We Are All Entrepreneurs Now
A funny thing happened to the entrepreneur in legal, business, and social science scholarship. She strayed from her capitalist roots, took on more and more functions that have little to do with starting or running a business, and became wildly popular in the process. Nowadays, “social entrepreneurs” tackle civic problems through innovative methods, “policy entrepreneurs” promote new forms of government action, “norm entrepreneurs” seek to change the way society thinks or behaves, and “moral entrepreneurs” try to alter the boundaries of duty or compassion. “Ethnification entrepreneurs,” “polarization entrepreneurs,” and other newfangled spinoffs pursue more discrete objectives. Entrepreneurial rhetoric has never been so trendy or so plastic.
This essay documents the proliferation of entrepreneurs in the American academic idiom over the past few decades. While the terms are distinct—each with its own etymology, its own set of meanings and applications, and its own interpretive community—I suggest that considering them as a group can be illuminating. The “new entrepreneurs,” as I call them, share many features both in theory and in application. Part I traces the development of these concepts and offers a critical synthesis of the literature on each. Part II explores possible reasons why the concepts and their associated terms have taken hold. Part III unpacks the terms’ implicit market metaphor, identifying its defects but ultimately defending entrepreneurship’s linguistic migration. The basic contribution of this essay is descriptive: providing the first integrated account of the new entrepreneurs. With Parts II and III I hope also to provide some insight into this terminological convergence and to give a sense of what is at stake.