Entrepreneurship: An Evolutionary Approach – by Howard Aldrich

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Professor Howard Aldrich has made a key contribution to entrepreneurship research over several decades.  He takes a particular interest in applying evolutionary theory to the field and finds entrepreneurship – where things are fresh and new – to be the perfect context in which to explore a variety of phenomena.

Here he discusses the background to his new book ‘An Evolutionary Approach to Entrepreneurship‘, explaining his ‘accidental’ journey to the discipline, and concludes with some invaluable advice for young scholars beginning their careers in this area.

When Francine O’Sullivan (Edward Elgar Publishing‘s Senior Commissioning Editor for the Business and Management list) asked me about doing a book on entrepreneurship, I initially resisted. I had written many papers on the topic but was not sure how they would cumulate into a book. Nevertheless, when I looked over my essays from the past several decades, I realized that I had already produced a book’s worth of words. Reviewing what I had written since the mid-1980s, I found five themes that unified my articles and book chapters:

  • First, I had written about the need to develop better theories, particularly with regard to new venture creation and the composition of founding teams.
  • Second, I had conducted a number of studies on the role of social networks in entrepreneurial startups and change.
  • Third, I had written several conceptual and empirical papers on the prospects for developing and pursuing successful entrepreneurial strategies.
  • Fourth, from a comparative and international perspective, I had written on gender differences in entrepreneurial startups and change, as well as the involvement of families in small firms.
  • Finally, going back to my early days studying small firms in American cities, I had completed a number of projects that investigated the relevance of entrepreneurship to the causes and consequences of stratification and inequality. I had also written quite a few papers on improving entrepreneurship research methods, but I am saving that line of writing for another project.

To put the papers from this book into historical context, I should note that I actually began doing research on small and young firms back in the 1960s, when I was a graduate student in sociology at the University of Michigan. My PhD dissertation began as a two-wave panel study of small businesses in the high crime rate areas of three US cities – Boston, Chicago, and Washington DC – and expanded into four waves after I became an assistant professor at Cornell. While I was working on empirical papers from this large panel study, using an ecological framework, I was also developing ideas about applying evolutionary theory to organizations. Emphasizing how little control small business owners had over their environments, my writings tended to privilege context as a driving force in organizational change. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a fertile period for the development of what scholars at that time called an organization/environment perspective and which later branched into one field called “population ecology” and another called variously “a natural selection perspective” or “an evolutionary perspective.”

In the fall of 1975, I began a yearlong sabbatical in England that enabled me to test some of the ideas I had developed in the American context. Working with three social geographers, our research team designed a four wave panel study that followed hundreds of small firms from 1978 to 1984. The dynamics of ecological succession that I observed in the United States fit very well the pattern we found in England. The contacts I made in Europe while that study was underway spurred me to join with Roger Waldinger and Robin Ward in writing a book on ethnic entrepreneurs. I still thought of myself simply as an organizational sociologist studying organizations from an evolutionary point of view. Like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s The Bourgeois Gentleman, who discovered that he had “been speaking prose all my life, and didn’t even know it,” it was not until a fortuitous conjuncture of circumstances that I realized I was actually studying “entrepreneurship.”

Then, in 1985, I received an invitation from Don Sexton to attend his state-of-the-art conference on entrepreneurship in Austin Texas. Don called me on the Friday before the conference began (which was on a Monday!) and asked me if I would be willing to present a paper, rather than act as a discussant. I had already been thinking about social networks because of my research on ethnic businesses and decided to accept his invitation. Cathy Zimmer agreed to help me and we quickly put something together over the weekend. That paper on entrepreneurship through social networks led to other invitations to present my work and I began to meet others in the entrepreneurship research community.

The Austin conference was an eye opening experience for me. The scholars I met were passionate about their work, energized about what they were finding, and cared deeply about the phenomena. Unlike the careerist and petty gossip that I heard at most professional meetings, the people studying entrepreneurship seemed to be genuinely interested in the research itself and eager to initiate new members into their group. Because of contacts I made in Austin, I began attending the Babson College Entrepreneurship Conference and gave my first paper at the 1987 meeting at Pepperdine University and I have missed very few meetings since then. In fact, I now have an honorary lifetime membership in the conference!

In the 1990s, my involvement in evolutionary theory grew hand-in-hand with my entrepreneurship projects. Now that I realized that I was actually studying “entrepreneurship” rather than “small businesses,” I reframed my research questions and began teaching seminars on the topic. I became associated in people’s minds with small firms and entrepreneurship and received many invitations to teach courses and seminars internationally. Bocconi University in Milan hosted me for several month-long courses and I visited the University of Economics in Vienna every spring for seven years in the 1990s to offer a course on entrepreneurship. Spurred in part by my youngest son’s interest in Japanese studies, I twice taught short entrepreneurship courses at Keio University in Japan.

In the mid-1990s, Paul Reynolds began soliciting my participation in perhaps the most important research project carried out in the United States in the past several decades, which eventually became the Panel Study of Entrepreneurial Dynamics (PSED I). I was initially reluctant to get involved, knowing how difficult it is to manage such diverse multimember collective action projects. However, to his credit, Paul never gave up and although I did not join the executive committee of the first PSED, Paul always referred to me as his “over-enthusiastic volunteer.” That experience taught me that it was better to be on the inside of such projects, rather than criticizing from the outside, and so when he proposed PSED II, I signed up for the executive committee.

Even though I came to the field of entrepreneurship studies almost by accident, I have never regretted my choice. Many of the phenomena that interest organization scholars are actually much easier to study in entrepreneurial context, where things are fresh, new, and small. In larger settings, researchers are often overwhelmed by complexity and find it very hard to pin down what is happening. By contrast, startups constitute an instant organizational laboratory with thousands of replications every day. Moreover, the selection logic forming the theoretical core of evolutionary theory shows itself every day as new ventures form and disband.

For younger scholars just beginning their careers in the field of organizations and management, I have four suggestions, based on my own experience over the past five decades.

  1. Think in terms of long-term projects, especially if you are studying dynamic processes that take some time to unfold. Cross-sectional studies provide snapshots of the way things are at a moment in time, but most contemporary theorizing concerns mechanisms and emergent processes that must be studied over time. Many of my projects involved data collection that extended over 4 to 6 years, with analysis and writing requiring several more years. Luckily, I had a portfolio of projects, some of which came to fruition earlier than others and thus I never lacked things to do!
  2. Think in terms of cumulative work that builds one paper on top of another, as a project matures over its planned life. In this age of “salami-publishing” – chopping bigger projects into smaller chunks and then publishing the smaller bits as independent papers – scholars often forget that such behavior cannot go undetected.  Independent observers of someone’s career take notice of suboptimal publishing patterns and are likely to discount a project’s worth, if its contributions are diluted by being parceled out in dribs and drabs. Instead, focus on establishing theoretical and empirical continuity across your work.
  3. Pay attention to what others are doing and find ways to link your work to theirs. With tools such as Google Scholar, citation alerts, table of content alerts, and other technologically-enhanced ways of keeping track of work in your field, you can enhance the impact of your own contributions by showing how it relates to the emerging state of the art.
  4. Most research projects in organization and management studies are multi-disciplinary, especially in entrepreneurship. Keep up with key work in other disciplines working on the same or similar issues, attend conferences, read their journals, and seek other people with diverse competencies to work with you on your long-term projects.

Howard AldrichHoward E. Aldrich received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and is Kenan Professor of Sociology, Chair of the Sociology Department, Adjunct Professor of Business at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Faculty Research Associate at the Department of Strategy & Entrepreneurship, Fuqua School of Business, Duke University.  His 1979 book, Organizations and Environments, was reprinted in 2007 by Stanford University Press in its Business Classics series. His book, Organizations Evolving (Sage, 1999), won the George Terry Award from the Academy of Management and was co-winner of the Max Weber Award from the OOW section of the American Sociological Association.  In 2000, he won the Swedish Foundation on Small Business Award for his research on entrepreneurship.  In 2002, he won the Sitterson Award for Excellent in Freshman Teaching at UNC-CH. 

His latest book, An Evolutionary Approach to Entrepreneurship: Selected Essays, was published by Edward Elgar in 2011.

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