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Serendipity, Opportunity, and Disagreement

Sunday 06 July 2014

To finish the week, I had intended to produce a short six-paragraph “challenge” piece as an exercise in writing. I was collecting the thoughts that I would turn into the paragraphs on entrepreneurial opportunity, when the latest issue of the Academy of Management Review landed on my desk on Thursday. Then I read Rodolphe Durand’s piece “The Fruitfulness of Disagreement” in the book reviews section of the issue. I was struck by the serendipitous appearance of this piece when I was struggling with the storyline of my discomfort with the construct of the opportunity in current entrepreneurship research.

As an aside, and a truly worthy one, I cannot bring myself to call Durand’s piece a book review. It is much more. First, there is the matter of expository scope. Durand discusses two large, complex, difficult books: Logics of Organization Theory: Audiences, Codes, and Ecologies, by Hannan, Pólos, and Carroll; and The Emergence of Organizations and Markets, by Padgett and Powell. Each of these tomes is a daunting subject for a review. Second, Durand builds a case for review-as-reading-as-disagreement. That is, he defines a structure for approaching a review in the way one approaches a research topic: “… [B]efore thinking one has something new to say, to model, or to critique the work of those who have gone before, one needs to be convinced that something has gone awry in how those others have developed their ideas. Disagreement is at the root of thought experiments, analogies, and causal reexamination.” (p.387) He posits three forms of disagreement – about definitions, about incompleteness, and about unfairness. And to complete his extravagant “review”, Durand illustrates his method by examining the three forms of disagreement with respect to three other books from the 1960s and 1970s. Formidable!

I have the books by Hannan, Pólos, and Carroll and by Padgett and Powell on my office bookshelves, as they contribute to my study of what the great biological scientist G. Evelyn Hutchinson called “the ecological theater and the evolutionary play” in his 1965 book of that title. How much can we learn about organizations and sectors of the economy by modeling them as systems of interrelated agents (à la ecology) with explicit dynamical patterns of change (à la evolution)? I had high hopes for Hannan et al, but I could never get past the feeling that they were just trying to resuscitate the late and unlamented school of sociology that was called population ecology, but was a pale simulacrum of what biologists call ecology. By adding a cognitive overlay to the heretofore rigid classifications in two decades of “pop ecology”, the authors pirated the ideas from identity theory, but did not cite the vast literature on social and organizational identity that exists in the field of management. Padgett and Powell start off with a fascinating foray into autocatalysis by using the biochemical processes of the origin of life as a metaphor for emergent social processes and seeking to go beyond metaphor to analogical reasoning. I like the idea, but I am becoming reticent about using scientific metaphor for the development of organization theory. And when the book jumps from autocatalysis to case studies of societal transformations, I missed the analogical reasoning. Everything after page 115 looked like historiography.

Durand’s three genres of disagreements made me understand the nature of my unease with the two books that he reviews. For the organizational ecology book, I have violent disagreement with unfairness. That is, I go further than Durand in saying that the authors are unfair in the dismissal of authors and theoretical works that should be included in the development of the “new” text. I see the omission of the work on identity theory as more than a question of “compatability”. It is a question of intellectual dishonesty. And my disagreement with Padgett and Powell is a combination of the other two pieces of Durand’s approach: disagreement about definitions and disagreement about incompleteness. I believe that their metaphor is incomplete with respect to the evolution of social systems (and what evolves in them) and the definitions that have been well tested and confirmed in biochemistry have not been confirmed in organization theory, least of all by the contributors to their volume.

So what does the serendipitous appearance of Rodolphe Durand’s superb article mean for my unease with the construct of the entrepreneurial opportunity? I have not yet composed the argument in my head, but I should have a six-paragraph challenge to write by the middle of the coming week. It will be built around my disagreements with the definition of opportunity (or, more precisely, the multifarious, sloppy, and unconfirmed definitions), the incompleteness of the construct and its conceptual instantiations for explaining entrepreneurship, and the unfairness of the dismissal of a couple of centuries of economic thought so as to declare the construct as the sine qua non of entrepreneurship research.

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