Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Reading :: Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

Entrepreneurial Ecosystems: Place-Based Transformations and Transitions

Ed. By Allan O’Connor, Erik Steam, Fiona Sussan, and David B. Audretsch

I read this collection a very long time ago, probably in mid to late 2022, but it got buried in all of the other stuff I was trying to do at the time. That’s too bad because this edited collection gave me a lot of insight into entrepreneurial ecosystems and the research surrounding them.

What’s an entrepreneurial ecosystem? In the chapter “Entrepreneurial Ecosystems: The Foundations of Place-Based Renewal,” the editors explain: “In abstract terms, central to the definition of entrepreneurial ecosystems are (entrepreneurial) agency and (human made) context (I.e., the ecosystem), especially the humanly devised constraints that structure human interaction (I.e. rules of the game, institutions) that shape the presence and form of important entrepreneurial ecosystem elements such as capital, labour and knowledge” (p.3). They understand the ecosystem as undergoing transformations and transitions (p.3), and thus they say understanding entrepreneurial ecosystems requires systems thinking (p.4). They add, “entrepreneurial ecosystems are an inherently geographic perspective” because they “focus on the cultures, institutions, and networks that build up within a region over time rather than the emergence of order within global markets” (p.5). In this perspective, the focus is the entrepreneur, not the firm (p.5); the entrepreneur is considered a central player or leader in creating and maintaining the entrepreneurial system (p.8). The authors overview differences between entrepreneurial ecosystems and the related concepts of innovation ecosystems and innovation systems (industrial districts, clusters, triple helixes) (p.8). 

The other contributions to the book flesh out this vision. For instance, in “Deconstructing the entrepreneurial ecosystem concept,” Daniel et al. review contributions to the entrepreneurial ecosystem concept, including business networks and systems thinking, and overview other concepts related to strategic innovation. In “Institutional dynamism in entrepreneurial ecosystems,” Fuentelsaz et al. incorporate institutional theory and business life cycle theory into the analysis of ecosystems. And in “Measuring entrepreneurial ecosystems,” Stam takes a systems view, reviewing the systemic conditions that are at the heart of such an ecosystem (p.175) and identifying some possible measures for those conditions (table 1, p.179). 

I found this collection to be a good introduction to the concept of entrepreneurial ecosystems, although not entirely accessible for someone (like me) who is not steeped in the economics and business literature. If you’re looking for an introduction to EE concepts, it’s a good place to start.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Reading :: A Dialectical Pedagogy of Revolt

A Dialectical Pedagogy of Revolt: Gramsci, Vygotsky, and the Egyptian Revolution

By Brecht de Smet

In this book, de Smet uses Gramsci’s political theory and Vygotsky’s cultural psychology to analyze the 2011 Egyptian revolution. 

De Smet’s thesis is that we should see social movements as developmental, as forms of human activity and as sites of learning (p.5). He argues that to understand mass agency of an emancipatory movement, we must understand how that movement is constructed as an actor (p.26). And that in turn requires challenging the lines that have been drawn between individual and collective forms of subjectivity: between mind and body, between subject (“the agent of cognition”) and object (“the external world of things”) (pp.28-29). In Chapter 2, de Smet brings us through the thought of Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, Voloshinov, Gramsci, Ilyenkov, and Vygotsky, arguing that the individual subject is also an effect of collective subjects (p.34). The conclusion is that “the dichotomy between the individual and the collective has been revealed as an opposition between modes of subjectness, which share the same substance: human activity” (p.37).

This line of thought brings us to the concept of the subject (Ch.3), which de Smet traces through Goethe,, Hegel, and Marx and on to figures in cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT). Specifically, he argues that in an uprising (such as the Egyptian uprising under consideration), activities are determined and rendered meaningful via continual reference to the collective (p.39). That is, “a subject is not an undifferentiated thing, but an ensemble of different parts that function as a whole” — various individuals “were determined and rendered meaningful not by their own, particular position, but by their continuous reference to the whole, I.e., the people” (p.39). De Smet also stipulates that “a subject is something that emerges, grows, develops, and dies” and “an understanding of the formation and development of a subject such as the people requires a degree of abstraction that should not lapse into simplistic reductions or empty generalizations” (p.39 — he gives the example of statistical analyses of demographics). 

In Chapter 4, he turns to CHAT, noting that Vygotsky studied “the behavior and consciousness of the individual subject,” approached as a gestalt (p.48) — but this gestalt was rooted in Goethe, Hegel, and Marx, and thus “the complex behavior and consciousness of the individual subject could not be grasped directly as a totality — the unfolding of its understanding had to be mediated by an archetype” (p.49). He quotes Vygotsky, who argues that the unit of analysis must reflect the basic characteristics of the whole (p.49 — but see Valsiner’s claim that Vygotsky misinterpreted Brasov in making this argument). 

De Smet’s argument here creates problems in the analysis. We can stipulate with Vygotsky that an individual is always already social, and thus individual qualities will reflect (and constitute) cultural ones. But that does not mean that cultural and individual qualities are identical — otherwise individuals would be identical as well. Vygotsky actually discusses this question in a very underdeveloped way under the heading of perezhivanie, noting in one example how three brothers might develop differently based on the same issue. Thus, to explore cultural qualities through individual ones, we need a mechanism for ungrinding the hamburger: to reconstruct common cultural qualities from the individual’s qualities, or (to approach the question another way) to understand how individuals’ interactions continuously construct the cultural gestalt. This issue will become important in Ch.6.

Here, de Smet draws on Blunden’s work on the unit of analysis, arguing that the collaborative project is a collective subject (p.55). He concludes that “human subjects are nothing more than collaborative projects engaged in a developmental process, and emancipatory movements are but the politicized form of this ontology” (p.57).

In Chapter 5, “Class as Subject,” de Smet turns to the titular subject, arguing that “the main challenge for human emancipation is class society and its contemporary form of the capital relation and its state” (p.75). 

In Chapter 6, “The Modern Prince,” he examines the strike as a germ-cell. He appeals to Vygotsky, who examined children’s initial concept formation, and “transpose[s it] to the domain of proletarian sociogenesis” to argue that “at first, proletarian workplace subjectivities are subsumed under other subjectivities and only acquire some stability in the shared space of the labor process” (p.76). This move is warranted by de Smet’s argument in Ch.4 that since the individual is always already social, we can understand the social through the individual — we can, for instance, apply an individual child’s process of concept formation to an entire class of adults (the proletariat), according to de Smet. In recognizing that thought begins as intermental, we can apply children’s states of learning to social collectives — according to de Smet. Readers, I am very skeptical of this claim, which goes beyond analogy (such as the body politic as a Leviathan), instead actually attributing individual learning mechanisms to a social collective. It’s underexplored, it’s assumed rather than proven, and it skips across obvious differences between individual children and collectives of adults. De Smet continues this tack later in the chapter, discussing Vygotsky’s work on complexes: “Transposed to the domain of proletarian sociogenesis, this development needs a new organizational form to structurally connect and unite the various committees” — a trade union (p.80). He similarly “translates” Vygotsky’s insight that two lines of development can mature independently, then influence each other to yield a new line of development, applying this insight “to the domain of proletarian sociogenesis,” asserting that “the challenge for proletarian class formation is to combine and unite the economic and political lines of development” (p.84).

This “translation” (again, not an analogy) is fraught with problems in my view. That’s not just because of perezhivanie, but also because children’s development is not solely social. For instance, children demonstrably develop different capacities as the prefrontal cortex matures. Drawing a direct line (not a mere analogy) between a child’s development and the development of a collective subject seems hasty and requires much more thought, but by Chapter 6 (“Revolution”) the two are treated as equivalent. Here, revolution is not considered the object of the activity, but rather the activity itself, which produces a new collective subject: the people (p.105). By Chapter 22, de Smet is mobilizing the Zone of Proximal Development for describing the developmental trajectory of this collective subject (p.293). Note that Vygotsky used the ZPD to describe how a less developed individual (such as a child) can accomplish things beyond their capabilities with the help of a more developed individual (such as a teacher). But here on p.293, no more-developed subject is mentioned.

So I had concerns about this theoretical equivalence. But I also had concerns about the methodology, which is scattered across the book rather than being laid out in one place. De Smet interviewed many people involved in the uprising, but does not discuss basics of interview research such as triangulation, nor does he do much to explore differences in how these participants saw the uprising. Rather, he mainly focuses on agreement, since these participants function as avatars for the collective subject. We don’t get a good sense of how he selected participants, how or whether he looked for disagreements, how he compared their statements at the time of the interview with documents at other periods, or other measures we might expect from qualitative research. We don’t know how many people he interviewed or how many of these are represented in the quotes and characterizations throughout (or if he covered these basics, I can’t find them). Because these basics aren’t covered, we don’t have a good idea of whether de Smet’s conclusions come from his data — or whether the data were selected to illustrate his conclusions.

In sum, I wanted to like this book, but ultimately I was suspicious of both the theoretical work and the empirical work. If you’re looking for a book that ties CHAT to political consciousness and revolt, pick it up, but use caution.