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Methodologically challenged in social innovation research?

Julia M. Wittmayer, DRIFT, Erasmus University Rotterdam

What are the main methodological challenges in #socialinnovation #research? How can they be addressed?

In February 2017, the TRANSIT project invited about 25 social innovation scholars for a workshop in Brussels to share their methodological experiences, challenges and advances for research on social innovation. Based on this exchange, a recent special issue of the European Public and Social Innovation Review was published. It features eight contributions discussing particular #method and methodological challenges and advances. For methodological challenges, you might think of the need to address the essentially contested character of the concept of social innovation, the fluidity of units of analysis as well as the commitment to make the plurality of the voices of those involved in social innovation heard.

The main methodological orientations that can be singled out in social innovation research are on the one hand, systematic knowledge development and on the other, action-oriented research. The editorial synthesis proposes three dimensions of methodology choices that are cutting across these orientations and are providing insight into the methodological state of social innovation research.  

The normative dimension pervades all SI research, where the contributions highlight various concrete research practices that translate the normative commitments of the researchers, such as using a consensus-based method to arrive at a balanced sample, the use of action-oriented research to allow for counter-hegemonic knowledge production and the use of as fluid units of analysis as needed. The temporal dimension stresses the need to consider #socialinnovation as a process. Several contributions propose methods to capture the temporality of social innovation, such as evolutionary analysis or real-life experimenting. Finally, the comparative dimensions touch on the overreliance of social innovation research on single cases. Here, the contributions bring forward interesting, sometimes principled, arguments for both single case deepening as well as for larger-N broadening of the SI evidence basis. Promising are the different approaches toward sampling.

All articles in the special issue are open access and free to download, see below.



Aiken, G.T. (2017). Social Innovation and Participatory Action Research: A way to research community? European Public and Social Innovation Review 2: 1.

Biekart, K. (2017).  Contributing to Civic Innovation through Participatory Action Research. European Public and Social Innovation Review 2: 1.

Callorda Fossati, E., Degavre, F., and Nyssens, M. (2017). How to deal with an “essentially contested concept” on the field? Sampling social innovations through the Delphi method. European Public and Social Innovation Review

Haxeltine, A., Pel, B., Wittmayer, J., Avelino, A., Dumitru, A. and Kemp, R. (2017). Building a middle-range theory of Transformative Social Innovation; theoretical pitfalls and methodological responses. European Public and Social Innovation Review 2: 1.

Kaletka, C. and Schröder, A. (2017). A Global Mapping of Social Innovations: Challenges of a Theory Driven Methodology. European Public and Social Innovation Review 2: 1.

McGowan, K.A. and Westley, F. (2017). Constructing the Evolution of Social Innovation: Methodological Insights from a Multi-Case Study. European Public and Social Innovation Review 2: 1.

Pel, B., Dorland, J., Wittmayer, J.M. and Jørgensen,M.S. (2017). Detecting Social Innovation Agency: Methodological reflections on units of analysis in dispersed transformation processes. European Public and Social Innovation Review 2: 1.

Rizzo, F., Deserti, A. and Cobanli, O. (2017). Introducing Design Thinking in Social Innovation and in the Public Sector: a design based learning framework. European Public and Social Innovation Review 2: 1.

Wittmayer, J.M., Pel, B., Bauler, T. & F. Avelino (2017) Editorial Synthesis: Methodological challenges in social innovation research. European Public and Social Innovation Review. 2(1): 1-16.


SIC Network Topics: Academia-led innovation