Browsing the catalogue of Cambridge’s university library, I searched for books with ‘creative entrepreneurship’ in the title. I was expecting to locate books about running businesses in sectors such as fashion, design, and photography.
But my search was for the words only, rather than for the words in that order, so it threw up some surprises – one of which was Burmese entrepreneurship: creative response in the colonial economy by Aung Tun Thet (Stuttgart : Steiner, 1989). Curious about the sense in which ‘creative’ was being used here, I went and found the shelf copy.
Now it’s conceivable that even amongst the erudite group who read this blog there may be one or two readers less than fully familiar with this book, so let me provide an overview.
Aung Tun Thet applies, rather uncritically and unsubtly, a distinction between three types of entrepreneurship, namely (i) routine, (ii) arbitrage-based, and (iii) innovative. Within this framework he examines the ‘decapitation thesis’ – the view that under British colonial rule the Burmese were removed from business leadership in their country.
The author advances a model based on a spectrum between, at one end, routine entrepreneurship and, at the other, innovative entrepreneurship (with arbitrage in mid-spectrum).
He argues that the closer one moved towards the innovative end, the less the participation of the Burmese – but that such participation was not non-existent (he provides, for example, a case study of the owner of a rice mill who founded a ceramics business.)
The author argues too that the situation during the colonial era was not static:
The picture of Burmese entrepreneurship which emerged shows a positive trend, as it seems to be moving gradually away from ‘routine’ forms of entrepreneurship like landowning, cottage industries, etc. to more ‘arbitrage’ forms like brokerage, trading, moneylending, etc. and ‘innovative’ forms like industries. (p. 170)
Aung Tun Thet’s main reason for arguing that the extent of Burmese entrepreneurship has been underestimated concerns the ‘Rice Rush’ – the large-scale migration south to develop rice production in the Lower Delta (‘comparable to many of the “Rushes” in modern history, for example, the “Gold Rush” in the West Coast of the United States’ – p. 126).
He argues that the entrepreneurial activity involved has not been recognised as such. The peasants, reacting in part to such economic signals as the growth in demand for rice and an increase in its price, have not received due recognition as entrepreneurs: ‘Burmese peasant-entrepreneurs were not slow in grasping the perceived opportunities and indeed displayed entrepreneurial talents’ (p. 126).
According to the author, one social group in particular (the ahmu-dans) reacted to a loss to status in their homelands by turning to entrepreneurial activity in the south. He conceptualises this through the lens of a general model, expounded by Everett E. Hagen, in which withdrawal of status respect → retreatism → creativity and entrepreneurship. Therein lies the answer to my curiosity concerning entrepreneurship as a ‘creative response’.