What’s up with ‘social innovation’?

I recently reviewed a book for International Sociology Review of Books about “social innovation.” The book was Non-technological and non-economic innovations edited by Roth Steffen whom also authors the first chapter. The book’s contributors, some of whom wrote mainly conceptual pieces, others of which wrote more empirical works, were mostly European with the exception of a scholar from India and another from Russia.

The book opens with a hidden-in-plain-sight insight: overwhelmingly, studies of innovation tend to emphasize the story of technology going to the market to spread widely among buyers/adopters. What is missing, they say, which is also necessary for a more robust theory of innovation, is a deeper understanding of what these studies necessarily omit — that is, non-technological innovations which do not compete in the market (in the tradition sense of the word).

… a somewhat compelling position as it defines new research and sets an agenda for multiple scholars to advance the field. Still, this may not be something new. After all, social innovations include advanced social networking techniques, trends in outsourcing or downsizing, shifts in organizational form or work processes, advertising and branding techniques, etc. However, this is really now what worries me about this approach.

Here is an excerpt from the forthcoming review, which makes my point:

… The introduction ominously asks: “if innovations also have a social dimension, then is there a social dimension of social innovations, too?” (10) The question reveals a couple of things. First, the adoption of innovations such as advanced networking strategies or intensive outsourcing, for example, are conceptualized as definitively “social” things that spread (82,84). Second, innovations also have a “social” dimension, which might include harnessing symbolic systems in order to evoke a certain set of emotions in advertising or through branding (164). This social dimension might also include promotional events, auctions, or the establishment of auxiliary organizations such as museums or historical societies (246). Third, innovations are embedded in extant social relations, hence, innovations shape and are shaped by the circumstances of their social context (161). If social innovations, which are conceptualized as having one or more social dimensions, shape and are shaped by social contextual factors, within which they are embedded, then it appears there is nothing more social and, therefore, nothing more obviously under the jurisdiction of the social scientist to study than social innovations from this perspective. However, there is a deep theoretical issue to be considered regarding these multiple uses of the term “social,” a term taken to mean, in the context of this book, a thing, a dimension of that thing, and its context. I am thinking foremost about how this book’s raison d’être squares with Bruno Latour’s (2005) recent book Reassembling the social. I cite a forthcoming review of Latour’s book to make my point (Rowland, Passoth, and Kinney):

“Latour’s bottom line: As it happens, much of contemporary sociology is misdirected bunk; (…) Latour’s admittedly self-serving historical portrayal of sociology delivered in this book is perhaps forgivable because, in exchange, we get to see how performativity works among sociologists (rather than just economists). Sociologists give artificial strength to ideas that were only meant to be conceptual. (…) Sociologists are guilty of this sort of performativity, but also something much more grave. The “social” is used at times to explain what binds people together or tears them apart, but sociologists simultaneously demand that the social can also be a backdrop shaping interactions that bring people together or tears them apart. Sociologists get to have their cake and eat it too … ”

With the “social” taking-on so many meanings in this edited book (i.e., a thing, a dimension, and a context), we wonder if scholars of social innovation are also asking to “have their cake and eat it too” much the way Latour suggests sociologists have over the last century.

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

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