Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Transforming Welfare Institutions through Social Innovation and Action Research in Denmark

Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Transforming Welfare Institutions through Social Innovation and Action Research in Denmark

Article excerpt


The first International Handbook on Social Innovation was published in 2013 (Moulaert et al. 2013). In the handbook, 'social innovation' is defined as processes that generate a) the provision of resources and services in response to social needs b) the development of trust and empowerment within marginalised populations and c) the transformation of those power relations that produce social exclusion through the transformation of governance mechanisms (Miquel et al. 2013, p. 155). According to this understanding, social innovation concerns "not just particular actions, but also the mobilisation-participation processes and (...) the outcome of actions which lead to improvements in social relations, structures of gov-ernance, greater collective empowerment, and so on" (Moulaert et al. 2013, p. 2).

The term 'social exclusion' concerns the mechanisms and conditions that fully or partially exclude individuals or groups from self-determination and influence over their own life situations and living conditions, and that fully or partially exclude them from participation and social rights that the majority of citizens have access to in society. The opposite of exclusion is inclusion, meaning processes through which marginalised or excluded groups may acquire more power over their own life situation, self-determination and access to the same living conditions and rights as the majority of society has access to (Larsen & Andersen 2013). Processes leading from exclusion to inclusion can be seen as 'empowerment processes', leading from relative powerlessness to a situation of increased selfdetermination and influence. 'Social innovation research', then, is studies of social innovative initiatives that provide a response to social exclusion and social inequality (Moulaert et al. 2013, p. 3). In social innovation research there is a collaboration between researchers and stakeholders on social experiments that can support social change that is progressively inclusive and democratic.

The purpose of this article is to show how action research can contribute to social innovation and empowerment in public welfare and cultural institutions (nursing homes and libraries) in a manner that facilitates marginalised citizens' and local communities' power position and creates opportunities for positive change. The article first introduces the criti- cal concepts of empowerment, action research and social innovation, and the roots of these traditions in critical social theory. The next part analyses two different methodological variants of action research in two different contexts: The first is about action research in nursing homes (in the capital of Denmark, Copenhagen), where the objective was improving elder care through more autonomy and better quality of daily life for both residents and employees. In the project, future workshops were used to create a "free space" where concrete suggestions of social innovation in elder care was developed. The second example is about the transformation of a public library into a community center in the multicultural and poorest urban district of Gellerup in Denmark. The aim was to break down barriers between citizens and public institutions in the district, to improve social services and facilitate community empowerment. In this project, empowerment evaluation was used as an action research method.

Action research and the development of more inclusive public institutions

In recent decades, marginalisation and social exclusion have gained some space in the Danish public discourse about the role and functions of the welfare state. Simplified, one can identify two poles within the discussion: one is the criticism of the welfare state from neoliberal and neoconservative positions, claiming that welfare rights (social citizenship) and the redistribution of goods hinders capitalist growth and limits the "trickle down effects" (when the rich get richer wealth "trickles down" to the poor). …

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