Book review: Advanced Introduction to Social Innovation

reviewed by Judith Schnelzer and Yvonne Franz

13 May 2021, 12:06 p.m.
Judith Schnelzer and Yvonne Franz

Advanced Introduction to Social Innovation book cover

Book review: Advanced Introduction to Social Innovation

by Frank Moulaert and Diana MacCallum and reviewed by Judith Schnelzer and Yvonne Franz

Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2019; 168 pp.: 978 1 78536 039 8, £85.00 (hbk)


Frank Moulaert and Diana MacCallum share their three-decade-long experience of social innovation (SI) research in their recent book, Advanced Introduction to Social Innovation. This publication is not merely conceptualised for an academic readership but rather for anyone interested in a holistic understanding of SI theory and practice. As a consequential continuation of their prior publications, the authors focus on the ‘[…] practices and actions that change society for the better’ (p. 1) by putting a transdisciplinary approach to SI at its core. This grand, normative claim towards a more inclusive society, for SI in general and SI research in particular, is necessary as SI has been experiencing a renaissance, not only in academic discourse but also in political debates. The book provides helpful insights, in an accessible way, for researchers, practitioners and policymakers seeking to address the claim for better social inclusion of vulnerable social groups.

On the premise that ‘[…] thoughts and theories develop in interaction with practice’ (p. 10), this book review highlights the relations and bridges from research to practice and vice versa, to emphasise the need for common ground in joint urban and regional (research) projects. The book provides links from which practitioners and researchers can learn, get inspiration, embed and critically reflect upon ‘thoughts and practices’. It raises the readers’ awareness of trajectories, grounded in temporality and history, for contextuality and for path-dependency. Thus, the need for an understanding of (best) practice that moves beyond single case descriptions becomes more evident. Throughout the book, the authors express their deep appreciation for the tremendous variety of (small) initiatives and their attempts to counteract established and, for the most part, hegemonic (eco-)systems – and to make a difference. Whilst reading the book, it is apparent that this continuous, underlying narrative of empowerment should unify everyone involved in SI projects (not just practitioners).

On reading the book, it becomes obvious that SI is, in various respects, neither a new concept nor a ‘fashionable’ solution to emerging socio-spatial problems. Whilst a universal definition of SI is refused by the authors, they offer an understanding of SI, starting from the lowest common denominator: SI is people-led in its essence, addressing social inequalities through a variety of (bottom-up) practices which change the relations amongst involved actors. Based on this notion, SI is characterised by three core content and process dimensions: ‘[…] meeting needs[,] creating new forms of social relations [and] collectively empower[ing] people […]’ (p. 4). The subsequent chapters build and expand upon the manifold (changing) meanings of SI. The first part of the book traces the long-standing historical evolution of SI within socio-political contexts (chapter 2). This helps not only to understand the transformative momentum of SI but also the various meanings in scientific or practice fields that produce different contemporary normative and theoretical interpretations of the relatively vivid research field of SI (chapter 3). A critical reading of the contemporary SI landscape is exemplified by the duality of two co-existing strands of ‘SI schools’: the economically oriented, Anglo-American ‘practical’ stream and the socio-political, Euro-Canadian ‘critical’ stream. Both approaches differ in their theoretical foundations and methodologies towards SI, although they may overlap in research and implementation practice. To the reader, this chapter serves as a comprehensive and condensed synopsis, complemented by helpful figures that condense knowledge even for long-time scholars of SI and may help to ‘translate’ complex content to first-time readers.

In order to show the diverse manifestations of SI, chapter 4 presents five case studies. These illustrate the spatial dynamics and contextuality in which different practices are situated. A framework is established through the dimensions of local context, human needs, agency, socio-political transformation and learnings from the cases to exemplify where SIs have occurred in response to (spatial) exclusion processes in the Global North as well as in the Global South. The authors’ extensive work on territorial development provides the foundations for chapter 5, which details an explicitly spatial focus for SI. This understanding of SI as an inherently spatial phenomenon with impact for urban and regional development is a key premise of the book. By adopting this context-sensitive perspective, the authors highlight the role of space, place, territory and scale in SI research and practice. As an analytical framework, these spatial dimensions help to disentangle social relations and power asymmetries in order to understand how SI and its outcomes are shaped and can be affected.

Chapter 6 emphasises the role of methodology, based on a problem-centred research design that enables collective action and rejects a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. The transferability and adaptability of well-functioning SI practices to other socio-spatial contexts might be challenging – another argument for practitioners and policymakers alike to think beyond ‘best practice’ examples and ‘travelling concepts’. On the contrary, the authors elucidate important methodological considerations for including different actors with dissimilar motivations, needs and knowledge together in SI (research) practice. This complexity calls for a transdisciplinary methodological frame illustrated by the meta-framework ‘social holism’. It combines different perspectives through co-creation (holism) and different ethical and normative positions (pragmatism). From this meta-framework, the open Joint Problematisation Approach (JPA) has been developed in order to combine research and action/implementation. In particular, the objective is for dialogue-oriented collaboration between the various actors to be fostered through communication and participation, with a view to bringing together different perspectives, normative stances and ideologies. The aim of this action-research approach is to co-create or co-produce a shared ontology through shared experiences and reflection upon ethical considerations. Additionally, SI action research aims to find innovative solutions for societal challenges and ideally induce social change and empowerment through collective action.

Following the rather conceptual outline afforded by this book, a few questions remain from an implementation point of view, both in the fields of SI research and practice, as to how to conduct transdisciplinary action-research. For instance, a translation of these ideas into workable ‘tools’ or specific methods could be considered. These might include examples of good practice, co-creation methods, training programmes, memoranda of understanding, etc., which could help to illustrate how implementation practices potentially ‘materialise’. Further practical limitations might arise when accessing and working with ‘vulnerable groups’ to achieve a working environment on a par with ‘[…] respect, solidarity, reciprocity, [and] reflexivity […]’ (p. 110) amongst all collaborators. Advice from the authors concerning this could help to improve methodological approaches in research and practice.

The concluding reflections (chapter 7) provide an excellent starting point for reading this book. This final chapter explains the links between SI action research, ethical considerations and the demand to highlight the necessity for socio-political change with convincing argumentative rigour. Critical reflections on our own thoughts and practices are advisable in order to remain adaptable, resilient and robust. This applies not only in general terms, but even more so to academia and the ‘practice world’. This book not only offers a timeless and solid source of knowledge for doing so, but also lays out directions for the future of SI research and practice. With their reflections on ethical and methodological considerations, Moulaert and MacCallum provide a novel and rich contribution to the SI discourse. They portray the variety of contexts and forms in which the highly relevant topic of SI can be both researched and practised, aiming towards an understanding of how to address cross-cutting societal challenges with innovative practices.

This easy-to-read compendium is a plea for a socially just world and shows that SI has been, is and will be the essence of social change and progress. Moving forward from the current global crisis concerning the pandemic, SI practice and socio-political transformation might become even more relevant than ever. On that note, the book is highly recommended for readers who are eager to join an ethical and socio-political agenda, working towards a more just society through the transformative power of SI.


The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This work was supported by Interreg Central Europe under Grant No. CE1527.



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