In this paper, we argue that social enterprise could represent a means of tackling rural challenges of providing sustainable economic development, addressing the withdrawal of public services and promoting community cohesion. The paper draws upon a review of existing academic as well as policy literature and develops a conceptual framework that helps to understand how to unlock the potential contribution of social enterprises to rural development. Drawing on an exploratory study conducted in two rural areas of Scotland we use interview data from social enterprise stakeholders to populate the conceptual framework and its rural (geographic), policy and social enterprise domains. Our study suggests that social enterprises can potentially enable an integrated approach to addressing local issues at the local level. They can create locally responsive services that fit the rural context. However, unlocking the potential of rural social enterprise may require moving beyond traditional policy silo approaches that treat economic development, community cohesion and public services as separate and disconnected since national policy-making frameworks have not always translated into practice at the rural level. Additionally, policy treatment of social enterprise needs to move beyond efforts to ‘scale up’ and achieve economies of scale. Collaborations between groups of social enterprises, and between social enterprises and public authorities can lead to economies of scope, particularly where strong trust-based relations within communities harness self-help and the co-production of services. With appropriate guidance and support, many rural challenges and needs could be transformed into opportunities for social enterprise development. In highlighting the opportunities and challenges faced by rural social enterprises, the paper suggests potential research gaps that, if filled, could contribute towards recognising and unlocking their full potential.
Rural social enterprise conceptual framework combines rural, policy and social enterprise domains.
Social enterprises recognise the interconnectedness between different rural needs and potential solutions.
Rural challenges could be transformed into opportunities for social enterprise and community development.
National social enterprise policies are not well-translated into practice at the rural level.
Future success or rural social enterprises depends on breaking down traditional policy silo.