The Social Dimensions of Entrepreneurship

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The Social Dimensions of Entrepreneurship
Amir N. Licht and Jordan I. Siegel*


Schumpeter’s canonical depiction of the entrepreneur as an agent of social and economic change implies that entrepreneurs are especially sensitive to the social environment. We extract teachings from several disciplines while adopting a primary perspective based on institutional economics to consider the social dimensions of entrepreneurship. The level and modes of entrepreneurial activity are affected by the surrounding culture and by legal rules. Entrepreneurs may partially overcome institutional deficiencies by relying on social networks that facilitate reputational bonding as a means for resource-sharing.

This version: August 31, 2004

JEL Codes: L1, L2, M13, P1, Z1

Keywords: Entrepreneurship, social institutions, culture, law, social networks, reputation.


In a pioneering book chapter whose title foreshadowed the present chapter’s theme, Shapero and Sokol (1982: 83) averred that ‘[t]he social and cultural factors that enter into the formation of entrepreneurial events are most felt through the formation of individual value systems. More specifically, in a social system that places a high value on the formation of new ventures, more individuals will choose that path …. More diffusely, a social system that places a high value on innovation, risk-taking, and independence is more likely to produce entrepreneurial events than a system with contrasting values.’ Subsequent research reviewed in this chapter has largely vindicated Shapero and Sokol’s proposition, although the interrelations between entrepreneurship and various social dimensions now seem more complex.

2.The Entrepreneur: an Individual portrait

Some seventy years ago, Schumpeter (1934: 93-94), the patron saint of all entrepreneurs (Solow 1994), depicted the motives of the entrepreneur as follows:

First of all there is the dream and the will to found a private kingdom, usually, though not necessarily, also a dynasty. … Then there is the will to conquer: the impulse to fight, to prove oneself superior to others, to succeed for the sake, not of the fruits of success, but of success itself. From this aspect, economic action becomes akin to sport… The financial result is a secondary consideration, or, at all events, mainly valued as an index of success and as a symptom of victory, the displaying of which very often is more important as a motive of large expenditure than the wish for the consumers’ goods themselves. … Finally, there is the joy of creating, of getting things done, or simply of exercising one’s energy and ingenuity. ... Our type seeks out difficulties, changes in order to change, delights in ventures.

Romantic as it may seem at first glance, Schumpeter’s portrait of entrepreneurial motives captures essential facets of entrepreneurship that mainstream economics still grapples with. Schumpeter’s core contention, that entrepreneurs do not seek greater wealth for the sake of increasing consumption seems at odds with conventional depictions of economic agents. This seeming contradiction is all the more evident when one considers the alleged motives of ‘the joy of creating… delights in venturing’, which, one should bear in mind, are related to economic activity in the market, not recreation and leisure.

Recent evidence suggests, however, that Schumpeter might be right. Hamilton (2000) finds that in the United States, median entrepreneurs earnings after 10 years in business are 35 percent less than the predicted alternative wage on a paid job of the same duration. Hamilton’s use of a self-selection model shows that it is not the case that low-ability workers become entrepreneurs; if anything, the evidence shows that higher-ability workers are more likely to enter into self-employment. Therefore, large-sample evidence amassed by Hamilton strongly suggests that self-employment offers substantial nonpecuniary benefits, such as ‘being your own boss.’ Moskowitz and Vissing-Jørgensen (2002) similarly find that entrepreneurs are willing to concentrate their investments in their own businesses despite the fact that they present a far worse risk-return tradeoff than investing in public equity. Kerins, J. Smith and R. Smith (2004), moreover, provide evidence on the very high cost-of-capital levels that entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are willing to bear to engage in entrepreneurial activity. The leading explanation for these results is based on nonpecuniary benefits from entrepreneurial activity. A further sociologically-based explanation is that high-ability individuals are culturally encouraged to start firms where family members can be employed and share directly in the profits. Further work is needed to test this hypothesis. Using Swedish data, Giannetti and Simonov (2003) do argue that social norms may drive people into entrepreneurship notwithstanding lower individual profits.

Amit et al. (2001) compared Canadian entrepreneurs with senior managers who decided not to start ventures in the high-technology sector. They found that for entrepreneurs' decision to start a new venture wealth attainment was significantly less important relative to an aggregate of ten other decision dimensions (specifically: vision, stability, power, lifestyle, leadership, innovation, independence, ego, contribution, and challenge). Several other studies maintain that entrepreneurs are more over-confident than regular people are and appear to be driven by wishful thinking (Bernardo and Welch 1998; Arabsheibani, de Meza, Maloney, and Pearson 2000; Cooper, Woo and Dunkelberg 1988). However, one would be wrong to interpret either Schumpeter or the evidence mentioned above as suggesting that entrepreneurs are agnostic or oblivious to financial considerations. Studies conducted in several countries show that individuals are sensitive to capital constraints in their decision to take entrepreneurial positions – in particular, self-employment.1

Several studies hold that entrepreneurs find special importance in their independence (Blanchflower and Oswald 1998; Blanchflower 2000; Blanchflower, Oswald and Stutzer 2001; Hundley 2001). Using survey data from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland, Benz and Frey (2004) argue that the greater independence and autonomy of self-employed persons is largely responsible for their particular job satisfaction. A series of recent studies on OECD-member nations further shows that people most often move into self-employment when they are dissatisfied with their life, and that the very act of creating their own business tends to make them more satisfied than the average person in their country (Hofstede 1998; Noorderhaven et al. 1999; Noorderhaven et al. 2003; Hofstede et al. 2004). Falter (2002) holds that the greater job satisfaction exhibited by the self-employed in Switzerland stems rather from their job characteristics than from income. Falter notes that this may be due to individual over-optimism in addition to greater freedom.

Taken together, the above evidence suggests that entrepreneurs are relatively more willing to forgo income and to bear costs, including through increased risk levels, in order to engage in independent ventures. These studies may have some methodological weaknesses, however. To be able to confirm that entrepreneurs have alternative options with higher income, one would need to replicate the exercise in Stern (2004), who collected data on scientists who give up more lucrative job offers to do real science at lower pay. Still, while the literature’s lack of measurement on alternative options is a weak point, the preponderance of survey evidence from the entrepreneurship literature does still at least suggest that entrepreneurs often had more lucrative alternatives inside established firms (see Amit et al. 2001).

Compared with non-entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs behave as if they understand the present fairly well but have rather special views regarding the future. Yet the image of the entrepreneur reflected in these works is still very fragmented. A richer picture emerges when one considers insights from a psychological perspective. While the literature on entrepreneurship and individual-level psychology is voluminous and lies beyond the present scope,2 here we briefly note that entrepreneurs’ risk propensity has been found to be non-distinguishable from that of non-entrepreneurs. Rather, entrepreneurs differ in their risk (under-)assessment, consistent with their general over-optimism (e.g., Palich and Babgy 1995; Sarasvathy, Simon and Lave 1998).

Researchers have developed a multi-dimensional construct of entrepreneurial orientation with three sub-dimensions: innovation, proactiveness, and risk-taking, and established its validity in several national samples (Miller 1983; Covin and Slevin 1989; 1991; Lumpkin and Dess 1996; Kreiser, Marino and Weaver 2002). These dimensions capture more elements of entrepreneurial motivations and behavior than other models do, thus bringing us closer to the model suggested by Schumpeter and other classic scholars (Knight 1921; Kirzner 1973). Importantly, these constructs lend themselves to examining the impact of national culture on entrepreneurship (Kreiser, Marino and Weaver 2002).

A notable feature of this branch of entrepreneurship literature, however, is the paucity of studies on the role of personal values in differentiating entrepreneurs from salary earners. Values are conceptions of the desirable – a motivational construct. They represent broad goals that apply across contexts and time (Rokeach 1973; Schwartz 1997; Schwartz and Bilsky 1987, 1990). Personal value emphases have been systematically related to individuals’ behavior (e.g., Schwartz and Bardi 2003). Drawing on Rokeach’s (1973) theory of values, Bird (1989) and Sarasvathy (2001) proposed that entrepreneurs’ personal value emphases may distinguish them from other people. Having searched the business, economics, and finance sections of the JSTOR database and internet resources more limitedly, we are not aware of studies that tested this proposition empirically.

The Schwartz (1992) model of individual values defines ten broad values according to the motivation that underlies each of them (specifically: power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, conformity, tradition, and security). These values are presumed to encompass the range of motivationally distinct values recognized across cultures. These values can further be organized along two bipolar dimensions: self-enhancement versus self-transcendence and conservation versus openness to change. This model appears to hold promise for a more systematic analysis of entrepreneurial orientations. The Schwartz (1992) model can be used to investigate reliably whether entrepreneurs indeed possess a distinct set of motivational preferences relative to their non-entrepreneur peers, as Schumpeter conjectured. We note, without elaboration, that a plausible hypothesis in this respect would be that entrepreneurs’ value priorities will emphasize self-enhancement and openness to change over self-transcendence and conservation, respectively.

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