Looting the Ivory Tower: “Building a middle-range theory of Transformative Social Innovation; theoretical pitfalls and methodological responses”

The title:   Building a middle-range theory of Transformative Social Innovation; theoretical pitfalls and methodological responses. 

The authors: Haxeltine, A., Pel, B., Wittmayer, J., Dumitru, A., Kemp, R., & Avelino, F.

The journal: European Public & Social Innovation Review, 2(1), 59-77.

The DOI: https://doi.org/10.31637/epsir.17-1.5

The abstract:

This paper argues that there is currently a need for new theory on transformative social innovation that is able to provide empowering insights to practice, especially in terms of how social innovation interacts with transformative change processes. It identifies three ‘pitfalls’ that such theory-building needs to confront, and presents middle-range theory development, together with a focus on social relations and the processes of social innovation, as three elements of a theory-building strategy that responds to these pitfalls. In describing the implementation of this strategy in successive iterations between empirical case study research and integrative analysis, critical reflections are drawn on each of the three elements of the theory-building strategy. Taken together, these reflections underline the importance of maintaining a reflexive approach in developing new knowledge and theory on new social innovation.

In plain English/tl:dr:  It is too easy to get (self)hypnotised by shiny new ideas or organisations, especially when words like transformative, social and innovation invite you to do so. So, how to do it theory-building well? Don’t rely on single cases, think hard and test and don’t let what you want to be to blind you to what is. Also , a no heroes policy is good…

Key concepts:  

This is a rich and wise article,

They admit that this is tricky…

The resulting pitfalls (presented below) thus synthesize earlier discussions on SI theory development, and distil what we see as currently the most important issues of concern:

  1. Developing explanations of social innovation based on single cases, or small sets of cases, resulting in a tendency to focus on the empirical detail of single cases, and ignore, or even resist, attempts towards the systematic generalisation of insights and explanations.
  2. Making unsubstantiated normative assumptions about social innovation. Normative formulations of SI that frame the purpose and outcomes of SI in unsubstantiated ways that neglect the complexity and diversity of real-world SI processes.
  3. Reifying the agency of social innovation actors. Making overly simplistic assumptions about their ability to cause change in the world, rather than acknowledging the complexity of how their actions interact with, and can be shaped by, wider change processes.

If you let your normative commitments (which you may or may not be able to see) takeover, you are falling into traps..

Whether misplaced normativities take the form of neo-Marxist formulations of SI (Moulaert, 2016) or neo-liberal formulations of SI (see Jessop et al. 2013 for a critical account) both are ‘traps’ in terms of producing new scientific knowledge. Crucially, they do not adequately reflect the often paradoxical ambiguities, dilemmas, and contestations observed in real-world SI processes.


The pitfall of reifying the agency of social innovation actors

This pitfall concerns reification of SI initiatives and their ability to directly cause change in the world, rather than acknowledging the often messy, dispersed, and complex patterns by which strategic actions shape, and are shaped by, broader change processes. Such ‘agentic bias’, often accompanying the researcher’s engagement with situated struggles of SI initiatives, sits uncomfortably with social-theoretical insights on social transformation (Lévesque, 2013; 2016). It downplays the messy and distributed nature of political life, and the complexity that arises from the interaction between SI initiatives’ actions and the wider change processes that they are involved in.


… we maintained the reflexive awareness that SI, as a fundamentally dispersed phenomenon, is not easily attributed to distinct entities and mechanisms (such as selection, variation, retention). This tension between system-evolutionary explanations and relational description (cf. Geels 2007; Garud & Gehmann, 2012) emerged as an important backdrop to our theory development. Theorizing and empirically exploring all key concepts in relational terms, we arrived at quite open and relational categories and research questions in our case research guidelines, such as e.g. the ‘game-changing developments’ (rather than landscape), or the ‘dominant institutions’ (rather than regime).


Marc’s two cents: good stuff….

Should you read this?

Hell yes


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