What is an entrepreneur?

23 04 2011

This is a question I’ve been thinking about recently, as I’m working on the intro to an edited collection on historical Canadian entrepreneurs. It is, therefore, with some interest that I saw that the blog Organizations and Markets had a recent post about competing definitions of “entrepreneurship”. See here.

So what exactly is an entrepreneur? That question has been debated extensively by generations of academics. It has been raised again by the essays in The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times (ed. David S. Landes, Joel Mokyr, and William J. Baumol, Princeton, 2010). Reviewers of this collection of essays have noted that the contributing authors could not agree on a common working definition of “entrepreneur”, which means that their edited collection lacks coherence.

Mansel Blackford of Ohio State University had this to say of the book:

Moreover, the authors of the essays follow no commonly agreed-upon definition of entrepreneurship, making cross-national comparisons difficult.  Most of the authors bow in the direction of Joseph Schumpeter, but essentially fail to adopt a common approach.  I was disappointed that little effort was expended by the editors or authors to reach comparisons across boundaries of time or space.  For the most part, this study consists of fairly traditional national studies.  Ironically for a book about innovation, this volume contains little in the way of conceptual breakthroughs.  The authors might well have explored more fully innovative business networks and industrial districts that often spread across national lines, especially in modern times.

I suppose that it would be difficult to come up with a common definition, given the diverse disciplinary backgrounds of the scholars who contributed to this book.

Here is the Table of Contents of the Invention of Enterprise book:

Foreword by Carl J. Schramm vii Preface: The Entrepreneur in History by William J. Baumol ix
Acknowledgments by William J. Baumol and Robert J. Strom xv

Introduction: Global Enterprise and Industrial Performance: An Overview by David S. Landes 1
Chapter 1: Entrepreneurs: From the Near Eastern Takeoff to the Roman Collapse by Michael Hudson 8
Chapter 2: Neo-Babylonian Entrepreneurs Cornelia Wunsch 40
Chapter 3: The Scale of Entrepreneurship in Middle Eastern History: Inhibitive Roles of Islamic Institutions by Timur Kuran 62
Chapter 4: Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship in Medieval Europe by James M. Murray 88
Chapter 5: Tawney’s Century, 1540-1640: The Roots of Modern Capitalist Entrepreneurship by John Munro 107
Chapter 6: The Golden Age of the Dutch Republic Oscar Gelderblom 156

Chapter 7: Entrepreneurship and the Industrial Revolution in Britain by Joel Mokyr 183
Chapter 8: Entrepreneurship in Britain, 1830-1900 by Mark Casson and Andrew Godley 211
Chapter 9: History of Entrepreneurship: Britain, 1900-2000 by Andrew Godley and Mark Casson 243
Chapter 10: History of Entrepreneurship: Germany after 1815 by Ulrich Wengenroth 273
Chapter 11: Entrepreneurship in France by Michel Hau 305

Chapter 12: Entrepreneurship in the Antebellum United States by Louis P. Cain 331
Chapter 13: Entrepreneurship in the United States, 1865-1920 by Naomi R. Lamoreaux 367
Chapter 14: Entrepreneurship in the United States, 1920-2000 by Margaret B. W. Graham 401
Chapter 15: An Examination of the Supply of Financial Credit to Entrepreneurs in Colonial India by Susan Wolcott 443
Chapter 16: Chinese Entrepreneurship since Its Late Imperial Period by Wellington K. K. Chan 469
Chapter 17: Entrepreneurship in Pre-World War II Japan: The Role and Logic of the Zaibatsu by Seiichiro Yonekura and Hiroshi Shimizu 501
Chapter 18: “Useful Knowledge” of Entrepreneurship: Some Implications of the History by William J. Baumol and Robert J. Strom 527

I will say, parenthetically, that one of the most astonishing things about the Invention of Enterprise volume is, in my view, the absence of an essay of female entrepreneurship. One might get the impression from the ToC that half the human race did not exist. The decision not to include a chapter on cultural and legal barriers to female entrepreneurship is shocking, given that we know that the failure to exploit the full potential of the female half of the population is one of the things that can keep a country poor. Women, including those who are given micro-credit loans, are the key to economic development.