Hell is other people: emotionality and rationality in the social economy

There have been numerous rumblings recently amongst social enterprise aficionados, who argue that the increasing emphasis on growing the social investment market is being driven top down, rather than reflecting need for investment amongst social enterprises. As someone who works at an intermediary level but also occasionally visits ‘the ground’, I’m curious as to how there can be such conflicting conceptions of reality, particularly given the level of empirical research in the sector. I’m also curious about the long-term implications of growing a potentially pioneering space so quickly, as in doing so there is much potential for repeating practices and replicating errors of the past.

In pursuit of some answers I recently came across some excellent ethnographic research by Rosie Anderson of the Third Sector Research Centre. Provocatively titled ‘Doing emotion, doing policy’, Anderson has spent much time looking at the way policy is ‘done’ in practice, and after seeing her present her formative findings I realised there were parallels between this and what has been occurring of late in the social enterprise sector.

The role of emotion in the social enterprise sector

According to Anderson, emotionality (behaviour and language associated with the emotional) has a strong presence in community level activism. She found in her research that community activism benefits from “its ability to enable contact with people experiencing [an issue] – not studying, analysing or representing [them] – and that this was essential to uncovering ‘reality’”. This quite clearly has parallels with the social enterprise sector – we revere social entrepreneurs for their first hand experience of the social issues they try to address, or in some cases simply for being an entrepreneur (rather than a student of social entrepreneurship, like me). Conversely, when it comes to policy making we want to replace this “ambiguous, unreliable and potentially overwhelming knowledge” with more rational, evidence-based decision making. Again there seem to be parallels with the social enterprise sector here – the development of professional intermediaries using value-neutral metrics to represent and support those social entrepreneurs at the coalface. To quote Anderson again then, “the emotional is rationality’s antithesis and yet the only thing that makes rationality usable and morally good”. As such, it is possible to argue that everyone working in the sector – at whatever level, is personally motivated to address social issues, but there is an expectation amongst those ‘on the ground’ that those representing them do not fully succumb to their emotions and instead adopt a more rational approach.

Likewise, there seems to be an unspoken agreement between both parties that only those with direct experience of an issue can claim legitimate knowledge of it, and as such intermediaries rely upon social entrepreneurs to help them make the right decisions. As such, social entrepreneurs are “explicitly and implicitly encouraged to break conventions of the policy world in unpredictable ways; they are there to experience and act upon their first-person relationship to something that really matters to them, to act upon their emotional knowledge”.

What the hell has this got to do with social investment?

Lots. Firstly this seems reflective of the need for us to have defined roles in society. However in voluntarily subscribing to these distinctions, we then have to negotiate others’ expectations of us, and how we should act and think. This is what Sartre meant when he proclaimed ‘Hell is other people’ – social entrepreneurs and intermediaries have the same aims, but in defining roles for themselves have placed constraints upon each other.

Social entrepreneurs now find themselves confronted with a rational world seemingly far removed from the reality on the ground, where value is calculated in pounds and ‘social change’ measured in numbers. Intermediaries conversely are developing a culture where only certain kinds of emotional knowledge are allowed, and in turn reducing social impact to numbers and metrics. In psychoanalysis this is known as ‘splitting’, and we have collectively given one set of traits to one group, and incompatible traits to everyone else.

It is important to note that this split is attributed to the roles people fulfil, not the people themselves. It is certainly possible for an investor to get emotional and be irrational, but most hope that they don’t do this whilst making investment decisions. Thus this offers us a model for understanding the growing disquiet amongst social entrepreneurs about the pace and growth of the social investment market. Social entrepreneurs quite rightly believe their ‘truth’ is a closer representation of reality because they ‘experience’ the issues they are trying to address. This particular aspect of knowledge is seen to irreconcilable with other forms of knowledge, such as financial expertise. But as Anderson notes, “all individuals acknowledge the need to be both thinking and feeling decision-makers, and so certain groups become the repositories for different types of knowledge…by splitting off the emotional contribution…from professionals’ roles and projecting it onto community activists, their ‘grassroots’ status and policy workers’ ‘professional’ status are preserved”. This quest to develop a more objective, rational sector could also help explain the influx of people from the financial services in to social enterprise sector intermediaries, who are already well versed in the metrics now being implemented.

Very interesting, but what does this mean in practice?

I sense that another factor underlying the growing suspicion of the social investment market is the way it presents the emotional as less valuable than the rational. For a long time there has been a strong emphasis on demonstrating financial performance, although increasingly this is being supplanted by an emphasis on demonstrating social impact (albeit through quantitative metrics). Further to this, not only do intermediaries present themselves as ‘less emotional’, but this is seemingly legitimised by the influx of money directly to intermediaries (albeit usually for the purposes of passing on to social entrepreneurs). Coupled with the growing emphasis on financial performance and quantified methods of reporting social impact, it is easy to understand how some social entrepreneurs may feel their work is undervalued.

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3 thoughts on “Hell is other people: emotionality and rationality in the social economy

  1. It’s interesting that you mention Sartre and psychoanalysis. Both are associated with “knowing” rather than “doing”. Those who don’t like psychoanalysis would even speak of the paralysis which too many words can cause. Some people would say it’s too much talking, others that this is all about insight and depth. I think you got it right Stephen. But this split between theory and practice goes well back in history and it affects all academic disciplines. I’d be surprised if social entrepreneurship was to be any different.

    Business schools have learned to put together people who work in “industry” and people who do “research”. Synergies between both is what makes a Business School a good one. I would be inclined to think that the social economy is no different

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