Conceptualising ethical capital in social enterprise

Mike Bull (Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK)
Rory Ridley‐Duff (Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK)
Doug Foster (University of Surrey, Guildford, UK)
Pam Seanor (Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK)

Social Enterprise Journal

ISSN: 1750-8614

Publication date: 16 November 2010



In popular culture, ethics and morality are topical, heightened by recent attention to the banking industry and pay awards, monopoly capitalism, global warming and sustainability. Yet, surprisingly, little attention is given to these in the narrative of the conceptualisation of social enterprise or social entrepreneurship – nor in the academic research on the sector. Current conceptualisations of social enterprise fail to fully satisfy the spirit of the movement which advances a narrative that social enterprises: are more like businesses than voluntary organisations; are more entrepreneurial than public service delivery; use business models but are not just in it for the money. A focus on the economic implies a business model where deep tensions lie. A focus on social capital offers a different frame of reference, yet both these conceptualisations fail to fully identify the phenomenon that is social enterprise. The objective of this paper is to fill that gap. Ethical capital is offered here as an alternative and unrecognised conceptualisation in the field of social enterprise.


This paper is exploratory in nature – a tentative piece of theorising that brings together the authors' perspectives on ethical capital to offer a new frame of reference on social enterprise. It sets out to investigate some of the issues in order to provoke further research.


It is argued in the paper that the current ideology of the neo‐classical economic paradigm pursues interests towards the self and towards the erosion of the moral basis of association. The outcome leaves society with a problem of low ethical virtue. The implications of this paper are that social enterprises maximise ethical virtue beyond any other form of organisation and as such hold great value beyond their missions and values.

Research limitations/implications

This paper starts the process of intellectual debate about the notion of ethical capital in social enterprises. The conclusions of this paper outline further research questions that need to be addressed in order to fully develop this concept.


This paper offers great value in the understanding of social enterprise through fresh insight into its conceptualisation. A critical perspective is adopted towards the current literature. This paper sheds new light on an understanding of the sector, providing practitioners, business support agencies and academics alike with a conceptualisation that has not been explored before.



Bull, M., Ridley‐Duff, R., Foster, D. and Seanor, P. (2010), "Conceptualising ethical capital in social enterprise", Social Enterprise Journal, Vol. 6 No. 3, pp. 250-264.

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