Social Innovation and Welfare Reform: Exploring the institutional, normative and knowledge dimensions of their relationship through case studies of local social innovation for social inclusion in England and Flanders

Datum: 9 juni 2017

Locatie: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus, de Meerminne, aula M.003 - St-Jacobsstraat 2 - 2000 Antwerpen (route: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus)

Tijdstip: 13 uur

Organisatie / co-organisatie: FSW

Promovendus: Pieter Cools

Promotor: Prof. dr. Stijn Oosterlynck

Korte beschrijving: Doctoraatsverdediging Pieter Cools - Departement Sociologie


Over the past decade ‘social innovation’ reached the heart of EU policy documents and research funding programmes because influential policy communities promoted it as a new ‘paradigm’ for social policy interventions that could simultaneously tackle issues of budgetary restraint, unmet social needs and societal challenges with, rather than for, stakeholders, holding the promise of a new ‘enabling welfare state’. In this mainstream policy discourse social innovation refers to societies’ capacity to develop new or alternative solutions to unmet needs and societal challenges ‘beyond the state’ through an active civil society, social entrepreneurs and various possible partnerships between not-for-profit, for profit and public actors. This policy discourse considers social innovation ‘for the better’ by definition and shows a strong tendency towards presenting local social innovation initiatives as neutral policy experiments for welfare reforms whose social impact and success can be measured in an objective and standardized manner.

The present thesis is critical about this mainstream perspective and proposes a meaning oriented perspective on social innovation practice. It presents five research articles that investigate theoretical and actual relations between local social innovation against social exclusion and social policy reform in concrete cases of local social innovation in the fields of social employment, Roma inclusion and homelessness in Flanders (Belgium) and England (UK). These cases include the re-use social economy, labour market activation initiatives, housing first initiatives and local Roma engagement schemes. Following the tradition of theory driven case study analysis the articles present case narratives and middle range theories to address more specific research question within the larger debate on local SI and social policy reform. These are structured along three dimensions of social innovation in social policy, namely: dynamics of institutional change (institutional dimension), ‘politics of need interpretation’ (normative dimension) and the production and use of knowledge in and on social innovation (epistemological dimension). Based on this research experience the thesis argues that public institutions and public responsibility still matter a lot in shaping welfare services ‘beyond the state’ and thus need to be taken into account when explaining the dynamics of institutional change in different regions, that local social innovation initiatives are not neutral experiments for policy reform nor inherently ‘for the better ’and that transformative social innovation builds on a various types of knowledge (scientific, practical, collective etc.) and that its dynamics and effects cannot be adequately captured by standardized metrics alone. Building on the work of philosopher Nancy Fraser and sociologist Hartley Dean it is proposed to reconceptualise transformative social innovation in the context of welfare reform in terms of ‘translating social needs into social rights’.