Mokyr on Cultural Entrepreneurship

I am wary of adding yet another conceptual margin for entrepreneurial action but I highly recommend a new (and for the moment, ungated) paper in the Scandinavian Economic History Review by the distinguished economic historian Joel Mokyr on “cultural entrepreneurship.” Starting from a broadly Schumpeterian perspective, Mokyr focuses on individuals who introduce and disseminate novel ideas:

[E]ach individual makes cultural choices taking as given what others believe. It is not a priori obvious how that affects one’s choices. It may affect them positively because conformism implies that there is some social cost associated with deviancy, or because people may reason that if the majority believes a certain thing, there may be wisdom in it (thus saving on information costs). But there can be a reverse reaction as well, with non-conformists perversely rebelling against existing beliefs. What matters for my purposes is that for a small number of individuals, the beliefs of others are not given but can be changed. I shall refer to those people as cultural entrepreneurs. Their function is much like entrepreneurs in the realm of production: individuals who refuse to take the existing technology or market structure as given and try to change it and, of course, benefit personally in the process. Much like other entrepreneurs, the vast bulk of them make fairly marginal changes in our cultural menus, but a few stand out as having affected them in substantial and palpable ways.

Succinctly expressed: “cultural entrepreneurs are the creators of epistemic focal points that people can coordinate their beliefs on.”

Mokyr’s focus, like Schumpeter’s, is not entrepreneurship per se, but its effects, particularly on long-run economic growth, and his entrepreneurship construct is somewhat undertheorized. But he provides fascinating examples, ranging from Mohammed and Luther to Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and Adam Smith. He focuses in particular on Bacon and Newton, describing Bacon’s work as “the coordination device which served as the point of departure for thinkers and experimentalists for two centuries to come. The economic effects of these changes remained latent and subterranean for many decades, but eventually they erupted in the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent processes of technological change.” Newton and the Royal Society “raise[d] the social standing of scientists and researchers as people who should be respected and supported and [provided] them with a comfortable material existence.” (Mostly good.)

I’m not an expert on cultural theory or history and am not sure how much the “cultural entrepreneur” construct ads to our understanding of cultural change (other than relabeling, a frequent worry in entrepreneurship studies). But the paper is a great read, highly provocative and informative, and addresses big questions. Check it out.

[Cross-posted from Organizations and Markets]


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