Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Reading :: Researching Entrepreneurship

Researching Entrepreneurship
By Per Davidsson

This research text is a little quirky. In fact, I have noticed that a lot of research methodology texts are. Compare John Law's After Method, Creswell's Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, Becker's Tricks of the Trade, van Maanen's Tales of the Field, and of course my own Topsight. All are a little self-deprecating, all tell stories about learning to be a researcher, and all emphasize the role of argumentation in putting together a good research report. Maybe these genre characteristics are due to the relatively small audience or the fact that research methodology texts are built so deeply on the experience of the author.

In any case, Davidsson's text is a solid example of the genre—starting with his dedication: "I will stick to my habit of not dedicating this book to someone I love, because I think it an odd practice to 'give' to people what does not interest them" (p.xii). He still of course manages to thank his family.

Davidsson is interested in the study of entrepreneurship, which is a much discussed topic in management and economics (and, to a lesser degree, in sociology), but has over the last couple of decades begun to emerge as an interdisciplinary field of research in its own right. In the first chapter, he reviews various definitions of entrepreneurship as a phenomenon before settling on one: "I propose that a fruitful way to define entrepreneurship is the notion in Austrian economics that entrepreneurship consists of the competitive behaviors that drive the market process (Kirzner, 1973, pp.19-20). ... I favor the definition because it is succinct and gives a satisfactorily clear delineation of the role of entrepreneurship in society" (p.6). And "entrepreneurship according to the suggested perspective consists of the introduction of new economic activity that leads to change in the marketplace" (p.8).

Whereas in Chapter 1 he discusses entrepreneurship as a phenomenon to be studied, in Chapter 2, Davidsson discusses entrepreneurship as a research domain. Entrepreneurship as a phenomenon can only be detected post hoc, so making the phenomenon equal to the research domain would yield only retrospective research; treating entrepreneurship as a research domain in its own right opens the door to study entrepreneurial practices as they happen (p.17). It also means that one can include theoretical questions as well as empirical ones (pp.17-18). He argues that the research domain of entrepreneurship should include behavior, process, emergence (including that of new market offerings and induced processes of emergence), discovery, exploitation (including modes of exploitation), heterogeneity, and uncertainty, as well as failure (p.21). Re discovery, he adds that the term should not imply that an opportunity is "out there," waiting to be discovered; discovery is a process (p.24).

In Ch.3, he argues that before applying existing theory to entrepreneurship, we should ask:

  1. "Does the theory acknowledge uncertainty and heterogeneity?"
  2. "Can it be applied to the problem of emergence, or does it presuppose the existence of markets, products or organizations in a way that clashes with the research questions?"
  3. "Does the theory allow a process perspective?"
  4. "Does it apply to the preferred unit of analysis...?"
  5. "Is it compatible with an interest in the types of outcomes that are most relevant from an entrepreneurship point of view?" (p.51)
In Ch.4, on research design, Davidsson generously discusses the role of qualitative research in entrepreneurship. As he says several times, Davidsson doesn't do qualitative research and is not confident about telling others how to conduct it, but he recognizes its value for entrepreneurship research precisely because this research domain involves heterogeneity, studies phenomena that are "infrequent, unanticipated and/or extraordinary," and that unfold from a process. These characteristics are more tractable to qualitative than quantitative research (p.56). And although Davidsson professes not to know much about qualitative research, he rejects sloppy characterizations of qualitative research as inherently ideological or lacking rigor (p.58). (Yes, he acknowledges, some qualitative research certainly has these negative characteristics, but it's not inherent to the approach, and quantitative research can also have these characteristics.) Still, he emphasizes, one must match the research question with the chosen approach in order to get good data (p.59).

Just as Davidsson wrote only briefly about qualitative research, which was beyond his purview, I'll avoid reviewing the rest of the book because it's on quantitative research, which is beyond my purview. But the first half of the book was immensely useful as I consider new research projects on entrepreneurship. If you're also looking into this research phenomenon (and domain), I encourage you to take a look.

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