Why does social entrepreneurship continue to mean different things to different people?

Jointly with Myrto Chliova and Alfred Vernis, Johanna Mair explores what happens when fields can’t shake off their ambiguous definitions.

Social entrepreneurship has come to mean different things to different people since it first emerged as a type of organisational category. This kind of ambiguity is not uncommon when new categories are evolving, but it is usually temporary. As the category becomes established and stakeholders agree on a common definition, ambiguity vanishes.  In a new paper, Myrto Chliova, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Aalto University School of Business, Johanna Mair, Professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School, along with Alfred Vernis, Associate Professor of Strategy at ESADE, provide important insights into how categories used to classify organisations become and remain ambiguous.

Studies have shown that when categories continue to hold multiple or even competing meanings, they are eventually abandoned – and this has repercussions for the organisations, fields and markets associated with the category. But, Chliova,  Mair and Vernis find, the category of social entrepreneurship has survived and prospered despite the fact that stakeholders continue to define it in a number of different ways. In tracing the emergence and evolution of social entrepreneurship as a category, they specify how interactions between multiple stakeholders with different interests and resources contribute to the persistence of category ambiguity.

The paper, Persistent category ambiguity: The case of social entrepreneurship, was published in January in Organization Studies, a prominentpeer-reviewed journal in the field of organizational theory. Organizational theory is the sociological study of formal social organisations like businesses and bureaucracies, and the analysis of how they interrelate with the environment in which they operate.


You can read the full study.

More about Johanna Mair

  • Johanna Mair , Professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership