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Becoming farmers : an ethnographic study on start-up entrepreneurs in the neoliberal era

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Title: Becoming farmers : an ethnographic study on start-up entrepreneurs in the neoliberal era
Author(s): Tuunanen, Tuukka
Contributor: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Social Sciences
Degree program: Master's Programme in Social Research
Specialisation: Sociology
Language: English
Acceptance year: 2021
This thesis is about the sociocultural phenomenon of start-up entrepreneurship. Contemporary society is home to a growing obsession towards entrepreneurship, with entrepreneurial action regarded as a possible solution to a wide spectrum of social problems. Entrepreneurial action and the acquiring of an entrepreneurial way of thinking and operating is widely considered to contribute to the common good, in reality having potential for a positive impact on society. Hence entrepreneurship is promoted in social policy and education in an effort to educate citizens towards entrepreneurial agency. All in all, an interesting shift is happening with entrepreneurs positioning themselves as producers of the common good ”making the world a better place one pizza at a time”, while farmers traditionally identifying as ”producers” are becoming more ”entrepreneurial”. Entrepreneurial agency as a new form of agency suitable for any individual in almost any field of action originates from the neoliberal discourse and the emphasis on individual freedom and entrepreneurialism. Like Margaret Thatcher famously stated, ”there is no society, there are individual men and women”. This highly individualistic approach to the reorganisation of society and the reinforcement or restoration of the class dominance of a small global elite was voiced as an alleged antidote to the perils of socialism, and culturally connected to the positive ideals of the entrepreneur as a free, self-reliable, innovative and efficient individual. This was the neoliberal re-invention of the entrepreneur that transformed the idea of the entrepreneur as primarily a business operator to that of the morally worthy individual simply doing the right thing. The fruits of the labour would then trickle-down as collectively beneficiary. This thesis is an ethnographic study on start-up entrepreneurs in the Greater Helsinki start-up ecosystem working to promote their companies. Through interviews and observational data, this thesis studies the start-up entrepreneur as the epitome of this contemporary entrepreneurial agency. Start-up entrepreneurship sometimes referred to as ”entrepreneurialism on steroids”, is a form of often tech-related entrepreneurialism aimed at fast growth with the help of investments - a sort of ”rags to riches” narrative. But the work is demanding with statistically most start-up companies destined to fail, with a very small percentage becoming successful in finding markets, growing and returning the investments while providing lucrative ”exits” for the founders. Utilising positioning theory this thesis focuses on three themes related to start-up entrepreneurs: their identifications and boundary work in separating them as a specific social group, the outspoken motivations behind their actions and the troubles that arise from their endeavours. Through dress code, speech norms and the acceptance of the Weberian idea of the entrepreneur as ”a special actor” and capable problem-solver, the identity of the start-up entrepreneur is constructed and ritualistically verified in events like SLUSH. The origins of the neoliberal discourse are interestingly present in these motivations, with a majority of the interviewees emphasizing the altruistic side of their social entrepreneurialism and the importance of freedom in life. They are free to achieve. But on the other hand, the possibility of unimaginable financial gain brings certain ambiguity to the situation. In the words of one interviewee: ”Anyone who says they don´t dream of getting rich in a start-up company is lying.” Finally, among all the positive hype that surrounds successful start-up companies and entrepreneurship partly due to the way they are portrayed in the media, there are problems ahead for many. Stress and financial troubles combined with the shame and possible debt resulting from going bankrupt manifest themselves as severe physical symptoms, mental health problems, insomnia and burnout. This can in turn have a dramatic impact in dictating the lives of the start-up entrepreneurs. Following the ideas of critical entrepreneurship studies and contributing to the lack of research on the topic, this thesis suggests that due to the influence of the neoliberal discourse on the way entrepreneurship is framed and celebrated as well as the severity of the resulting problems for many, there should be a more critical and analytical approach to the seemingly value-free promotion of entrepreneurship. It is necessary to ask whose interests are actually getting promoted through increased entrepreneurial agency, and whether the alleged promotion of common good is in fact contributing to any issues other than the convenience of the every-day lives of the middle-class.
Keyword(s): Entrepreneurship start-up neoliberalism identity ethnography culture positioning theory discourse

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