And If You Can’t Teach, Teach Gym

7 April 2012 at 11:18 pm 6 comments

| Peter Klein |

Kate Maxwell, writing at Growthology, is concerned about the distance between those who do entrepreneurship and those who teach or research entrepreneurship:

In my reading of the entrepreneurship literature I have been struck by the large gap between entrepreneurs and people who study entrepreneurship. The group of people who self select into entrepreneurship is almost entirely disjoint from the group of people who self select to study it. Such a gap exists in other fields to greater and lesser degrees. Sociologists, for instance, study phenomenon in which they are clearly participants whereas political scientists are rarely career politicians but are often actors in political systems.

But in the case of entrepreneurship the gap is cause for concern. My sense is that all too often those studying entrepreneurship don’t understand, even through exposure, the messy process of creating a business, nor, due to selection effects, are they naturally inclined to think like an entrepreneur might.

I agree entirely with this description, but am not sure I understand the concern. Kate seems to assume a particular concept of entrepreneurship — the day-to-day mechanics of starting and growing a business — that applies only to a fraction of the entrepreneurship literature. Surely one can study the effects of entrepreneurship on economic outcomes like growth and industry structure without “thinking like an entrepreneur.” Same for antecedents to entrepreneurship such as the legal and political environment, social and cultural norms, the behavior of universities, etc. Even more so, if we treat entrepreneurship as an economic function (alertness, innovation, adaptation, or judgment) rather than an employment category or a firm type, then solid training in economics and related disciplines seems the main prerequisite for doing good research.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that entrepreneurship scholars shouldn’t talk to entrepreneurs or study their lives and work. Want to know how if feels to throw the winning Superbowl pass? Ask Tom Brady or Eli Manning. The stat sheet won’t tell you that. But this doesn’t mean that only ex-NFL players can be competent announcers, analysts, sportswriters, etc. Similarly, I like to read about food, and have enjoyed the recent memoirs of great chefs like Jacques Pépin and Julia Child. These first-hand accounts are full of unique insights and colorful observations. But there are plenty of great books on the restaurant industry, on the relationship between food and culture, on culinary innovation, etc. by authors who couldn’t cook their way out of a paper bag.

What do you think?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Entrepreneurship, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Teaching. Tags: .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bbrk  |  7 April 2012 at 11:42 pm

    You often see criticisms of political scientists as studying questions that are not adequately relevant to the practice of politics — but you don’t often hear people saying that more political scientists should be politicians (and what top researchers in political science are ‘actors in political systems’, anyhow?)

    Also — if we do accept the idea that studying and doing entrepreneurship ought to overlap more, would this lead to greater use of ethnography and participant-observation as research methods? A quick check of ET&P and JBV suggests that ethnography is somewhat rare in the top entrepreneurship journals.

  • 2. Tim  |  8 April 2012 at 12:50 am

    Are astronomers only able to study stars if they have been a massive, luminous sphere of plasma held together by gravity themselves?

    That said, the theory/practice gap is a major issue, and we do need to find better ways to bridge it. Talking to people in business is important for all of the scholars that study them, I think. But the idea that you can only understand a field if you have directly participated in it is absurd.

  • 3. Rafe  |  8 April 2012 at 1:26 am

    Is she concerned about the criminologists who are not criminals?

  • 4. PE  |  8 April 2012 at 10:47 am

    There are two different issues conflated in the Maxwell quote:

    1) the “distance” between entrepreneurship scholars and their empirical objects (a research philosophy and methodology problem); and

    2) whether it is necessary for an entrepreneurship scholar to have been an entrepreneur in a prior life in order to be qualified to study and understand entrepreneurship as a phenomenon.

    One can disagree about 2) and still agree that there may be some methodological approaches that grant closer access to the empirical object than others.

    But the distinction between entrepreneurship scholars and sociologists is a false one, after all there are plenty of sociologists who have studied entrepreneurship as well.

    I also disagree with the assumption that it’s a one-way street, i.e. that knowledge about entrepreneurship only flows from entrepreneurs to scholars. As Peter Klein suggested above, entrepreneurship arises out of a wider context in which universities usually play a key part either directly or indirectly, by equipping entrepreneurs with skills and concepts and contributing to the construction of institutions that support enterprise.

    So was Maxwell only commenting on a particular type of an entrepreneurship scholar and on a particular section of the literature (e.g. by excluding sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists who also study entrepreneurship)?

  • 5. Randy  |  8 April 2012 at 10:16 pm

    I guess I am underwhelmed by Maxwell’s post. Yes, the process of starting a company is messy, nonlinear, and fraught with idiosyncrasies. Scholars who write about entrepreneurship in research tracts and teaching materials cannot be limited to writing about this. How about the one-paragraph textbook that says, “Entrepreneurship is messy and idiosyncratic. Therefore, we cannot teach any coherent principles or processes. Good luck.”

    Likewise, entrepreneurship research must have something to say about phenomena extracted or abstracted from the messy context. If we try to publish stories about messy idiosyncratic startup processes, little is gained.

  • 6. Sam  |  1 September 2012 at 10:26 am

    The real issue, at least to me (and which I agree was not the focus of Kate Maxwell’s comments) is: why exactly does the ability to perform research in entrepreneurship automatically qualify you to *teach* entrepreneurship? To extend Peter Klein’s above analogy, while Bob Costas may indeed be eminently qualified to provide insightful and entertaining Olympics commentary to the lay audience, that doesn’t qualify him to *coach* Olympic athletes.

    Yet not only does mere entrepreneurial research capability alone – as defined by the ability to publish in “top” theoretical entrepreneurship journals – qualify you to teach entrepreneurship at the top b-schools. Far more egregiously, it also serves to actively block others who would be able to effectively teach entrepreneurship. Imagine if Bob Costas was not only hired to coach Olympic athletes merely by virtue of his journalism skills alone, but that Costas could then actively block others from entering the coaching profession. That’s exactly what happens now within entrepreneurship academia. Researchers dominate hiring and tenure committees. They can and do decide whether to hire/fire people to *teach* entrepreneurship largely (often times almost exclusively) on their ability to publish entrepreneurship papers. Whether somebody can actually teach entrepreneurship – well, who cares?

    Put another way, if the Bob Costas’s of the world were allowed to control the ranks of Olympic coaching the way that entrepreneurship researchers control entrepreneurship teaching, then somebody like Bob Bowman (the coach of Michael Phelps) might not have even been allowed to coach at all.

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