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Collective Entrepreneurship – Social Ontology as a Microfoundation

Thursday 31 July 2014

I have withheld posts to this blog for more than a week, as I prepared a written piece to support some comments I will make to a professional development workshop at the annual conference of the Academy of Management. I look forward to this conference for two reasons. First, I really enjoy Philadelphia — a city I came to love as a youngster who spent summers here with cousins, up through my second year at university. Secondly, the conference always has some provocative paper sessions and vigorous discussions in the hallways and surrounding barrooms. This year, the scholars who engage in entrepreneurship have put together some top-flight sessions.

I have been reading the literature of social ontology. It deals with the structures that permit and support group intentions and agency. That is, it is not enough to say that “I intend to pursue outcome J” and “you intend to pursue outcome J”, therefore we collectively intend to reach J. This is especially true in nominally large groups, where each member may accept the value of outcome J and tacitly support those members of the group who actively intend to pursue J, but to say that the whole group collectively intends that the group pursue J is patently false.

The philosophers who write on the subject make the distinctions clear between intentions held by individuals and intentions that are held by the group in some way that is not reducible to the simple summation of each member’s intentions. Moreover, they construe intention to include a commitment to action with a specific content, not just exist as an attitude or state of mind. Note the differences among the following.

1. I intend to start a new venture that uses intellectual property I control.

2.I intend to start a new venture that uses intellectual property I control and I will hire expertise in marketing to enable this.

3. I intend to start a new venture that uses intellectual property I control. Amelia intends to start a new venture that uses her particular skills in marketing.

4. Amelia and I intend to start a new venture that uses my intellectual property and her marketing skills.

5. Amelia and I intend to start a new venture to produce a dog food product that reduces Fido flatulence. I contribute my intellectual property and Amelia contributes her marketing expertise to this jointly owned venture, which will lead to shared outcomes for both of us.

It is the last instantiation of intended joint action that satisfies the strict requirements of shared intention for social ontologists, as it has specific content (‘we intend to jointly do J”) and has implications of commitment by both parties, shared understanding and beliefs, and a jointly obtainable outcome that is unobtainable by either party. As a caricature, this has elements of “I know that you know” and “you know that I know” and “I know that you know that I know”, etc. But a careful reading of the literature shows the necessity for making distinctions between individual intentions (even though they may parallel those of other individuals) and those intentions that are truly joint. The ontologists posit a number of accounts for how the jointness is established, ranging from shared ethos to pre-existing interpersonal commitment to shared formal plans to established authority relationships.

I have attached the essay I wrote for the session on social ontology and entrepreneurship. It has three parts. The first part looks exactly like the previous blog post on collective entrepreneurship. The second part addresses two projects that I am involved with that empirically test the Ruef model of relational demography for collectives of small firms. This blog will report on the empirical work in the  coming months. The third section introduces social ontology and describes some of the recent books produced on the subject and how they are related to our interests in the individual-collective boundary in entrepreneurship. A reading list follows this section.

An Essay on the Social Ontology of Collective Entrepreneurship

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