Dancing with SOCIAL INNOVATION in the “SE field” – Try with a little help from “The International Handbook on Social Innovation”

Nobody can deny that social innovation (SI) is in fashion today. Last years there has been a vast proliferation of discourse and work on SI. Now it seems as easy to get lost due to the great diversity of approaches to SI as difficult to find an integrative framework for that concept. SI becomes blurred when everybody is talking about it at the same time. For those (young) social researchers interested in the role of SI within the “SE field” some unambiguous methodological frameworks and theoretical guidelines are needed. Seeking a further clarification, the 4th EMES International Research Conference gave us an opportunity to overcome this awkward buzz. As far as I am concerned, the panel sessions presenting “The International Handbook on Social Innovation” (Moulaert et al., 2013) were as illuminating. Today, after reading some chapters in detail, I observe that the book presents a sociological SI research approach that is methodologically coherent for the study of socially innovative economic initiatives.

According to the authors, three generic and interrelated features frame the basic idea of SI: satisfaction of needs, reconfiguration of social relations and empowerment or political mobilization (see General Introduction and Chapter 1 in Moulaert et al., 2013). Such viewpoint, which results from a scientific work developed through different projects since 1989, goes beyond the idea of conceiving SI only as a descriptor of a set of practices. In fact, it considers SI as a broad dynamic and collective process cornerstone of an alternative human development strategy. Regarding its dynamic nature, SI could become a term for “revisiting the role of social enterprise and social economy in socioeconomic development” (Moulaert et al., 2013: 1). Nevertheless, in general, the relationship between economy and SI is often tackled with vagueness, and confusion comes to light when SI is equally associated to policy programs and agencies, enterprises and other market-oriented organizations, and social movements and civil associations.

Jessop et al. (Chapter 8) become aware of the weakness of a narrowly market-economic approach to SI that misrepresents the function of social economy and superficially understands the relations between social change, social transformation and SI. In line with a broader societal logic, they propose a methodology for SI research consistent of a concrete social ontology and epistemic position that completely differs from the “de-ethicized” definition frequently provided by policy-making spheres or business practices. That means retrieving the “classic” tradition –from Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Schumpeter among others– of understanding SI in the light of social change and incorporating it into the current SI practice-oriented analysis. It is assumed a social ontology premised on “the social, spatio-temporal and substantive contingency of social relations and on the correlative human [potential] capacities for social transformation” (Moulaert et al., 2013: 112). They also embrace an epistemology sensitive to the dialectic of struggle between ranges of actors in the societal scenario of social conflict. Both power and context matter without the shadow of a doubt.

Hence, this societal approach concerns promoting human development transforming social relations –micro, between individuals and people; and macro, between classes and other social groups–, fostering values of justice and solidarity and forms of social economy. This differs from an economistic approach strongly influenced by management science, innovation economics and a micro-economic interpretation of SI (see for example Mulgan, 2006; Phills et al., 2008; Murray et al., 2010). Rather than the latter, the first approach looks at moral virtues and ethical norms inherent to SI as well as agency dimension and social process dynamics both spatially and institutionally embedded.

Regarding the “SE field”, Defourny and Nyssens (Chapter 3) start to pave the way for clarifying the link between SI and the EMES conceptual approach of Social Enterprise –notwithstanding SI does not appear explicitly in EMES ideal-type indicators. They especially highlight the participatory governance pillar of social enterprises that distinguish them from other forms of social entrepreneurship. The key point is that community-based dynamic and the internal democratic processes are also strengthened besides the social mission and the aim to meet needs. Nonetheless Defourny and Nyssens are not very explicit on this, it can be deduced the idea that our analysis will be insufficient by looking only inside the organization. Thus, social enterprises are a breeding ground for SI in the way they connect with the institutional level. We should not forget the claim of social economy for alternative relations between state, market and civil society appealing to changes in the institutional arena.

If SI also entails changes in socio-political regimes with more bottom-up participation and the increase of collective decision-making systems, governance does matter too. In that sense, ideas suggested by Pradel et al. (Chapter 11) seem clearly inspiring. They propose methodological steps for analysing the twofold dynamic between SI and (multi-level) governance frameworks. SI cannot be understood as an isolated activity. Otherwise, it is embedded in an institutional context in which social enterprises may arise as one powerful SI actor. Therefore, how large is the empowerment capacity of socially creative strategies promoted by social enterprises and their impact on policy-making? My own paper presented during the above-mentioned EMES conference emphasized two steps to proceed: the empirical analysis of how social enterprises foster the institutionalization of their practices (strategies); and the identification of key factors that contribute to make this possible. Both can contribute to strengthening scientifically the relationship between SI and the “SE field”. Besides the chapters mentioned here, the whole handbook give us an overview of theoretical perspectives, methodologies and instructive experiences to find ways moving towards with this challenge.


Moulaert, Frank, Diana MacCallum, Abid Mehmood, and Abdelillah Hamdouch (ed.) (2013) The International Handbook on Social Innovation: Collective Action, Social Learning and Transdisciplinary Research, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar

  • General Introduction: The Return of Social Innovation as a Scientific Concept and a Social Practice
    Frank Moulaert, Diana MacCallum, Abid Mehmood and Abdelillah Hamdouch
  • Chapter 1. Social Innovation: Intuition, Precept, Concept, Theory and Practice
    Frank Moulaert, Diana MacCallum and Jean Hillier
  • Chapter 3. Social Innovation, Social Economy and Social Enterprise: What Can the European Debate Tell Us?
    Jacques Defourny and Marthe Nyssens
  • Chapter 8. Social Innovation Research: A New Stage in Innovation Analysis?
    Bob Jessop, Frank Moulaert, Lars Hulgård and Abdelillah Hamdouch
  • Chapter 11. Theorizing Multi-level Governance in Social Innovation Dynamics
    Marc Pradel Miquel, Marisol García Cabeza and Santiago Eizaguirre Anglada

Mulgan, Geoff (2006) “The Process of Social Innovation” in Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization, vol. 1, n. 2, pp. 145–162.

Murray, Robin, Julie Caulier-Grice, and Geoff Mulgan (2010) “The Open Book of Social Innovation” available in http://www.nesta.org.uk/library/documents/Social_Innovator_020310.pdf

Phills, James A., Kriss Deiglmeier, and Dale T. Miller (2008) “Rediscovering Social Innovation” in Stanford Social Innovation Review, vol. 6, n. 4, pp. 34-43.

Sebastia_RiutortSebastià Riutort is PhD student in Sociology at the University of Barcelona (FPU fellow, Department of Sociological Theory). His research focuses on strategies and processes of social innovation articulated by Renewable Energy Sources Cooperatives (REScoops): the diffusion of their model and the promotion of changes at the institutional level. He precisely analyses the case study of Som Energia (first REScoop arisen in Spain) within the Spanish and European context. He has been involved as a researcher in the “WILCO project” (7th Framework Program) and in the “RESCOOP 20-20-20 project” (Intelligent Energy Europe). He has recently been visiting PhD student researcher in the Centre for Social Economy at the University of Liège (Belgium). E-mail: sriutort@ub.edu


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