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Growing Inequality and Social Innovation: Alternative Knowledge and Practice in Overcoming Social Exclusion in Europe

Final Report Summary - KATARSIS (Growing Inequality and Social Innovation: Alternative Knowledge and Practice in Overcoming Social Exclusion in Europe)

The purpose of the KATARSIS was to bring together theorists, researchers and practitioners who are interested in the causes and consequences of inequality, giving particular emphasis to the (collective and individual) strategies through which people respond to social exclusion. Through an iterative series of research packages, meetings and conferences, KATARSIS members have built a rich, but initially fragmented, set of case studies and theoretical perspectives up into a strong network and research program. A central binding concept for KATARSIS' work has been that of social innovation. Though innovation has long been a key objective for economic policy in the EU, its implementation has tended to focus on competitive technology- and market-based solutions, particularly under the model of the knowledge-based society (KBS). Our approach explicitly challenges this model. To us, innovation should be directed first and foremost at meeting human needs - and, in conditions of inequality or exclusion, this means innovating in social relations, not just in markets (MacCallum et al., 2009).

Moreover, the overly rationalist discourse associated with the KBS has tended to privilege the scientific. We were concerned to re-valorise a strong European tradition of creativity in the areas of community development, arts, and activism: a creative social Europe (Moulaert and Gonzalez, 2005) whose capacity to promote social inclusion has been compromised by years of neo-liberal policy influence from North American and global governance institutions (such as the OECD, IMF and World Bank). And yet, there are thousands of organisations, hundreds of thousands of people, involved in creative strategies to fight inequality and social exclusion in Europe. We felt that it was crucial to learn from these, to recognise that people in need often mobilise resources in novel ways, generating new knowledge and social practices and triggering processes of social innovation that open fresh opportunities for policy design and implementation. And we wanted also to explore how the conduct of research into social exclusion / inclusion could be informed and inspired by such socially creative strategies.

To these ends, KATARSIS drew upon different research traditions from a range of disciplines, sociology, geography, economics, political science, anthropology, urban and regional planning, community development, policy analysis, and public health, among others - and also upon the experiences and practices of actors working against social exclusion in a range of sectors (non-government, public and private) and fields (employment, education, health, housing, environment, youth work, arts, governance, and so on).

Because of the often multidimensional role of social innovation researchers, with questions about the links or boundaries between scientific analysis, political activism, movement organisation, advocacy planning - looking at concrete experiences through case-studies is a critical aspect of the methodology-building process. Central to this building process is the joint or social learning process in which different social innovation agents share their perspectives, expectations and experiences. Through this sharing, new insights on sources of SI, types of socially creative strategies (SCSs) and methods to study experiences and innovations are developed. This interactivity between dimensions of social innovation and between social innovation agents feeds into the interdisciplinary character of social innovation research.

But the main consequence of this interactivity we want to highlight here is the trans-disciplinary nature of the SI research. Because of the thematic focus of social innovation research on the dynamics of a society and the role of change agency, there is a need for a trans-disciplinary steering of epistemology and methodology. This includes the reflexive interrogations on the role of different agencies, but goes beyond it by launching some meta-theoretical methodological reflections on the social production of society, its communities, organisations and trend-setting agencies.

To finalise this short introduction to trans-disciplinarity as a new technique of knowledge production, we want to remember an outstanding intellectual whose main objective was the socialisation of knowledge: Antonio Gramsci, a left intellectual from Italy who argued in favour of an organic relationship between intellectuals and ordinary people (the masses). He insisted on the importance of diffusing existing knowledge - producing social innovations - which might be more useful than new inventions and the creation of new concepts, even of progressive content (Gramsci 1971; 1991).

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