The Contentious Politics of Disruptive Innovation: Vaping and Fracking in the European Union

Jacob Hasselbalch

Supervisors: André Broome (Univ. of Warwick) & Jean-Frédéric Morin (ULB)


This thesis investigates what it means to view disruptive innovation as a political problem. I take my point of departure in the tendency for controversial disruptions in heavily regulated sectors, such as electronic cigarettes or hydraulic fracturing, to open regulatory spaces by challenging established expectations about how they ought to be governed. In the wake of such disruption, policy actors with a stake in the matter engage in sensemaking and discursive contests to control the meaning of the innovations in order to close the regulatory spaces by aligning them with one set of laws instead of another. I study these contests in two recent legislative initiatives of the European Union to address the disruptive potential of e-cigarettes and fracking: the 2014 revision of the Tobacco Products Directive and the 2014 Commission recommendations on unconventional fossil fuels. The research draws on 51 interviews carried out with key policy actors during and after the policy debates. I bolster this with an analysis of policy documents, press releases and scientific studies, as well as a content and network analysis of position statements in newspaper articles. I find that the strategic use of rhetoric and framing plays an important part in creating, maintaining, and entrenching opposed coalitions in both policy debates. In both case studies, the policy solution is accompanied by deteriorating levels of trust among participants, leading coalitions to engage in strategies of venue-shopping to circumvent their opponents. This underscores the significant challenges there are for policymakers to address disruptions while maintaining legitimacy. The original contribution of the thesis lies in its novel conceptualization of disruptive innovation as a political problem, its application of micro-sociological approaches to the politics of expertise and European public policy, and its practical and theoretical suggestions for how to better study periods of disruption and govern through them.

This project receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No 722826.