Forging the path to innovation: Gender and social networks during French industrialization

Kerstins Rum Session 6: The application of cutting edge technology to economic history research organized by Jonathan Jayes, Jonas Kreutzer, Youssouf Merouani


Youssouf Merouani


Although women have been actively involved in economic activities throughout the industrialization period (e.g., Boserup, 1970; Goldin, 1990), their contributions to technological progress and innovation activity during this period have yet to be further investigated. Previous studies provided partial evidence that women innovated during the nineteenth century (Chanteux, 2009; Khan, 2016). Women patented in diverse industries and have been involved in patenting activities since the inception of the patenting system in France and throughout the entirety of the nineteenth century (Merouani and Perrin, 2023). Innovation studies have long recognized the role of networks in the innovation process, and are especially useful when analyzed through a dynamic perspective and coupled with geographic information (Boschma and Frenken, 2010). Typically, economic historians have viewed networks related to technological innovation as either structures through which technological innovation diffuses or as links between ideas that define the lineage of innovation (Esteves and Geisler Mesevage, 2019). While there are some studies on the role of social networks in facilitating the process of invention and innovation (e.g., Cook, 2011) – these are few. The existence of a significant and persistent gender patenting gap and a lower propensity for women to patent in teams, as shown by Merouani and Perrin (2023), poses intriguing questions on the role of social networks in innovation. Why are some individuals or networks better connected than others? Does connectivity increase the innovativeness of individuals? What is more important for innovation, connectivity or proximity? But more importantly: To what extent do social networks facilitate or hinder innovation? Although not all innovations are patented, patenting activity as a means of measuring innovation has become a standard practice for making comparisons across time and between countries (Moser, 2016). In this paper, I use a dynamic social network analysis approach with a novel and complete patent dataset of 19th century French patents developed by Merouani and Perrin (2023). Following the work by Moser (2005), I complement this database with other forms of innovations by including innovators acting outside the patenting system by using information from fairs in 19th century France (e.g., Exposition universelle de Paris de 1889). Preliminary findings show that networks of both men and women were especially concentrated in large cities. Networks including female innovators had less connectivity with mediators (e.g., patent agents), which are an integral part of the national network. Further, I find that institutions such as the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers [Conservatory of arts and trades] in Paris acted as large central nodes to attract and develop networks of innovators from all over France. These findings do not include the results of the study’s primary analyses, which are still being conducted.


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