Social entrepreneurship as a family resemblance concept with distinct ethical views

Filipa Lancastre*, Carmen Lages, Filipe Santos

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review



Almost 25 years after Dees’ article on the meaning of social entrepreneurship, conceptual controversy persists. Based on a qualitative analysis of 209 definitions of social entrepreneurship and respective academic articles, we argue that the concept follows a family resemblance structure and identify the 12 distinct attributes that comprehensively define it. Membership in social entrepreneurship is not defined by a case possessing a universally accepted set of criterial features but by carrying shared attributes with other cases. The family resemblance structure points to the persistent fallacy of using the same term to label different phenomena and cautions researchers against causal homogeneity assumptions among different conceptual subtypes. Assuming a descriptive stance, we shed light on how distinct ethical positions relate to different definitions of social entrepreneurship. Among the existing conceptual variety, we identify four prominent subtypes and find that ‘market-based’ conceptualizations relate to economism, the ‘social business’ subtype relates to rule utilitarian positions, ‘efficiency-driven’ definitions are associated with hedonistic act utilitarian views, and the ‘transformational impact’ subtype is akin to a eudemonic act utilitarian stance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)611-632
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2024


  • Business ethics
  • Conceptualization
  • Family resemblance
  • Social enterprise
  • Social entrepreneurship


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