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The value of anthropology in social entrepreneurship

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Have you asked yourself: what role can anthropology have in the world of social entrepreneurship?

This article introduces some of the contributions that anthropological research can provide to the design, promotion, support, and evaluation of social entrepreneurship initiatives. I will start by defining what social enterprises are and then explain how anthropological research can contribute to the success of these initiatives.


Nowadays, humanity is facing huge challenges due to the dire conditions that communities and the environment are suffering.

Some of the responses in the institutional level have led to the creation and promotion of intervention programs, strategies on corporate social responsibility, advocacy for the defense of rights of vulnerable populations and actions and demonstrations against climate change. In this context, social entrepreneurs have also become outstanding actors, because they generate innovative solutions to these problems.

Entrepreneurs discover, evaluate and take advantage of profitable opportunities. They generate ideas linked to the creation of businesses or try to solve problems that allow them to generate and/or increase income for their companies. They are usually linked to processes of innovation, creation of new and better products or services and harnessing of competitive advantages in business.

The social qualities of business initiatives allow entrepreneurs to identify opportunities that present themselves as problems (social or environmental). It challenges them to create ventures to resolve them, or at least contribute to their resolution. For example, they can create social enterprises that seek to fight illiteracy, drug addiction, overuse of plastics or provision of basic services such as drinking water or electricity.

Social entrepreneurs identify opportunities related to different social and environmental problems and propose solutions by means of entrepreneurial initiatives to promote social transformation, generating profits at the same time. They also act as agents of change, innovating and promoting the creation of “social value”, that is, improvements in the lives of people and in society. To achieve this, they accumulate and use knowledge, both about the problem and the actors involved (communities, business, and public sector and NGOs).

Social enterprises have a business model that is not so different from other companies, but it focuses on sustaining their social impact. Let’s see an example:

Ilumexíco is a company that installs affordable solar energy systems in rural areas of Mexico, which are not part of the country’s electricity grid. The inhabitants of these places usually buy candles, kerosene or diesel lamps and battery flashlights to illuminate their nights. According to the company with the solar panels they can save between 18 and 25% of expenses in lighting devices.

In addition to working with government agencies, the company relies on microfinance institutions to support its customers in the payment of solar panels. Thus, it manages to positively affect these communities, achieve a good margin of profits and therefore sustain themselves, invest in the improvement of their solar energy systems and continue with their activities in other contexts.

But, how can social entrepreneurs acknowledge and understand the social and environmental problems faced by communities? And in which way can they articulate to other public and private agents?

A holistic discipline

Anthropological research is one of the answers to these doubts. Anthropologists study people, social groups, their narratives and practices as products and producers of culture; as part of a social whole that we help to build, but at the same time, builds us. Thus, the analyzes we generate remain in constant movement between the micro (individuals) and the macro (cultures, institutions, power relations, ideologies, etc.). For this reason, the anthropological perspective allows tackling problems with a holistic approach, finding the existing interrelations between the parties involved and the context that surrounds them.

Let’s see another example:

A Latin American entrepreneur decided to create a user-generated content platform in which users could publish articles and images freely. The publications were qualified and selected by the users themselves and compiled in a printed magazine. The later was distributed to people with different types of disabilities to be sold on the streets. The magazine generated income with advertising and donations which allowed it to sustain itself and be profitable. In this case, the enterprise offered two benefits at a social level:

  1. Generated a place for the publication of texts written by amateur writers
  2. Created employment opportunities for people who, due to their disability, face barriers to enter the labor market

Everything seemed to be going well until the magazine ran into a market barrier. The mafias that control the informal commerce in the street were charging a percentage to the sellers. The founder of the platform was faced with a difficult ethical decision because, in spite of good intentions, he was ultimately encouraging extortion. Finally, he decided to finish the project.

In this case, the anthropological vision would have made it possible to detect the presence of the informal market in advance and understand its dynamics in order to anticipate the positive and negative effects on the lives of those who would have been linked to the project. At the same time, it would have allowed evaluating the possible scenarios and solutions to this problem. This would have been possible thanks to ethnography.

The emic point of view

Anthropology uses ethnography to formulate conclusions based on observation, experience, and interaction with people. It looks for the emic point of view, that of those who want to know. This process allows obtaining direct and first-hand information, which contributes to better identification of individual and collective needs in a population or group. It also allows anticipating the possible conflicts and inequalities that a new product or service may face or generate.

Think of the coastal communities that live on fisheries. For them fish are not only animals, much less simple food; they are also their way of working. Moreover, being one of the most important activities within the community, being a fisher is closely linked to the inner identities of the people. Likewise, the occupations that have to do with fishing (design of fishing nets and rods, cooking and meat care, among others) are intertwined in the cultural fabric of the community. Every element, no matter how small, belongs or influences something larger (culture and local ways of living and organizing) and any change in it has consequences.

In Kerala, India, for example, development initiatives were implemented that favored the growth and modernization of the fishing industry. The creation of companies was promoted, but the traditional approaches to this activity were ignored.

For the fishing communities, the distribution of seafood and the income derived from it was common. The State incited and supported local fishermen to create ventures to compete with big industries.

The new market dynamics resulted in the overexploitation of marine ecosystems and decrease in employment for many of the local fishermen. Consequently, the community traditions of food and income distribution were replaced by competition and individualism, oriented to the generation of profits, which generated conflicts and internal divisions in the community.

Knowing the meanings that a community gives to practice or trade, to a food or a natural resource, can promote the creation of solutions to socio-environmental problems, based on the values of the community, that is, the ways of doing, thinking and acting of the people. Above all, it can open the door to collective co-creation processes that foster innovation and the generation of ventures directly related to the needs and social problems of populations.


Considering that the main objective of a social entrepreneur is to positively impact the lives of other people and communities, knowing the problems and situations of these, allows them to empathize with their ways of seeing the world, their aspirations and struggles.Putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes is much easier when you have the necessary information to understand the various impacts that certain actions may have or what their effects may be in the future.

Fieldwork allows the collection of narratives to identify cultural patterns, mentalities, motivations, and priorities that guide the daily actions of people. This does not only apply to communities that social entrepreneurs want to impact, but also to other external actors, who have an influence on the problems that they want to solve.

This type of information is usually taken for granted, especially due to a lack of knowledge about the real functioning of institutions, communities and the market in which the social enterprise will be immersed. Field research and the knowledge obtained through it are necessary to avoid being guided by intuitions when generating social transformation initiatives.

The results of anthropological research during the implementation of innovation projects or social entrepreneurship can bring clarity about the projects and open new doors for the development of new solutions that, developed in parallel, will have new scopes and scales of impact. Additionally, the collected narratives can work as fuel for future entrepreneurs, facilitate the application of public policies, promote the development of initiatives of civil society, encourage interinstitutional work and encourage joint work with communities, allowing the initiation of co-creation processes centered in the needs identified with and by the communities.

As we have seen, anthropology and its favorite tool, ethnography, contribute enormously to social entrepreneurship. Understanding, and not taking for granted, the context of people, their ways of relating, the informal economies that come into play, the symbolic forms and the different meanings that groups give to objects and hierarchies is a business necessity to successfully face any social enterprise.

In Antropología 2.0 we believe in social entrepreneurship. Our own history is articulated around this idea: social impact through financial sustainability. If you are thinking of undertaking a social project, our agency can help you minimize risks and gain in-depth knowledge of people and their contexts.
Contact us, we will be delighted to meet you!


Want more information about anthropology and innovation read this blog entry


I am interested in applying anthropology in different areas of interdisciplinary research, especially the virtual and business worlds. I have done research in epidemiology, the design of products and services, virtual communities, knowledge distribution, comparative literature, and the “classic” socio-cultural anthropology. I believe that our discipline can offer something special to all research topics, hence my interest in it.

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