In this post, I respond to a recent article published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review called “The Research Gap in Social Entrepreneurship.”

I thank the author for sharing these great resources and his good analysis of the challenges in connecting the worlds of academia and practice. Having participated in and observed the development of research and knowledge dissemination within entrepreneurship and impact investing for over 25 years, the comments and questions in this article really resonate. However, there are three issues mentioned I would like to expand upon.

Not “academic” enough?

First, it is truly great we are finally at a stage where research topics related to social enterprise, impact investing, sustainable finance and so on have gained the attention of and credibility within “The Academy.” When I received my first formal academic appointment to the faculty of Harvard Business School in 2000 (after teaching a course on entrepreneurship at Kellogg in 1999), I was told in no uncertain terms that part of the reason I rose to the top was that while none of my research was “academic,” I had written more on the topic than most academics then active in the field. This was because entrepreneurship and what we now call impact investing were viewed as “career killers” within academia.

Are we willing to say that years of experience and knowledge are not credible or relevant to today’s work because they aren’t “academic”? Tweet This Quote

While this has changed somewhat, at that time, the only academics who would pay attention to these ideas were those who had already secured tenure. Ph.D. candidates were told in no uncertain terms not to focus on this area of research if they sought academic appointments and advancement because these areas had no foundation in academic schools of theory.

This raises a serious question: how do we bring forward the writing and reflections of the last 25 years that have laid the foundation for the academy’s present interest in the field—even if that work is not peer-reviewed and published in journals? Are we really willing to say that this body of knowledge is not credible or relevant to today’s work and practices because it is not “academic”?

Ed Skloot’s The Nonprofit Entrepreneur (1987) and The Roberts Foundation’s New Social Entrepreneurs: The Success, Challenge and Lessons of Nonprofit Enterprise Creation (a 417-page report released in 1996, written and co-edited by Fay Twersky and me) were not academic offerings, yet laid part of the current foundation upon which we all now build. The REDF Box Set (2000) included, among other offerings, what I believe was the first formalized methodology for social return on investment (SROI). It also explored the concept of investor equity in nonprofit enterprise, which envisioned the creation of social stock exchanges—two concepts that remain highly relevant today.

Econometrics and quantitative analysis don’t reflect the whole picture of our reality. Tweet This Quote

More recently, I’ve published two pieces that sought to aggregate some of this early work. Yet again, since they were not published in peer reviewed journals, they are hard to find and therefore seldom cited.

The bias toward quantitative analysis

Second, as academic research within economics and entrepreneurship has evolved over recent decades, it has become increasingly focused upon quantitative assessment and analysis. To their detriment, these researchers perceive that approach as having greater value than qualitative research. (See The Myth of the Rational Market for a great discussion of this evolution within the Academy).

Today, there is a general bias against case and narrative analysis that mainstream academia has now adopted. This is either intentionally or unintentionally reflected in the author’s comment, “As the field of social entrepreneurship matures, more university researchers should (and will) turn their attention to the systematic, quantitative work necessary to move beyond anecdotes and case studies.”

We need to drive toward a vision where thought is informed by action, which leads to deeper ideas and understanding. Tweet This Quote

Guess what? While I know it is hard to accept, especially in this age of big data-fetish and an “everything must be quantitatively measured” mindset, econometrics and quantitative analysis do not reflect the whole picture of our reality or life’s work—much less our shared knowledge and wisdom as a field. What is required (not only for entrepreneurship and impact investing, but mainstream business and traditional investing as well) is greater awareness and respect for the extra-quantitative and extra-financial elements of life, markets, resource allocation and performance.

I explored this in my own piece on metrics published last year. More importantly, my colleague Cathy Clark (Duke University) speaks of “The Research Cycle,” wherein case study and observation is informed by quantitative analysis that is then made stronger by further, deeper field research, and so on as the wheel of knowledge development turns.

Practitioners should not wait for academics to justify the work that goes on in communities and capital markets around the world. Tweet This Quote

Ultimately, we should drive toward a vision of praxis, wherein our thought is informed by action, which then leads to deeper ideas and understanding, which then leads to improved execution in bringing new ideas to the world. I believe such an understanding of knowledge and wisdom development fundamentally drives many of us regardless of where we may sit in our community.

A call for respect

Finally, I do not believe practitioners should wait for academics to come and justify or (as the author suggests) hold “accountable” the work that goes on in communities and capital markets around the world, out of which this field’s practices emerged. Alas, I would venture to say a good number of academics do not respect the work of practitioners, much as they now use that work to build their theories and conceptual frameworks and pursue their degrees.

Last fall, in response to an invitation to participate in a discussion group held at SOCAP regarding the state of academic research on impact investing, one “leading” academic declined to attend, stating as his rationale that since many of those in the meeting were not “real” academics (i.e. they lacked Ph.Ds and tenured appointments), he did not view those attending as peers with whom he wanted to engage. In light of both our history and current attitudes, what is a good “pracademic” to do?

A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.

Jed Emerson

Author Jed Emerson

Jed is the Chief Impact Strategist at ImpactAssets and the founder of Blended Value Group. He is also a founder of REDF and Larkin Street Youth Services and is a pioneer in the field of impact investing and entrepreneurship.

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