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Historical Foundations of Entrepreneurship Research

Author(s):Landström, Hans
Lohrke, Franz
Reviewer(s):Hébert, Robert F.

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Hans Landstr?m and Franz Lohrke, editors, Historical Foundations of Entrepreneurship Research.? Cheltenham, UK:? Edward Elgar, 2010.? x + 431 pp.? $200 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84720-919-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robert F. H?bert, Auburn University (emeritus).

Buried deep in the 400+ pages of this book is a statement by British Management Professor Andrew Godley that may easily be overlooked:? ?… the mechanism between entrepreneurship and cultural values can be better understood once the economic function of entrepreneurship is clarified? (p. 366).? This proposition suggests that the unsettled nature of entrepreneurship constitutes an impediment to research on that subject.? However, despite their obvious research zeal, except for Godley, the contributors to this compendium of essays seem blissfully unaware of this anomaly and/or its implications.? Over the past three decades Albert Link and I have written repeatedly about the lack of clarity in the economic function of entrepreneurship (H?bert and Link, 1982, 1988, 2006, 2009). Yet judging by the present volume little progress to date has been made toward clarification.? The economic function of entrepreneurship remains as murky and manifold today as we found it three decades ago. As Peter Kilby (1971) wrote a decade before us, defining entrepreneurship is like hunting for the heffalump — a mythical creature that defies description.?

Some of the contributors to the present volume view entrepreneurship in a narrow, historical context, in which the function of the entrepreneur is to establish a firm (i.e., start a business) and secure capital funding for it.? These features, as Godley points out in Chapter 16, are those preferred by contemporary management scholars, although in a larger historical context entrepreneurship is about far more than that.? Other contributors adopt a wider, historical context, emphasizing culture, psychology, cognitive learning, social networks, and related ideas.? Some writers follow a discipline-centric approach. Others advocate a cross-disciplinary perspective.? The unsuspecting reader who approaches this collection of essays expecting to find a unanimous definition of entrepreneurship will be disappointed.? Of course, the conceptual maelstrom into which entrepreneurship has descended is the fault of neither the editors nor contributors.? Nevertheless, the reader might have been alerted to the problems involved in exploring the historical foundations of a moving target.

That having been said, what are the positive accomplishments of this book?? The editors cast a wide net in selecting contributors.? Many of the authors are affiliated with Colleges/Schools of Business (Baron, Kreiser, Lohrke, Marino, Moss, Nagy, Robinson, Sarasvathy, Short, and Wadhwani) or Schools/Departments of Management (Ahlstrom, Edmond, Huse, Lumpkin, Wang, and Wiklund).? Some are at research/applied institutes or centers (Benner, Berglund, Delmar, Foss, Gabrielsson, Godley, Jack, Johnson, Klein, Landstr?m, and Rose).? One is an economic historian (Sch?n), and two are sociologists (Persson, and Ruef).? This cross-section of authors and disciplines reflects the heterogeneous nature of entrepreneurship as well as the interest in it as a research subject.

The eighteen chapters that comprise this book are divided in the following fashion.? Chapter 1 is an introductory essay aimed at establishing the importance of history and historical context in entrepreneurship research.? The remaining chapters are partitioned into three categories.? The first category (Chapters 2 and 3) traces the historical development of entrepreneurship as a research field, emphasizing changes in the composition of entrepreneurship research over time, and raising the possibility of a cross-disciplinary and theory-driven research platform.? This section gives scant attention to the fact that entrepreneurship suffers from an identify complex that potentially threatens the prospects for entrepreneurship to emerge as a unified field.

The second category (Chapters 4 to 14) — subdivided into opportunity recognition, evaluation, exploitation and integrative works — explores the intellectual roots of entrepreneurship research.? The essays in this section advocate and explain various approaches, such as organization theory, cognitive theory, governance systems and socio-network theory.? Taken together, they provide a good example of the implicit heterogeneity and manifold functions of entrepreneurship.? Perhaps the best advice to prospective researchers is on page 92: ?Future entrepreneurship research would benefit from the continued development of a clear and accurate understanding of the role of environmental uncertainty in the entrepreneurial process.? In particular, researchers should be aware of the theoretical and empirical distinctions between the concepts of uncertainty and risk-taking.?? That we need to be reminded of this almost a century after Frank Knight (1921) is a bit surprising, if not discouraging.

The third, and final, category (Chapters 15 to 18) promotes the use of economic history in entrepreneurship research.? Chapter 15 is a general plea for historical reasoning in the development of entrepreneurship theory.? The next three chapters have a geographical orientation; they are aimed at understanding entrepreneurship in Great Britain, Sweden, and Asia, respectively.? In Chapter 16, Andrew Godley offers some insightful historical revelations on the rise and fall of the British economy (and the nature and role of entrepreneurship in it), especially before and after World Wars I and II.

For better or worse, the contributors to this volume have, for the most part, taken a Forrest Gump approach to entrepreneurship, i.e., ?entrepreneurship is what entrepreneurship does!?? Each essay is competently written, providing practitioners of narrow entrepreneurship research, of whatever academic stripe, some nuggets to mine.? But the grand problems of entrepreneurship research still lurk unresolved (and mostly unexposed) within the historical foundations of the subject:? Can entrepreneurship attain the status of a unified field of research?? Do entrepreneurial opportunities constitute an endogenous or exogenous variable?? Does the best payoff lie within a discipline-centric or cross-disciplinary approach?? For whatever reason, these issues have been either ignored or deferred, not just by the writers reviewed here, but by entrepreneurship researchers as a whole.? There remains much work to be done.


H?bert, Robert F. and Albert N. Link. (1982). The Entrepreneur: Mainstream Views and Radical Critiques.? New York: Praeger.

________ .? (1988). The Entrepreneur: Mainstream Views and Radical Critiques, second edition? New York: Praeger.

________.? (2006).? ?Historical Perspectives on the Entrepreneur,? Foundation and Trends in Entrepreneurship 2 (4): 261-408.

________ .? (2009).? A History of Entrepreneurship.? London: Routledge.

Kilby, Peter. (1971). ?Hunting the Heffalump,? in Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, ed. Peter Kilby.? New York: Free Press, pp. 1-40.

Knight, Frank H. (1921).? Risk, Uncertainty and Profit.? New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Robert F. H?bert is Emeritus Russell Foundation Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies, Auburn University.? He is the author of more than 100 articles, books, and reviews, published in such venues as the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Journal of Political Economy.? His latest book on entrepreneurship is A History of Entrepreneurship, with Albert N. Link.? London:? Routledge, 2009.

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII