Not all social entrepreneurs are unsung heroes who manage to address unsolved societal problems. While social entrepreneurship has long been portrayed as a force of good that can empower disadvantaged people, there is a growing recognition that it can also cause unexpected, detrimental societal impacts such as crime and social exclusion. Whether social entrepreneurs are aware of it or not, they wield the power to impact the lives of others not only positively but also negatively, even if this happens unintentionally or indirectly. Given that many social entrepreneurs seek to support people from underprivileged contexts, there are power asymmetries in play as well, which have been largely overlooked in the literature. Florian Koehne, Richard Woodward, and Benson Honig address this research gap in their recent Journal of Business Venturing article, entitled “The potentials and perils of prosocial power: Transnational social entrepreneurship dynamics in vulnerable places.”
As is common for qualitative research, the study started out in a different direction. As Koehne explained, “I was interested in the value chains of traditional agroforestry systems in the Amazon region of Ecuador … And when I was there, I met several social entrepreneurs who were working with indigenous communities on ambitious initiatives that aim to reduce social and environmental problems in the region. Some of these initiatives seemed to be almost a bit too ambitious … so I decided to look a bit deeper into that. I started volunteering with three of the social enterprises there and I also wanted to get the perspective of the indigenous communities … So, I spent 20 weeks in rural Ecuador and realized that some of the social entrepreneurs had immigrated to Ecuador. They have been living there for at least five years, so they know quite a lot about the context they are working in and it distinguishes them from social entrepreneurs who are temporary residents. And that for me was the interesting thing to see … What might be different about them compared to others? … Might they have a bigger impact because they are more deeply embedded in the context? And then I saw that they also actively leverage their home country embeddedness and so that makes them transnational entrepreneurs.”
Having switched the direction of his doctoral studies accordingly, Koehne realized the potential of this research to make meaningful contributions. He thought “that was really interesting and I should look further into that because there was no research on transnational social entrepreneurship, as we call it.” Identifying this theoretical gap helped Koehne build his research team: “I reached out to Benson [Honig] because he's an expert on transnational entrepreneurship … It was actually at the Academy of Management Conference in 2018 in Chicago where I met him and discussed a potential cooperation. And Rick [Woodward] was my Ph.D. supervisor, who pointed me [towards] the transnational entrepreneurship literature … because I wasn't even aware of the term at the beginning of my studies… so yeah, that made a great team and a lot of synergies and we worked very well together.”
Conducting the research wasn’t always easy, of course. As Koehne recounted, “I mean, Ecuador is really a wonderful country, but it can also be a very challenging context. Being in the Amazon all the time was also quite tough at some points … I got bitten by tarantulas and I got dengue fever, and then there was civil unrest, there was a national strike in 2019 that was also very intense, and I got stuck in Ecuador during COVID and so that was very adventurous as well, I would say, but all in all a very great experience. By now I have spent around three years in Ecuador and I am always happy to be there.”
Not only was the data collection challenging, but the publication process took quite some effort, as the reviewers “had a lot of constructive feedback”. As Koehne explained, they suggested a “restructuring [of] the paper, because at first, we started with a Bourdieusian lens, but they helped us realize that the paper could become stronger if we took it out, because then our own theorizing could stand more on its own feet and that was an important remark … We agreed, but it was not easy to get rid of the theoretical apparatus that had brought us this far … So that was one challenge and the other one was shortening the paper, because when you do qualitative research … you always want to put in a lot of quotes, and we had a lot of powerful quotes, which I thought were super interesting, but they just made the paper far too long. So we had to reduce it by a total of 10 pages … and that was tough. I don't know how many times I read through the paper … every time you cut a few words and it's still not enough so [I tried] over and over and finally made it.” Overall, the efforts the authors put in were certainly worth the rewards of the fascinating insights the paper provides into the “double-edged sword” of prosocial power.