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The word ‘innovation’ usually conjures up images of high-tech labs and whizzing machines with brilliant scientists creating the visions on the future. However, innovation encompasses so much more than just the flashy inventions that come out in the end.

Eric Dahlin, a professor at Brigham Young University, spends his time studying the sociology of innovation.

“There are lots of great, amazing, exciting ideas people have that are new and would improve the world and our lives and our situations that aren’t accepted or adopted or used because they don’t fit well with existing organizational and institutional arrangements and cultural preference and practices,” said Dahlin.

On the other side, some ideas are accepted merely because of an historical accident or a chance meeting of the right people. These social interactions and the way they influence the innovative process are what Dahlin’s research and classes revolve around.

Recently Dahlin has worked with a group of engineering faculty and students to create an efficient cooking stove for people in South America. Dahlin studies things such as who will be using the stove, what the size of the families are, and what kinds of things will be cooked on the stove, which are things that will help the engineers build a more successful stove.

In addition to working with engineers on projects that will aid communities in developing countries, Dahlin is also studying patents and the patenting system in the United States. He is discovering that fewer and fewer individuals are creating patents, and that larger companies are increasingly dominating the patenting landscape. His current research focuses on whether this has a detrimental effect on the creativity of an individual versus a large corporation.

Dahlin has also been researching the pharmaceutical world and how new medicines are developed. He is focusing on whether innovation in the medical field comes from radically new ideas, or from simple changes made to preexisting ideas and methods.

As demonstrated by Dahlin’s extensive research, sociology is deeply intertwined with the innovative process, and Dahlin teaches a class every fall semester that studies the societal relationships found in the world and how they impact the creative process. The class begins by focusing on individual views of creativity and broadens its scope throughout the semester, studying the diffusion of creativity through groups, social networks, and organizations.

By understanding the familial, societal, and corporate relationships that define the world, innovation and creativity can be further developed. Roadblocks to progress can be identified and resolved, and improvements to society can be made. Dahlin’s teaching and research add to this well of important knowledge, and encourage others to contribute and collaborate in order to benefit the world.

1. Dahlin, Eric. 2014. “The Sociology of Innovation: Organizational, Environmental, and Relative Perspectives. Sociology Compass 8: 671-687.
2. Dahlin, Eric C. 2011. “There’s No ‘I’ in Innovation.” Contexts 4: 22-27.