Social Innovation: The Ideas and Contributions of Gabriel Tarde


  • Tor Helge Pedersen Inland University of Applied Sciences, Lillehammer, Norway



Gabriel Tarde, innovation, invention, imitation, SI, combination perspective


Social innovation (SI) has received increasing attention from policymakers and researchers. It has become one of the answers to contemporary societal challenges (Grimm et al., 2013), a policy in the European Union (Nicholls and Edmiston 2018), and is still an emerging area of innovation studies (Van der Have and Rubalcaba 2016). Even though the empirical history of SI is becoming well documented, its theoretical history has not received much attention. Exceptions include contributions to SI, where Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904) has been named as a source of a theory about SI. Motivated by these observations, this paper explores, describes, and discusses Tarde’s theoretical ideas about innovation in general and especially the category of SI by asking the following guiding question: What are Tarde’s innovation-related theoretical ideas and what is their relevance to SI research today? This theoretical discussion is based on three areas of literature: (i) a selection of 12 of Tarde’s original publications from 1890 to 1902, (ii) a selection of contemporary publications on SI, and (iii) a diverse selection of literature relevant to the development of innovation studies and SI studies. A central component of this paper is that it is based on original French publications and two early English translations that represent good sources for pinpointing when words and concepts were used in Tarde’s writings. This paper identifies and discusses three connections between Tarde and SI research. The first is the identification of three categories of innovation that cover examples of SI today. The second is his social theory, which emphasizes the role of invention and imitation in social change. The third is that Tarde is an early example of the theoretical idea of a combination of innovation and social change, which can also be identified in current research on SI. These findings could be of interest to those intrigued by how SIs today are the result of the diffusion or combination of earlier ideas with different sources (hybrids).