Absent Friends and Absent Enemies: reflections on the Radical Social Innovation Colloquium

Let me introduce you to Moran’s Law of Academic Conferences: the more a conference draws on a single discipline, the less interesting it is.   The most mind numbingly boring conferences now are those lumbering leviathans, the Annual Conferences of  professional associations, where the only way to survive is to disappear to the bar to get drunk with old friends. The most stimulating conferences throw together people from a random collection of the social sciences and humanities to discuss some hugely open ended subject.  That’s why the WISERD/CRESC event at Cardiff on 18-19 May was such a success. Most of the participants – including me – spent a lot of time trying to work out why they were there in the first place – and in the process were, like me, forced to think about the meaning of ‘Radical Social Innovation’ and what relevance it had to our work.  Of course for the organisers the whole thing was a bit of a fishing expedition, but judging from both the stimulating range of papers and the discussion, while they may have caught a few sprats they have also landed some valuable catches.

I had imagined before the conference that one big difficulty would be identifying something as general and ambitious as ‘radical social innovation.’  But in fact it quickly became plain to outsiders like me that there are many highly focused radical social innovation geeks and that they know what they are about.  And therein lies a problem: there were some surprising absences from the discussion.  Some of those absent are enemies of radical social innovation; some are potential friends in whom there appears to be little interest.

Let’s take the absent enemies first.   In the discussion a few people pointed out that those who study radical social innovation, and who are engaged in action research, seem happier mixing with, and studying, those with whom they have an emotional and ideological affinity.  Laudable, no doubt; but a prime rule of warfare is surely, know your enemy.  And we can all agree that the most radical social upheavals in the last generation, almost regardless of where we look, have come from the forces of neo-liberalism, which have disempowered the poor, undermined collective effort in institutions like trade unions, and enriched a new global plutocracy.  Yet, with a few exceptions, these forces were largely absent from the discussion.  The problem, admitted, goes well beyond the study of radical social innovation.  Neo-liberal economists aside, modern social science is dominated by progressive ideologies of the left.  And progressive social scientists seem happier talking to and studying those for whom they have an emotional and intellectual affinity.

The character of  modern social science also explains another striking absence from the conference, this time the absence of a group of potential friends and allies.  I only realised what the missing voice was on the second morning while listening to Hodson and McKeekin’s paper, which documents a case of social change spearheaded by a single parish church in Manchester.  A Martian visiting the colloquium would think that the key forces making for radical social innovation were progressive social scientists and progressive radical activists.  But the most vibrant social movements across large parts of the globe are not animated by secular radicalism; they are religious movements.  Consider the central role of evangelical Christianity across Latin American and sub-Saharan Africa.  Consider the transformation in recent decades of official Roman Catholicism from an ally of reaction to a root and branch critic of global capitalism.  And nearer to home, consider the character of the most desolate and deprived urban areas in Britain.  They have been largely abandoned by mainstream institutions like banks and supermarkets and by agents of the state.  The one official institution you can guarantee on finding in even the poorest community is a church.  And more often than not such grass roots social radicalism as exists comes from the denominations, not from progressive intellectuals, universities, or think tanks.  The blindness of modern social science to all this reflects its overwhelmingly secular character.  And it is a blindness which also blinds it to an important set of allies.

Mick Moran

Mick Moran gave a paper on the constitution to the colloquium.  He is a member of CRESC and Professor of Government at Alliance Business School, Manchester.

*The WISERD CRESC Radical Social Innovation Colloquium took place on Wednesday 18th & Thursday 19th May 2016.