Wednesday, January 4, 2012

my review of Entrepreneurship and Religion

As it appeared in The Journal of Markets & Morality...

Entrepreneurship and Religion
Ed. Leo-Paul Dana
Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2010 (442 pages)

Entrepreneurship and Religion is a volume of articles edited by Leo-Paul Dana. He dominates the work; aside from the editing, he had a hand in writing nine of its 22 papers. (No other author appears more than once—except for two articles he co-authored with Teresa Dana.) Nine of the articles had already appeared in seven academic journals, signaling quality and providing a single outlet for related work.

Some of the articles are historical; others are contemporary. They have an international range, including research about minority peoples within a dominant society. Some of the work is empirical; most of it is descriptive. The result is a fascinating set of articles that, nonetheless, has limited impact as an academic approach. The projects are so context-specific that it is difficult to confidently extend their applicability.

Then again, that is the nature of this field. It reminds me of “Industrial Organization” in economics—where one studies various market structures, such as competition and oligopoly. One of my friends in graduate school jokingly described the field as a “compendium of special cases”. Much of this work has the same feature.

One deficiency in the editing is that many of the essays cover similar ground in their introductions—as they provide the background literature and an overview of entrepreneurship. This is good if one reads the essays separately, but creates much redundancy if one reads the book as a whole. (Along these lines, Dana’s introductory essay is most effective and allows one to skim the other chapters more quickly.)

One of the book’s strengths is in modeling and describing entrepreneurs as more than mere individuals who are to some extent constrained or encouraged by a legal framework. Entrepreneurial efforts are also a product of cultural, social, and religious contexts.

But as Dana notes in his introduction, culture, religion and society are intertwined with ethnicity. As it turns out, this hinders the goal of the volume. Often, inferences in the essays about the impact of “religion” are spurious or stretched. Beyond that, some of the essays do not address religion at all. (The book’s title should have included a reference to ethnicity and culture.)

For example, in Anne White’s study of Methodism (chapter 7), the reader is left wondering whether the entrepreneurs are driven by being Methodist, Christian, or Canadian. In Dimitri Tassiopoulos’s study of Greeks (chapter 4), one cannot tell whether the cause is Greek ethnicity or adherence to Greek Orthodox religion.

When such distinctions can be made, the authors effectively detail how religious beliefs and doctrine can be a catalyst or deterrent for entrepreneurship; observe that religions are generally effective at promoting and propagating values; and note that religious communities often provide low-cost “networks” for labor, product, and information. Some religious contexts create religion-centered, demand-side opportunities. (See, for example, specially-prepared foods for Jews and Muslims—and Welch’s grape juice for Methodists.) And some religious entrepreneurship is indirect—as a supply-side response to religious and ethnic discrimination.

The volume features a number of strong essays on religion and entrepreneurship: the influence of the “Protestant work ethic” (Ivan Light in chapter 6); the impact of Islam in general (Wafica Ali Ghoul in chapter 12); categories of entrepreneurs within Islam (Nekka & Fayolle in chapter 14); Jewish middlemen in Alsace before World War II (Dana in chapter 17); Jewish entrepreneurs in Montreal (Morton Weinfeld in chapter 18); and a comparative analysis of the French and Dutch portions of the island of St. Martin (Baldacchino & Dana in chapter 20).

Three other essays are solid and warrant attention from those interested in the title of the book: Edwina Pio on Hinduism and caste (chapter 1); Dana on Jews in a variety of countries (chapter 3); and Heilbrunn & Asbeh on the Druze living in Israel (chapter 15)

I found three points especially interesting. First, Light notes that as markets become more competitive, discriminatory behavior becomes more costly. Beyond that, he focuses on the impact of Protestantism’s “universalism”—as opposed to the insularity of Catholic and Jewish communities. He argues that our contemporary distaste against discrimination and favoritism should be credited to Protestantism.

Second, how much discrimination and favoritism is “personal” (based on bias) as opposed to “statistical” (where discrimination in the face of highly imperfect information is the “best” decision)? For example, Light (177) notes that Puritans faced a dilemma in “doing business with dynamic but unknown Quakers, who might be dishonest, versus the security of doing business with mediocres of known probity.” 

Third, in his study of Jewish middlemen in Alsace, Dana discusses the provocative idea that being an “entrepreneur” could be perceived as less risky than other alternatives—given one’s experience with being entrepeneurial!

This last observation leads to one of two suggestions in closing. How should we define “entrepreneur”? The literature seems to conflate entrepreneurship as a penchant for innovation along with someone who is hard-working. At one extreme, entrepreneurship simply becomes a synonym for any business venture, particularly if one is self-employed. To weigh one implication: the Amish avoid technology—and thus, to be successful, must work harder. Does this make them more or less entrepreneurial?

Finally, returning to the title of the book: More work should be done to distinguish “religion” as religious belief, rather than merely a blanket reference to a culture influenced indeterminately by religion. Maybe this point is difficult for researchers to recognize and embrace, because people routinely conflate these categories in everyday life. But in fact, they are quite different. As such, developing measures of religiosity would be a step forward in analyzing the impact of “religion” on behavior in general and entrepreneurship in particular.


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