Theoretical and methodological futures for social innovation and social entrepreneurship

Stream #15

Chairs: Pascal Dey (University Of St. Gallen), Michael Marshall (Glasgow Caledonian University)

The field of social innovation and social entrepreneurship research is characterized by a pluralistic disciplinary orientation and a genuine openness toward different theoretical, paradigmatic and methodical assumptions and approaches. Historically, the methods employed by scholars have been predominately qualitative (especially in research on social entrepreneurship; cf. Sassmannshausen and Volkmann 2018), and range from conceptually inspired macro-studies of social innovation ecosystems (Wijk et al 2018) to embedded (micro-oriented) ethnographies of social enterprises (Mauksch et al 2017).

Contemporary work on social innovation carries the seeds of Tarde’s much discussed sociological view of society as an increasingly networked economy whose interconnectedness led to the proliferation of new production techniques or innovations (Tarde, 1899). While Tarde provided the inspiration for studying the role and interplay of innovation and imitation in social innovations (Schwarz, Howaldt and Kopp 2015), and for better understanding technological innovations as driving forces of social transformation, the concepts of social innovation and social entrepreneurship only entered mainstream sociological theory in the 1980s, which was made possible not least by Gershuny’s (1983) influential treatise on how innovation might shape society in the future. 

The turn of the millennium has experienced an additional, even bigger wave of technology and innovation studies sought to understand how technological innovations diffuse as a consequence of the transformation of social relations. Indicative in this regard is Moulaert’s work (Moulaert et al 2005; 2007) which viewed social innovation as a set of radical practices leading to greater social inclusion and social justice via the changing of existing social (and particularly power) relations. This direct alignment of social innovation with positive social change is characteristic of much of contemporary research pursued by management and entrepreneurship scholars. 

Although having arrived rather late to the study of social innovation and social entrepreneurship, management and entrepreneurship scholars were quick in putting social innovation and social entrepreneurship at the center of their research agendas. Today we see encouraging signs of dialogue and cross-fertilization taking place between these different disciplines and approaches. The result is not so much a conceptual and methodological convergence between different philosophies and school of thought, but a healthy hybridization that paves the way for exciting interdisciplinary conversations. 

This stream likes to harness the pluralistic nature and boundary-spanning spirit of ISIRC by seeking contributions that experiment with, combine and expand existing disciplinary traditions. Some examples:

  • How can different disciplines continue to learn from each other, and what are the potential dangers of such interdisciplinary collaborations?
  • How can theories from one discipline be applied across different paradigms?
  • Is it sensible to conceive of social innovation as a paradigm of its own, or rather is it better conceptualised as an area of study best approached from already existing disciplinary perspectives?
  • How can we develop ‘gold standard’ methodological approaches, such as Randomised Control Trials, to the study of social innovation, and to what extent does this risk creating overly formulaic boiler-plates?
  • Alternatively, does the study of social innovation better lend itself to ‘new’ methods and methodologies better suited to our understandings of the social world?