Although increasingly prominent in research, policy and practice, little is known about social innovation in a rural context. To address this knowledge gap, our paper explores how rurality might affect the social innovation process. Drawing on 68 interviews carried out with beneficiaries, service providers and external stakeholders of a rural social enterprise initiative in Scotland, the paper adopts a realist evaluation theory (Pawson & Tilley, 1997) approach combined with Calò et al.’s (2019) social innovation analytical framework to identify Context-Mechanism-Outcome configurations for rural social innovation. The findings highlight that specific characteristics of rural places can act as stimuli of social innovation. Positive outcomes of a social innovation can potentially be rooted in rural peculiarity and its problematic context. Push factors, born out of necessity, lead to reactive social innovation and pull factors, derived through harnessing perceived opportunities in the environment, lead to proactive social innovation. Importantly, push factors do not undermine the establishment of social innovation – indeed, they can actually promote social innovation and strengthen its validity. The paper also shows that outcomes of the social innovation process might not be specific to rural areas. Instead, the pathway to the desired outcomes is conditioned by rural factors, shaping the contexts and mechanisms of rural social innovation. As different rural locations might have different resources to address local challenges, social innovation processes vary from one case to another, although the challenges being addressed might be similar. As such, rural social innovation policies should not be ‘over prescribed’. Context creates both challenges and solutions and influences the type and form of mechanisms used to achieve a desirable social innovation outcome.
- rural social innovation, realist evaluation, social enterprise, neoliberalism