While in the grocery store a few days ago, I noticed that TOMS is now in the coffee business. TOMS is most recognized as a footwear company that uses a “one for one” model to promote social good; for each purchase of TOMS shoes, the company gives a pair of shoes to a child in need. I have limited opinions on whether or not TOMS should expand to coffee, but the sighting did reinvigorate my interest in and ambivalence about social entrepreneurism—a rising trend in the U.S. (see this Twitter list to get a small sampling of the flurry of attention that continually surrounds the topic).
As I have written about previously (see here and here), Americans have been quick to exalt the social entrepreneur, perhaps due to a cultural tendency to valorize the private sphere more generally. Yet, apart from research provided by vested parties,1 we know very little about the ways in which social entrepreneurship affects our broader society. The academic literature on social entrepreneurship is still nascent, and that which exists2 has often taken a neo-institutional approach, focusing on topics such as legitimacy and social entrepreneurs’ use of multiple and competing logics (i.e. logics of the market,of care, of the state).
Little attention, however, has been paid to the ways in which social entrepreneurship may introduce a new form of alienation. Admittedly, I have been immersed in theories of work as of late, due to preparations for my upcoming comprehensive exam in work, and thus the concept of alienation is forefront in my mind. Nevertheless, I think it offers a useful lens for considering social entrepreneurship.
To begin first with a rough and incomplete overview of the concept and how it has evolved, Marx argued that the division and sale of labor within the capitalist market strips work of its meaning and purpose. As a result, men/women no longer develop themselves within their work but rather produce something for others’ profit and consumption in return for wages. Labor, its products, the laborer himself/herself and even society become alien to the laborer through this process.
Later, as white-collar work and service jobs became subsumed under an overarching marketing mentality, employees were compelled to not only sell their labor on the market but also their personalities.3 Employers seek candidates with upbeat personalities and service jobs require the ongoing display of positivity, care and authenticity. In her widely read book, The Managed Heart, Arlie Hochschild argues that this “emotional labor,” like the physical labor discussed by Marx, has a human cost; namely, by packaging and selling the workers’ private emotions to a public consumer, the laborer becomes estranged from those emotions—the product of his or her labor—and from his or her emotional self.
It seems that social entrepreneurship marks a new type of product and subsequently a new type of labor: perhaps we could call this “humanitarian labor.” Humanitarian labor consists of efforts to promote human welfare directly or to mobilize others toward these goals. Previously, humanitarian labor has been the work of philanthropists and was typically undertaken for personal as opposed to financial reasons. However, with the integration of philanthropy and profit in social entrepreneurship, humanitarian labor enters the realm of the market, and as social enterprises expand beyond their founders, it seems possible that some individuals may engage in humanitarian labor for financial return in addition to or instead of intrinsic benefits.
Applying Marx’ alienation theory, similar to Hochschild, it seems plausible that humanitarian labor may also come at a cost. Specifically, to the extent that empathy and compassion for human welfare are required to perform humanitarian labor,4 those working within the field of social entrepreneurship risk isolation from those qualities. This alienation, what I term “empathetic alienation,” is detrimental not only to society, in enervating genuine concern for human suffering, but also to the individual. Through empathetic alienation, a humanitarian laborer loses the ability to recognize themselves in others; in essence, they lose their humanity.
An incipient critique, these thoughts do not yet address the many nuances of social entrepreneurism or of alienation, they do not compare the methods of social entrepreneurism to other humanitarian efforts or discuss its many merits nor do these thoughts fully explore the scope of humanitarian labor and empathetic alienation. For example, how is the labor of social entrepreneurs any different than that of non-profit employees, social workers or even politicians? Nevertheless, I offer it as a starting point of discussion, and I look forward to the comments…
1 By vested parties, I am referring to social entrepreneurs and enterprises, themselves, or organizations focused on supporting and promoting social entrepreneurship.
2 Alex Nicholls has been one of the most voluminous writers on the topic.
3 See Mills 1951 for an expanded discussion.
4 And I would argue that these qualities are required, in at least some aspects of the job. For example, consider the spokesperson for the company, the website content producer and even the product salesperson who must all continually persuade others to care about and support the company’s social good initiatives. These individuals must use some of their own empathy and compassion in their attempts to persuade others.