Seminar Report: On fields, entrepreneurs, Jaws and The Wire. No, really

A glorious late summer’s day. What better way to spend it than being a mouse in the maze that is Manchester Business School, and chancing upon the first “Manchester Institute of Innovation Research” seminar of the academic year?

It was on “Institutionalisation of the Field of Entrepreneurship

The presenter, Prof Benson Honig, set about demolishing the ‘self-made man’ myth prevalent in the US (Horatio Alger and all that), before taking aim at the Dragon’s Den style TV shows which are more about entertainment (they choose the kooky, the charismatic. It’s upmarket Jeremy Kyle, after all).  The brutal truth of entrepreneurship (including those who do well on TV) is that few make it rich, it’s more than a five minute pitch, and it’s high risk;  the celebrated Silicon Valley “Y-combinator” (no, I’d not heard of it either) has a very low (0.4%) success rate.

Honig made the good point that entrepreneurship is a motherhood-and-apple pie buzz phrase beloved of politicians, since it allows them to sidestep questions of inequality, economic inactivity etc.  Although he didn’t say it, the myth of entrepreneurship is the conjoined twin of David Harvey’s spatial fix (the idea that cities can outcompete each other to prosperity).

He pointed out that the promulgation of these myths is changing the way universities, schools and the media function, and took a Chomskyean line that scholars be up front about this (“it is the responsibility of intellectuals to expose lies and tell the truth”), highlighting what entrepreneurship cannot deliver.

At this point I was starting to get twitchy. Having demolished the ‘myth’ of the heroic entrepreneur, and the myth-making of the TV shows, surely he was then going to embed entrepreneurship in, say, national systems of innovation? Or the multi-level perspective? [Which, it has been pointed out, hasn’t made it across t’Atlantic yet].  Or start talking about Strategic Niche Management? Nope, nope, nope;  the good Prof  had other fish to fry. Academic fish.
What came next was a bracing jeremiad/proposed cleansing of the Augean stables, along the lines delivered by Dr Thomas Stockman in Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” (which inspired the movie Jaws, in case the title of this blog post still confuses).

It turns out that academics live within a system of rules, rituals and rewards, and that they are more than capable of gaming the system (It’s “all in the game, yo?” as that nice Mr Omar Little used to say in ‘The Wire’)

For instance, there’s people choosing the statistical test to make their data ‘significant’ (if not relevant). With bracing cynicism, Honig observed that sometimes new (statistical) methods were being used because reviewers didn’t understand them (and would therefore wave them through rather than reveal ignorance), but that this was creating a credibility gap.

There’s ‘coercive citations’ – forcing other academics to cite your work, even if it isn’t relevant (or significant).  There’s all sorts of other games people play
There were recommendations which, to my untutored eye, would make a bit of a difference –

  • Uploading anonymised raw data (with the proviso that others could check it, but not use it for their own publications)
  • Key journals to have a space for replication studies (which would then drive improvement in replication)
  • Data scripts to be publically available
  • More open dialogue journals
  • Discourage self-citation – with citations of other articles from the same journal not counting towards that journal’s impact factor
  • Authors being forces to disclose financial or other support, consultancy fees etc.
  • Easier links to emergent scholarship
  • Bringing various forms of tacit knowledge and social capital into the open (via perhaps, some kind of transparency index (Marcus and Oransky, 2012))
  • Asking if the journals use plagiarism detection software, forcing them to explain how they deal with retractions/publication of material that invalidates previous articles etc.

Ultimately, imho, it will take a miracle to sort out all of this. And the Germans have outlawed miracles

There were various questions (my opinion of Q and As is well known,and was not particularly borne out today, thank goodness), including a challenge to the positivist notions of replicability, and the point that entrepreneurs and academics are similarly atomised/individualised.  My favourite was the point that it is almost the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of that church, and maybe it’s time for another attack on institutions and their indulgences….

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