How social innovation “came to be”: tracing the evolution of a contested concept

Noorseha Ayob*, Simon Teasdale*, Kylie Fagan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

235 Citations (Scopus)
898 Downloads (Pure)


Social innovation is a contested concept with multiple meanings that have implications beyond academia. It is not a new term - its sociological heritage can be dated to the late nineteenth century. However, until the twenty-first century the concept was sparsely utilised, and, despite its current popularity among policy makers in Europe and the United States, remains largely ignored by social policy researchers. Through bibliometric analysis we identify the most influential articles on social innovation and explore how these have conceptualised the term. We show that over time social innovation has taken on a set of meanings far removed from its sociological roots. In particular we identify a weak tradition that sees social innovation as any increase in aggregate individual utility arising from an innovation, and a strong tradition that focuses on the process of collaboration between different groups and the restructuring of power relations. We conclude by outlining implications for social policy research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)635-653
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Social Policy
Issue number4
Early online date10 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016


  • bibliometric analysis
  • contested concept
  • social innovation
  • co-production

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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