Challenging the Language of Social Enterprise

 In Social Enterprise
Photo by Greta Rossi

How can students get into social enterprise? I am an undergraduate at Bristol University and the sphere of social entrepreneurship is new to me, but as the first Social Impact intern at Ākāśa Innovation, I have the opportunity to get an inside view. Last week I had the pleasure of joining Ākāśa Innovation’s co-founder Greta in attending a few events on social entrepreneurship and social investment. With all of the buzzwords and particular terminology that were thrown around the room, it became clear to me that students might need to learn how to speak the language of social enterprise. However, it also made me question whether we should really accept and imitate this lexicon. Such mimesis suggests that students slot into already formed positions and mindsets. I wish to challenge these dominant narratives within social enterprise with the hope that young individuals can transcend them, making way for fresh innovation.

The presentation of each of these social enterprise events was impressive. Exuberant individuals hosted the meetings. They looked to connect with others and generate creative ideas that would contribute to making social impact. Their language always sounded very efficient and professional. The language used in this context is important, because it connects people; it expresses a mutual consciousness and a community practice. However, the normative language of the social businesses at these meetings became almost monotonous and exclusive. The false truth claims set out an expected formula for this sphere. A clear example of this was the generalisation of stakeholders, which neglected the uniqueness of the individual and the impact that they may have in an organisation. These universal terms restrict innovators, who attempt to see the patterns of the world in new forms.

Post-structuralist thinkers have spent much time on exploring the need for deconstructing this kind of dominant discourse. Benedict Anderson would describe the language of these meetings as reflective of an ‘imagined community’ of social enterprise, with an already prescribed imagination of how the world works, of how people connect, and the identifications shared. The language that is formulated as a collective thought becomes a subjective perception. The psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan (1949: 6), describes this as ‘méconnaissance’ – misrecognitions of our physical reality that instead develop on a symbolic level. This vocabulary focuses on the role that you are playing and the techniques you are using, rather than the person you are and the person that you have the potential to become. The language used in these meetings is a construction that may distort and distract from true values and from feelings of empathy that are crucial for a social enterprise to flourish.

Ākāśa Innovation stands apart from this criticism, for they have opted for a more open-minded and inclusive definition of social enterprise. Rather than seeking for an overarching definition of social enterprise that attempts to connect agents from different organisations, Ākāśa Innovation believes that we need to focus on the unique qualities within relationships that occur on the micro scale, contexualising each experience. Social enterprise becomes “the rejection and disruption of established thought with imagined new futures as unfinished works of art”, the act of being creative not through the re-packaging of language, but of seeing the world anew.

Ākāśa Innovation has taught me to challenge the trajectory of social entrepreneurship and to consider its authenticity. I now inquire whether such social frameworks hold true values and are capable of being the change they wish to see in the world. I am prompted to question whether these schemes encourage human flourishing or whether they instead comply with a pragmatic and generalised business model. Ākāśa Innovation is teaching me to confront the very vocabulary that makes up our system and to attempt to open up dialogue in new, meaningful ways. Ākāśa Innovation shifts paradigms, challenging the regular frameworks within the education system, and allowing for deep reflection of the true, authentic values within a non-profit organisation.

Olivia Compton, Social Impact Intern


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