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Reflexive Innovation as a central social Phenomenon

Innovation was long restricted to the labs of scientists and engineers, R&D departments in the private economy and – though seldom acknowledged – artist’s studios. Today, creative practices and innovative processes have become a ubiquitous phenomenon across all areas of society. What has changed is the creation of novelty is no longer left to chance, ingenious inventors, and the creative habits of specialized fields. Innovations are increasingly driven with purpose, with numerous beneficiaries in mind, and in the context of broad-scale demands for strategic innovation. Innovations are managed as complex processes distributed among various entities and reflected in terms of the actions and knowledge of actors in other fields. Reflexive innovation refers to the interplay of these practices, orientations, and processes, while noting that the path of an individual innovation is observed, shaped, and influenced by its specific institutional setting and ties, discursive rationalizations, and the forms and paths of other innovations. This new form of innovation is not confined to laboratories or R&D departments – as can be seen by cross-disciplinary and regional innovation clusters – nor does it shy away from shaping new innovation regimes. Innovation society today is characterized by a wide variety of innovative processes in all fields and by the unifying social imperative to innovate reflexively. Innovation itself has become a topic of discourse across all social spheres, driven by concepts such as a “culture of innovation” (UNESCO 2005: 57ff.; Prahalad & Krishnan 2008).

The central research question guiding the graduate program is thus: What degree of reflexivity can be identified in contemporary innovation processes, where do these processes occur, and how are they distributed among different actors?

Hence, the main theme is the broader societal relevance of reflexive innovation. This includes practices, orientations, and processes of innovation in selected fields and how they develop and are strategically advanced within and between different areas of society. These innovative practices, orientations, and processes should not only be analyzed in the classic fields of economy (industry and services) and science (research and technology development), but also in contexts involving culture (the arts and creative cultural production) and politics (policy-making and social planning processes).

The objective is to analyze how specific innovative practices, discourses, and institutional arrangements have become increasingly reflexive in recent decades. We are additionally interested in whether new developments in other fields have promoted or impeded individual cases or paths of innovation. Empirical analyses in the individual fields and case comparisons will ultimately permit an assessment of the extent to which the principle of reflexive innovation has become not only a rhetorical, but also a practical and institutional imperative in the current social climate of innovation.

We thus employ a more encompassing concept of innovation in society than that found in economics (Rammert 2010), which also allows us to capture new developments in the arts, social planning, and design, extending beyond economic calculations and rationalizations surrounding innovation. This concept also goes further than “social innovation” (Zapf 1989) and “political innovation” (Polsby 1984) in addressing the links between and different constellations of technical, economic, and social innovation. As a key distinction already described by Ogburn (1922) and Schumpeter (1939), this extended concept differs from “normal” social change in that it refers to new developments that not only “happen” and are then recognized and promoted. Instead, what we are interested in is the intentional, systematic creation of new material and immaterial elements, technical and organizational procedures and socio-technical combinations of all of the above that are defined as “new” and legitimated as an improvement compared to what came before. In contrast to Schumpeter’s early writings, contemporary innovations are seldom brought forth by individual business entrepreneurs; instead, they are created by different types of collective entities (teams, communities, companies, networks) that – however influential or reflexive – are also only in partial command of the overall innovation process, which is distributed across numerous other entities.

“Doing innovation” has therefore become an explicit aspect of the knowledge, discourses, actions, social systems, and institutions of social actors. Continuous reflections on and about innovation are accompanied by elaborate discourses that rationalize the new developments based on the interests of specific actors and actor groups. These arguments can involve situational explanations, organizational and institutional rhetoric, and taken-for-granted ideologies. They can build on modern concepts of progress or subjectivity (Reckwitz 2008: 235ff.) or pragmatic regimes of rationalization and evaluation (Thévenot 2001), construct views that make innovation seem necessary – or even unavoidable –, and promote investments in innovation. These ideas slowly crystallize into indisputable and sometimes highly authoritative “facts”, or social imperatives for all actors involved.

Based on the above considerations, we can specify our research focus even further: How reflexively do actors define and organize innovation in different fields of innovation and which rationalizing discourses guide their practices and interpretations?

This phrasing permits a specifically sociological approach to innovation that draws from areas such as the sociology of knowledge, organizations, economics, and STS. This approach will, however, be supplemented and supported by economic, historical, political and planning-based perspectives from other disciplines.

In contrast to the engineering sciences, the sole focus of our program is not the production of new technologies, processes, or materials. Technical innovations in this stricter sense are a relevant point of reference; nevertheless, they are investigated in terms of their relations to non-technical social innovations, as well as their reflexive ties to economic, political, cultural, or artistic innovations. In contrast to economics, the main issue is not to increase the efficiency of different factors and processes. This conceptually limited economic understanding of innovation does constitute a central reference point in terms of its practical relevance; however, it is expanded to include other areas and ultimately superseded by a more encompassing concept in which complex interrelationships count. Economic innovations can thus also increasingly draw from various other references, e.g. artistic (Hutter & Throsby 2008) or political innovations. Unique hybrid regimes of innovation can even emerge from incongruities or “dissonance” between these references (Stark 2009) through the conflicts or compromises that occur as different regimes collide.

From our relatively broad social-science-based standpoint, our first concern is to develop an adequate understanding of innovation processes which are both distributed across various social fields and interconnected: How are different actors able to reflexively create and coordinate new developments based on existing patterns of action and rationalization? Second, we are concerned with understanding practices and processes: How are new developments distinguished as “new” by recognized institutions in different fields and deemed “innovations”? This includes the issue of power: Why, when, and in which constellations are specific actors and institutions able to define and successfully assert specific innovations?

Ample research is available for individual fields and forms of innovation (see Rogers 2003; Braun-Thürmann 2005; Fagerberg et al. 2005; Aderhold & John 2005; Blättel-Mink 2006; Hof & Wengenroth 2007; Rammert 2008; and Howaldt & Jakobsen 2010, among others). Innovation research, with its predominantly economic slant, has produced numerous analyses of the dynamics of technological innovations. Profit maximization, rational decision-making, and transparent price signals are built into this set of explanations. Nevertheless, these models also include insights into the boundaries of rational technology choices as well as the historic or evolutionary character of long-term technology development (see e.g. Rosenberg 1976; Nelson & Winter 1977; Elster 1983; Utterbeck 1994). With its strong focus on management, innovation research has presented in-depth studies of relevant personnel and organizational factors at the level of the firm (cf. Gerybadze 2004; Gemünden et al. 2006) and corporate networks (cf. Sydow 2001). This research emphasizes creativity and cooperation, trust and heterogeneous organization. More recently, however, scholarly interest in innovation has shifted from scientific and economic loci to other groups such as users, early adopters, and social movements (Hippel 1988; 2005; Chesbrough 2006) as new focal points.

In recent years, also due to technological and scientific competition and the necessity of drafting national innovation policies, research within this disciplinary tradition has also picked up on insights that innovation can include new forms of work (Barley 1990; Barley & Kunda 2004) and the creation of activity spaces (Massey 1992; 1995; Moores 2005) for individuals and collective actors. Innovation is now also viewed as a societal phenomenon, often with a transnational scope. This requires a broader conceptual framework and the integration of other social science disciplines. Innovations have thus been increasingly investigated in the context of organizational fields (DiMaggio & Powell 1983; Hoffman 1999), as well as national innovation systems and global innovation regimes (cf. Nelson 1993; Edquist 1997; Braczyk et al. 1998; Blättel-Mink & Ebner 2009). Innovation paths are regarded more and more as the result of cultural constructs and institutional selection, in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and professions play a substantial role alongside firms (Meyer et al. 1997; Meyer 2005; Fourcade 2009). Continuity and breaks among such constellations can result in different innovation biographies (Bruns et al. 2010).

The ongoing influx of new developments in cultural fields and the new creative industries has also been analyzed by scholars in order to integrate the various interrelationships of a modern society in the grips of permanent renewal in view of changing forms of media (Castells 1996; Florida 2002). Political science and sociological governance research have broadened the economic research perspective (Powell 1990; Kern 2000; Windeler 2001; Sörensen & Williams 2002; Lütz 2006; Schuppert & Zürn 2008). The history of technology, science, and economics provide the necessary historic dimension to the phenomenon of innovation and its economy (Wengenroth 2001; Bauer 2006; David 1975; Mowery & Rosenberg 1998).

A specifically sociological view of innovation has only begun to emerge, e.g. with the transfer of constructivist and evolutionary models from research on the development of new technologies (Rammert 1988; 1997; Braun-Thürmann 2005; Weyer 2008), with organizational and network research focused on innovation processes (Van de Ven et al. 1989; 1999; Powell et al. 1996; Garud & Karnoe 2001; Windeler 2003; Hirsch- Kreinsen 2005; Heidenreich 2009), and with models of creative production and cultural innovation from the sociology of knowledge and cultural sociology (Popitz 2000; Knoblauch 2010) all expanding the scope of innovation studies.

Within the Department of Sociology at the TU Berlin, the graduate program will focus on the practices and processes of the reflexive production of novelty as a shared research endeavor. Existing approaches to sociological and social-science-based innovation research will be bundled to develop a more comprehensive perspective by drawing from the various empirical studies of innovation fields in different areas of society, which will be systematically compared with regard to the rules and regimes of reflexive innovation. Through these studies we hope to gain a more thorough investigation of creative practices and innovation processes; more overarching topics such as the societal embeddedness and varying interrelationships of different regimes should also receive increased attention. With this agenda, the program can add a productive dimension to other graduate programs with a stronger economic focus. On the one hand, our approach will touch upon the concepts of innovation economics represented in the above programs and try to relate them with the views of other disciplines. On the other hand, it will consciously stray from economic-centered research to include studies on social innovation that look beyond the dynamics of companies, markets, and sectors.

Furthermore, the TU Berlin and Department of Sociology expect the graduate program to provide clear impulses for the advancement of teaching and research activities. Graduate studies with a strong research orientation will enable the Department of Sociology to broaden and intensify its signature focus on technology and innovation, the groundwork for which has been laid in the Department’s BA/MA program “Sociology and Technology Studies”. At the same, the graduate program will enable a more in-depth exchange among the specific fields of sociology within the Department, as well as contact with research groups at other faculties at the TU Berlin and with other research institutions in the Berlin region. These disciplines and organizations include, in particular, the economic sciences and social planning (and management), and the WZB research unit “Cultural Sources of Newness” (Social Science Research Center Berlin). Comparing processes and cultures of innovation in different societal fields should open up opportunities for new contacts and future collaborations, which can later transcend their initial geographical context. The graduate program will also provide an opportunity to intensify existing international contacts through a visiting researcher program.


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