The ‘Anthropology of Entrepreneurship’ by Richard Pfeilstetter

On 2 November, I was given the opportunity to participate in a panel debate – a ‘book lunch’ (very droll!) – for anthropologist Richard Pfeilstetter’s recent (2022) book ‘The Anthropology of Entrepreneurship.’ Thank you Richard for the invitation and to Kirsty Osborne and the University of St Andrews Entrepreneurship Centre for organizing. I ended up writing a review of sorts. Richard felt it was worth sharing, so here it is (in a slightly tidier form).

“Thank you everyone for the opportunity to participate in this discussion, to Kirsty for organizing. I found Richard’s book simultaneously engaging, challenging, stimulating and at times infuriating. For an outsider to anthropology the book provided an engaging and swift tour of the strange history of entrepreneurship studies in anthropology. The source of my infuriation was simply that the tour is, for an outsider, sometimes a little too swift. Richard has managed to cram so much into a slim volume. So much, but at times, and necessarily, never quite enough.

Richard’s argument centres on a call for anthropology to take entrepreneurship seriously. He is bothered that anthropological scholarship often dismisses anthropology as a native term, something that doesn’t need to be explored reflexively, but just can be deployed in situ. Hence, he suggests, the willingness of much contemporary anthropology to regard entrepreneurship as part of a programme of social coercion and behavioural adjustment on the part of neoliberal elites.

At the same time, Richard is cautious of the move to regard any kind of social-change maker as an entrepreneur, pushing instead for some kind of basic rigour in the definition. In his book we meet all kinds of entrepreneurs, many of them sole traders or disenfranchised individuals, but there is always a commonality of economic activity.

It reminds me of the definition in the first non-humanities academic book I ever read as I started to drift towards the world of management research: Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship, published in 1985. Drucker offers a definition of an entrepreneur as someone who transfers resources from a lower value to a higher value part of the economy. In some ways this is a tendentious definition, very 1985, because it posits that the true entrepreneur is defined by success. Druker goes on to suggest entrepreneurship is low risk – tell that to the struggling and marginalized entrepreneurs in Richard’s compendium! But, in other ways, as Richard demonstrates, requiring an attempt to generate value from enhancing economic returns as a very minimum for the definition does give us a common object of conversation, preventing the concept from becoming meaninglessly diluted.

Danel Defoe wrote of ‘projects’ and ‘projectors’

Richard’s approach also captures something of the original sense of entrepreneurship, from entreprendre – the go between – in the work of Jean Baptiste Say. A focus on the often mundane efforts of economic toil compares favourably with the offering of Daniel Defoe, who a century before Say, wrote of ‘projects and projectors’, undertakings so fanciful and bold that they are almost certainly doomed to fail. If the kingpins of Silicon Valley are Defoe’s ‘projectors’, speculative dreamers of a new economic reality, so Richard’s entrepreneur is the diligent intermediary in the production process. How refreshing to regain that focus, especially amongst the recession, inflation, and general political-economic turmoil that the UK now faces.

Back to anthropology. It strikes me – and Richard is perfectly aware of this – that anthropology is somewhat late to the party. There is a huge and flourishing literature of entrepreneurship, much of it functionalist and, dare I say, rather dull, but some of it critical and ethnographic in nature. At the same time the anthropological method – observation, thick description, an awareness of history, culture and context has spread wide. My own field, following thinkers like the late Bruno Latour, has for two decades espoused an anthropology of markets. Moreover, it is genuinely interested in its objects of investigation, whereas, in Richard’s account, anthropology’s own attempts to get to grips with entrepreneurship have been driven by the discipline’s intellectual history. The method has even made its way to the airport bookshelves: see Gillian Tett’s ‘Anthrovision’, a defence of the ethnographic virtues of looking, listening and understanding in the age of top-down, big-data-driven social science, policy and planning. 

It just so happens that the University’s new strategy was published yesterday, including an ‘entrepreneurial strand’. It states: ‘To be entrepreneurial in our culture is to see potential in existing and future activity and to translate that into enterprise for the benefit of wider society.’ Even allowing for the necessary blandness of organizational strategy statements, the notion of entrepreneurship has been entirely institutionalised: seeing potential and translating it into benefits. Having read Richard’s book I recognize a nativized term when I see one.

Unexplored terms, as Richard shows us, are freighted with their own politics. I agree, and these need to be unboxed. To be successful as an entrepreneurial community, here in an ‘Entrepreneurship Centre’, we will have to acknowledge the silences as well as the voices in that conversation, the exclusions as well as the inclusions. We need to understand what entrepreneurship means, not just to us, but to people who are not like us (that’s almost everyone!). That’s certainly a task for the anthropological method.

Is it, though, a job for anthropologists?  

In other words, when it comes to the ‘why’ of Richard’s book, I’m almost convinced, but not quite. The book does [as another respondent, the anthropologist Daniel Knight, made clear] a great service within the discipline by attempting to rehabilitate entrepreneurship into something that can be taken seriously as an object of study in its own right. It therefore makes an important contribution within the tangled and political history of anthropology.

But I’m not a disciplinary anthropologist.

It seems to me that there is a significant and important social and intellectual contribution to be made by academics able to articulate an intellectually robust, useful, and engaged account of entrepreneurship that is neither excessively instrumental nor critical. This is, I think, where Richard is leading us, and I welcome that endeavour.

At the same time, as a management scholar and sociologist of markets I am inclined to side with Tett, not Pfeilstetter: the anthropological method is for everyone. And if the anthropologists have missed the entrepreneurial boat? Well, so it goes.