“Innovation Studies”: The Invention of a Specialty


Innovation has become a very popular concept over the twentieth century. However, few have stopped to study the origins of the category and to critically examine the studies produced on innovation. This paper conducts such an analysis on one type of innovation, namely technological innovation. The study of technological innovation is over one hundred years old. From the early 1900s onward, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and economists began theorizing about technological innovation, each from his own respective disciplinary framework. However, in the last forty years an economic and “dominant” understanding of technological innovation has developed: technological innovation defined as commercialized invention. This paper documents the origins of this representation and the tradition of research to which it gave rise: “innovation studies.” More specifically, it analyzes what distinguishes this tradition from that concerned with technological change as the use of inventions in industrial production, and looks at why such a tradition originated in Europe.

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  1. 1.

    In 1982, the three characteristics were presented as follows: the scientific character of technology, its complexity, and the division of labour (specialized laboratory).

  2. 2.

    Schumpeter had described his own history similarly, as “comments or sketches” aimed at presenting “mere illustrations and indications” (Schumpeter 1939: 222). The first to discuss the study of “invention” as best realized through case studies rather than statistics was sociologist S. Colum Gilfillan (1935).

  3. 3.

    Products and processes are often discussed in term of a dichotomy. However, one industry’s new product often becomes another industry’s process. As Pavitt once put it: “product innovations in capital and intermediate goods automatically become process process innovations in the industries and services that buy them” (Pavitt and Walker 1976: 20; see also Scherer 1982).

  4. 4.

    On early studies on innovation as product (or consumer) innovation (within a completely different framework), see Dernburg (1958), Lancaster (1966) and Usher (1964).

  5. 5.

    See also Freeman 1979: “Innovation is defined (as it usually is, following Schumpeter) as the commercial introduction and exploitation of an invention” (Freeman 1979: 211).

  6. 6.

    As an economist of the time put it: “Innovation is used here and in the rest of this essay to mean inventions that are introduced into the market place, a usage different from Schumpeter’s but probably closer to the common meaning” (Nutter 1956: 522). That this understanding was ‘common’ does not mean that there were no alternative representations (technological change) or that the category was uncontested.

  7. 7.

    Freeman’s first use of such a meaning goes back to the early 1960s (Freeman, Young and Fuller 1963: 38). See also Freeman (1971: 1)

  8. 8.

    Nevertheless, Freeman uses “technological change” regularly in a loose sense, as many did and still do: changes in technologies (new technologies). He also adapted “technological change” into “technical change,” and would in many later papers use the term interchangeably with innovation. He also talked of “function,” a term widely used in the tradition on technological change: R&D “function” (Freeman 1974: 25), “function” of technology critic (Freeman 1974: 308–9) and information “function” (Freeman 1974: 274). Schumpeter also has used “function” regularly: entrepreneur function, production function, managerial function, social function (Schumpeter 1939).

  9. 9.

    R. R. Nelson used a different strategy. He criticized the first tradition explicitly on many occasions since the late 1970s, contrasting it to the second one. However, Nelson’s polarity refers to “method” only: the first tradition (he does not use this term) is characterized by formal theorizing (statistical and logical) as distinct from the second, which is rather appreciative theorizing (empirical and interpretative). But there is one more difference: the object of study and the meaning of innovation (use of invention vs. commercialization of invention). In matters of method, I would rather suggest a threefold distinction: mathematical, descriptive (rather than interpretative), and historical. Each is typical of a specific community: technological change, innovation studies, and economic historians. The historical approach is largely absent from the first two traditions.

  10. 10.

    Lists of (important) innovations is a type of data available from surveys. The first such lists were published in the 1930s (US National Research Council), followed by Carter and Williams in the late 1950s. Freeman originally suggested the idea as after-thought on output indicators in the OECD Frascati manual that he wrote (OECD 1962: 37) then to UNESCO (Freeman 1969: 25).

  11. 11.

    In 1982, one more rationale was offered: technological innovation as a measurement of R&D efficiency (output) or “cost-effectiveness” (Freeman 1982: 53–54).

  12. 12.

    Freeman also cherished new techniques like project evaluation, operation research and planning (technology assessment).

  13. 13.

    Productivity issues may be criticized from a theoretical point of view, as Nelson did regularly. However, the issues remain, together with the tradition responsible for them, essential to writing a history of the field and for understanding the emergence of the second tradition.

  14. 14.

    Two exceptions from the conference were W.F. Mueller and J.L. Enos.

  15. 15.

    At about the same time as Freeman (late 1960s), researchers at Manchester had started conducting similar analyses as Freeman’s (Langrish et al. 1972). On precursors on risk and technological innovation, see Lange (1943) and Strassman (1959).

  16. 16.

    Neither Martin nor Fagerberg pretend to offer a “historical” analysis of the field. However, they list the most popular (cited) authors by dates and the categories they use to organize this list are historical.

  17. 17.

    Freeman has used the concepts (together with that of ‘disparity’) regularly in the 1960s in his study conducted at the British National Institute for Economic and Social Research, some of them financed by the OECD (Freeman, Young and Fuller 1963; Freeman and Hirsh 1965; Freeman, Harlow and Fuller 1965; Freeman 1968; Freeman and Ray 1969). See also Freeman (1971).

  18. 18.

    In addition to ‘gap’ (called ‘disparity’ in Freeman and Young (1965) produced for the OECD), Freeman’s concept of ‘research-intensive industries’ was first suggested in his report to the first OECD ministerial conference on science (OECD 1963b), and ‘explicit’ (and ‘direct’) policy, as discussed below, had precursors in the organization, too (OECD 1963a, 1966).

  19. 19.

    The discussion of innovation as commercialization goes hand in hand with that of competitiveness in terms of market shares of new products.

  20. 20.

    Freeman has never cited any source for his (early) conception of technological innovation as commercialized invention (see Freeman, Young and Fuller 1963: 38; Freeman 1971: 1). Then, in 1974, he had attributed it to Schumpeter. However, in 1972, Freeman cited a government source (the UK Central Advisory Council on Science and Technology 1968) as authority (SPRU 1972: 7).

  21. 21.

    Sometimes this set is called “historical” or “historical context” (Freeman 1974: 255), but I prefer institutional or contextual. Certainly, the context and institutions have a history, but most of the analyses of the tradition are not historical, except in the sense discussed above. More often than not, history (of a rather recent time span by the way) comes after the conceptual work in “innovation studies,” as a background or residual piece of evidence, although placed first in books and papers.

  22. 22.

    From the military to environment, energy, natural resources, transport, quality of life and underdevelopment.

  23. 23.

    The most active researchers on science policy in the early years of SPRU were Keith Pavitt and R. Rothwell with W. Zegveld. Pavitt, as well as Jean-Jacques Salomon in France, have worked at the OECD before starting an academic career.

  24. 24.

    Nelson was then working within the mainstream framework, as most American economists did. See Nelson (1964).

  25. 25.

    Freeman (1974: 214) makes a lot of such a short essay-type chapter (Schumpeter 1962: chapter 12). Freeman, following others, rather offers a personal construction which goes further than Schumpeter’s own thought.

  26. 26.

    See M.J. Peck and I.R. Siegel in NBER (1962: 317; 445) and Rosenberg (1976: 67). In Freeman (1994: 480), Freeman talks of the “Schumpeterian concept” of “diffusion.” Schumpeter was rather concerned with “imitation” and followers among entrepreneurs, not diffusion (a term he uses only once) of innovations through the economy and society. Schumpeter has not studied diffusion but has jumped from innovations to their effects on the economy (business cycles). Schumpeter may have had the “idea” of diffusion, but not the “concept.”

  27. 27.

    To be honest, this survey was concerned with invention not innovation. However, Maclaurin was concerned with the latter.

  28. 28.

    A.A. Bright, Y. Brozen, J.L. Enos, B. Gold, W.R. Maclaurin, W.F. Mueller, N. Rosenberg, W.C. Scoville, P. Strassman and some others.

  29. 29.

    Other symbolic fathers in the tradition are V. Bush (see Godin 2006a) and F. List.

  30. 30.

    For an overview of the tradition today, see Fagerberg et al. (2005).

  31. 31.

    G.M. Hodgson has already made a similar argument: Schumpeter’s name is widely invoked as “spiritual symbol” and “father” (Hodgson 1993: 150).


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I sincerely thank two evaluators, including Richard Nelson for his very constructive and substantial comments.

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Correspondence to Benoît Godin.

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Godin, B. “Innovation Studies”: The Invention of a Specialty. Minerva 50, 397–421 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11024-012-9212-8

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  • Innovation
  • Innovation studies
  • Chris Freeman
  • Intellectual history