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  • Writer's pictureLucy Hatt

Using variation theory in entrepreneurship education

René Magritte. La Clef des songes (The Interpretation of Dreams). Brussels, 1935

As I’ve been thinking about how I might communicate threshold concepts in entrepreneurial thinking in short-animated films, I’ve been reading back over the blog I kept whilst I was doing my doctoral research.

In one post from 7 years ago now, my supervisor, Professor Ray Land, encouraged me to look at Variation Theory and I regret to say it’s taken me until now to do so.

Variation Theory stems from the concept of phenomenography. The term phenomenography was first used by Ference Marton in 1981 , and was used to refer to research where the aim and focus was to describe peoples’ conceptions and “the qualitatively different ways in which people are aware of the world and the ways in which they experience various phenomena and situations around them” (Ference Marton & Pang, 2008, p. 535).

This sounds pretty much like what I have been trying to explain about entrepreneurial thinking and practicing, using the threshold concepts framework, hence the logic behind my supervisor’s suggestion (penny drops)!

The most significant characteristics of the phenomenographic approach are the aiming at categories of description, the open explorative form of data collection and the interpretative character of the analysis of data (Svensson, 1997). It has its roots in the general scientific tradition and represents a reaction against positivistic, behaviouristic and quantitative research. Also, music to my ears.

I’ve adapted the assumptions upon when phenomenograhy is based to make them specific to entrepreneurship [my additions in square brackets]:

  1. [entrepreneurial] knowledge has a relational and holistic nature

  2. [entrepreneurial] conceptions are the central form of [entrepreneurial] knowledge

  3. scientific knowledge about [entrepreneurial] conceptions (and generally) is not true but uncertain and more and less fruitful

  4. descriptions are fundamental to scientific knowledge about [entrepreneurial] conceptions (and generally)

  5. scientific knowledge about [entrepreneurial] conceptions is based on exploration of delimitations and holistic meanings of objects as conceptualised

  6. scientific knowledge about [entrepreneurial] conceptions (and generally) is based on differentiation, abstraction, reduction and comparison of meaning.

(Svensson, 1997, p. 171)

It aims to identify and interrogate the range of different ways in which people perceive or experience specific phenomena (in this case, typically learning, teaching or aspects thereof ) (Tight, 2016) so would seem entirely suited to the identification of threshold concepts in entrepreneurship.

The following quote seems to perfectly sum up the way I think about learning entrepreneurship. It argues that knowledge is based on thinking, so entrepreneurship knowledge may be argued to be based on entrepreneurial thinking. That knowledge is created through thinking and practising, that is both situated in its context and fundamentally relational.

The most fundamental assumptions about the objects of phenomenography thus concern the nature of conceptions. The assumptions about the nature of conceptions made are closely related to assumptions about the nature of knowledge and thinking. First knowledge is assumed to be based on thinking. It is seen as created through human thinking and human activity. However, knowledge is also seen as dependent upon the world or reality external to the individual and external to human activity and thinking, that which the activity and thinking is directed towards. The most fundamental assumption is that knowledge and conceptions have a relational nature. Conceptions are dependent both on human activity and the world or reality external to any individual. The position taken differs from empiristic and positivistic assumptions about observations as facts, and knowledge as inductively based on facts. It also differs from rationalistic, mentalistic and constructivistic assumptions about knowledge as rational or mental constructions within a more or less closed rational and/or mental system. Thus the view of knowledge is that it is relational, not only empirical or rational, but created through thinking about external reality.”

(Svensson, 1997, p. 165)

Variation theory holds that individuals see, understand, and experience the world from their own perspectives (Cheng, 2016) and according to F. Marton, Runesson, and Tsui (2004) there are four patterns of variation:

  1. contrast; recognising values of an aspect

  2. generalisation; experiencing varied appearances of the same value

  3. separation; separating aspects with varying values from invariant aspects

  4. fusion; experiencing several critical aspects simultaneously

Now this appears to me like a potential design approach for my animations. We can contrast, generalise, separate and fuse the threshold concepts of entrepreneurial thinking in order to help people get to grips with them and flush out the the qualitative differences between the ways in which people are aware of the world and the ways in which they experience entrepreneurialism.

Phenomenography and variation theory present potentially fruitful and exciting means to make robust theoretical connections between the threshold concept framework in the context of entrepreneurship education, and educational theories. I am looking forward to applying what I am learning about them to the design of my animations and the interpretation of future research data.


Cheng, E. W. (2016). Learning through the Variation Theory: A Case Study. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 28(2), 283-292.

Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography—describing conceptions of the world around us. Instructional science, 10(2), 177-200.

Marton, F., & Pang, M. F. (2008). The idea of phenomenography and the pedagogy of conceptual change. International handbook of research on conceptual change, 533-559.

Marton, F., Runesson, U., & Tsui, A. B. M. (2004). The space of learning. In F. Marton, A. B. M. Tsui, P. P. M. Chik, P. Y. Ko, & M. L. Lo (Eds.), Classroom discourse and the space of learning. Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum.

Svensson, L. (1997). Theoretical foundations of phenomenography. Higher education Research & development, 16(2), 159-171.

Tight, M. (2016). Phenomenography: the development and application of an innovative research design in higher education research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 19(3), 319-338. doi:10.1080/13645579.2015.1010284

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