Contingency as an entrepreneurial resource: How private obsession fulﬁlls
Howard University School of Business, 2400 Sixth Street N.W., Washington D.C. 20059, United States
article info abstract
Received 1 February 2009
Received in revised form 6 October 2009
Accepted 7 October 2009
Available online 8 November 2009
Borrowing from Rorty (1989:37), this article portrays the entrepreneurial process as a mechanism
through which “private obsession” fulﬁlls “public need.” It begins with an argument that a deeper
understanding of contingency can enhance management scholarship in general and
entrepreneurship in particular. It continues with an examination of contingency and
entrepreneurial opportunity and then uses six narratives to show how both personal and
historical contingencies become resources in the entrepreneurial process. A depiction of possible
alternative responses (counterfactuals) for each narrative illustrates how entrepreneurs tend to
take a resourceful, rather than an adaptive or a heroic stance toward contingency. A discussion of
American Pragmatism provides theoretical support for contingency's role in the entrepreneurial
process. The paper concludes with a literature review and a look at how this view of
entrepreneurial contingency illuminates the temporal context in management scholarship,
among other implications for both research and practice.
© 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
1. Executive summary
By “uncertain” knowledge … I do not mean merely to distinguish what is known for certain from what is only probable.
The game of roulette is not subject, in this sense, to uncertainty … The sense in which I am using the term is that in which
the prospect of a European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest twenty years hence, or the
obsolescence of a new invention … About these matters there is no scientiﬁc basis on which to form any calculable
probability whatever. We simply do not know! (John Maynard Keynes, 1937: 213–214)
Management scholarship has largely been an exercise of studying the “knowable,” or those phenomena which are
“retrospective and rely on historical data.” Indeed, the empirical settings chosen for study are necessarily “inﬂuenced by the
availability of data, and available data are seldom a representative or random sample of all empirical settings to which the theory is
supposed to apply.” (Denrell and Kovács, 2008: 109). Furthermore, because we have so much available data on widely-diffused
practices or very large populations or organizations, we have studied them at the risk of falling prey to the “fallacy of presentism,”
meaning the “mistaken idea that the proper way to do history is to prune away the dead branches of the past, and to preserve the
green buds and twigs which have grown into the dark forest of our contemporary world.” (Fischer, 1970:135, in Denrell and
Kovács, 2008:109). We look at the green buds and twigs of our existing organizations, turn them over, examine them for every
detail, and in the process we clearly learn valuable lessons about a wide range of phenomena that illuminate and improve the
practice of management. However, we less often ask the question, why did these organizations come into existence in the ﬁrst
place? Why this particular organization and not some other?
Journal of Business Venturing 26 (2011) 293–305
This paper is dedicated to Richard Rorty, who died on June 8, 2007. Orchid lover, heretic, irreverent intellectual, he will be sorely missed.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
0883-9026/$ – see front matter © 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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