Taking Centre-Stage: An Analysis of the Emergence of Social Innovation Discourses into the Policy Arena in the UK and Italy

  • Benedetta De Pieri

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Innovation has become a popular concept in recent years both at an academic and a policy level. However, despite its widespread use, it remains a theoretically contested concept, whose loose and fuzzy definition has allowed a varied application of the phrase in political and public debates. While some have praised its potential to foster cross-sectoral collaboration, empower the disadvantaged and challenge existing societal inequalities, others have noted the risk that it may become an ultimately meaningless buzzword or catchphrase.

The diverse use of the concept has raised concerns among scholars and practitioners about the benefits and risks that its disingenuous and politicised use may have. In particular, the dependency of social innovation on different social-political contexts is a crucial factor in understanding its potential. In this regard, the present thesis investigates how social innovation discourses emerged and developed in different contexts. Particularly, it focuses on two European countries, Italy and the UK, and explores which power dynamics and actors contribute to informing, supporting or hindering the emergence of social innovation in public and policy debates.

The study begins by reviewing the existing social innovation literature and analysing the framework conditions in the two countries considered. The analysis of the contexts focuses on the differences between the welfare regimes in Italy and the UK, the roles played by different private and public actors in providing services, and the existing policy framework related to social innovation in both countries. Then, the thesis presents the data collected about public and policy discourses through a framing analysis of newspaper articles and qualitative interviews with some key individuals who emerged as prominent figures in the respective country's debates.

The first contribution to the existing knowledge is to highlight the value of the discursive approach to the study of social innovation. Discourse analysis allows investigation of how a concept emerges and is shaped by the contribution of different forces and power dynamics in society. In the case of social innovation, this helps to explore its emergence and the development of its understanding in relation to the environment and the key figures supporting (or hindering) it.

The study also highlights how social innovation discourse is strictly related to the social and policy environment in which it is shaped, thus stressing the importance of considering the framework conditions in which social innovation policies and implementations are fostered, in order to thoroughly consider their potential and associated risks.

Finally, the study contributes to investigating practitioners' understanding of social innovation. Practitioners' views of social innovation have been neglected at an academic level, but this research highlights how multifaceted and varied the degrees of trust held by different types of actors in the concept are, going beyond academic debates and political circles.
Date of Award2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
SupervisorSimon Teasdale (Supervisor)

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