Translocal Empowerment in Transformative Social Innovation Networks

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* Article: Translocal empowerment in transformative social innovation networks. By Flor Avelino, Adina Dumitru, Carla Cipolla, Iris Kunze & Julia Wittmayer. European Planning Studies, February 2019

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Contextual Quotes

"This paper contributes to both public and academic discussions on empowerment potentials of innovations by responding to three specific gaps in the state-of-the-art research, namely (1) the role of psychological processes and (2) translocal linkages in empowerment, and – more specifically – (3) the connection between those two in terms of how translocal linkages are (psychologically) empowering.


A vast majority of empirical research on (social) innovation is focused on isolated local cases and initiatives and tends to neglect the empowering effects of transnational linkages"


"This paper contributes to public and academic discussions on empowerment and social innovation by conceptualizing the mechanisms of empowerment from a social psychology perspective, and empirically exploring how people are empowered through both local and transnational linkages, i.e. translocal networks.

Section 2 conceptualizes empowerment as the process through which actors gain the capacity to mobilize resources to achieve a goal, building on different power theories in relation to social change, combined with self-determination theory and intrinsic motivation research. Based on that conceptualization, empirical questions are formulated to be asked about cases under study.

Section 3 then provides an empirical analysis of translocal networks that work with social innovation both at the global and local level. A total of five networks are analyzed: FEBEA, DESIS, the Global Ecovillage Network, Impact Hub and Slow Food. The embedded cases-study approach allows an exploration of how people are empowered through the transnational networking while also zooming in on the dynamics in local initiatives. In the final section, conceptual and empirical insights are synthesized into a characterization of the mechanisms of translocal empowerment, and challenges for future research are formulated."



Flor Avelino et al. :

"Building on a combination of political theory and social psychology, we define empowerment as the process through which actors gain the capacity to mobilize resources to achieve a goal (Alkire, 2005, 2007; Avelino 2017; Avelino et al., 2017; Sen, 1985, 1999). This process includes actors gaining (1) access to resources and (2) the capacity and willingness to mobilize resources to achieve their goal. Disempowerment refers to the opposite: the process by which actors loose such access, capacity and willingness (Avelino et al., 2017). Resources are defined broadly as persons, assets, materials or capital, including human, mental, monetary, artifactual and natural resources (Avelino & Rotmans, 2009).

In this paper, we focus on the psychological dimension of empowerment, which underlies and possibly precedes the process of gaining access to resources. As a well-known saying goes: to empower a man, we should not give him a fish, but rather a fishing rod. But what if the fishing rod breaks? And what if the man does not know he can fish, how to fish, make a fishing rod, or lacks the motivation to undertake any of such activities? Ultimately, empowerment requires not only access to resources, but also the capacity and willingness to mobilize them, and the belief that one can. To operationalize this process of gaining capacity, willingness and belief, this paper builds on self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and intrinsic motivation research (Thomas & Velthouse, 1990) to elaborate six dimensions of psychological empowerment: (1) relatedness, (2) autonomy, (3) competence, (4) impact, (5) meaning, and (6) resilience (Haxeltine et al., 2017).

The importance of psychological dimensions of (dis)empowerment has been acknowledged within international development studies grappling with the question of empowerment for impoverished groups (Friedmann, 1992). Recently, the importance of basic psychological needs such as autonomy has been recognized in conceptualizations of empowerment for the study of social innovations (Alkire, 2007; Chiappero-Martinetti et al., 2017; Reznickova & Zepeda, 2016). We go beyond these efforts by developing a more nuanced account of the different psychological dimensions of empowerment. Self-determination theory's account of basic psychological needs and a universal strive for wellbeing provides us with an understanding of drivers of involvement in social innovation and the ways social innovation contexts support the thriving of individuals. Using insights from intrinsic motivation research, we can account for the dynamic nature of the process of empowerment, as members of social innovation initiatives experience both successes and failures in efforts to achieve goals (Ryff & Singer, 2003).

We approach empowerment as a dynamic process (Rappaport, 1987; Zimmerman, Israel, Schulz, & Checkoway, 1992). It depends on enabling conditions allowing individuals and groups to generate and maintain the psychological resources to pursue goals that matter to them. Key to understanding empowerment is the cross-cultural existence of three basic psychological needs, as documented in self-determination theory (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Ryan & Deci, 2000, 2002): (1) autonomy, (2) competence and (3) relatedness. Autonomy refers to the ability to choose one's own acts and to act in line with personal values and identity, relatedness is about feeling connected and part of a social group, as well as receiving support and recognition from it, and competence refers to developing mastery and the perception of effectiveness in carrying out actions (Bidee et al., 2013).

The quality of basic need satisfaction is related to the motivation that individuals experience (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This motivation is posited on a continuum that ranges from amotivation to intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is considered to be innate and refers to a sense of pleasure or delight in doing certain things (i.e. our ‘natural’ interests). Intrinsic motivation can be supported by contexts that allow for the pursuit of such interests. However, self-determination theory also points out that the majority of human endeavours require doing things that are not inherently pleasant or intrinsically rewarding. Through a process of internalization, elaboration of, and identification with collective values and goals, we make them our own and create our unique combination, which is then experienced as an important part of our identity. Self-determined motivation as such is broader than intrinsic motivation and refers to striving for values and goals that come to be experienced as our own, even if they originated from a social context or collective.

In addition to the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, the belief in the ability to achieve goals requires the actual experience of achieving some degree of impact and meaning (Bandura, 2000; Thomas & Velthouse, 1999). An important source of a sense of meaning is the elaboration of a collective identity, which can also supports in the often demanding journey for social change and innovation. This collective identity is captured in narratives and images that describe how a collective becomes what it is and also often includes a theory of change regarding the goals that it wants to achieve. This process of meaning-making is also a key aspect of empowerment. Finally, as they encounter failure, people develop psychological and behavioural strategies that allow them to maintain the motivation to pursue their goals, and to take next steps. This capacity to learn, adapt and recover from set-backs is resilience, the last dimension of empowerment.

While the six dimensions of empowerment (see Table 1 for an overview) are present at an individual level, the relational and organizational conditions for psychological need satisfaction are created collectively. When impact, meaning and resilience are the result of collective action in achieving shared goals, we talk about collective empowerment. The psychological dimensions of empowerment are experienced at an individual level, but they are constituted through relations, shared practices and collective action. Through a sense of belonging to a community, an individuals own appraisal of the six dimensions of empowerment is intimately related to an appraisal of these capacities at the collective level, and through a common identity that becomes experienced as a source of personal empowerment. Individual experience cannot be completely isolated from its social dimensions, as it is constituted through social interaction and mediated by the socially-shared construction of experience.

We use this conceptualization of empowerment to analyse how actors in social innovation networks are empowered in the context of translocal networks. With ‘translocal network’ we refer to networks in which local connections between actors in local initiatives are (at least) as important as transnational connections across actors and initiatives (Greiner & Sakdapolrak, 2013). Drawing on five embedded case-studies, which are introduced in the next section, we empirically unpack how and to what extent actors involved in translocal networks are empowered at both local and transnational levels. Based on the dimensions of empowerment as specified above, we ask the following empirical question about the case-studies: (how) do actors gain access to resources and a sense of relatedness/ autonomy/ competence/ impact/ meaning/ resilience through being involved in the local initiative and the transnational network? Processes of empowerment often also entail disempowerment (whether intentional or unintentional) (Avelino et al., 2017). While the focus in this paper is on empowerment, we also shortly reflect on contrary disempowerment effects of each chase in terms of reflecting how actors loose access to resources and a sense of relatedness/ autonomy/ competence/ impact/ meaning/ resilience." (