what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

back to social change

Time out from technical Assistance – for those interested, my further thoughts of the last few days on what more the EC should be doing to sharpen up its effectiveness in institution-building in the sorts of countries I've been working in are posted as a key paper on my website
Serendipity is the great things about libraries and second hand-bookshops. The hard commercial sells are absent – and we alight instead on the old books brought in by accident. Last week I rejoined the British Council library here (which, unlike the Sofia branch, is still stocking books!) and took home a 2004 paperback Spiritual Capital – wealth we can live by (Danah Zohar) on the basis of its promising opening pages. The author’s 5 year old son wanted to know why we had a life – and that brought home to the author the pointlessness (if not poison) of so much modern living – and how the selfishness of modern capitalism might be modified. Like a lot of people now, this has become a central issue for me.
The book itself disappointed – not least for the reasons I have criticised so many books for - failure to mention other relevant texts. Although the book mentions “stewardship”, it completely fails to mention the writings of Robert Greenleaf and also, despite its subtitle, Paul Elkan’s Natural Capitalism (2000) – let alone such green texts as Richard Douthwaite’s (whose latest can be read here)
As befits a psychologist, Zohar focuses on motivations – and has indeed some very interesting stuff on that. For the last few years I’ve been struggling with this subject (neglected I feel in the literature on public management) and had identified 7 different motives in table 1 on page 15 of this paper. Zohar has 16! Of course it is good for political scientists and Institution Builders like myself to be reminded that all change comes from individuals. But, as the literature on capacity development recognises, behavioural and social change operates at two other levels as well – the organisational (which is shaped by a combination of corporate governance and management systems); and societal. In November I posed four questions about social change.
• Why do we need major change in our systems?
• Who or what is the culprit?
• What programme might start a significant change process?
• What mechanisms (process or institutions) do we need to implement such programmes?

That blog also indicated some relevant texts. I need now to return to these questions – and make the link between the malaise in overtly kleptocratic regimes and the malaise from which so many western societies are now suffering. Most of the literature about social change is written from one of the three perspectives I have mentioned (micro; macro or meso) – Robert Quinn is one of the few who has looked at the area between two of them. His Change the world; how ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary results is an excellent antidote for those who are still fixated on the expert model of change – those who imagine it can be achieved by “telling”, “forcing” or by participation. Quinn exposes the last for what it normally is (despite the best intentions of those in power) – a form of manipulation – and effectively encourages us, through examples, to have more faith in people. As the blurb says – “the idea that inner change makes outer change possible has always been part of spiritual and psychological teachings. But not an idea that’s generally addressed in leadership and management training. Quinn looks at how leaders such as Christ, Gandhi and Luther King have mobilised people for major change – and suggests that, by using 8 principles, “change agents” are capable of helping ordinary people to achieve transformative change. These principles are -
• Envisage the productive community
• Look within
• Embrace the hypocritical self
• Transcend fear
• Embody a vision of the common good
• Disturb the system
• Surrender to the emergent system
• Entice through moral power

Is it people who change systems? Or systems which change people? Answers tend to run on ideological grounds - individualists tend to say the former; social democrats the latter. And both are right! Change begins with a single step, an inspiring story, a champion. But, unless the actions “resonate” with society, they will dismissed as mavericks, “ahead of their time”.
I am now working on a simple task which I haven't seen attempted before - to identify in one short paper the various texts which seem to me relevant to the issue of social change (covering all three levels mentioned in this blog)and to look at the interface between them.


  1. You are right there are many revamped business models for change but it is often the story, the event or the convergence of ideas with the mood for change that is the catalyst. If you can simplify these into a coherent paper you will have provided a context that will allow us to operate outside the parameters of deadlines, efficiencies and inappropriate adoption of templates that do not fit.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Keith! "Simplify" and "coherent" are the key words! The World Bank book does, amazingly, have a couple of interesting chapters on this. See my October 30 post - "opportunistic theory of change"....