critical theory
The critical theory perspective assumes an objective ontology and a subjective
epistemology. Proponents of the theory are critical of the social science that is rooted in
the positivist tradition and reject the notion that our research can be separate from the
underlying culture. Often associated with Habermas (1971), this paradigm focuses on
investigating issues such as exploitation, asymmetrical power relations, and distorted
communication. Known to maintain opposition to the destructive effects of a free market
economy, these theorists focus on the problems of modern society and identifying the
nature of social changes necessary to produce a just, democratic society (Layder, 1993).
Key to this perspective is the focus on ‘emancipatory moments’ that result from
understanding the embedded systems (Johnson and Duberly, 2000, p.123).
This perspective is non-traditional for entrepreneurship research, perhaps because it
often critiques the free market economic system and explicitly casts light on exploitation
of human and natural resources. Critical theorists often emphasise the increasing use of
financial outcomes as measures of success, driven by the hegemony of Western
civilisation (Sarason et al., 2014). In entrepreneurship, this drives ventures toward a focus
on private wealth. According to this paradigm, the focus on private wealth results in
engaging in activities that can be destructive to natural resources, and may bolster –
rather than slow – pressing social challenges such as social injustice and income
inequality. This paradigm can provide a worldview through which to understand the
pursuit of social and ecological benefits through entrepreneurship, and is illustrated in the
rapid evolution of social entrepreneurship as a field of inquiry. Puzzlingly, however,
researchers focused on social entrepreneurship have yet to think seriously about the
potential role of critical theory in understanding this context. Social entrepreneurship
scholars often present the case that social entrepreneurship can be distinguished from
other types of entrepreneurship by the prioritisation of social benefit over the generation
of financial wealth (Dees, 2007; Mair and Marti, 2006). Critical theory may provide a
foundation regarding the underlying structures and processes that have led to the need for
these social issues to be addressed in the first place.
Through the lens of the critical theorists, Trang’s vision may be an example of a
social venture that was created not because of the economic system but despite it. The
issue of how Trang’s vision and Fargreen may evolve in a free market economic system
could be addressed by critical theorists. Of particular interest to the critical theorist is
what led Vietnam to be so dependent on rice production, as well as why there is a need
for the intermediary help of a company like Fargreen to grow mushrooms and sell them
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Ontologies and epistemologies in ‘knowing’ the nexus in entrepreneurship 9
as a branded package. In this view, the nexus was made possible through the
‘emancipatory moments’ of Trang and her stakeholders. If Trang is successful, it will
build the argument that social entrepreneurs can make a financial profit as well as
promote social welfare. If she is not successful, it could be interpreted that as Vietnam
continues to enter into a free market economy, there will be an emphasis of profit over
social good. In other words, financial incentives will win, driving companies like
Fargreen out of the marketplace.
2.4 Social construction/sensemaking
The most subjective of the paradigms is social constructionism/sensemaking, which
assumes both a subjective ontology and a subjective epistemology. Not only will our
understanding of the nexus be subjective, but the nature of the nexus itself is subjective,
only coming to be through the construction of human beings surrounding it. This
subjectivist ontology and subjectivist epistemology may be the most challenging of the
paradigms to grasp. Weick (1979) illustrated this perspective by drawing from herb
Simon’s analogy to a referee calling a baseball game [Simon (1976, p.29) as cited in
Weick (1979, p.1)]. The first one said, “I calls them as they is” (representing the
positivists). The second one said, “I calls them as I sees them” (representing the critical
realist/pragmatists). The third and cleverest umpire said, “They ain’t nothin’ ‘til I calls
them” (representing the sensemaking interpretivists).
Sensemaking involves understanding how people organise to make sense of equivocal
inputs and enact this sense back into the world to make it more orderly (Weick, 1995).
Distinguishing features of sensemaking are noticing and bracketing, both retrospectively
and prospectively (Weick et al., 2005, p.410). Answers to the question ‘What is the
story?’ emerge from understanding the past, and answers to the question ‘Now what?’
emerge from presumptions about the future (Weick et al., 2005, p.413).
There has been a growing body of work that focuses on applying a sensemaking lens
to the entrepreneurial process. Cardon et al. (2011) offered a sensemaking perspective to
venture failure, and Grimes (2010) used the lens to better understand the funding of
social entrepreneurial ventures. A focus on understanding the nexus through a
sensemaking lens have been offered by Cornelissen and Clarke (2010), who describe the
nexus in entrepreneurship as an exercise in sensemaking, emphasising a direct
relationship among language, cognition, and enactment of entrepreneurs. Armstrong
(2014) and Abebrese (2014) call for a phenomenological research model for
entrepreneurship and Dana and Dana (2005, p.539) call for inductive qualitative
investigations to better understand the cultural embeddedness of entrepreneurship in
multi-cultural settings. The nexus, for these authors, is a focus in the role of sensemaking,
which generates a platform for the creation and commercialisation of novel ventures
through the construction of meaning for themselves and others. Garud and Giuliani
(2013) also drew upon sensemaking in understanding the nexus by offering a narrative
perspective on entrepreneurial opportunity. They argue that the emphasis in this
perspective is what emerges through actions and interactions.
To understand Trang’s story from a sensemaking perspective is to focus on meaning,
interpretation, and reinterpretation of what are understood to be opportunities in Vietnam.
While in Vietnam, Trang viewed the pollution from burning straw as a ‘problem.’ Trang
reports that during the process of attending an MBA program focused on
10 Y. Sarason and M. Conge
entrepreneurship, she began to make sense of the world around her as fertile ground for
potential opportunities. Reinterpreting her experience in Vietnam, she began telling the
story of ‘pollution as well as poverty’ as a new story –one of ‘potential for a new
entrepreneurial venture’ which could be financially viable as well as address social
issues. This new narrative was adopted by investors and business plan judges who also
believed that the proposed venture could be financially viable. Trang’s return to Vietnam
has involved presenting the story – or narrative – to potential employees, farmers,
vendors, and investors. She and her stakeholders facilitate sensemaking both
retrospectively and prospectively, and answer both ‘what is the story?’ and ‘now what?’
For the sensemaking scholar, the answers to these questions form the nexus of the
entrepreneur and opportunities.
3 Multi-paradigm analysis
In order to further clarify the similarities and differences in paradigms, we will discuss
the implications of each paradigm in selected questions. We draw on work around
discussions about these issues from other social scientists (Guba and Lincoln, 1994;
Johnson and Duberly, 2000), work in organisational theory (Gioia and Pitre, 1990;
Schultz and Hatch, 1996), and entrepreneurship (Alvarez and Barney, 2010; Dana and
Dana, 2005, Mole and Ram, 2011; Randerson et al., 2016; Shepherd, 2015;
Venkataraman et al., 2012). Our methodology for this analysis follows that of Johnson
and Duberly (2000) and Mole and Ram (2011). Namely, we compare core assumptions,
definitions, and boundary conditions of dominant paradigms of philosophy of science and
apply these to the context of entrepreneurship research in order to develop and illustrate
new theoretical insights. We discuss differences in research goals, the interpretation of
the findings, and the voice of the researcher (see Table 1). In addition, we address
whether paradigms can co-exist or be commensurable given these differences.
Table 1 Contrast in paradigms
realism Critical theory Constructivism/
Goals Uncover facts
Probably true facts and
laws, and will stand the
test of time.
Probably true. Value-mediated
Evaluations are based
on internal and external
validity, reliability, and
between the ‘real’ and
Voice of the
participant as multi-
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Ontologies and epistemologies in ‘knowing’ the nexus in entrepreneurship 11
We suggest that there are different research goals depending on which paradigm is drawn
upon. For the logical positivist’s perspective, the goal is to explain and predict how
entrepreneurs discover, evaluate, and exploit opportunities – a perspective that has been
the root of entrepreneurship research. From the critical realist and pragmatist’s lens, the
goal is to uncover what are the probably true and practically predictable relationships that
will orient us toward the truth over time. In entrepreneurship, this would mean better
understanding the overlap between the entrepreneur and the world of opportunities. From
a critical theorist’s perspective, the goal is critique and transformation, restitution and
emancipation. In entrepreneurship, this prompts us to consider a historical perspective
that includes political, economic, and social systems to identify the nature of
opportunities. From a constructivist/sensemaking paradigm, the goal is to reconstruct a
more informed reconstruction and a vicarious experience. In entrepreneurship, this occurs
in the experience of the opportunity/venture creation.
3.2 Interpretation of results
The interpretation of results should logically follow from the goals of the research. For
those working under the logical positivist’s paradigm, the interpretation of the results is
that the findings are true and subject to tests of reliability and validity. In taking this
position, they assume sound and accurate methodology and that the objectivity of the
researcher is unmolested. For entrepreneurship scholars, this is interpreting the results
about the entrepreneur’s discovery, evaluation, and exploitation of opportunities and
interpreting the relationship. For the critical realist/pragmatist, results are seen as a
reasonably reliable representation of the truth. In this view, entrepreneurship scholars
implicitly accept the contextual human elements that shape our understanding of what
opportunities are and how they are made and found. Moreover, a pragmatist view focuses
on understanding the mechanisms and results of action and interaction in and around the
nexus. For the critical theorist, results can only be understood by accepting that they are
value-mediated. For entrepreneurship scholars, this implies an explicit consideration of
whose interests opportunity creation/exploitation serve, and how power relationships in
the social context affect, and are affected by, the nexus. Entrepreneurship scholars
adopting the constructivist/sensemaking perspective accept that the results of their
research are socially constructed. In interpreting their findings, attention must be paid to
the degree the results are trustworthy, credible, transferable, and confirmable.
3.3 Voice of the researcher
The voice of the researcher will also change according to the dominant paradigm
underlying his/her study. For the logical positivist, the voice would be that of the
disinterested scientist seeking objective truth and contribution to producing generalisable
scientific laws; we have seen this voice dominating the work done in entrepreneurship
and the nexus. For the pragmatist/critical realist, the voice is that of the interested
scientist and informer who seeks predictive power and application. For the critical
theorist, the voice is that of the transformer, advocate, and activist. We suggest that this
voice can be more forthcoming in the field of entrepreneurship research going forward,
12 Y. Sarason and M. Conge
particularly in work addressing social and environmental entrepreneurs. The
constructivist voice is that of the passionate participant engaged in multi-voice
reconstruction. They see the world of the nexus from the perspective of the entrepreneur
as he/she creates the nexus.
As we have focused on the distinguishing characteristics of these paradigms, it is logical
to question whether they can be commensurable with one another. The issue of
commensurability of paradigms has been debated among social scientists (e.g., Burrell
and Morgan, 1979; Lincoln, 1985). Those who argue that different paradigms are
incommensurate posit that, since different paradigms have different assumptions of the
nature of the world (ontology) and different assumptions regarding how we know the
world (epistemology), it necessarily follows that different paradigms cannot coexist (e.g.,
Guba and Lincoln, 1994). Within entrepreneurship this has led to engaged scholarly
conversations (See: Alvarez and Barney, 2010), but has also led to a caution against
producing an overly narrow view of the rich nature of entrepreneurial research and any
attempt to win a paradigm war (Shepherd, 2015, p.13).
We join with entrepreneurship and management scholars who seek broader
recognition of paradigm commensurability in our field (Shepherd, 2015; Venkataraman
et al., 2012). We acknowledge the differences in paradigms, but suggest that researchers
can take a meta-perspective regarding the paradigm in which they are working. In
particular, they can draw upon Gioia and Pitre’s (1990) proposal to adopt a multi-
paradigm perspective of theory building. They call for theory building to not be a search
for the truth, but rather a search for comprehensiveness stemming from different
worldviews. We also draw upon Shultz and Hatch (1996, p.533), who offer the option of
understanding the interplay of paradigms. Interplay is the simultaneous recognition of
both the contrasts and the connections between paradigms. We propose that while a
research stream must be consistent within the dominant paradigm in which the
investigation is designed, researchers can draw upon different paradigms depending on
the questions they are asking. Moreover, without abandoning the assumptions and
boundary conditions of a study’s focal paradigm, we can, and often should, acknowledge
how a different paradigm might be drawn upon to understand the same phenomena. We
call upon entrepreneurship scholars to recognise and confront multiple paradigms and the
tensions between them in their investigation of the nexus, rather than ignoring them (as in
the integrationist position) or refusing to confront them (as in the incommensurate
position). We also advocate for a multi-paradigm perspective as well as interplay of
paradigms within the field of entrepreneurship. We extol researchers to clarify their
assumptions of the nature of the nexus as well as their understanding of the nexus. Our
intent has been to illustrate a multi-paradigm view of Trang and Fargreen in reaching
toward the richness of their journey.
4 Moving forward with entrepreneurship research
We have advanced the argument that explicating paradigms is central to future research
on the nexus of entrepreneur and opportunity, and have presented four dominant
paradigms in entrepreneurship research. We suggest that, by clarifying paradigms, there
Comment [N8]: Author: Please provide full
reference or delete from the text if not required.
Ontologies and epistemologies in ‘knowing’ the nexus in entrepreneurship 13
are significant implications for insight into understanding the nexus of the entrepreneur
and opportunities. We also explain how integrating multiple paradigms into
entrepreneurship research can help advance the field. We suggest that such perspectives
can help us move beyond the dualistic thinking that has dominated the field and toward
the exploration of transformational research.
4.1 Beyond dualisms
We have presented the case that we can conceptualise the nexus beyond thinking of the
entrepreneur as separate and distinct from opportunities. Without question, the
differentiation between the creation and discovery perspectives in entrepreneurship has
allowed us to discuss the underlying ontological and epistemological assumptions in
entrepreneurship research, and has generated rich scholarly discussions (Alvarez and
Barney, 2007, 2010; Alvarez et al., 2014; Ramoglou, 2013; Alvarez, Barney and
Anderson, 2012; Suddaby et al., 2015). However, we suggest that even greater
clarification about the ontological and epistemological assumptions in different
paradigms, as well as consideration of their commensurability, can offer alternative
perspectives that help us tie to other discussions in social science and philosophy. We,
likewise, point to other dualisms that have proliferated in entrepreneurial research. For
example, in defining entrepreneurs it follows that we have to define non-entrepreneurs.
While we have moved beyond trying to identify traits of the entrepreneur (Gartner,
1988), we still slip into characterising the entrepreneur as a hero and different from others
(Anderson and Warren, 2011; Sarasvathy, 2008). Another dualism in our field is the
forced differentiation of research as either behavioural or economic (Baron, 1889;
Eckhardt and Shane, 2003). We suggest that clarifying paradigms may help us break out
of this delineation and provide the basis for more meaningful comparisons. Our intent is
to move not just away from dualism, but to go beyond it toward greater insights in
4.2 Toward intersubjectivity
As mentioned above, Venkataraman et al. (2012) suggest a pragmatist approach to move
forward in our understanding of the nexus and the ways in which we study it. This
approach includes an emphasis on the practical adequacy (James and Kuklick,
1907/1981) of theoretical arguments and empirical findings. They also emphasise the
artefacts of entrepreneurial action and the interaction between entrepreneur, opportunity,
and the sociocultural context in which they are embedded. In short, we must view the
nexus through a Davidsonian (2001) lens of intersubjectivity, and view opportunity as
being neither made nor found but designed through interaction (Randerson et al., 2016;
Sarasvathy, 2003; Sarasvathy et al., 2005; Venkataraman et al., 2012). If taken seriously,
these ideas call for theoretical and empirical approaches that deal with social interaction
and the interface between individuals, groups, and the social structure more broadly. This
position is shared by Shepherd (2015, p.3), who suggests a pragmatist focus on the
‘mutual adjustment’ process that takes place between the individual entrepreneur and the
world as they interact and opportunities come to be. Scholars have begun to make these
connections by drawing on symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1962; Mead, 1934) and
theories of identity (Burke, 1980; Stryker, 2000). These are illustrated in the qualitative
14 Y. Sarason and M. Conge
work of Powell and Baker’s (2014) of firm founders in the declining US textile industry
as well as Randerson et al., (2016) investigation of cognitive style and logic of actions.
Taking a multi-level or systems approach more generally in examining the
entrepreneurial process is equally important (Shepherd, 2015), as crossing the individual,
firm, group, industry, and societal levels of analysis may naturally bring intersubjective
interaction to the fore. Finally, further research on the ways in which fields and forms
affect and are affected by entrepreneurial opportunity is important to help us look at the
social structures in which the nexus is embedded. This is illustrated in the work of
Pacheco et al. (2014), which shows the ongoing influence that social movements, the
incumbent power industry, and the newly emerging wind energy industry have on one
another as they coevolved in Colorado over the first decade of the 21st century.
4.3 Toward recognition of power structures and human interests
Of the paradigms we have discussed, critical theory is, perhaps, least prominent in
entrepreneurship research. Given the entrepreneurship field’s roots in economics and
strategy at the firm level (Hayek, 1945; Kirzner, 1997; Knight, 1921) and strong
emphasis on cognition at the individual level (Baron, 1998; Mitchell et al., 2002), this
may not be surprising. However, there are growing streams of research on social
entrepreneurship (Austin et al., 2006; Dacin et al., 2011; Short et al., 2009) and
institutional entrepreneurship (Battilana et al., 2009; Pacheco et al., 2010) that are related
to issues raised by the critical theorists. Research in these areas calls for theoretical
models that account for structural inequities in power as well as the interests of the
disenfranchised. We ask: might opportunities be shaped as much by the histories of
human interests and power relations that infuse the nexus as by the nexus itself?
For example, social entrepreneurship research has been steeped in definitional debate
for over a decade (Dacin et al., 2010). Meanwhile, most definitions of social
entrepreneurship have in common some discussion of values, authenticity, stakeholder
relationships, institutional change, and the roles of government, charity, and business in
society (Short et al., 2009). Indeed, many proposed definitions are formed in contrast to
long-held institutional/ideological norms (e.g., charities should care for the poor;
businesses should create shareholder wealth). We suggest that the difficulty in
establishing definitional consensus may have as much to do with the influence of reified
institutional arrangements on our theorising as the complicated nature of social
These insights may point us toward areas of scholarship such as political
theory, public policy, feminist theory, philosophy, and ethics to inform future
entrepreneurship research. Likewise, further consideration of values, ideologies, and
social/cultural/ethnic/gender differences may be especially useful in advancing our
understanding of the individual entrepreneur and his/her motivations and actions. Finally,
serious consideration of power relations and the influence of interests on social structures
may shed new light on how, when, and why entrepreneurs and opportunities emerge from
them. These considerations require not only a broader acceptance of critical theories but
also a more comprehensive approach to our research methods. For example, Dana and
Dumez (2015) argue for not only deductive and inductive methodologies but also for an
abductive approach to qualitative research. As we direct our attention to better
understanding the meaning and power structures inherent in the entrepreneurial context,
these methodological considerations become ever more relevant.
Comment [N9]: Author: Please confirm the year
of publication (whether 2010 or 2011).
Ontologies and epistemologies in ‘knowing’ the nexus in entrepreneurship 15
4.4 Renewed focus on exploration and research frontiers
In recent editorials, Dean Shepherd suggests that despite the exciting emergence of a
research domain for entrepreneurship (Scott and Venkataraman, 2000; Venkataraman,
1997) and robust theoretical perspectives fuelling over a decade of growth as a field,
entrepreneurship research must continue to broaden its reach to remain vital in the
decades to come (Shepherd, 2011, 2015). Shepherd (2011, 2015) calls for the field to be
entrepreneurial, and advocates research spanning multiple levels of analysis and delving
further into the activities, interactions, emotions, and social relevance of
entrepreneurship. Shepherd (2015, p.1) also makes plain his belief that incremental
research focusing on testing well-established theories risks ‘crowding out’ theoretical
insight and, endangering entrepreneurship as a vital field of research going forward.
Howard Aldrich, in the same way, has urged entrepreneurship scholars to focus on
new theoretical insights and unexplored phenomena rather than incremental testing of
established theories and frequently used data sets (Aldrich, 2012). The complementary
arguments of these two thought leaders in the field suggest that many (if not most) of the
novel and unexpected insights about entrepreneurship are yet to be uncovered. Moreover,
these assessments may indicate that entrepreneurship, as a field, still has some way to go
before we will see a dominant paradigm emerge. If this is true, the next generation of
entrepreneurship scholars would be wise to remain receptive to studies rooted in a
different paradigms as well as those that attempt to reconcile paradigmatic differences
surrounding the nexus (e.g., Alvarez and Barney, 2010; Shepherd, 2015; Randerson et al.,
2016; Venkataraman et al., 2012).
4.5 Toward a more paradigmatic evaluation of entrepreneurship research
We suggest that understanding of the predominant paradigms philosophies available to
entrepreneurship researchers has important implications for editors and reviewers. This is
especially important given our support of calls for greater acceptance of multiple
philosophies of science finding a voice in the entrepreneurship literature. Evaluating
entrepreneurship research can begin with understanding whether there is an internal
consistency of the argument with the paradigmatic tradition. At the same time, this
approach places a greater burden on authors to make tractable the ontological and
epistemological assumptions and boundary conditions on which their arguments are
based. In short, the inclusive approach we advocate comes at a cost to authors and
reviewers, who must be willing to acquire a broader working knowledge of paradigmatic
nuances and, at the same time, maintain a dual posture of critic and student when
working within and across multiple traditions. We also recognise the cost of a big tent
approach to the field and are under no illusion that an open, exploratory stance is easy to
hold without putting the credibility of the field on the line (Shepherd, 2015).
5 Conclusions: one elephant or many elephants?
In illustrating different assumptions in entrepreneurship, Gartner (2001) drew upon the
parable of blind men understanding an elephant. The elephant was described variously as
a wall (from touching the side), a snake (from touching the trunk), a spear (from touching
16 Y. Sarason and M. Conge
the ivory), a tree trunk (from touching the legs), a rope (from touching the tail), and a fan
(from feeling the air from the flapping tail). Moreover, we draw upon Dana and Dumez’s
(2015) quote of Thomas Jefferson who in 1787 said, “the moment a person forms a
theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory”.
We propose that entrepreneurship scholars are not blind investigators touching
different parts of our subject, but rather that there are multiple elephants – multiple
universes of potential for understanding entrepreneurship in new ways. Moreover, once
the theory of the elephant is formed, the researcher only sees the traits that favour that
theory. A multi-paradigmatic approach is needed to explore these multiple universes. Just
as we can understand the story of Fargreen through different lenses, so can we understand
the nexus of the entrepreneur and opportunity through different lenses. Our call is to be
clear about which lens we are using. Multiple lenses can be used, but it is important to be
conscious about taking one lens off before we look through another.
We propose that the best approach is one of ontological and epistemological
pluralism, wherein it is not a question of which might best ‘fit’ the field, but of what we
might learn from each. We hold that greater insight is gained from considering numerous
perspectives than from a reductionist ‘one right way’ position, especially in
understanding complex social phenomenon such as entrepreneurial activity. To do
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