“But what is social enterprise?”
“Well, it’s ambiguous”
“And what is health?”
“Well, it’s vague”
The above exchange has taken place on numerous occasions over the past year, with me having played both roles depending on who I’m speaking to. This post is about some of those conversations.
The first took place in my job interview. I was the respondent, sweating while giving textbook answers about the different methods of delivering social impact and the difference between salutogenesis and pathogenesis. Things often seem easier when you think you know the answer, so I learned what I thought were the answers.
And then I became the questioner, to establish what I considered a necessary foundation before the real work started. I had just started my first job in research, entitled ‘A contemporary analysis of social enterprise as a public health intervention’ and I needed to know what those things meant. As is often the way in academia, very soon you realise that everything you thought you knew (the aforementioned ‘answers’) is in actuality full of gaping theoretical holes. As I tried to wade through the mountains of literature, all contradicting each other, all I wanted to know was “What is it?” because I thought that was how you found the answer, and I thought that’s what I needed to do.
But what if it wasn’t? Everyone has theories and opinions, some of them are written in journal articles and some aren’t. So without an answer (and fearing being asked the questions in case I was found out) I ventured out into the field, once again playing the questioner but with a very different perception of the answers I received. People at the top of the public health and social enterprise sectors seemed far less adversarial than academic papers and theories. They compromised and welcomed differences, taking on differing views and opinions. They didn’t have answers to the questions, and often they weren’t looking for them. They were far more concerned with what worked, and how, and less about what it’s called.
So what about a new approach? Don’t ask the questions at all? And don’t worry about the dearth of answers? Use an accepted definition of social enterprise as a means to an end, use a theory of the ways in which health can be improved, find examples where the former does the latter, and ask how they did it. This involved examining why and how certain processes were undertaken, who was impacted and in what ways. What has emerged are a number of processes undertaken by organisations that could be considered social enterprises, leading to a number of outcomes associated with health.
This tentative result appears unremarkable, it doesn’t even answer the initial questions. But it has the potential to form a contemporary analysis of how social enterprise can act as a public health intervention, which is, fundamentally, what I’m employed to do. So when someone asks me the questions again, and I answer them as above, I’ll do so with much more confidence than I did in my interview. It’s funny how academia does that, makes you very proud of knowing less than when you started. But crucially, leading you towards what you need to know.