Exploring Irish rural social enterprises as neoendogenous development actors

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Olmedo, Lucas
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University College Cork
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Since the 1990s social enterprises have gained growing attention from academics and policymakers as significant actors to address some of the complex challenges faced by our societies due to their aim of combining social, economic and/or environmental goals using entrepreneurial/innovative means. Rural areas have demonstrated to be a fertile ground for social enterprises. Diverse factors such as a tradition of mutual self-help, a great density of social networks, the often unattractiveness for private investors looking to maximise profits or the consequences of neoliberal policies that have left some rural areas without adequate (basic) services have contributed to the presence of social enterprises within rural areas. The main characteristics of social enterprises operating within European rural areas, i.e. strong local focus, development of networks with external actors, ability to mobilise a wide range of resources, intrinsic relation with the rural context and contribution to different dimensions of development, concur with the principles of neoendogenous rural development. This perspective of rural development advocates for an integrated development of rural localities/areas based on the utilisation of local assets, while recognising the importance of linking local with external actors for attracting those resources not available at the local level and the influence of exogenous-structural (global) factors in local/regional development. Despite this link between rural social enterprises and neoendogenous development, established through a (systematic) literature review of previous research, how rural social enterprises work to contribute to a neoendogenous rural development has not been explored to date, constituting the main aim of this thesis. To pursue this aim, the phenomenon researched has been conceptualised drawing on a ‘substantive’ view of the economy as proposed by Polanyi. According to this view, economic actors and relations are embedded within society and nature, and the economy is formed by three ‘forms of economic integration’, i.e. reciprocity, redistribution and market-exchange. This conceptual framework has been complemented with the concepts of ‘spatial scale’ and ‘place’ in order to add nuance to the analysis of rural social enterprises as neoendogenous development actors. The methodology of this study was underpinned by a critical realist perspective which lies in the combination of a realist ontology with a constructivist epistemology. According to critical realism the ultimate goal of social science research is to uncover the mechanisms that can (partially) explain an observed phenomenon. In order to so, two in-depth case studies of social enterprises operating within Irish rural localities were conducted. During 15 months of continuous engagement with the two rural social enterprises, 36 semi-structured interviews with diverse stakeholders, 321 pages of field notes from participant observations and other complementary materials were gathered. These data were thematically analysed through several rounds of coding performed through an iterative process (of five stages) between data collection, the analysis of empirical data and theoretical reflections. This process allowed for an increasingly focused data collection and for the verification and/or refinement of (preliminary) findings. The findings from this study explain three interrelated mechanisms used by these rural social enterprises when contributing to the neoendogenous development of their localities. The first mechanism explains how the engagement of rural social enterprises in plural and multi-scalar (socio-)economic relations and their collaborative and collective resourcefulness practices are related with their capacity to contribute to an integrated development of their localities. The second mechanism explains how rural social enterprises act as ‘supporting structures’ that enhance regular plural (socio-)economic relations among different local actors within their localities. Thus, it explains their contribution to the institutionalisation of substantive ‘forms of economic integration’ at the local level. The third mechanism explains how the work of rural social enterprises is influenced by the specific features of their rural context and, how these organisations engage with their context as a (integrated) ‘place’. Thus, it explains how rural social enterprises harness and (re)valorise locational, institutional, material and identity aspects when contributing to the development of their localities. In conclusion, this study argues that rural social enterprises (can) act as ‘placial embedded structures’ which (re)valorise (untapped) local assets and attract external resources based on their ability to enhance collective action and to develop synergies with different stakeholders. Therefore, these organisations present great potential to contribute to neoendogenous rural development. However, this study also poses some notes of caution to this potential. First, this potential lies in their complementarity to other key development stakeholders such as public authorities or for-profit local businesses. Second, to draw a realistic picture of this potential, spatially sensitive research and policies that address the heterogeneity of rural areas are needed. These notes are based on the empirical evidence presented in this study which demonstrate how substantive ‘forms of economic integration’ and ‘place’ matter for explaining the work rural social enterprises as neoendogenous rural development actors.
Social enterprise , Neoendogenous rural development , Substantive economy (Polanyi) , Place , Embeddedness , In-depth case studies
Olmedo, L. 2020. Exploring Irish rural social enterprises as neoendogenous development actors. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.