Cultural Entrepreneurship: the role of personal agency in the cultural worker’s experience of entrepreneurship

In this blog I outline the context for my study of the role of personal agency in the cultural worker’s experience of entrepreneurship. The research draws on the academic disciplines of cultural studies, cultural policy studies and entrepreneurship studies as a context for empirical research of the lived experience of entrepreneurship in cultural work. In exploring the tensions between a celebration of entrepreneurial modes of work and critiques of entrepreneurship as a characteristic of a neo-liberal agenda, I reveal a more nuanced experience through individual narratives set within the context of a cultural industries milieu.

Context

Oakley questions the possibility of entrepreneurial work being ‘good work’ in her chapter ‘Good Work? Rethinking Cultural Entrepreneurship’ stating that there is a ‘disconnect between the discourse of cultural entrepreneurship and the reality of it’ (Oakley, 2013). The thrust of Oakley’s argument is that the policy rhetoric encouraging entrepreneurship needs to take note of the challenges of self-employment and the precarious nature of work in the cultural sector. A better understanding of different practices and individual experiences needs to inform the ‘rethinking of cultural entrepreneurship’. This ‘disconnect’ is the context for this study which seeks to reveal the lived experience of cultural entrepreneurship in the context of Birmingham’s (UK) cultural milieu.

My investigation draws on academic disciplines such as entrepreneurship studies and cultural studies which, at first glance, have very little in common. One is driven by a tradition of critical thinking (cultural studies), shaped predominantly by Marxist theories, while the other tends to prioritise practical implications for policy makers and practitioners. However, while on the surface there is little parity, I have found common ground on several points. Firstly, as Oakley and others (See Banks,  Hesmondhalgh, Hjorth and Steyaert) have suggested there is a call for more empirical studies capturing the lived experience of cultural entrepreneurship. Secondly, there is emerging literature which seeks to re-invent entrepreneurship, including being ‘enterprising’ for counter cultural activities or for ‘good’ work (morally, ethically and practically) within a social context.

The diversity of experience and the extent to which it represents meaningful work for cultural entrepreneurs is problematized by Hesmondhalgh and Baker in their investigation of good and bad work (2011). This study compliments that research but with an emphasis on the discourse of entrepreneurship as a means of exploring cultural work. Like Hesmondhalgh and Baker, I do not assume that the individuals I interview are ‘entranced’ (p.47, 2011) by cultural entrepreneurship; I argue that they are active agents within a Bourdieusian field. The accounts I have collected for this study are taken seriously, as the lived experiences of cultural entrepreneurs within constantly changing, complex social circumstances and structures (Bourdieu, 1993).

I explore this by engaging with critical debates and by investigating the contextualised experience of individual cultural entrepreneurs. Themes such as self-management, the myth of the entrepreneur and the relevance of place will be explored as a means of investigating the role of personal agency and in order to advance our understanding of cultural entrepreneurship. The process seeks to re-imagine the cultural entrepreneur by recognising the role of reflexivity and the possibilities for agentic practice. The distinctiveness of the approach aims to reveal highly personal experiences and subjective positions set within the context of a relatively small cultural industries community in Birmingham; a community in which I have been immersed for a number of years prior to this study. I draw on my knowledge of people, networks and of local policies by exploiting my position as part of Birmingham’s cultural industries community.

This work will further enhance current academics debates specifically in two disciplines: firstly scholarly work engaged with advancing the European tradition of entrepreneurship studies which seeks to explore entrepreneurship from broader perspectives and challenge dominant notions of the entrepreneur. Secondly it will inform scholarship in cultural policy and cultural studies by further developing critical perspectives through empirical research.

Using evernote for research: making notes and organising data

After recommendations from many friends, including academics, I have started to use Evernote regularly. I wish I had started earlier.

I use Evernote in 2 ways:

  • To make notes about specific articles which I attach to the note.
  • To organise my data.

I also occasionally use it to make notes at conferences or events but I generally prefer to write and doodle with a pen and paper at events.

Making notes while you are reading a paper is a great way of connecting specific ideas and concepts to your research by tagging the note. For example, I have just read a great paper about cultural policy which relates to certain ideas but also to one of my interviews. By using tags I have connected my notes to an issue I raise in my lit review and to a quote by the interviewee. It will be really easy to find using the tags.

My research is qualitative and I have done 15 interviews which are each between 1 and 2 hours. As part of the process of analysing and organising the data, certain themes became important and I knew they would connect to the broader question. I created folders for each of the interviewees and tags for all the themes. This has enabled me to collect quotes for each interviewee creating separate notes for each person but using the same themes as tags. Now all I need to do is use one of the tags, say ‘cultural capital’, and all the quotes tagged ‘cultural capital’ are collected together.

I have not finished my research yet but so far, this has been really helpful.

Transcribing and Analysing Interviews

I have done about 12 interviews so far and will probably end up with about 15 in total.  The interviews are recorded using an app on my iphone and then I use dropbox to store the recordings. I transcribed each interview verbatim to enable a familiarity with the material by listening closely to the interviewee. As Gray states, transcription can seem an onerous task but it has the advantage of engaging the researcher in a profound way with the material. Indeed, Gray suggests that detail such as voice qualities and pauses in the conversation can be significant for the interpretation and analysis. For example, I state when someone laughs and describe the nature of that laugh as best I can.

Furthermore, Gray’s approach enables the emergence of certain themes and ideas to develop as part of the transcribing process.

In this way analysis and interpretation became part of the process of research. This is when I was able to use my imagination, being sensitive to the material and experimental in my analysis. (Gray, 2003, p. 149)

Following Gray’s methodology, I have created categories such as: control, freedom, sense of responsibility, passion, role models, key networks, precarious work, happy, work and lifestyle, and so on (about 20 so far) based partly on the entrepreneurs’ stories but also as a result of key themes arising from the literature. Sections from the transcripts are collected under each category to enable me to see each entrepreneurs’ articulation of the theme together; these can be compared and contrasted in relation to each other and to the literature. For the analysis, Gray advocates flexibility and an open mind to the potential relations between categories and for new themes to emerge. I am using simple processes with colored pens and large sheets of paper to make these connections – a bit like a mind map or a conceptual map.

But Gray also talks about the importance of not loosing the individual’s voice through this process of chopping up the text. The individual narrative or story created during the interview is unique. While the idea of a ‘true’ story is nowadays considered an anathema, it is not up to the researcher to re-describe it. The researcher needs to respect the interviewees’ story as it was told at the time of the discussion. For more information on this subject see Narratives in Social Science Research by Barbara Czarniawska.

Applying ‘fields’ and ‘habitus’ to Researching Cultural Entrepreneurs

As part of my research of Birmingham based cultural entrepreneurs, I aim to highlight the context in which they operate by outlining some key policies and selecting a few important developments and projects. I identify that cultural entrepreneurs are not working in a vacuum but that the language of enterprise, an emphasis on economic development and the role of the cultural industries as part of the city is an important factor in the space of production.

Bourdieu’s notion of a ‘fields of production’ is revealed through the policies, powerful agencies and is linked to ‘habitus’ represented by the networks of individual cultural entrepreneurs who play a role in influencing the ‘field’ by creating their own projects, blogs and events. There is a sense that spaces associated with the cultural industries, either through individuals or through policy making, have much in common. But which comes first, the strategy or the activities of cultural entrepreneurs? Continue reading

Identity and Personal Agency: We are not Robots.

1312-20130301-RobotsForeverAs part of my methodology chapter, I am exploring theories of identity and personal agency as the framework for my approach.

Identity is an important subject in cultural studies. As a means of challenging social norms, particularly, western notions of identity, cultural identities such as gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, for example, are explored and contested.

The authors of Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds (Holland, Skinner, Lachicotte and Cain, 1998) research the dichotomy between humans as products of social discipline and the producers of the social worlds in which they live. In this contribution to anthropology, the authors argue that individuals play an active role in re-shaping themselves, their identity and their world. Continue reading

Feminist Theories of Entrepreneurship and Subjectivity

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One aspect of my research is to challenge dominant discourses in entrepreneurship studies. Much of the academic literature exploring entrepreneurship is US-based and explores high growth business models or the impact of entrepreneurship on the economy. Research methodologies favoured by this type of research tends to be quantitative – ‘scientific’. In contrast, women researchers of female entrepreneurship argue that a subjective approach can expose different insights. Bringing their own subjective experience enables women to investigate the subject of entrepreneurship from a new perspective.

…drawing on personal knowledge, in the light of feminist theory, allows women to express their experiences of living gendered lives in conditions of social inequality” (Ramazanoglu and Holland, 2004).

Inspired by this approach, I draw on my first hand knowledge and experience of cultural work, as someone who ran a small textiles business, to inform my study of cultural entrepreneurship. The intention is to listen more carefully to aspects of cultural work based on my own perspective and experience. Furthermore, the dynamic between researcher and interviewees is based on this shared and acknowledged understanding that the researcher is ‘one of us’ rather than an ‘objective’ observer. The idea that I know how it feels to be involved in cultural work, to some extent, removes the opportunity for exaggeration or for excessive invention from the interviewees. They know that I know. This is not born from a sense that cultural workers will ‘lie’ but rather that in my experience, they are often caught in ‘talking up’ their work and experience. In an environment in which the individual worker is often the brand and continuously selling their skills, there can be a lack of critical reflection.

In addition to having some insights into cultural entrepreneurship first hand, I also know the interviewees, having selected them from my personal contacts. Again, this has revealed an opportunity to be informal and created a ‘gossip’ style of interview. Throughout the interview, we will refer to individuals we both know. The process enables a form of self-identification in relation or in comparison to others.

There is Creativity in the Method

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I am working on my methodology chapter. These are some of the questions I am asking just to get started: How is the approach linked to the purpose of the research? Why is it specifically relevant to approach the research in this way? How can I justify the methodology? What are the limitations and issues of quality or robustness?

I start by introducing the methodology chapter:

This chapter outlines the research approach taken in this thesis. The methodological choices have informed the data collection and interpretion, enabling the study to address the research question: ‘cultural entrepreneurship: what role does personal agency play in the cultural worker’s experience of entrepreneurship?’. The chapter contributed to an exploration of appropriate methodologies for capturing the subjective experience of entrepreneurial modes of work by individual cultural workers. This will further enhance current academics debates specifically in two disciplines: firstly by scholars engaged with Advancing European Tradition of Entrepreneurship Studies which seeks to explore entrepreneurship from broader perspectives and challenge dominant notions of the entrepreneur. Secondly it will inform cultural policy and cultural studies by further developing critical perspectives through empirical research.

In this chapter, I aim to include both practical elements such as how I collected the data and the process for designing the analysis, as well as the theoretical context for this approach. I start with inspiration from feminist research in entrepreneurship. But that’s my next blog post…