Tacos, tiendas and mezcal : an actor-network perspective on small-scale entrepreneurial projects in Western mexico

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    <p>The role of small firms in developing countries is a subject of continuous interest in both academic and policy circles. Small firms account for a large part of economic activity, and their employment share is remarkable. Yet, although considerable knowledge about them exists, some of the key issues concerning small businesses remain relatively underexposed or are highly debatable. One such issue is that of their feasibility. What firms are feasible? What are the conditions for their success? Is it technology choice, flexibility, innovativeness or relative size which determine the vitality of small firms? Or is it their organizational practices, or the institutional environment within which they operate that is crucial? These questions are important, because great hopes are placed on the role of small firms as a 'cure-all' for economic crisis. The present study aims to contribute towards a better understanding of small firms by answering some of these central issues in development. Although the study focuses on a number of small businesses in Western Mexico, the scope of the argument has much broader implications, and may help shed light on the dynamics and feasibility of small firms in development contexts in general.<p>To understand the dynamics and feasibility of small firms, in Chapter 1 it is argued that existing perspectives on the phenomenon of small firms, and the assumptions on which they are based, should be challenged. On the basis of a questioning of different theoretical perspectives, in Chapter 2 some promising analytical frameworks that provide useful insights into the study of small firms - flexible specialization and the actor-oriented approach - are discussed. Drawing upon their shortcomings, the Chapter elaborates on actornetwork theory, a body of theoretical work developed in the context of the sociology of science which treats social relations as network effects. According to Law (1992:379) this theory is distinctive because "... it insists that networks are materially heterogeneous and argues that society and organization would not exist if they were simply social." Hence, from this point of view the task of sociology is to characterize the ways in which different materials are juxtaposed to create realities theretofore unimaginable. In the context of this study, the analytical framework of actor-network theory sets the stage to address the two main research questions:<p>a. how can one account for the heterogeneous processes that shape the projects of small-scale entrepreneurs in a rural area of Western Mexico?<br/>b. under what conditions are durable (i.e. feasible) entrepreneurial projects constructed?<p>Chapter 3 deals with the methodological implications of the theoretical framework, and how these in turn affected the research process. In order to address these issues, a reflexive account of the research genealogy is given: why the theme of small-scale enterprise was chosen, what paths had to be trod to obtain funding for the research, what problems were faced during the fieldwork period and, finally, how the theoretical position developed in Chapter 2 came to be adopted.<p>Chapters 4 through 9 address the main research concerns through a number of case studies on small-scale entrepreneurial projects. In a nutshell, the argument runs that the dynamics and feasibility of small firms are a function of three interrelated factors. First, the ability of entrepreneurs to set up and sustain a global network capable of providing a range of different resources in exchange for some kind of future return; second, the ability of entrepreneurs to use resources from a global network to build a local network with the aim of satisfying the expectations of actors lodged in the global network; third, the degree in which an entrepreneur succeeds in controlling all transactions between the global and the local networks of the firm. This does not imply that there necessarily exists a relationship between the values and significations shared by actors belonging to these different networks.<p>Chapter 4 takes up these dimensions through an in-depth case study of Carlos, an entrepreneur involved in two projects simultaneously: taco selling and public transport. As the case shows, the taco project was relatively successful as Carlos was able to build a global and a local network, and control the transactions between the two. However, a lack of integration between actors from both networks at all times endangered the feasibility of the enterprise. In contrast, in the minibus project Carlos did not succeed in maintaining a global network, and when actors from this network came up with new regulations the local netwoik could not anymore fulfil expected returns and the project collapsed.<p>Chapter 5 displays an entrepreneur engaged in the setting up of two projects: a small shop and a bar. As the case shows, the entrepreneur successfully managed to build a global and a local network within which the shop project could be operated. However, the project turned out to be a fragile one because the entrepreneur did not succeed in regulating the transactions between both networks. In the case of the bar, the entrepreneur could not successfully link the actors from both the local and global network - let alone control their transactions.<p>Chapter 6 pictures a couple - David and Chela - who take over a store from relatives. The case differs from the prior ones in that the project provided its global network with a timely reward, but only for a short period. The reason for this is that difficulties arose in the contextualization of the project, which in turn denied the room for manoeuvre necessary to construct a durable local network. The main reason for this was that, despite the forthright conditions put forward by David and Chela when taking over the store, they did not succeed in enroling the necessary actors to fulfil the roles laid out for them. Hence, the project did not take the direction David and Chela wished, eventually putting the feasibility of the store in question.<p>Chapter 7 describes the case of Leon, a producer of mezcal. Leon's project differs from those of the previous Chapters in that Leon's project successfuIly constructed its global and local networks, and controlled transactions between these. Thus Leon controlled consumers of his mezcal by at the same time controlling the local network implicated in the production of the liquor. One and the other is made apparent by focusing on how the competition is held at bay, how collaborators (both human and nonhuman) are enlisted, and how workers are put in place - that is, how the different interests of the actors who make up the production, distribution and consumption of mezcal are made to converge.<p>In Chapter 8 the thesis takes a slightly different turn by concentrating on a theme only partially developed in Chapters 4 through 7 namely the relationship between projects and crucial actors from their global networks: the final consumers of projects' products and services. Through a case study on Pablo, an independent distributor of mezcal, Chapter 8 throws new light on traditional notions about the identities of producers and consumers, and shows that these identities are continuously constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed in the process of producing and consuming - a process that vastly exceeds the realm of production and consumption proper. Thus in this Chapter it is argued that producers and consumers are nothing but the end product of heterogeneous relations which are often mediated through objects.<p>In Chapter 9 attention shifts away from specific projects, and focuses on the larger network of firms engaged in the production of mezcal. In general, the Chapter deals with the expansion and transformation of this network, and the way in which it takes shape through a continuous realignment of so-called social, technical, economic and political elements. Particularly, the Chapter focuses on the way in which the network of mezcal firms transforms and expands in time through a) a constant addition of new human and non-human beings to the network, b) the enrolment of people and things who/that initially conspired against mezcal producers' goals, c) a qualitative change in the properties of actors involved in the network, d) the delegation of human properties to non-humans, and e) the effective packaging or black-boxing of heterogeneous actors. Furthermore, the network is shown to be characterized by a strong degree of convergence of interests of all actors involved, making it possible for mezcal producers to develop feasible firms.<p>The general conclusion of this thesis is that the feasibility of smallscale entrepreneurial projects is a function of the morphology of the local and global networks which these projects help build and maintain. This and some other findings that follow from the case studies are made explicit in Chapter 10. Also, this final Chapter retakes the issue of why it is important to look at the feasibility of small firms, and why the approach chosen in this study can be seen as a positive contribution for both academic and policy debates concerning the role of small firms in rural areas of developing regions. Theoretically, the significance of this study is that it shows that, through theoretical ly-informed empirical cases, one can avert disciplinary myopia, making it possible to grasp the essentially contingent, unfixed nature of entrepreneurial projects. Furthermore, the study suggests that traditional sociological and anthropological notions such as 'structure' are in much need of overhauling for, as the cases demonstrate, small firms are not embedded in a fixed structure, but rather they are progressive ideas which materialize through practices, that is, through the work contextualizing and localizing objects that create social relations. As to policy concerns, this study suggests that it is precarious to formulate policies to support small-scale business through social, political, economic or technical incentives alone but that, instead policies should address the multidimensional character of entrepreneurial activity. Related to this, a general policy recommendation of this study is that schemes promoting small firms need to go beyond treating small-scale entrepreneurial projects as isolated, self-contained islands. Instead, they should be geared to the materially heterogeneous networks of actors engaged in the production, dissemination, and consumption of specific goods and services.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Long, N.E., Promotor
    Award date28 May 1997
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789054857150
    Publication statusPublished - 1997


    • entrepreneurship
    • small businesses
    • agriculture
    • economic sociology
    • private firms
    • enterprises
    • private ownership
    • sociology
    • rural communities
    • mexico
    • medium sized businesses

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