The variety of social problems

If there is one thing that unites the emerging field of social innovation it is a shared interest in social problems.  But on closer inspection social problems are seen to be treated in a number of different ways.

One of the most striking features of the social problems presented in the literature is how dramatically they vary in scale. Social innovation, for some, is concerned with global problems such as climate change that affect everyone (Cooperridder & Pasmore, 1991; Osborn, 2009), in contrast to those who focus on local problems such as deprivation that affect a select few within a specific neighbourhood (Nussbaumer & Moulaert, 2004). There are also differences in the way the social problem is specified. It can range from a general term such as “the economic crisis” (Mulgan, 2009) to more specific issues such as dealing with obesity and addictions (Mulgan, 2006).

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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…

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Defining social innovation…

One of the challenges facing those interested in social innovation is finding a workable definition. A scan of the literature reveals that social innovation covers a whole range of different meanings and so, while it is popular, it is conceptually difficult to nail down. That is why one particular Stanford Social Innovation article in 2008 was so important.

James Phills, Kriss Deiglmeier and Dale Miller sought to find a way through the multiple definitions and feared that it was becoming indistinguishable from the popular terms of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. Although they could see much in common they put forward a definition that they hoped would create some boundaries around the term and spark further interest.

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