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Socially Creative Thinking: or how experimental thinking creates ‘other worlds’

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Socially Creative Thinking:

or how experimental thinking creates ‘other worlds’
J.K. Gibson-Graham

March 2009
Conjunctural openings

The KATARSIS research project responds to one of the most pressing questions of our times—how to live together? In EU countries this concern has focused on creating conditions for social cohesion, especially by researching the ways that processes of exclusion and inclusion operate. On the global stage the question of how to live together has gained increasing weight in recent times in the light of climate change, public health challenges and economic crisis. Hard-hitting questions about basic needs, consumption levels, capitalist surplus, and the environmental commons that have been suppressed in the language of ‘cohesion’ and ‘inclusion’ are beginning to surface. At no other time has there been such critical scrutiny of the mainstream industrial development model and such a heightened realization of our interdependence with each other and with non-human others. This conjuncture offers an excellent opportunity for new ideas about living together to shift the agenda. As social scientists interested in behaviour change, social learning and the formation of new subjectivities, we have a responsibility to foster new thinking that enables social innovation (on the scale of the changes that have occurred in some contexts around smoking or sexism). Rather than looking ‘out there’ in the world for social innovations that are surely there, we propose to turn our gaze inwards for a moment, to our own practice and ask: Are we creating the grounds for social innovation with socially creative thinking? What are socially creative thinking practices and how might we strengthen our capacity to engage in them?

Thinking practices for social innovation

Over a decade of conducting action research interventions in ‘marginalized’ communities around the world we have gained various insights into how to imagine different futures and allow for the new to emerge. In the places where we have worked people are struggling to maintain social well-being in the face of economic restructuring and globalization. From our experience we have learned that specific thinking practices can promote creativity. Three that we have found particularly useful are:

  1. attending to the affect of our analysis (releasing the positive affect of hope and possibility)

  2. generating alternative discourses (with performative effects)

  3. adopting an experimental orientation (increasing the viability of experiments).

Each practice has potential effects, as noted in the parentheses above. In what follows we elaborate these practices and effects and briefly interrogate the KATARSIS project for evidence of socially creative thinking.
1. Attending to affect: needs and assets mapping

Thinking is not something that operates in a register separate from emotions and bodily sensation. Intellectual arguments and thinking techniques can invoke visceral intensities and emotional narratives that have the potential to undermine or enhance the power of any analysis. We have found that cultivating creativity is best done when we orient ourselves in a spirit of hopefulness toward connections and openings, so attending to the affect of our analyses and techniques is an important component of stimulating innovation (Gibson-Graham 2006a,1). To illustrate this point we briefly examine two quite similar appraisal techniques that have very different affects and effects.

The SWOT technique is a familiar tool of contemporary social and community analysis. On a two by two grid of Helpful/Harmful and Internal/External are arranged attributes classified as Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (see Figure 1). In KATARSIS it has been used to analyse and evaluate many of the social innovation practices that have been surveyed. SWOT is appealing—it is comprehensive, allowing for a ‘warts and all’ approach where nothing is hidden; it appears to offer a balance between positives and negatives; and, above all, it is valued as a simple and realistic rapid appraisal tool. Our concern is with the affect of using the SWOT technique. No matter how even-handed we might want to be, the weaknesses and threats of any situation or organization come to dominate the discussion. Under the guise of ‘realism’ conversation dwells on the challenges and problems and a negativity begins to prevail. It seems that when balance is sought, the negatives cancel out the positives and the resulting affect is that of cautious optimism at best, resigned pessimism at worst—hardly the emotional grounds for thinking and enacting social innovation.
In our action research we have been attracted to a very different tool called ‘needs and assets mapping,’ an innovative method of Assets Based Community Development (ABCD) ( In this technique people are asked to brainstorm the needs and deficiencies of their situation, organization or whatever the object of analysis is. Needs are mapped on a template that distinguishes those of people and practices, local associations and institutions, and businesses and infrastructure (or physical environment). In this discussion fears, worries, complaints and negative affect are aired, listened to and given time for recognition. Then the group is asked to brainstorm the assets map. Now the strengths and capacities of the situation under consideration are listed on another blank template, organized in the same way. What is interesting is how hard it is to think of assets, but once the group gets going all sorts of information spills out onto the map. The affect of this exercise is very different—amazement, appreciation and pride are expressed. The negative pull of needs and deficiencies is momentarily forgotten as the value of what is at hand in the here and now is recalled. This exercise provides a fertile ground upon which to dream, build and strengthen.
We have noticed that the SWOT analysis has been applied to many of the community and regional initiatives studied by the KATARSIS teams. Innovations ranging from social enterprises that employ people with disabilities or support youth-led artistic practice, to city-wide strategies for participatory budgeting or transition to a climate-changed world have all been subjected to evaluative appraisal in the SWOT style. Inevitably discussion dwelt on weaknesses (e.g., too small in scale, too disorganized, not generating enough of an economic return) and threats (e.g., too dependent on state funding that can be withdrawn at any time, vulnerability to takeover by the private sector). Under the pretense of realism the innovations at hand became smaller in our imaginations. As more problems and deficiencies loomed it was hard to keep a check on judgmentalism and negative affect. We wonder what might have occurred had we attempted a needs versus assets assessment in the ABCD spirit? Perhaps our collective stance regarding the potential of the social innovations under scrutiny might have been different?
2. Generating alternative discourses: representing the social economy

The KATARSIS project has focused on documenting examples of innovations in what has been variously called the ‘social economy’, the ‘third sector’ or the ‘solidarity economy’. Much intellectual energy has been expended discussing the nature of this ‘alternative economy’—its possible origins in capitalist crisis, its degree of independence from the state, its relationship with ‘the market’ and commodification and so on. One particular concern is whether the social economy can really be a site of innovation, given the ever-present risk of cooptation. We note that debates that focus on what the social economy really is have the potential to shut down discussions about what the social economy might become.

In our work we have found that how we represent something like an economy influences how we think about what is possible. If we see the economy as naturally and rightfully ‘capitalist’ then any economic activity that is positioned as different (e.g., involves non-market transactions, or non-waged labour, or shares surplus) cannot be viewed as legitimate, dynamic or long-lasting. The ‘capitalocentrism’ of economic discourse subsumes all economically diverse activities as ultimately the same as, the opposite of, a complement to or contained within capitalism (Gibson-Graham 2006b). One effect of allowing a representation of the economy as ‘really capitalist’ to stand unchallenged is that something like the social economy is automatically drawn into comparison and devaluing, and its innovative potential is considerably undermined.
Many social theorists have argued that discourse is performative and that thinking contributes to the making of new worlds (e.g., Judith Butler, Michel Callon, J K Gibson-Graham, Bruno Latour, Timothy Mitchell, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick). We have sought to bring thinking into action around the economy by creating alternative discourses that will help people perform new worlds. In our action research we have used the image of an iceberg to represent all the dispersed and diverse activities that make up our economic world (see Figure 3). Those activities (wage labour, market transactions and capitalist enterprise) that are seen as the ‘real’ economy are only the tip of this iceberg. When people see many of the activities they perform on a daily basis in this representation of the diverse economy, they start to imagine themselves as economic actors and shapers of new economies. The alternative discourse of a diverse economy inspires creative responses and an interest in maintaining and expanding economic diversity. The innovations documented by KATARSIS as part of the social economy are scattered around our diverse economy framework (see Figure 4)—some involve formal market transactions, others non-market exchanges and gifts, some include state capitalist involvement, others are truly cooperative communal enterprises. Using this representation there might be less need to talk of cooptation (by the state or by capitalism) and more encouragement to think creatively about networks of support between diverse non-capitalist activities. There might be less power given to representations of capital’s structural dynamics that drive change and limit alternatives and more inventive energy given to theorizing the ethical choices and their unpredictable path-dependent trajectories.
3. From critique to experimentation: supporting social enterprise development

For many scholars studying alternative economic interventions, the most important scholarly role is that of the critic. Despite their avowed interest in and support for alternatives, these analysts often assess alternative projects as insufficiently radical or self-sufficient, or see them as coopted and too weak to withstand the onslaughts of ‘structural’ forces and institutional constraints. The critical and judgmental stance overpowers the hopeful and experimental one—all under the guise of being objective.

It is important for us to remember that the scholarly mandate extends beyond critique to include innovation and experimentation. The innovative experimental approach views any site or process as producing information about how it can be improved. It asks about a social economy project, for example, not “how does it measure up in mainstream terms?” but “what can we learn from it to support and spread similar ventures?” In our action research we have been involved in creating and fostering social enterprises, defined as “businesses with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners” ( Rather than offering summary judgments on the ostensible weaknesses of these enterprises, we have joined with the participants in treating these weaknesses as challenges to be addressed and overcome (Community Economies Collective and Gibson 2009, Gibson 2009, Graham and Cornwell 2009). Perhaps capital investment in the enterprise is still dependent on granting agencies that have their own agendas. What kind of innovative sources of capital—sweat equity, in-kind contributions, community-supported capital funds with patient payback terms—can be drawn upon to start or grow the business? Perhaps working conditions and pay scale resemble exploitative capitalist enterprises. How might we support moves toward self-management and cooperativization? Perhaps product markets are vulnerable to competition from elsewhere. How might we establish fair trade niche markets with governments and consumers, or enable direct marketing initiatives that bypass the competition? Often social enterprises are seen as isolated experiments, not sufficient to change the rules of the game of a neoliberal economy. How might we support the solidarity economy networks that are emerging worldwide, convening at the World Social Forum and at solidarity economy conferences that bring participants together to build strength and foster innovation?
As academics and even as activists, we are conditioned to expect an economic monoculture, or at most a complicit state and private sector, not an experimental diverse economy offering numerous definitions of and pathways to ‘success.’ How might we circumvent or counteract our conditioning? How might we foster experimental subjectivities in ourselves and others? We suggest a pedagogy of strategic questioning, that is, learning to pose questions that open up rather than close down the possibility of becoming socially innovative, alternative, even ‘postcapitalist.’ For example,

  • What might it take for these experiments to be viable, sustainable and successful in people-centered terms?

  • What can we contribute to the success of these experiments?

This pedagogy of experimentation is also a pedagogy of self-awareness that asks us to observe our resistances and objections to the answers we generate. If we want the social economies we study to grow and thrive, we need to cultivate our experimental selves alongside them.
Conclusion: Academic subjects and practices to support social innovation

Many of us involved in KATARSIS project have been trained as academic subjects to theorize, analyse and critically assess the ‘objects’ of our research. In this paper we have been exploring three thinking practices that might enable social innovation, most of which are not taught in the academic curriculum, nor are they part of the enculturation of a professional academic: (1) attending to affect that fosters possibility; (2) generating alternative discourses with performative effects; (3) adopting an experimental orientation to increase the viability of social and economic experiments.

We have also suggested a number of ways that we might cultivate and position ourselves to facilitate these thinking practices and support social innovation. These include

  • Recognizing ourselves as internal rather than external to the object of research;

  • Working alongside non-academics in a collaborative fashion, blurring the line between ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’;

  • Cultivating an ethos and practice of experimentation rather than premature critique;

  • Cultivating ourselves as conditions of possibility for the emergence of the new.

As academics we are well positioned to disseminate and amplify local social experiments, increasing their capacity to engender ‘other worlds.’ The story of the Third Italy, familiar to economic geographers, suggests how a localized social innovation can be rapidly projected to a global scale via the communication infrastructure of academic institutions. In 1984 Piore and Sabel published their groundbreaking book, The Second Industrial Divide, depicting a new industrial paradigm they called “flexible specialization,” based on small, specialized, craft-based yet automated manufacturing firms in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. The book was soon taken up by every geography and planning program in the English-speaking world; in just a few years, these programs were placing economic development planners in surrounding cities and regions who were enacting “flexible specialization” on the ground. By the early 1990s Michael Porter of Harvard Business School had formalized this planning model as “cluster development,” which soon became the state of the art in economic development planning in universities and regions worldwide (see Porter 1998). Within 15 years, what had begun as a local success story was remaking industrial landscapes throughout the world.

This story not only provides a textbook example of the performativity of discourse—its capacity to bring into being what it describes—but it foregrounds the academy as an existing infrastructure for performative global enactments. Our research on the social economy and social innovation is communicated via publications and classrooms to academics and students worldwide. We can choose to foster and strengthen (and thus perform) an innovative social economy through our academic work, or we can undermine it by ignoring or downplaying its successes and potentials (thereby performing its marginality). Just as we are working to make social enterprise more visible and viable as an object of national policy and international activism, we see KATARSIS as working to make social innovation a priority among scholars, policymakers and activists alike. This process of validation and amplification is fostered not through advocacy, or not that alone, but through the epistemological support of creative thinking.

Community Economies Collective and Gibson K (2009) Building community-based social enterprises in the Philippines: diverse development pathways. In A Amin (ed) Plural Economy, Plural Provision: The Social Economy in International Perspective. London: Zed Press (forthcoming)

Gibson K. with M A Hill, P Maclay and M A Villalba (2009) Building Social Enterprises in the Philippines: Strategies for Local Development. 50 minute DVD, available from Department of Human Geography, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200

Gibson-Graham J K (2006a) A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Gibson-Graham J K (2006b) The End of Capitalism (As We knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. 2nd edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Graham J and Cornwell J Building community economies in Massachusetts: an emerging model of economic development? In A Amin (ed) Plural Economy, Plural Provision: The Social Economy in International Perspective. London: Zed Press (forthcoming)

Piore M and Sabel C (1984) The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity. New York: Basic Books

Porter M (1998) On Competition. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press

Figure 1 The SWOT Matrix

Figure 2 The Needs and Assets ‘Map’

Figure 3 The iceberg representation

Figure 4 A Diverse Economy








Sale of public goods

Ethical ‘fair-trade’ markets

Local trading systems

Alternative currencies

Underground market

Co-op exchange


Informal market





Reciprocal labor

In kind

Work for welfare


State enterprise

Green capitalist

Socially responsible firm


Household flows

Gift giving

Indigenous exchange

State allocations

State appropriations


Hunting, fishing, gathering

Theft, poaching



Family care

Neighborhood work


Self-provisioning labor

Slave labor





Source: Gibson-Graham (2006a, 71).

Note: The figure is intended to be read down the columns, not across the rows.

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