In recent months on this page there has been a growing, and welcome, recognition of the importance of contextualisation which can only assist our understanding of the emergence of social enterprise. The importance of contextualisation has also been a focus of my own research on the potential for social innovation to address youth employment issues in Scotland. Such reflections point towards an increasing appreciation of the complexities in understanding these fields and the range of actors who are currently engaged within them. Any concerns regarding increasing complexities can however become magnified in fields of research such as social innovation, which are still being constructed (Moulaert et al, 2013) and consequently there may be a temptation amongst academics to focus upon ‘established’ institutions, processes and conventions as the key factors of research. It is this issue which I’m hoping now to direct your attention.
We know that the processes of knowledge construction do not take place within a vacuum, but instead are entangled within existing relations of power in our societies. Of course, it’s quite possible that there are some amongst us who are comfortable with the current distribution of social and political power and if so, perhaps now is the point where you may wish to stop reading this post. Those of us who seek to challenge or disrupt these relations of power may need to reconsider some of the traditional approaches which have long been ingrained within the multiplicity of disciplines from which we have emerged. Not doing so runs the risk of replicating and reinforcing existing inequalities but also enables our research to be ideologically captured by the very power relations we seek to disrupt. This latter point may seem alarmist and although there is not enough space here to develop these ideas further, one focal point for discussion is the question of who we consider to be experts in fields such as social innovation (see Jessop, et al 2013). This question of course adds to our existing array of complexities but may also help us to shape our research agendas rather than allow them to be shaped for us. It is at this point that the usefulness of contextualisation quickly becomes apparent.
The significance of who is designated as being an ‘expert’ has been borne out by my own experience of researching youth employment issues in Scotland and the potential for social innovation. The field of youth employment in Scotland and the UK has no shortage of experts, many of whom are anointed by the state, the academy and the market. However, those in possession of the most critical knowledge are not adorned with titles or positions reached with any intention: no young person in Scotland aspires to be a member of ‘the precariat’ (Standing, 2011). Nevertheless, when speaking to young people navigating a labour market increasingly characterised by a ‘low pay, no pay cycle’ (Shildrick et al., 2012) or who find themselves enmeshed in a welfare system designed to punish unemployment as a failure of the individual to efficiently market their ‘employability’, it quickly becomes clear that they are also the experts amongst us despite (perhaps even because of) their lack of endorsement by the state, the academy or the market. The expertise of those surviving at the sharp end of neoliberal austerity – expertise borne out of necessity – provides a direct insight into the unmet alienated needs (Moulaert et al., 2005) of citizens before these are filtered through the lens of neoliberal policymakers, practitioners and academics or the initiatives devised by the latter and disguised by empty rhetoric.
As well as providing an insight into the unmet needs of citizens, egalitarian approaches towards knowledge production (see Moulaert et al., 2013) may also enhance our capacity to recognise how the processes which are shaping the horizons of the communities in which we conduct our research may also be shaping our own. For example, those forces which have led to a decline in opportunities for young people to find well paid, secure employment in communities in the west of Scotland, may also be shaping the processes of casualisation and precarity now apparent in the higher education sector in the UK and beyond, aggressively redefining our understanding of the role of an academic through the prism of neoliberalism. Developing a shared understanding of the impact of these processes can therefore only sharpen our knowledge of the contexts within which we are embedded and enhance the potential for socially innovative collaborations between academics and communities to build alternatives. The emergence of the latter may however depend on our willingness to critically assess how we view ourselves, what we perceive to be the purpose of our research and whose interests it serves.
Some may justifiably accuse calls for reflexivity amongst researchers as a statement of the obvious, nevertheless sometimes the obvious needs to be restated. This is particularly the case in fields which are still under construction and at a time when many of us are located in contexts where the neoliberal consensus has been scrutinised as never before and the actors and institutions upon which it relies are being openly challenged by the emergence of movements and political parties whose bases of support are the very communities in which we conduct our research. It is against this background that many of us must confront the challenging question of who we regard as experts and how we regard ourselves.
Jessop, B., Moulaert, F., Hulgard, L., & Hamdouch, A. (2013). Social Innovation research: a new stage in innovation analysis? In F. Moulaert, D. MacCallum, A. Mehmood & A. Hamdouch (Eds.), The International Handbook on Social Innovation: Collective Action, Social Learning and Transdiciplinary Research (pp. 110-130). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Moulaert, F., Martinelli, F., Swyngedouw, E. & Gonzalez, S. (2005). Towards alternative model(s) of local innovation. Urban Studies, Vol. 42, no. 11, pp. 1969-1990.
Moulaert, F., MacCallum, D., & Hillier, J. (2013). Social innovation: Intuition, precept, concept, theory and practice. In F. Moulaert, D. MacCallum, A. Mehmood & A. Hamdouch (Eds.), The International Handbook on Social Innovation: Collective Action, Social Learning and Transdiciplinary Research (pp.13-24). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Shildrick, T. A., MacDonald, R., Webster, C., & Garthwaite, K. (2012). Poverty and insecurity: life in low-pay, no-pay Britain. Policy Press.
Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The new dangerous class. Hodder Arnold.
Tom Montgomery is currently a PhD researcher at Glasgow Caledonian University. His core research interests focus upon the potential for social innovation within the area of youth employment issues in Glasgow and the west of Scotland. Previously, Tom has worked with public, private and third sector stakeholders across a number of initiatives focused upon education and health. Tom holds an MA (Hons) in Politics from the University of Glasgow and an MSc in Political Research from the University of Strathclyde.
You can contact him at: Thomas.Montgomery@gcu.ac.uk