- Original Article
- Open Access
Social network analysis in innovation research: using a mixed methods approach to analyze social innovations
© The Author(s) 2013
- Received: 29 July 2013
- Accepted: 24 September 2013
- Published: 20 October 2013
The importance of social networks for innovation diffusion and processes of social change is widely recognized in many areas of practice and scientific disciplines. Social networks have the potential to influence learning processes, provide opportunities for problem-solving, and establish new ideas. Thus, they can foster synergy effects, bring together key resources such as know-how of participating actors, and promote innovation diffusion. There is wide agreement regarding the usefulness of empirical methods of Social Network Analysis (SNA) for innovation and futures research. Even so, studies that show the chances of implementing SNA in these fields are still missing. This contribution addresses the research gap by exploring the opportunities of a mixed methods SNA approach for innovation research. It introduces empirical results of the author’s own quantitative and qualitative investigations that concentrate on five different innovation networks in the field of Education for Sustainable Development.
- Social network analysis
- Social innovations
- Education for sustainable development
- Egocentric network maps
Scholars interested in innovation processes and futures research have often stressed the importance of social networks. Social networks are seen as an important factor in how ideas, norms, and innovations are realized. Social network research understands individuals within their social context, acknowledging the influence of relationships with others on one’s behavior. Hence, social networks can promote innovation processes and expand opportunities for learning. Despite the consensus regarding the value of social network approaches, there is a lack of empirical investigations in innovation and futures studies that use Social Network Analysis (SNA). In most cases, the scientific literature uses the concept of social networks metaphorically, ignoring the chances presented by SNA methods. At the same time, conventional empirical research in innovation and futures studies often disregards relational information. Hence, analyses of statistical data on structural and individual levels are treated as separately. Activities that are expected to have impacts on future developments are usually modeled as isolated individual or group behavior, on the one hand, or as the characteristics of structural issues, on the other hand. SNA provides us with empirical tools that capture the social context and help to better understand how innovations are implemented and diffused and why social change takes place. Network approaches explicitly challenge the difference between deduction and induction and highlight the relevance of relationships. Individuals both shape and are shaped by the social context in which they interact. By applying techniques of SNA, actor-centered and structuralist reductions are avoided. Instead, SNA emphasizes the mutual influence of structure and social connections. In order to better understand and model developments in innovation and futures research, relational data inherent to the social network perspective is needed.
This contribution addresses the opportunities of SNA for innovation research. It is divided into six sections. After this introduction, the second section briefly defines crucial concepts of SNA and provides theoretical background. The third section discusses the value of a social network perspective for innovation research. The methodological approach, along with the empirical case studies used, is outlined in the fourth section. The fifth section shows how a combination of both insights from structure based on quantitative SNA and subjective perceptions revealed with qualitative SNA is helpful for understanding innovation processes. Here, the integration of qualitative SNA such as egocentric network maps in quantitative techniques of SNA is illustrated. The contribution concludes with a summary of main arguments.
“A social network consists of a finite set or sets of actors and the relation or relations defined on them. The presence of relational information is a critical and defining feature of a social network” .
This conception of social network permits both a governance approach and empirical techniques of SNA. Scholars of governance research understand social networks as a certain type of governance that can be differentiated from other ideal types of governance: markets and hierarchies. Social networks combine market-based and hierarchic dimensions and serve as a form of hybrid governance . Both weak and strong modes of coordination are integrated into the network concept of governance research, where strong coordination is defined as “the spectrum of activity in which one party alters its own … strategies to accommodate the activity of others in pursuit of a similar goal” . Weak coordination, on the other hand, takes place when actors observe each other’s behavior, “and then alter their actions to make their … strategies complementary with respect to a common goal” .
Because they promote constant exchange and deliberation, social networks have strong potential to promote ideological or structural changes and to generate new knowledge. Hence, network governance is not reduced to governmental action, but refers to the search for collective and participative problem-solving strategies and the promotion of innovations.1 This article uses the concept of network governance to highlight the relevance of relationships for innovation research. Hence, it confronts the assumption that individual behavior is independent of any others, but instead conceives “problem-solving as a collaborative effort in which a network of actors, including both state and non-state organizations, play a part” .2
In order to better understand the opportunities of SNA for innovation research, this contribution introduces innovation networks in five different regions as case studies. Innovation networks are understood as social networks that aim at establishing a social innovation. Here, the social innovation of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is used. At the same time, the term social innovation refers to processes of implementing and diffusing new social concepts across different sectors of society. While “innovation” implies a kind of renewal, “social” connotes interaction of actors. Social innovations have a direct connection with the search for solutions to social problems and challenges [6, 7]. Likewise, Education for Sustainable Development can be defined as education that empowers people to foresee, try to understand, and solve the problems that threaten life on our planet. With the goal of promoting behavioral changes that will shape a more sustainable future, ESD integrates principles of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning.
In order to illustrate the key opportunities of SNA in innovation research, this section draws on the author’s own empirical investigations that used a mixed methods approach based on quantitative and qualitative SNA. Data on network members was drawn from five different German municipalities and included initiatives, institutions, thematic groups, and individuals engaged in the field of ESD. The municipalities studied are Alheim, Erfurt, Frankfurt am Main, Gelsenkirchen, and Minden. These municipalities have been awarded by the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD), 2005–2014, and are characterized by active networks in the field of the social innovation of ESD. Organizations, initiatives, and actors from different sectors of non-formal, informal, and formal education seek to further establish and diffuse the concept of ESD worldwide. Thus, networks within these municipalities can be regarded as best practices concerning their performance in the area of ESD. It should be taken into account, however, that the social networks analyzed here are neither institutionalized nor formally established organizations. Instead, every person engaged in the field of the social innovation is regarded as part of the network to be analyzed. Hence, defining the network boundaries was an important part of the empirical investigation.
The research design included three main steps. First, qualitative data was collected in order to gain a better understanding of the object of research and generate research hypotheses. Second, quantitative SNA was conducted, using both egocentric SNA and complete SNA techniques. Network membership and network boundaries were defined by mixed-mode egocentric SNA. In a first step, a 12-page questionnaire was sent to all persons in each of the five municipalities listed in the data base of the UNDESD. In a second step, all persons from different sectors named more than once were also approached with the questionnaire [8–10]. Referring to Fischer  and Burt [12, 13], a name generator was used which allowed to name all relevant persons in the field of ESD. In this way, nodes were only included if they were mentioned more than once by an interviewee in the field of ESD.
The questionnaire first asked respondents to mark people in their ESD network, defined by efforts to contact, cooperation, collaboration, problem-solving, and idea exchange. Respondents were also asked to assess the quality and contact frequency for each relation mentioned and to name those persons with whom the interviewee cooperated especially closely or had established high levels of trust. They were then requested to score their named connections’ impact and the relevance with respect to the diffusion of information and the implementation of ESD. Finally, the questionnaire included questions on future prospects, desires, and developmental possibilities.
Egocentric network data was aggregated in order to enable applications of complete SNA. The (strictly adjusted) dataset of the whole network of all five municipalities consists of 1,306 persons and 2,195 edges. Subsequent to the quantitative studies, qualitative network maps were created in order to gain deeper insights into the qualitative characteristics of the networks’ structural properties.3 This article focuses mainly on results from the second and the third part of the data analysis.
This article has explored the role of Social Network Analysis in analyzing and supporting innovation processes. In order to better understand the opportunities of SNA in innovation research, the author presented empirical results of her own quantitative and qualitative research on innovation networks in five German municipalities actively engaged in the field of ESD. The article showed the value of using a combination of both quantitative and qualitative SNA in order to better understand how and why social innovations are implemented and the opportunities to further develop the network.
Quantitative SNA was implemented to analyze the impact of structural characteristics of social networks on the implementation and the diffusion of the social innovation of ESD. It was discovered, for example, that cooperation in the field of ESD mainly takes place within municipalities and that cooperation beyond municipal borders is low and marked by structural holes. Furthermore, it was shown that social networks in the area of ESD are mostly composed of small and dense groups each representing different sets of actors (e.g., local administration, educational institutions, and business) and pursuing different interests and ideas under the umbrella of ESD. Weak ties, on the contrary, are very important in the field of ESD as they are responsible for the diffusion of innovations.
However, structural holes also exist within the municipalities with respect to the quality of the relations. The extreme example of Erfurt illustrated how the development of new ideas can be hampered by structural weaknesses. In contrast, cooperation and innovation development in the field of ESD are regarded to work well in Gelsenkirchen. In Alheim, actors from different sectors are integrated. Most central roles are played by non-formal education actors, whereas one central role is wielded by a politician. In terms of innovation diffusion, Alheim can be regarded as a best practice. Not least, cooperation beyond institutional borders works well and individual clustering values are low: persons are not always connected to the same clusters. Finally, the implementation of ESD in Alheim benefits from strong relations between one well-connected political and actors from other sectors. The central politician connects different areas of activity and promotes the integration of ecological, economic, and social dimensions in terms of sustainable development.
Quantitative techniques of SNA enabled to identify innovation networks, to determine network boundaries, to define actors within the innovation network, and to investigate the network position of actors. Problems of coordination, information, and qualitative relations were discussed. At the same time, quantitative SNA was shown unable to analyze reasons, motivations, and perceptions behind network structure. These issues were then analyzed by using qualitative SNA methods, such as network maps. A combination of qualitative and quantitative SNA techniques may thus prove the most fruitful for innovation research. In order to better understand the role of social networks in the diffusion of social innovations and to generate knowledge related to innovation potential and courses of action, qualitative techniques were used to supplement the quantitative analysis. It was assumed that the costs of information exchange are not only material (money, time), but also social. Conflicts and lack of confidence between actors, for example, may prevent successful innovation diffusion. Qualitative egocentric network maps could validate quantitative results as well as disclose subjective perceptions and orientations. The central position of one politician in Alheim could thus be traced back to its discursive and structural power. Actors in Alheim have great trust in the ideological competences of the well-connected person who supports the establishment of ESD in many sectors. Visualizations with qualitative network maps support the completion of the interview situation with visual representations. Visualized networks can also serve as mental or cognitive assistance. In combination with quantitative results, however, qualitative network maps enable us to detect where and how innovations and development processes may be possible due to structural and subjective conditions. Finally, compared to conventional statistical analysis that treat structural and individual levels as separately, analyses and visualizations of network data give us more information about the influence of social relations. SNA enables us to capture the interaction between actors and social context, to better understand how innovations are implemented and diffused, to analyze how and why social or educational change takes place or does not take place, and to disclose opportunities for future strategies.
This contribution has shown that SNA can begin to answer questions related to innovation processes. I hope it will open new avenues for further uses of SNA in innovation and futures research.
At the same time, there is little research on the democratic implications of network governance  as well as on the strengths and limits of the concept related to issues of educational innovations such as Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).
When examined through the framework of Social Network Analysis (SNA), the deficits of the concept of ‘Educational Governance’ become evident. In the scientific literature and in educational and political praxis, the concept of Educational Governance is often exclusively related to institutions of formal learning such as schools or educational training. In this manner, it is not possible to capture the real boundaries of social networks and to conceptualize social networks as can be done with SNA techniques. Furthermore, many actors, initiatives, and activities that play an important role in learning processes are analytically excluded in current applications of Educational Governance. For that reason, this article does not use an Educational Governance approach. Instead, it uses a governance approach that draws on theoretical concepts developed in social science.
Qualitative network maps were gathered in cooperation with a research project coordinated by Inka Bormann.
This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and the source are credited.
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