Entrepreneurial learning in family business

Eleanor Hamilton (Lancaster University Management School, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK)

Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development

ISSN: 1462-6004

Publication date: 22 February 2011



The purpose of this paper is to contribute towards understanding how entrepreneurial learning might be understood as being socially situated, embedded in everyday practice in the context of family business. The study is framed by three main principles drawn from situated learning theory. First, the family and the business are examined as overlapping communities of practice, as sites of practice‐based knowledge. Second, the concept of legitimate peripheral participation is explored in relation to members of the family business. Finally, how practice is both reproduced and transformed over time is examined in the context of two generations' participation in a family business.


The paper draws on an empirical study of two generations from five families, the founders of a business and their successors. The interview approach adopted phenomenological techniques. A thematic analysis identified conceptual frameworks to make sense of the data in a “quasi grounded” approach. Finally, the three main principles introduced from situated learning theory – communities of practice, legitimate peripheral participation, and cycles of reproduction and transformation provided a conceptual framework to analyse the empirical material.

Research limitations/implications

This is an interpretive, qualitative study based on a small sample of families based in the North West of England. The findings are not intended to be generalised to a population, but to offer empirical insights that extend theoretical frameworks in order to better understand the entrepreneurial phenomenon.

Practical implications

The experience of the second generation both in the family business and in overlapping contexts of learning‐in‐practice brings innovation and change as well as continuity. The study also suggests that the complex process of succession might be informed by the understanding of the importance of the nature and extent of participation in the family business over time.


This paper introduces conceptual frameworks that capture the social complexity of intergenerational entrepreneurial learning and contributes an empirical illustration of situated learning theory within the context of family business. The situated learning perspective contrasts with much of the existing entrepreneurial learning literature, which has tended to focus on “the entrepreneur” and individual learning processes. This study demonstrates that applying a learning lens brings theoretical insights to the study of family business.



Hamilton, E. (2011), "Entrepreneurial learning in family business", Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 8-26. https://doi.org/10.1108/14626001111106406

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