Still Living and Practicing Social Enterprise

On Friday 17th June Yunus Centre hosted a workshop ‘Still Living and Practicing Social Enterprise’ here at GCU. It was the second in what we hope will be an annual event that considers the potential for ethnography to explore questions emerging from the field of social enterprise research.We heard from: Anna Kopec, University of Northamption; Richard Hull, Goldsmiths; Aurelie Soetens, Univeristy of Liege; Iain Cairns, Glasgow Caledonian University and Juli Qermezi Huang, London School of Economics.

Thanks to all the presenters and the engaged audience that made for an interesting and inspiring day.

In this blog Danielle and Clementine from the CommonHealth team reflect on one of the themes from the day that resonate with our own work which also uses ethnography.

For some reflections on the event last year click HERE

The Nature of Participation

The workshop gave us a chance to hear how individuals are engaging with social enterprises in different and interesting ways. Yet what was cross cutting was that research in this field can often require the researcher to take a central role within organisations to gain a rich understanding of cultural and relational dynamics.

The nature of social enterprise means that organisations can often rely on the goodwill of volunteers and community members to provide a workforce, skills and entrepreneurial ideas in order to survive. Social enterprises can be stretched for time, funding and staff whilst balancing social aspirations with income based activity. For that reason, we must take careful consideration of how we are engaging with organisations without becoming extra ‘baggage’.

As academic researchers we often take part in extractive research where we pitch up, collect data and then leave without a trace. Yet, ethnography can require a level of participation in groups and communities to gain a deeper understanding of their culture. Therefore the natural inclination with social enterprises may be to volunteer our services as a staff member, get involved with the day to day running, or even become a board member. In this way we are not just extracting from the social enterprise but also giving back.

Nevertheless, research presented at the workshop raised a multitude of questions for ethnography. For example, if we are busy working at the social enterprise are we missing out on other aspects of the organisation, such as service users? The answer may be that we plan to divide our time amongst different social actors, however is this something that must be negotiated? Similarly, how much of ourselves should we give to the social enterprise? It could be the case that a financial contribution is most appropriate, or that we are able to share our skills and knowledge. Yet, it must be questioned if our presence is then interfering with or influencing the cultural transactions that already exist amongst natives.

As academics we may be viewed as superior and ‘clever’ and therefore able to provide answers to business problems. Similarly, people may behave unnaturally around us, being on their best behaviour or becoming more reserved and quiet.  Yet on the other hand, we may be viewed as an inconvenience if we interrupt the daily flow of activities, or are unable to commit to working hours. What if we contribute too much? Does this mean that when we leave the field we are leaving social enterprises in uncertainty, or understaffed?

Ultimately, all of these questions will be dependent on each case and our ability to participate, yet within ethnographies of social enterprise this is an important conversation that must be continued. However what I will take away from this event is that we must always consider the effects that we may have on others, and the lasting legacy of our contribution or non-contribution.

Danielle Kelly and Clementine Hill O’Connor







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