The importance of context in the study of social enterprise

Social enterprise is an organizational form that lies within the boundaries of the private, public and non-profit sectors and therefore promotes collaboration of different actors to solve societal problems. Those problems are embedded in societies, and thus the influence of socioeconomic conditions and the way a society works are vital to understanding the emergence and typology of social enterprise.

Social enterprise is a concept that has different definitions across countries and regions. The boundaries of the concept are still blurred (Galera and Borzaga, 2009; Doherty et al., 2014). During my research on the field, I have understood that there is no universal definition of social enterprise, but rather different strategies motivated by the environment and context where the organizations operate.

Country-level and regional elements help to explain some of the characteristics of social enterprise development in different regions, and the emergence of social enterprise (Austin, Stevenson and Wei-Skillern, 2006; Borzaga and Defourny, 2001; Dees, 1998; Defourny and Nyssens, 2010; Kerlin, 2010). Therefore, the study of cultural, economic, political and social factors is essential in understanding the different models of social enterprise which exist in the global context.

The influence of the institutional context in the emergence and establishment of socially-oriented organizations is a field that lacks extensive research (Doherty et al., 2014; Kerlin, 2013). Nevertheless, some authors are focusing their research on that topic. Particularly, Kerlin (2013) has developed a qualitative macro-institutional factor framework that helps to explain the typology of social enterprises in different regions of the world by studying five elements of a specific location: the recent culture and history, the type of government, the stage of economic development, the model of civil society and the international influences. I found this framework very interesting to have a holistic understanding about how deeply are social enterprises influenced by context.

Within academia will be the necessity to continue studying the relationships between the typology of social enterprises and environmental conditions. Not only qualitative, but quantitative analysis will be needed to evaluate models which offer better performance or which prove to be more coherent in specific contexts.

A better understanding of the context will be desirable for researchers, practitioners, and public agents:

  • For researchers, to explain the emergence of social enterprises and develop more accurate explanations about their emergence.
  • For practitioners, to leverage greater opportunities and to adapt organizational features to maximize resilience.
  • For legislators and public bodies, to develop laws and programs, and to create a favourable environment for social enterprises to emerge.

A wider knowledge on these topics will imply not only how to increase the visibility and to strengthen the concept of social enterprise in the countries where it is more prevalent today, but also to expand it to countries which are starting to implement this organizational model.



Austin, J., Stevenson, H. & Wei-Skillern, J. (2006). Social and commercial entrepreneurship: same, different or both? Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 30(1), 1–22.

Borzaga, C. & Defourny, J. (eds.) (2001). The Emergence of Social Enterprise. London, UK: Routledge.

Dees, J.G. (1998). Enterprising non-profits. Harvard Business Review, 76, 55–67.

Defourny, J. & Nyssens, M. (2010). Social enterprise in Europe: At the crossroads of market, public policies and third sector. Policy and Society 29(3), 231–242.

Doherty, B., Haugh, H. & Lyon, F. (2014). Social Enterprises as Hybrid Organizations: A Review and Research Agenda. International Journal of Management Reviews. doi: 10.1111/ijmr.12028 (online version)

Galera, G. & Borzaga, C. (2009). Social enterprise. An international overview of its conceptual evolution and legal implementation. Social Enterprise Journal, 5 (3), 210-228.

Kerlin, J.A. (2010). A Comparative Analysis of the Global Emergence of Social Enterprise. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 21 (2), 162–179.

Kerlin, J.A. (2013). Defining Social Enteprrise across different contexts: a conceptual framework base don institutional factors. Nonprofit Vountary Sector Quarterly 42(1), 84-108.


Foto Ramon2Ramón Fisac García is PhD in Industrial Engineering. He works as an assistant professor at the Business Administration Unit of Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. His research is mainly focused on organizational analysis, performance improvement and impact assessment of social enterprises. He has been a visiting researcher at the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) of Santa Clara University (2013).



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