Challenges in  research methods and international comparisons in Social Enterprise Research: Learnings from the 6th EMES summer school

From the 19th until the 22nd of June 2018, scholars, professors, 30 PhDs, and Early Stage Researchers gathered together near Marseille to discuss methodological issues in Social Enterprise research. Presentations shed light on the nature of social entrepreneurship and social enterprises, social and solidarity economy. One of the topics we found particularly interesting for our own research within the RurAction project was the international comparative perspective. Therefore, the focus of this blog post will be on this topic.

Open air session

With international comparison in mind, it is important to consider the advantages, and challenges as well as practical recommendations that keynote speakers have discussed during the Training School. The experiences shared in this blog are inspired by participation in keynotes, group sessions and round-table discussions.

International comparison

International comparison can be used to learn more about social phenomena in today’s’ global world. Looking at processes and developments on a micro scale, while considering the larger context contributes to a more nuanced perspective regarding the ways in which social enterprises operate and on the challenges they are facing. International or transnational comparison faces methodological problems, because knowledge developed by such an approach to research seems hardly generalizable. Research can be carried out on similar phenomena, but different contexts may determine the meanings and trajectories of such phenomena. According to Mercier’s (1) keynote, scholars interested in transnational approaches should consider cross-national comparison as a subject rather than a method.

Some methodological issues in international comparison that concentrate on ‘doing research from a distance’ can be distinguished. The first is ‘‘false comparison’, which suggests that no homogenous comparison is possible; in other terms “comparing apples to oranges”. The second issue pertains to conducting research from a distance. The implications are that the researcher often relies on secondary data such as literature, online material or surveys, among others. Reductiveness can be a result of this as well as an obstacle to form conclusions.

When it comes to comparative research in the field of social entrepreneurship, all the above-mentioned issues must be taken into account, since organizational, political, institutional, and cultural contexts shape social entrepreneurship paths (Defourny and Borzaga, 2001; Puumalainen et al., 2015). Whilst social enterprises can offer solutions to improve social conditions, empower people and contribute to local development, they also differ from each other in terms of legal recognition and institutional structures. This implies that comparative studies should be informed by this variation and designed accordingly, since the context is key to understanding societal problems, and, in turn, identifying solutions. This is particularly important for the study of structurally weak regions, especially the rural ones, which are undergoing processes of economic recession, loss of population due to out migration, and social and geographical separation. Moreover, in comparison to ‘predominantly urban’ or ‘intermediate’ regions, ‘predominantly rural’ regions, might be considered economically less productive, providing access to a limited amount of goods and services as well as fewer opportunities for higher education and qualified job offers.

Importance for RurAction

RurAction is a research and training network that focuses on social entrepreneurship an innovative solution to the problems affecting structurally weak rural regions in Europe. Since rural regions face similar problems, but they deal with them in different ways, RurAction takes a comparative perspective. The aim of the network is therefore to find an appropriate research approach to specific contexts (e.g. political, economic, social) and compare processes or phenomena of interest. One of the main challenges for RurAction researchers could be to get to know a new field. Since various regions in seven countries – Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Poland –  are operational fields within the RurAction network, each of individual researchers has to focus on two or three specific national and regional contexts. That is why a crucial insight from Marthe Nyssens was to ”always rely on context and get knowledge from the field”. Another substantial step in the course of any research is to search for the information in secondary sources and gather as much of such as possible before, during and after the fieldwork. Another issue raised by the keynote speakers was the “translation” problem: understood as the ”translation” of concepts and its adaptation to a specific context. An example of this can be various understandings of a social enterprise concept depending on legal forms, the institutional environment in which SEs operate etc. This process helps researchers clarify how concepts, ideas, and phenomena should be interpreted in a specific (political, economic, social, cultural) context.


As with Nyssens’ keynote, being involved in comparative studies of complex phenomena such as social entrepreneurship comes with inevitable challenges. Aligning concepts, contexts, knowledge and communication styles among research teams is one challenge which we also face in out project. Despite these challenges, Nyssens also emphasized that “the journey is important, not the destination”.

We would like to thank the organizers of the 6th EMES Training School for the opportunity to be a part of a great exchange among PhD students, scholars and researchers. This allowed us to gain new knowledge and experience on social entrepreneurship research and critically reflect on its methodological issues. The number of fruitful discussions suggest that there is no single way to do international comparison in the field of social entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, the encouraging conclusion might be formulated as follows: be aware of the varieties in contexts, search for information on cases under study everywhere, and enjoy the journey!


On behalf of the RurAction ESRs,

Nicole van Doorn and Marina Novikova


#EMES, #Summerschool, #internationalcomparison, #RurAction



Defourny, J., & Borzaga, C. (2001). The emergence of social enterprises in Europe. Bruxelles, EMES, European Network.

Nyssens, M., 2018. ICSEM International comparison of social enterprises models, Keynote speech at the 6th EMES Training School, June 2018, Marseille

Mercier, D., 2018. The international comparison in the social sciences: from societal analysis to transnational analysis, Keynote speech at the 6th EMES Training School, June 2018, Marseille

Puumalainen, K., Sjögrén, H., Syrjä, P., & Barraket, J. (2015). Comparing social entrepreneurship across nations: An exploratory study of institutional effects. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences/Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l’Administration, Vol. 32, No.4, pp 276-287.Seigel, M. (2005). Beyond compare: comparative method after the transnational turn. Radical History Review, Vol. 2005, No. 91, pp 62-90.


Marina NovikovaMarina Novikova

Bachelor in Sociology and Master in Studies in European Societies at Saint Petersburg State University (SPBU), Russia. Currently an Early Stage Researcher in RurAction Project “Social Entrepreneurship in Structurally Weak Rural Regions: Analysing Innovative Troubleshooters in Action” (Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action) and a PhD student at Instituto Universitario de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), Portugal. In the framework of the research, I look at the socio-economic impact of social innovation in regional development, how that impact might be identified, evaluated and measured. Using mixed method approach, I will try to access the impact of social innovation in  RurAction regions focusing on Baixo Alentejo (PT) and Mühlviertel (AT).


NicoleNicole van Doorn

Bachelor in Human Resource Management from the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht and Master in Culture, Organization and Management from VU Amsterdam. Currently I am an Early Stage Researcher with RurAction and a PHD candidate at Roskilde University in Denmark. My focus is ‘the emergence of Social Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation in rural areas in Europe’.




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