Interview with Best International Paper Award

Georg Reischauer (GR), WU Vienna, interviewing Isabel Brüggemann (IB) and Jochem Kroezen (JK), University of Cambridge, Winners of the Best International Paper Award for “
Turning antagonists into supporters: Establishing legitimacy in hostile environments”


GR: Congratulations on receiving OMT’s Best International Paper Award! Can you tell us what your paper is about?

(IB & JK): Our paper is about how new ventures can establish legitimacy in hostile environments. Whereas most prior research has looked at legitimacy building under relatively hospitable conditions, our study focuses specifically on how a new venture may deal with antagonistic audiences. We have conducted an in-depth case study of a social enterprise fighting for disability inclusion in post-revolutionary Egypt. This is an environment where freedom of speech is under pressure. Moreover, strong cultural norms exist that undermine the inclusion of disabled people in society. Based on our findings, we theorize that antagonism can have a political, normative and/or cognitive basis and identify concrete strategies that new ventures may engage in to try to turn antagonists into supporters. These involve initially camouflaging the venture’s agenda and subsequently humanizing the venture and its beneficiaries before activating early supporters to try to win over more challenging forms of antagonism.

GR: Your paper examines how new ventures can establish legitimacy in hostile environments that are characterized by large number of audiences with pre-existing negative views of the venture’s activities. What motivated you to study this phenomenon?

(IB): The interest emerged from my research on the social entrepreneurship sector in Egypt. As part of my family lives in Egypt, I had spent a lot of time in the country and learned about the growing enthusiasm about social entrepreneurship among young people in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. At the same time, I knew about considerable challenges for social entrepreneurs posed by the cultural and political environment: Egypt’s social space is traditionally occupied by charities and non-profits, making alternative forms of achieving social impact less legitimate. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly politicised. For social ventures operating in that context, failing to establish legitimacy means failing to support minority groups and tackle social inequalities. In the paper, we address this issue from a broader angle: many ventures, including commercial ventures, face hostility when attempting to build legitimacy. Ventures such as Uber or Huawei have also had to grapple with cultural or political hostility. Our study speaks to many such cases.

GR: Did you encounter any challenges during the research and writing process? If so, could you briefly share them with us and how you addressed them?

(IB): Talking about hostility is naturally difficult. Capturing antagonistic views of key audiences through interview data proved to be quite challenging, especially when it came to political hostility. I thus substantially relied on archival data (including newspaper articles, recorded interviews) to gain insights into the antagonism of important audience groups.

Furthermore, as a foreigner in Egypt, I learned the importance of engaged reflection and self-awareness when conducting research in different cultures and value systems. Importantly, in order to capture the perspectives of the various actors involved, I had to immerse myself into the research context as well as I could – learning about local perceptions, customs and life-worlds – but also be aware of the limitations of my observations, which made it necessary to present and discuss my emerging interpretations with research participants as often as I could.

GR: Your work showcases the temporal dynamics of establishing legitimacy in the face of antagonists and a hostile institutional context. What are the main implications of these findings for managers and policy-makers?

(IB & JK): Based on our observations, we would argue that hostile environments can be classified along a spectrum where the most hostile environments to a new venture are those that simultaneously exhibit cognitive, normative as well as political antagonism across key audiences. Considering these different types of audiences and their expectations may help managers of new ventures to manage important legitimation challenges. A key insight that emerges from our study is that managers may initially avoid overt antagonism in the environment through targeting slightly more favourable audiences using reason-based rhetoric and over time, having secured initial support, address more deeply rooted negative emotions of more antagonistic audiences using affect-based rhetoric.

Furthermore, there are many organisations in the development sector interested in promoting entrepreneurship as a tool to drive economic growth and more recently social entrepreneurship as a means to promote social change and empower local people. Much of the discourse is related to establishing formal institutions that can promote an engagement in (social) entrepreneurship, for example training schemes, mentoring, legal support, and access to finance. However, other challenges frequently experienced by entrepreneurs are rooted in a country’s socio-cultural environment and related to legitimising an engagement in (social) entrepreneurship. In particular, social problems never exist in a politics-free space. We hope that our research can contribute to drawing attention to this important issue and perhaps encourage policy-makers to consider a broader spectrum of challenges when designing schemes to foster (social) entrepreneurship.

GR: Thank you so much! What would you like to share with members of the OMT community who want to win Best International Paper Award in the future?

(IB & JK): Follow your interests and passions – and do not shy away from topics outside of the boundaries of more frequently represented settings in organization theory.