Encyclopedia Monday, October 9, 2017 1044 hits

Entrepreneurship – a relational approach

By Gunnar Thór Jóhannesson, University of Iceland, and Carina Ren, Aalborg University


Jóhannesson, G.T. & Ren, C. (2017). Entrepreneurship – a relational approach. In AIRTH Encyclopedia of Innovation in Tourism and Hospitality. Retrieved: <insert-date>, from http://www.airth.global

Introduction and relevance

In the classic view of Schumpeter[1], economic life is a dynamic and endogenous system, and the entrepreneur and entrepreneurial activities are manifestations of the creative energy of the system. Entrepreneurship is not necessarily about inventing new things but rather to get “things done’”[2]. This implies that entrepreneurship is about two interrelating things: a) a process of change and b) accomplishing things or translating ideas into practice. In what follows, we will discuss how the concept of relational entrepreneurship provides insights into these two areas while challenging traditional accounts of entrepreneurial agency and structures in ‘getting things done’. By approaching entrepreneurship as the enactment of relations and closely inspecting the practical processes of relating, associating or connecting entrepreneurial networks, this take offers new insights into understanding entrepreneurship beyond either its actor(s) or its structures.

Towards relational entrepreneurship

Studies of entrepreneurs often conceptualize persons, firms or public organizations as solid and pre-given actors, who are expected to behave according to economic rationality or the system logic of capitalism and to be more or less constrained or affected by their social context. The capacity to engage in entrepreneurial activities is situated either externally - within particular variables that set the entrepreneurial activities in motion or internally - within the individual psyche. This produces particular storylines about entrepreneurship in which, according to de Laet and Mol[3], entrepreneurs are narrated as heroic movers and shakers merging and aligning multiple actors into a unitary whole. In such tales, the entrepreneur buys, invents, builds, struggles, succeeds or goes under; in short, it is a tale in which he or she acts. All actions are identified as flowing from the entrepreneur or as connected to this actor via intermediaries, such as a competitor, tourists or a public body.

This tale might fit in some instances but often it does not. The concept of relational entrepreneurship is able to grasp and describe its often more messy formations, where entrepreneurship comes about through the meticulous and taxing assemblage of very many different actors, objects, technologies and interests. Such accounts might explore how different rationalities and multiple styles or modes of ordering are weaved together[4]. In the case of the entrepreneur, the narratives of the hero manager and their metaphors of defeat and victory are replaced with a new understanding of highly distributed agency which accounts for multiple actors, memberships and marginalities

Methodologies and cases

Studies on relational entrepreneurship have mainly applied ethnographic research methods, which closely follow the entrepreneurial assembling work and the ways through which entrepreneurship is accomplished and stabilized. Examples of relational studies on entrepreneurship are relatively few within tourism[5]. In a study of a development project of cultural tourism that was carried out in a small peripheral village in Iceland, Jóhannesson shows how entrepreneurship is accomplished through the intertwining of different motives and styles of ordering relations. The project idea in question was initially put forward in an application to the EU’s Interreg III Northern Periphery Programme (NPP), titled Destination Viking Sagalands: Sagas and Storytelling (DVS). When the application was granted funding, the question was how to translate the idea to the village and realize it there. In other words, how to convince inhabitants that this would be an opportunity and how to get it done? In following the arrangement of diverse activities and actors, Jóhannesson identified four styles of ordering through which the project was accomplished and thus entrepreneurship enacted. One relates to economic development; the second refers to a feeling of fellowship; the third is about the will to connect, illustrated by the metaphor of ‘sparks’; and the fourth is described as a learning process framed with the metaphor of ‘finding one’s sea legs’.

While the style of economic development is expressed by a political economic discourse, commonly found in regional development initiatives such as the Northern Periphery Program it also refers to the instrumental economic logic people use when deciding on what actions are worth the trouble. That is, it points to the fact that (potential) economic benefits indeed matter when it comes to realizing an innovation project. The style of fellowship emphasizes the importance of rationalities of culture or non-economic motivations for innovation. This style of ordering emphasizes that noneconomic, civic and affective motivations can hold much importance for entrepreneurship. The project dependent on a collective engagement, which was created through a joint work on various aspects of the project. Of crucial importance was the material stabilization of the engagement that provided endurance through time, a common ownership of the project. This was secured through a collective task of sewing Viking costumes and the establishment of the Westviking Association, a non-profit association established early on in the process to oversee the work on the project.

Sparks’ refer to the flickering practices that may prompt or ignite connections to new idea and projects and to how the presence of some things or activities is dependent on the absence of others. They express the will to connect and the set of elements that prompt action in a particular place. An example is the participation of one of the key persons in the project, which was sparked by family history in the area, by his feeling of having roots in the place and thus by his genuine will to (re)connect to the place. His presence is infused by the absence in time and space of his family in the area. Sparks embody potential continuity through change. Finally, the style of ‘finding one’s sea legs’ refers to finding one’s ways about in a moving world. In the case of the project, this style is manifested in the collective and gradual learning by people about the project and their adaptation to it. It refers to the work necessary to gain confidence in one’s role, for example as performing as a Viking at the village festival or as a maker of ‘authentic’ Viking handicrafts. This method of ordering is necessary for the settling of an innovation project. Things take time, they need to settle in order to work and they demand endurance on behalf of relevant actors[6].


The described example is about perceiving opportunity of change and ‘getting things done’. It could have been framed as a story of three strong (human) actors that took on the role of the strong and heroic entrepreneur. That would however have been to miss the nuances of the process. Indeed, actors played different roles, and some were more important than others. Their role, however, emerged out of the relations they were part of. The relational approach focuses on the relations between the individual (solid) actor and his or her context. It takes relations as a starting point through which other more or less solid entities or structures emerge, thus highlighting more messy realities of entrepreneurship.



de Laet, M., & Mol, A. (2000). The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology. Social Studies of Science, 30(2), 225-263.

Førde, A. (2015). Entrepreneurship and Controversies of Tourism Development. In G. T. Jóhannesson, C. Ren, & R. Van der Duim (Eds.), Tourism Encounters and Controversies: Ontological Politics of Tourism Development (pp. 53-71). Farnham: Ashgate.

Jóhannesson, G. T. (2005). Tourism Translations: Actor-Network Theory and tourism research. Tourist Studies, 5(2), 133-150. doi:10.1177/1468797605066924.

Jóhannesson, G. T. (2012). To Get Things Done’: A Relational Approach to Entrepreneurship. Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism, 12(2), 181-196. doi:10.1080/15022250.2012.695463

Law, J. (1994). Organizing Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Schumpeter, J. A. (1991/1947). The Creative Response in Economic History. In R. V. Clemence (Ed.), Essays: On Entrepreneurs, Innovations, Business Cycles, and the Evolution of Capitalism (2 ed., pp. 221-231). New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers.

Van der Duim, R. (2005). Tourismscapes: An actor-network perspective on sustainable tourism development. (PhD. thesis), Wageningen University, Wageningen.

Van der Duim, R., Ren, C., & Jóhannesson, G. T. (2012). Tourismscapes, entrepreneurs and sustainability. In R. Van der Duim, C. Ren, & G. T. Jóhannesson (Eds.), Actor-Network Theory and Tourism: Ordering, materiality and multiplicity (pp. 26-42). London & New York: Routledge.

[1] Schumpeter, 1991/1947.

[2] Schumpeter, 1991/1947: 224.

[3] de Laet and Mol, 2000.

[4]  See Law 1994 and van der Duim 2005

[5] de Laet & Mol, 2000; Førde, 2015; Jóhannesson, 2005; 2012.

[6] Jóhannesson, 2005; 2012.







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