In the fall of 2014, I put together my first academic syllabus for a course on social entrepreneurship at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. It consisted primarily of articles from Stanford Social Innovation Review, chapters from Impact Investing: Transforming How We Make Money by Jed Emerson and Antony Bugg-Levine, and a few articles pulled from mainstream entrepreneurship and innovation research. It was a practitioner’s syllabus, but not a very academic one.

A few months later, I had a conversation about the class with Jonathan Lewis, a colleague from UnLtd USA. He asked, “How do you know if you’re having your students read the right things?” Though my experience in impact investing led me to believe that I was covering what students needed to know, the syllabus didn’t have an academic foundation. So Jonathan and I decided to dig for an identifiable core of academic research in social entrepreneurship. The more we considered the question, the more important it felt. An identifiable body of work could guide practitioners of social entrepreneurship, offer a common language for researchers, provide an educational path to those new to the field, and demonstrate that social entrepreneurship is a legitimate and distinct discipline.

Jonathan went straight to the data: Using Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science, an academic research platform, he identified approximately 500 academic articles related to social entrepreneurship and downloaded the metadata associated with each one, including other articles they cited. Then, using the data analysis tools SCI2 and Gephi, he created something called a document co-citation network. Document co-citation looks similar to the connections in a social network, but instead of showing connections between friends, it shows connections between articles cited within a single document. We identified 1,900 journal articles, conference proceedings, and books related to social entrepreneurship. Then we then looked for the ones that were most central to that network—meaning they were most often co-cited, and therefore most influential. This gave us the 25 most influential academic articles:

  1. Mair, Johanna, and Ignasi Marti. “Social Entrepreneurship Research: A Source of Explanation, Prediction, and Delight.” Journal of World Business 41.1 (2006): 36-44.
  2. Austin, James, Howard Stevenson, and Jane Wei‐Skillern. “Social and Commercial Entrepreneurship: Same, Different, or Both?Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice 30.1 (2006): 1-22.
  3. Peredo, Ana Maria, and Murdith McLean. “Social Entrepreneurship: A Critical Review of the Concept.” Journal of World Business 41.1 (2006): 56-65.
  4. Weerawardena, Jay, and Gillian Sullivan Mort. “Investigating Social Entrepreneurship: A Multidimensional Model.” Journal of World Business 41.1 (2006): 21-35.
  5. Zahra, Shaker A., et al. “A Typology of Social Entrepreneurs: Motives, Search Processes and Ethical Challenges.” Journal of Business Venturing 24.5 (2009): 519-532.
  6. Short, Jeremy C., Todd W. Moss, and G. Tom Lumpkin. “Research in Social Entrepreneurship: Past Contributions and Future Opportunities.” Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal 3.2 (2009): 161-194.
  7. Alvord, Sarah H., L. David Brown, and Christine W. Letts. “Social Entrepreneurship and Societal Transformation: an Exploratory Study.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 40.3 (2004): 260-282.
  8. Shane, Scott, and Sankaran Venkataraman. “The Promise of Entrepreneurship as a Field of Research.” Academy of Management Review 25.1 (2000): 217-226.
  9. Nicholls, Alex, ed. “Social Entrepreneurship: New Models of Sustainable Social Change.” OUP Oxford, 2006.
  10. Leadbeater, Charles. “The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur.” No. 25. Demos, 1997.
  11. Dacin, Peter A., M. Tina Dacin, and Margaret Matear. “Social Entrepreneurship: Why We Don't Need a New Theory and How We Move Forward From Here.” The Academy of Management Perspectives 24.3 (2010): 37-57.
  12. Sullivan Mort, Gillian, Jay Weerawardena, and Kashonia Carnegie. “Social Entrepreneurship: Towards Conceptualization.” International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing 8.1 (2003): 76-88.
  13. Seelos, Christian, and Johanna Mair. “Social Entrepreneurship: Creating New Business Models to Serve the Poor.” Business Horizons 48.3 (2005): 241-246.
  14. Sharir, Moshe, and Miri Lerner. “Gauging the Success of Social Ventures Initiated by Individual Social Entrepreneurs.” Journal of World Business 41.1 (2006): 6-20.
  15. Thompson, John L. “The World of the Social Entrepreneur.” International Journal of Public Sector Management 15.5 (2002): 412-431.
  16. Thompson, John, Geoff Alvy, and Ann Lees. “Social Entrepreneurship: A New Look at the People and the Potential.” Management Decision 38.5 (2000): 328-338.
  17. Dart, Raymond. “The Legitimacy of Social Enterprise.” Nonprofit Management and Leadership 14.4 (2004): 411-424.
  18. Dees, J. Gregory. “The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship.” (1998).
  19. Chell, Elizabeth. “Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Towards a Convergent Theory of the Entrepreneurial Process.” International Small Business Journal 25.1 (2007): 5-26.
  20. Peredo, Ana Maria, and James J. Chrisman. “Toward a Theory of Community-Based Enterprise.” Academy of Management Review 31.2 (2006): 309-328.
  21. Dorado, Silvia. “Social Entrepreneurial Ventures: Different Values So Different Process of Creation, No?Journal of Developmental Entrepreneurship 11.04 (2006): 319-343.
  22. Waddock, Sandra A., and James E. Post. “Social Entrepreneurs and Catalytic Change.” Public Administration Review (1991): 393-401.
  23. Fowler, Alan. “NGDOs as a Moment in History: Beyond Aid to Social Entrepreneurship or Civic Innovation?Third World Quarterly 21.4 (2000): 637-654.
  24. Mair, Johanna, and Ignasi Marti. “Entrepreneurship In and Around Institutional Voids: A Case Study from Bangladesh.” Journal of Business Venturing 24.5 (2009): 419-435.
  25. Drayton, William. “The Citizen Sector: Becoming as Entrepreneurial and Competitive as Business.” California Management Review 44.3 (2002): 120-132.

Notably, the literature is still young—14 of these articles were published after 2005. Also interesting is the spread of topics: More than half the articles are concerned with defining social entrepreneurship either in line with, or in contrast to, traditional business or traditional nonprofit work; three examine the state of social entrepreneurship research itself. Where they were published is also interesting: Nearly two-thirds were published in traditional management and entrepreneurship journals, with only two articles in nonprofit journals and two in public administration journals.

Most striking to me, however, was that—despite having spent close to five years as an impact investor; having pored over academic syllabi in compiling my own; and having worked through a bookshelf full of writing on social enterprise (including Bornstein, Yunus, Polak, Bugg-Levine/Emerson), international development (Sachs, Easterly, Duflo/Banerjee), and white papers that have shaped impact investing (including “The Pioneer Gap” and “Priming the Pump”)—I had read only two of the articles from this analysis.

Increasingly curious, we looked at the new social entrepreneurship syllabus compiled by Skoll Foundation CEO Sally Osberg and Rotman School of Management Professor Roger Martin in conjunction with their new book, Getting Beyond Better; thinking that perhaps they’d reviewed and incorporated more of these academically influential texts. Not so: Only one of the authors that surfaced in our analysis—Greg Dees—appears in their reading list. The other papers in their syllabus are in large part texts from fields such as innovation, design, and nonprofit evaluation. And the practitioners and business school professors that teach social entrepreneurship today reference hardly any of the academic scholarship on social entrepreneurship.

What explains why academics and practitioners of social entrepreneurship seem to be operating in such separate spheres? We asked two of our colleagues why—despite the increasing attention paid to the sector by deep-pocketed investors and governments—a corresponding body of academic work has not emerged to assess or inform practice. Rob Katz, co-author of “The Pioneer Gap,” believes the primary issue is incentive misalignment: “Practitioners, by nature, move faster than academics. They’re building, inventing, and pushing limits. Academics are not incentivized the same way; their institutional homes demand rigor and conservatism.” He sees practitioners as having a role to play in providing their experiences and data to academics, and treating that as a long-term investment: “People often first learn about social entrepreneurship in the classroom, and it’s in the long term interests of practitioners to ensure that students are learning what is current and relevant.”

Peter Roberts, academic director of social enterprise at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, has been working for several years to better understand accelerator effectiveness. He believes one of the main stumbling blocks relates to data collection and analysis. As the field of social entrepreneurship matures, more university researchers should (and will) turn their attention to the systematic, quantitative work necessary to move beyond anecdotes and case studies. If done well, those observations would be useful to practitioners, leading to more productive interactions between academia and practice. However, he’s “not sure that even then, academics and practitioners will be citing each other’s written work, as the best academic work isn’t necessarily the most accessible.” More likely, he says, the insights that come from good academic research will find a way to inform best practice, rather than finding their way into the reference lists of articles that write about best practice. Roberts’ hope is that more researchers will move through the continuum from anecdotes to structured observations based on qualitative research, and then to theories and predictions that can be tested in systematic, large sample studies. Ultimately, this would produce specific understandings that could be handed over to experimentalists for closer scrutiny. One obstacle to this kind of coordinated progress, Roberts points out, are the persistent debates about what constitutes a social entrepreneur—something that large sample studies could address. He says, “Some consensus on what we’re looking at is a prerequisite to building these larger samples.”

Another possibility we considered for the absence of scholarship in social entrepreneurship was that the relationship between academics and practitioners of social entrepreneurship mirrors that of traditional entrepreneurship; perhaps practitioners and academics in that field were equally siloed. Not so, at least per anecdotal evidence: Business schools regularly host entrepreneurs in residence, and entrepreneurial education programs such as I-Corps connect researchers and potential entrepreneurs. And at the center of the nexus between practitioners and academics nexus sits the Kauffman Foundation, which runs the practitioner-focused Kauffman Fellows program and the academic website State of the Field.

The Kauffman State of the Field framework may provide a roadmap for social entrepreneurship researchers, as well as to researchers in other fields whose work could shed light on our own. Kauffman divides entrepreneurship research into six domains:

  • Regional Dynamics
  • Firm & Industry Dynamics
  • Finance
  • Technology & Innovation
  • Management, Organization & Strategy
  • Background of Entrepreneurs

This list provides a set of discrete fields and subfields of study that line up with the methods of various disciplines that contribute to research on entrepreneurship and innovation. We would add one more: Outcomes and Impact. For us, impact is the banner around which both practitioners and academics can rally. Academics may seem slow and plodding to the practitioner, but only because they want to get it right. Practitioners may seem over-eager and unreflective to the academic, but only because there is fierce urgency in the injustices they work against.

As we hunted for the core canon of social entrepreneurship, we were surprised at just how wide the gap between academics and practitioners turned out to be. In that gap, we see opportunity and responsibility: Opportunity for academics to support practitioners’ efforts and to hold them accountable, and responsibility to push continually toward more effective and rigorously tested work to the benefit of the communities practitioners support.