Thematic Issue: “Critical perspectives in social innovation, social enterprise and/or the social solidarity economy.”


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Special Issue Organizers: Michael Bull - Manchester Metropolitan University, Business School; Tim Curtis - University of Northampton, Faculty of Health, Education and Society;  Vicky Nowak - Manchester Metropolitan University, Business School; Janette Hurst - Sheffield Hallam University, Business School.


Critical perspective emerged in social innovation (SI) literature as a concerted effort sometime in 2008. A few voices sounded from the edges of the field much earlier. Ash Amin, Professor of Geography at Durham University, inspected the new favourite of public policy way back in 2002, discarded it as a “a poor substitute for a welfare state” and never returned to the subject. In the heated debates of the International Social Innovation Research Conference (ISIRC) (once called the Social Enterprise Research Conference before becoming ISIRC with the involvement of the social innovation theme from Skoll Centre) lone voices echoed from Canada (Dart 2004a and b), New Zealand (Grant 2008) and even Wales (Arthur et al. 2006). The Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) conferences picked away at the promise of unlimited performance and achievement of the upstart SE in a mature voluntary and charity network (Aiken 2002, 2006, 2007, Grenier 2009, Pharaoh, Scott and Fisher 2004). Still, on the whole, the literature in the last twenty years has been overwhelmingly interested in promoting social enterprise (SE) and SI as (a) an inherently good thing, (b) a solution to all problems and (c) a politically neutral complement to neo-liberal economics globally.

Through 2005-2008, a handful of academics were beginning to make concerted inroads from within the SE field, first through conference presentations and the occasional published paper, and then finally in a Special Issue of the International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behaviour and Research, which followed the Manchester Critical Perspectives on Social Enterprise Seminar in November 2008 (Bull 2008 and Bull et al. 2018). Later individual publications developed the critical themes in different directions (Bull 2008, Seanor et al. 2013, Curtis 2008, 2010, Scott-Cato et al. 2008 and Scott and Hillier 2010, Jones et al. 2008, Betta et al. 2010, Ridley-Duff and Bull 2019), each skirting around the issue of critical theory and focussing on finding the ‘social’ in SE (Arthur et al. 2006), but not addressing critical theory head-on.

Then at the 2010 Skoll Centre Research Colloquium on Social Entrepreneurship at the Said Business School, Oxford, Pascal Dey of University Applied Science, Northwestern, Switzerland burst on to the scene, wowing the gathered crowd with the lucidity of his paper (Dey 2010), on the symbolic violence in social entrepreneurship discourse. Critical theory had come of age, moving away from the functional critiques (SEs don’t do what they claim) and territorial debates (SEs are businesses in disguise or charities do this anyway) to a more theoretically informed investigation, deliberately working from with critical theory. Steyaert and Dey (2011) followed this up, in the first edition of the Journal of Social Entrepreneurship, with a mature call to keep social enterprise research ‘dangerous’.

Since then, critical perspectives on SI have widened and diversified with PhDs from the EMES network and critical perspectives tracks in EMES International Research Network, ISIRC and other SI related conferences. Whilst ‘ordinary’ critical thinking might be described as an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences (Glaser 1941), the critical perspectives we are seeking to develop in this Special Issue however are best described by Horkheimer (1982), in which we question the facts which our senses present to us as socially performed approaches to understanding in the social sciences. We should start with an understanding of a "social" experience itself as always fashioned by ideas that are in the researchers themselves. The project of a critical perspective is also “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Horkheimer 1982, p244), not merely to describe the functions of those circumstances. 

Until the late nineteenth century, SI was understood to be subversive of the social order (Sargant, 1858), but in the French milieu was a ‘happy innovation’ of social progress (Comte 1841). What seems to have occurred in the research and publications in critical perspectives on social innovation over the last decade is as threefold engagement with epistemological issues, a drawing on theoretical insights from popular critical theory thinkers and challenges to normative methodological strategies in research. However, there seems to be a dearth of challenges to ontological assumptions (Hu 2018, Hu et al. 2019). By epistemological questions, we mean the question ‘what is the ‘social’ in social enterprise?’, considering (as the rest of this journal does) social is not just a modifier of innovation, but innovation and enterprise as a modifier of the social (Arthur et al. 2006, Bull and Ridley-Duff 2018). In terms of engagement with critical theorists and challenges to normative research, there is research, for example, on Bourdieu (Teasdale et al. 2012); Giddens (Nicholls and Cho 2006); Foucault (Curtis 2007); Polanyi (Bull and Ridley-Duff 2018; Roy and Grant 2019; Thompson et al. 2020) and Ostrom (Ridley-Duff and Bull 2021; Peredo et al. 2020) that offers avenues for development. Likewise, a convergence on the notion of SI as social bricolage (Di Domenico et al. 2010) represents a post-modern turn rather than a critical turn that could offer new avenues of exploration. In methodological terms, more social constructivist/revisionist work is needed too, for example, Froggett and Chamberlayne (2004). There are other critical perspectives that have a few researchers labouring in small groups. In political economy, there are Marxist, green and communitarian perspectives (Yıldırım and Tuncalp 2016, Scott-Cato 2008, Scott and Hillier 2010, Ridley-Duff 2007). There is a small feminist literature exploring immaterial and affective labour (Betta et al. 2010, Teasdale et al. 2011), and some in queer theory- exploring transgressions and deviance, such as Grenier (2010) and Dey and Teasdale (2013). There are even fewer working in the post-colonialist space, including Green Nyoni (2016) and Watkins (2017). 

This Special Issue seeks to revisit, review and revivify the emancipatory and critical project proposed by the founder of this journal, Benoit Godin. To this end, NOvation invites submissions for a Special Issue with a particular focus on the critical perspectives on social innovation, social enterprise and the social solidarity economy (SSE), to promote new and emerging perspectives.

Exploration of critical perspectives on SI, SE & SSE might focus on the hidden ideas and ideologies underpinning discourses. Who pushes SI, SE, SSE discourses and policies, and why? How can the current institutional arrangements be used in critical SI research? Studies may challenge the prevailing relationships of domination – patriarchal, neo-imperialist as well as capitalist systems – and anticipate the development of alternatives to them. Critical perspectives on SI might interrogate SI less as an outcome and more as a process that involves bringing different groups together to devise new solutions to particular problems. Critical perspectives on SI might focus on returning to sociological understandings of the social – and an economy of enrichment? What are the problems with fictitious commodification? Sentiment versus efficiency? Intimacy versus market? Economizing versus socializing? 

Appropriate topics for submission include, among others:

  • Reviewing the current state of the literature on social innovation and/or the relationship to SE/SSE from critical perspectives;
  • Identifying different streams in the literature dealing with social innovation from multiple conceptual and theoretical foundations through a critical lens;
  • Critically analysing social innovation from political, sociological, geographical or ethical perspectives;
  • Considering the conditions of diachronic and local variances of the meanings and applications of ‘social innovation’, ‘social enterprise’, ‘social solidarity economy’ in context;
  • Introduce new and more ‘dangerous’ critical perspectives;
  • The possibilities of new and emerging epistemologies and methodologies;
  • To challenge and explore the ontological assumptions of the field.

Submission of abstract proposals should present:

  • Between 250 and 500 words;
  • Brief introduction, objectives, methodology, hypotheses (if applicable) and conclusions;
  • Up to five keywords;
  • Up to five bibliographic references;
  • Authors' affiliations and e-mail addresses.

For further information, please contact the guest editors:

Michael Bull, Business School. Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, Oxford Road, Manchester, M1 3GH, United Kingdom. E-mail:

Tim Curtis, Faculty of Health, Education and Society, The University of Northampton, University Drive, Northampton. NN1 5PH, United Kingdom. E-mail:

Vicky Nowak, Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, Oxford Road, Manchester, M1 3GH, United Kingdom. E-mail:

Janette Hurst, Sheffield Hallam University Business School, City, Howard Street, Sheffield. S1 1WB, United Kingdom. E-mail:



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Aiken, M. (2002). ‘Managing Values: the reproduction of organisational values in social economy organisations’ (Doctoral dissertation, The Open University).

Aiken, M. (2007). ‘What is the role of social enterprise in finding, creating and maintaining employment for disadvantaged groups?’, Cabinet Office: Office of the Third Sector.

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