The problem with social problems

A central feature of those exploring social innovation is an interest in solving ‘social problems’.  Phills et al.’s (2008 – see previous post) definition of social innovation cemented this relationship – for them, the ‘social’ in ‘social innovation’ is connected to societal ‘problems’ or ‘needs’.  They argue that there

“tends to be a greater consensus within societies about what constitutes a social need or problem and what kinds of social objectives are valuable (for example, justice, fairness, environmental preservation, improved health, arts and culture, and better education). Phills et al. (2008, p. 38).

This seems to make a lot of sense – rather than focusing on the social character of an innovation which is open to considerable interpretation and debate  – there is more “traction” (their words) in concentrating on things on which we can all agree – that we have problems.

But there are problems with social problems :) Let’s just take two for starters that appear in the literature…

1. Social problems are largely portrayed as static in contrast to the dynamic work of the innovators and the solution.  They set the scene for action but then play largely passive roles – often found in the opening paragraph of a case study which provides the stage for the indepth study of the innovator and their solution.

What’s missing is the idea that social problems could be dynamically interrelated with the solution. So there is little exploration into how the social problem has influenced the organizing of the solution, as though the innovator emerges and operates from a problem-free space.  There is also little said about how the social problem might be changing independently of the solution.

2. Social problems are largely portrayed as self-evident, objective and value-free.  The classic examples in the literature are climate change and poverty – broad enough for people to understand but also far enough removed from everyday life for most of those talking about social innovation to spark any controversy.  Where the rubber hits the road is when the social problem is identified as say, access to higher education, or even perhaps more controversially to some, gay rights.  At this point, it becomes clearer that social problems are not just ‘messy’ because their solutions cross multiple sectors but because they can expose differences in ways of thinking and behaving.  Social problems are value statements – they highlight what some people believe to be incompatible with their values. And these values are likely to be contested.

A way in to explore the relationship between social problems and social innovation is to draw on the definition of social problems by Rubington and Weinberg:

“an alleged situation that is incompatible with the values of a significant number of people who agree that action is needed to alter the situation” (Rubington & Weinberg, 1989, p4)

The implication is that what are labelled as social problems should be examined critically.  Rather than acting solely as foils to social innovations, social problems should be explored as to who is introducing them, what values are challenged and presented, who benefits and suffers from their articulation and how they influence the novel solution that is developed. In some cases it could be that the construction of social problems may reveal more creativity and innovation than that seen around the solutions.


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