Posted by: bevmeldrum | October 2, 2008

Listening to … Doug Foster

As the other part in the ‘Doug and Mike show’ due to appear at the event next week I am in awe of Mike’s thinking on variant typologies of social enterprise, all of which I believe to have bearing on the debate here – and I think we come to similar sorts of questions, or sometimes complimentary questions at least, via different routes…

I’ve had an academic interest in social enterprise and social entrepreneurship for a number of years now, with my PhD attained in 2001 in part looking at how Church of England vicars functioned (or not) as social entrepreneurs.  Yet a decade or so before then I worked as a community care development worker when the Conservative government arguably tried belatedly to bring enterprise into the public sector, including the area of health and social care with which I was particularly concerned…

So what contribution do I propose to make in assisting with the ‘listening to the social entrepreneur’ agenda?  I guess my primary question in relation to this debate is ‘what’s in a word or the words?’  I’m not sure whether I’m clever enough or sufficiently versed in particular philosophical ways to make such claims, but it occurs to me that ‘deconstruction’ might describe part of what I’m trying to suggest here, by which I mean breaking down and interrogating the words we use.  Yet what I also see as a supporting element to this analysis is looking at words that may in one instance be used interchangeably, and yet in another be used in such a way only very awkwardly. On the other hand, some words are not used yet conceivably could be.  Why do we talk of ‘social enterprises’ rather than ‘social businesses’, and yet of ‘business goals’ rather than ‘enterprise goals’?  Why do we talk of ‘social enterprises’ and ‘social goals’, rather than ‘public enterprises’ and ‘public goals’?  Could we talk about ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ enterprises and goals instead of social ones?  Why not talk of ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ enterprises and goals instead of ‘social’ ones, particularly if the aims are about recycling or cutting the carbon count?  Why is ‘business’ seen as particularly conflicting with ‘social’ goals and not ‘power’ and ‘status’?  In the end, however, this workshop is about listening to you, and these questions posed will only work if they can help expose insights relevant to that end, including whether this very debate we are having, that ‘we’ after all have framed, is the right one…

So…what do you think?



  1. I think that down this route, arguably, lies more navel-gazing, rather than action. To be devil’s advocate for a second, isn’t it more important that we put our energies into action, into supporting people to make positive change, rather than worrying about what label we give them (a debate which has already lasted a decade, and will no doubt continue; see for more and more).

    I’m looking forward to the Listening to the Social Entrepreneur event, precisely because social entrepreneurs (the practitioners) are about action, about achieving their goals…and are often bemused by how much time is spent by the second / third-tier / think-tank organisations on abstract notions and debates that (usually) have no influence or bearing on their work.

  2. In response to Nick T’s comments, I’d like to say that this is partly something I’m trying to open up – The navel-gazing of the different typologies of forms of social enterprise means that to those where the business and social debate isnt a debate shouldn’t get dragged into the debate – and let those that are happy to get on, get on with action.
    However, to those where the debate is a big thing – then this exploring might help – Furthermore, I think we need the one’s who have negotiated their way through to blending social and business to help others and give examples of their experiences – so I’ll certainly be listening to the practioner!

  3. Thanks very much for your critical post Nick, nicely devilish in its way, but of course the ‘just-do-it’ approach (note how I avoided calling it a philosophy because that might be to suggest it has something to do with nasty, armchair-sitting, abstract stuff) is every bit as absurd as the so called navel-gazing it wishes to oppose. Are we to suppose that social entrepreneurs are not and should not be reflective practitioners but naive ideological dupes of the market and/or the government? Surely not? Reflection on practice calls in part for consideration of the continuity v context dependency of the language we use. Of course, reflection on such practice may expose some uncomfortable realities, such as to find that in the chameleon presentation of social enterprise to so many different stakeholders in different times and places, appeal to ‘practitioner status’ becomes a desperate cover for fragmented, meaningless action. There, that should set the cat amongst the pigeons!!

  4. It may be the very people that just ‘get on with action’ that need to listen to ‘the social entrepreneur’, i.e. to listen to themselves. What is wrong with exploring when and where one emphasises a social aganda, when a private one, when a public or govenmental one, and seeing if there is a continuity running through this? In any respect who are ‘the practitioners’? Research and development of understanding across different sorts of organisation suggests that what constitiutes organisational goals and the processes which contribute to creating them can be complex. Those that write the mission statements and present the public face of an organisation portray its ‘official goals’, others in the organisation may pursue a different set of ‘operational goals’. Which of these represent ‘the practitioner’? Or is it rather that different groups of organisational ‘practitioners’ have different goals? Also what constitutes ‘listening’? ‘Passive listening’? ‘Active listening’? Reverent listening’? ‘Critical listening’?

  5. Easy listening?

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