TRANSIT asks for permission for the placement of cookies

Considering social innovation from a social movement perspective

October 15 2014

Blog post by Adrian Smith.

It has been my task to consider the social movement research literature, and what perspectives it might bring to the subject of social innovation. The aim was to explore how research insights from the study of social movements may offer analytical resources for understanding the transformative potential of social innovation. At the same time, the different intellectual history and purposes of social movement research needs to be kept in mind, and which qualifies when and where any encounter between social movement research and social innovation research might be inappropriate.

Researching social movements  

Social movements are a challenging research topic. Their dynamic, often informal features, and shifting relations with other social agents make them a messy unit for analysis. Social movements typically involve civil society actors engaging in collective action towards common goals. Much of the research literature developed in response to the growth of newer social movements for peace, environment, gay liberation, feminism, civil rights, and others in the 1960s and that sought to transform different aspects of social life.

Whilst a lot of the literature takes a Western or global northern focus, it is important to consider also the wealth of experience studying social movements in the global south, such as those for democratisation, land reform, indigenous rights, ecological justice, globalisation and other issues. Across such diverse places and contexts, presumptions about citizenship, rights, effective states and institutions do not always hold.  

Research into social movements can seek to understand the internal dynamics and formation of movements, such as their evolving identities, collective action incentives and strategies, world-views and so forth. Research can also take an interest in the more external causes, orientations and consequences of movements, such as studying their strategies, relationships with the wider world, and influence. Indeed, much social movement research is ultimately interested in the ‘so what’ aspect of their existence in the world. Social movement consequences might be substantive, procedural, structural or sensitizing. Whilst a lot of social movements have been understood in terms of their struggles for material resources and/or access to political power, more recent work has looked also to their cultural consequences.  

Considering this literature, there are at least three ways in which the study of social movements might potentially engage fruitfully with research on social innovation: social movement as a social innovation; social movements as a milieu for innovative activity; and social innovation as a social movement.  

Social movement as a social innovation  

Some social innovation observers and researchers have claimed that social movements themselves can be conceived (retrospectively) as social innovations, such environmentalism and feminism, and that have been transformative. Movements have been responsible for forging new problem framings, concepts and diagnoses, as well suggesting novel solutions to new social issues that they have, in part, been responsible for identifying. Movements even create new social identities in the world and contribute to cultural change. Hence, we can learn a lot about the emergence, development and consequences of this class of broad and transformative ‘social innovations’ from social movement research.  

However, reviewing the social movement research literature suggests social movements involve much more than social innovation alone (understood to be novel changes in practices). To reduce social movements to an instance in social innovation is to bracket out important features. It is true social movements generate lots of novel and influential ideas, concepts, practices, products, processes and services, and as such generate innovations (a point returned to soon). However, social movements also go far beyond the generation of innovations.  

Movements hold power to account at the same time as forming new power bases, they forge new identities and social understandings, develop new public discourses, cement new solidarities and social groupings, confront and resist other interests, and movements reshape the contexts of activity of other social actors in business and the state, amongst other things. So if we want to understand social movements in their full variety and scope then we are better off drawing on the wealth of social movement research than we are to (mis)construe them as social innovations.  

Social movements as a milieu for innovative activity  

More specifically, social movements are often sites that cultivate particular social innovations.So, for example, fair trade schemes emerging from movements for international development and solidarity; or agro-ecological initiatives, sustainable energy practices and green knowledge more generally in the case of environmentalism. Alternatively, pressure from social movements on particular issues can cause other agents to develop social innovations in response. An example here might be working-class movements and the development of the welfare state historically. Often the picture is often more complicated, since the protesters can also be involved in the negotiation of the ‘social innovation’ response – the welfare state arose also through working-class movements forming parties and joining governments, entering the state and developing the solution in negotiation with other classes. Understanding the social movement milieu and its engagement with wider political and economic opportunities and agents can be an important aspect to the analysis of these more specific social innovations.  

Our literature review suggests this perspective does contain merit. Social movements do generate a wide variety of innovations. Here, social movement research can provide a fuller appreciation of the shaping of these innovations by the movements from which they originate. So, the identifications with the innovation, framings of the problem and solution they address, the kinds of material and non-material resources available and involved in their development, the opportunities available to progress the innovation, but also the pressure brought to bear on prevailing institutions in order to disrupt them and the repertoires of action by which space is opened for the social innovation. Research would also trace the partnerships with other social actors, such as investors, business and the state, in the development of the innovation, and explore the uneasy and productive consequences of these relations.  

Indeed, there are some movements, such as appropriate technology, or commons-based peer-production, that have a focus on innovation and the rights of people to exercise controlling participation in innovation. These are a different kind of movement to the broader class of movements seeking political rights and socio-cultural recognition.  

Social innovation as a social movement  

Finally, social innovation might itself be conceived as a social movement. It is a new concept that some people identify with, it carries particular problem framings and normative commitments to social issues, has a repertoire of solutions and actions, and involves networks and organisations as well as individuals in coalitions that are committed to its development. So we might use the analytical resources of social movement research to better understand the rise of social innovation in the world.  

So, can the field of ‘social innovation’ itself can be understood and studied as a social movement? What would such a study involve? Overall it would seek to understand the organisation, framings, identities and collective activities for social innovation undertaken by prominent leaders, organisations and networks; it would trace the influence that the social innovation agenda is having through the various repertoires of action and arenas where social innovation is advocated, such as in new policies, funding programmes, and attention in public discourse; and it would consider the structural opportunities available for the movement, such as changes in the welfare state, or new ‘game changing’ structural problems like climate change, as well as understanding how social innovation advocacy disrupts institutions and established notions, such as the roles of the state, or purposes of entrepreneurship in society. Such analysis might reveal the challenges that the development of social innovation is posing for its movement, in terms of professionalization, institutionalisation, and disputes over meanings, purposes and directions.  

Recalling the first perspective, however, social movement oriented research will emphasise features that appear more muted in a lot of discussion about social innovation. That emphasis will rest in contesting power relations, resistance, disruption, and confrontation. It will point to the way limitations to the transformative social innovations are not inherent to the qualities of the innovations themselves, but rather that limits need to be pushed against in the wider realm relations of economic, political, social and cultural relations. Transformation is beyond the agency of any social innovation alone. It is to be found more fully in broader movements and their work upon the structures in our societies. 

Stay informed. Subscribe for project updates by e-mail.