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Social Innovation And Community-Engaged Scholarship: What Are They?

Social Innovation and Community-Engaged Scholarship: What are they?

Hello, it’s Megan Flattley again! (Ph.D. candidate in Art History/Latin American Studies, former Mellon fellow in Community-Engaged Scholarship (CES), and current Research & Scholarship Graduate Assistant for the Taylor Center). In preparation for an upcoming social innovation (SI) conversation with other Mellon Fellows and Taylor Center researchers, I wanted to write this post about what SI and CES are, where they differ, and how they could be brought together in social change strategies. This post is reflective of my own perspectives on creating social change, which is why I introduced myself and my work in a previous post.

What is Social Innovation?

In my time at the Taylor Center, I have seen the label of social innovation applied to a wide array of products, relationships, and frameworks. I think that this is part of the reason that the field can be so overwhelming to newcomers – because it is new, fluid, and growing. The concept of social innovation is often linked to the technocentric and individualist approaches of social entrepreneurship, today many scholars are instead emphasizing relational models of transformative social innovation. The Taylor Center’s Dr. Laura Murphy led the creation of a forthcoming monograph, “A Map of the Landscape of Social Innovation Theories” that locates both of these schools of thought under the umbrella of social innovation, and is a useful starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the field. I begin with this caveat because while I will be describing and defining “social innovation,” it is a less stable term than one might think and there is debate in the literature that is complicated by the fact that much of the field construction is practitioner-driven.

Breaking the phrase “social innovation” into its component parts is actually fairly reflective of its meaning. “Innovation” refers to the development of a new product, service, idea, while “social” reflects the condition of human beings in a society. Thus, one early and influential definition of social innovation is a “novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals” (Phills, Deiglemeir & Miller, 2008). Social innovations can produce social value in various ways, as you can see in this definition – a solution that is more “efficient” might look very different than a solution that is more “just.” Much of the early literature on social innovation is rooted in a classic, liberal economic model that is business-oriented and values market mechanisms. This terrain of thought is more aligned with social entrepreneurship and social enterprise (out of which comes social innovation) and emphasizes the role of the innovative individual who identifies a problem, generates a solution, and then scales that innovation to disrupt existing industries and social arrangements. A frequently cited example is Muhammad Yunus’s invention of micro-finance. This approach to social innovation is grounded in a particularly Western, Enlightenment-based economic thought and has been criticized as a neoliberal project that coopts and displaces social movements, or otherwise diverts energy from more directly advocating for social change.

“Solutions” can also be conceived more expansively than traditional technological innovations to include new systems, relationships, organizational forms, or social movements. In this respect, a more relational approach views social innovation as new configurations of social practices (Atlas of Social Innovation). These forms of social innovation are “rarely inherently new in themselves,” but they can be the result of joining together “ideas that had previously been separate” (Mulgan, 2006) or returning to systems that are reflective of communal living and a balanced relationship to nature and each other. An example might be Worker-led Production, an innovative workplace organizational model and set of relations that offers an alternative to the exploitation and profit accumulation of standard capitalist business structures.

The TRANSIT project distinguished social innovation that not only addresses social problems, but changes the social conditions that created the problem as “transformative social innovation” (TSI). This approach holds that “systemic, social change occurs with a combination of grassroots-level efforts and a shifting of power structures and dominant societal institutions. [Thus], successful transformative social innovations are identified by their ability to catalyze the processes of change, creating cascading effects across multiple systems” (Provocations #3, p.48). In other words, they are innovations that both reflect a social benefit and increase society’s ability to act in the interest of social good (Mulgan, 2019). New attention to this type of social change strategy has fostered an ecosystem to support its study and practice.

What is Community-Engaged Scholarship?

It is also useful to break down the three components of CES. Specifically, the word “community,” of course, is broad and widely varies depending on context. It may refer to a group of people joined socially around geographic place, a shared interest, a racial or gender identity, or any number of things. “Engagement” refers to the process of an individual, group, or organization building a relationship with “the community,” identifying their needs, working with them to develop a research project, and sharing the results. Together, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching defines “community engagement” as the “collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity” (Carnegie, 2006). “Scholarship,” we can generally define as any academic study or production of knowledge and, in regards to community engagement, I think the broader the definition of scholarship, the better. A quick example is Mellon fellow Chloe Tucker’s project that collected oral histories from residents of Colfax, Louisiana who live adjacent to the Clean Harbors open burn facility. This project was developed with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network to draw attention to the health concerns of residents.

CES also often overlaps with “Activist Scholarship,” which Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey (2009) define as “the production of knowledge and pedagogical practices through active engagements with, and in the service of, progressive social movements.” CE can look like a scholar devising a research question with directly-impacted community members or re-directing resources to a community or movement. However, like SI, there is no one type of CES, while most practitioners advocate its alignment with social movements and radical social change, there is CES that can follow a charity or social services model (this can be particularly relevant to service-learning). While CES (unlike SI) is a distinctly academic enterprise, “community engagement” can also be pursued by other types of organizations and honestly we should all be building community!

The emphasis on institutional resources in CES is key because it is critical for scholars to understand the frequent power imbalance between their institution and community partners. A result of which can be that “the university” remains in control of the project, selecting the partner, designing the research process, and choosing which outcomes to pursue. Therefore, much of the academic literature and pedagogy of CES centers on how to create scholarship that contributes to social change but is also equitable and responsive to the community (or at least a specific partner). The question of reciprocity is one that is often raised in discussions of CES, and CE practice should always center the community to ensure the mutual benefit of the collaboration.

As an example from my own Mellon CES project, community partnership with the Newcomb Art Museum resulted in  The Per(Sister) exhibition, various events, and research on the issue of mass incarceration in Louisiana, all of which was open and accessible to the public. CES values the knowledge and expertise of the community itself and highlights that in the project, reflecting a collaborative knowledge production process. CES also acknowledges that community knowledge has been historically marginalized and that this has impacted the types of research practices emphasized in academia. Thus, a barrier for CE scholars can be a lack of acknowledgement for the work of CES within university higher education’s evaluative criteria (O’Meara, 2018). Further, CE challenges many traditional components of academic work: it requires interdisciplinarity, alternative publication channels, and a different work timeline. This can be a challenge, particularly for early career scholars and graduate students. Thus, the field of CES benefits greatly from institutional support like what the Tulane Mellon program offers.

Why Should We Discuss SI and CES together?

While there are differences between the approaches of social innovation and community engagement, there is also overlap. For example, CE is a natural fit with SI education because social change is often driven by contextual solutions within a community. CES provides an opportunity to learn from and document the knowledge of groups and organizations already doing social change work in the community. The relationship development at the core of CE can help social innovators identify social problems with those that are impacted, involving them in the generation of solutions. Mulgan (2006), for example, states that noted innovations “start from the presumption that people are competent interpreters of their own lives and competent solvers of their own problems” (15).

Social innovation (particularly the new model of transformative SI – TSI) can help to scale up social change that is developed through community engagement. Manzini (2015) argues that social innovations are at once “both local (i.e., rooted in place) and global (i.e., internationally interconnected to similar models” (p. 13). Social innovation can increase the scale of impact not just in terms of organizational growth or context-free replication of blueprints – but in the idea that there is systems transformation to reach new social arrangements and configurations. Both approaches seek systems change – but where CES is typically very process and relationship-oriented, SI places greater emphasis on outcomes and has a broader, ecosystem view of the interconnected pieces of changemaking at a large scale. Both, however, have the potential to partner with social movements and help build collective political power. I’ll wrap up with an example that might help elucidate some of the avenues of alignment between SI and CE.

The Transition Movement is a social movement of place-based communities (called “Transition Initiatives”) that work to transition to a new way of living and being – without fossil fuels. The Transition Movement is an example of a SI developed via CE. It began in the early 2000s when a UK-based permaculture teacher and his students sought to develop alternatives to their town’s dependence on fossil fuels. Today there are over 1,000 local initiatives that are “intended to contribute to the development of local resilience and a more localized economy, providing a rational and necessary response to global, systemic threats such as peak oil, climate change and the global economic crisis” (Provocations #3, p.49)

This social innovation is local and reflective of the principles of collaboration and connectedness that drive CE, while also being scaled to a greater impact beyond the individual communities within the movement, which reflects a theory of change based on participatory development, community organizing and engagement and more. At the same time, a key purpose of the Transitions Initiative model is “to support citizen led experimentalism – what some call social innovation – manifesting in incremental projects, which are then are diffused” (Provocations #3, p.49). The outcomes-orientation of SI can aid in the scaling of new social relations or movements that are generated through the localized, relationship-driven practice of CE. The principles of cocreation, reciprocity, and mutual benefit that drives equitable CE can help guide SI to identify social problems and generate solutions with those directly impacted.

We are fortunate here at Tulane to have two institutional resources to support the development of SI and CE scholars in the Taylor Center and the Mellon Program. Join us on Friday April 9th for the conversation, “Applying a Social Innovation Lens to Community-Engaged Scholarship” to hear more about how we might bring these two approaches together in our shared struggle to create a better world.

Register on Eventbrite:

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