What is the emancipation theory of entrepreneurship?
The term emancipation has roots in Roman era practices of buying, selling and keeping slaves, but also wives and children. In Roman times, a son needed to be freed from the legal authority of the father to make his own way in the world. The term is also associated Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which, in the U.S., was used to criminalize slavery. In the women’s liberation movement, emancipation is associated with breaking free from bonds of marriage to a man.
In a very interesting paper, Rindova and associates (2009) propose that entrepreneurship can be thought of as means of emancipation. They take a positive spin on a critical theory perspective. They define entrepreneuring as efforts to create new economic, social, institutional and cultural environments via the actions of groups or individuals. To bolster their arguments, they point out three key way in which entrepreneuring resembles emancipation processes. These are seeking autonomy, authoring, and making declarations.
Seeking autonomy has long been considered a motive of self-employment rather than working for an employer. Who doesn’t want to be their own boss?
Autonomy is also a goal of emancipation. Emancipation can be defined as breaking free from some authority figure or system. We may think of slave’s being freed.
Rindova et al. suggest that Google’s founding story is consistent with ‘breaking free’ as Brin and Page worked to “download the internet”, despite ridicule from their professors. Breaking free can also been seen in relation to breaking down barriers to entry or other constraints.
Entrepreneurs work to exploit cracks in the current system of rigid social and economic relationships to bring about change that entrepreneurs deem to be desirable.
Authoring is about making something one’s own, or taking ownership, or becoming. Entrepreneurs must seek to build their own networks, arrangements, norms and structures to preserve their ventures.
Making declarations refers to the rhetoric entrepreneurs employ to gain legitimacy for their ventures or create change. Entrepreneurs need to create meaning to hold together webs of stakeholders that support their endeavors or value their products. Rindova et al. suggest that when Amazon.com claimed to create the world’s biggest book store, they were highlighting contradictions or being provocative in order to generate stakeholder support for the way the company was changing the status quo.
Currently, research on entrepreneurship as emancipation is just beginning. Several qualitative studies seem to consistent with the theory, but scholars have not yet started to test the theory quantitatively.
From a critical perspective, entrepreneurship may itself be a trap for those that are not able to scale. Entrepreneurship should not be viewed as easy work, in fact, it puts many people behind. We see the winners and all the rewards they get for succeeding building businesses, and we think: hey, those folks are the liberated ones, and the way out for the rest of us is to liberate ourselves by also becoming entrepreneurs.