Towards a theory of transformative social innovation: A relational framework and 12 propositions

Bonno Pel*, Alex Haxeltine, Flor Avelino, Adina Dumitru, René Kemp, Tom Bauler, Iris Kunze, Jens Dorland, Julia Wittmayer, Michael Søgaard Jørgensen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

74 Citations (Scopus)


This paper responds to the need in innovation research for conceptual clarity and solid theory on social innovation (SI). The paper conceptualizes SI as changing social relations, involving new ways of doing, knowing, framing and organizing, and theorizes transformative social innovation (TSI) as the process of SI challenging, altering, or replacing dominant institutions in a specific social-material context. Three advances towards TSI theory are proposed. First, we reflect epistemologically on the challenges of theory-building, and propose an appropriate research design and methodology. Middle-range theory is developed through iteration between theoretical insights and comparative empirical study of 20 transnational SI networks and about 100 associated initiatives. Second, we synthesize various innovation theories and social theories into a relational framework that articulates the distributed agency and institutional hybridization involved. Third, we formulate twelve propositions on the emergence of SI initiatives, on the development of SI ecosystems, on institutionalization processes, and on the historical shaping of SI. The paper ends with a critical assessment of the advances made, also identifying further challenges for TSI theory and practice.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104080
JournalResearch Policy
Issue number8
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2020


  • Social innovation
  • Transformative change
  • Empowerment
  • Relational theory
  • Institutional change
  • Innovation process


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