Social Innovation in Higher Education: The Application of Carspecken’s Critical Qualitative Research Methodology to Understand Social Innovation as Systems Change in a University Context

  • Wray Irwin

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Social innovation, defined as new products, services, or combinations that are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act, is widely explored in literature across a range of disciplines. However, little empirical research on social innovation in Higher Education exists, with none identified involving professional service departments. To explain social innovation within any context requires both hermeneutic and structural analysis, focussing in detail on events over a prolonged period or across multiple sites, something not readily available within the limited time horizon of a research study.

Undertaking a PhD provided such a unique opportunity to address this requirement by enabling a longitudinal ethnographic study of social innovation within a higher education professional service department to be undertaken as an original contribution. Conducted over an 18-month period, the thesis prioritises participants’ voices and experiences to describe, and understand, an intentional and collaborative process of social innovation, the constraining and enabling factors, and the impact of social innovation on those involved.

The study presented methodological challenges requiring a new approach and innovation within existing methodologies, with Carspecken’s (1996) five stage Critical Qualitative Research methodology, incorporating Stones (2005) Strong Structuration Theory being adopted. The methodology succeeded in generating the rich descriptions of participant experience required to surface structural constraints and enablers to social innovation producing small-scale systems change across the department over time, as a new product was created.

The findings indicate that, rather than structures being classified as constraining or enabling, the status of structures is influenced by the practice of social-extrapreneurship in reframing individuals’ specific knowledge and general disposition toward colleagues, the department, and the university. This practice of social-extrapreneurship, undertaken within a complex university environment, created safe spaces as platforms into which resources, beyond the reach and authority of participants, were channelled towards agreed social objectives. This practice reconfigured position-practice relationships across the team, enhancing the departments capacity to act as new relationships and ways for working were formed.

To explain how this process occurred, a modification of Cajaiba-Santa’s (2014) conceptual social innovation framework is suggested, building the experiences of participants into the framework to enhance its relevance in explaining social innovation within a university professional service department and making an original contribution to social innovation theory.
Date of AwardMay 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorCristina Devecchi (Supervisor) & Mairi Watson (Supervisor)


  • Carspecken
  • Social Innovation
  • Social Entrepreneurship
  • Critical Ethnography
  • Higher Education
  • Critical Qualitative Research
  • Strong Structuration Theory
  • Stones Structuration Theory
  • Cajaiba-Santana

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