My introductory remarks about the author of the new book about Big Change were a bit caustic – I just felt Centola was a bit bumptious. But his commitment to significant social change can’t be questioned. Not just because his family raised him to protest against social injustice but by virtue of the range of serious issues he has explored in different parts of the world – which are set out in the book he published in 2018 - How Behaviour Spreads.
Change – how to make big things happen is his reach for blockbuster fame but still deserves serious (as distinct from MM) attention for its focus on how positive ideas can have a greater impact.
My feeling is that not enough so-called “progressives” take this question seriously enough – it’s almost as if they prefer to be on the losing side all the time!
I reviewed a book a few months ago largely because it was one of the few which actually looked at the behavioural aspects of the climate change issue. But it’s been more than a decade since a clutch of publications appeared which seemed to offer new tools for strengthening at least the targeting of progressive messages –
- Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions; Keith Grint (2008)
- How Change Happens - Interdisciplinary Perspectives for Human Development; Roman Krznaric 2007 - Probably the most useful 60-page article you can read on the subject which tries to summarise how a range of disciplines were thinking about the question in the early part of the millennium.
Part 1 describes different approaches to how change happens from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. These include, among others, history, politics, sociology, psychology, economics, international relations, legal studies, and ecology. Each discipline has its own distinctive approach; for instance, political scientists are interested in transformations of political systems, psychologists in individual behaviour, sociologists in worldviews. The section highlights the general factors and conceptual frameworks used to explain change, not empirical content.
The second part sets out a tool for thinking about change, drawing on the various perspectives described in Part 1 – in the form of a table called ‘The rough guide to how change happens’. It then examines an example of major social change – the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain – which illustrates the utility of the ‘rough guide’ as a tool for understanding and explaining how change takes place.
The third part of the paper explores the extent to which contemporary development strategies to tackle poverty and inequality employ the full range of approaches to change proposed in the ‘rough guide’. It examines strategies such as managing markets, reforming the state, empowerment, and corporate social responsibility, and traces them back to their roots in particular academic disciplines.
Current development thinking makes use of only a narrow range of possible approaches to change. The result is that development strategies are limited in five main ways:
- they are excessively reformist and insensitive to underlying power and inequality;
- they largely ignore environmental issues;
- they overlook the importance of personal relationships and promoting mutual understanding as a strategy of change;
- they fail to fully appreciate the contextual factors that limit change;
- and they lack a multidisciplinary agility to draw on the broad range of approaches to change that exist outside the narrow confines of development studies.
Overall there is a need for broader thinking about how change does happen so that we can be more creative and adept at devising strategies to confront the enormous challenges facing our societies and planet.
Typically, however, the blog just noted that such papers existed and did not try to analyse – let alone summarise or compare – them. And the same was true last year when the blog collected together in a table what I considered to the more worthwhile of the key texts for social activists issued in the past half-century. No attempt was made to assess them properly – for which I apologise profusely. Clearly this is long overdue – but requires me to be in the mood. So bear with me!
REFLEXIVITY is something we associate with George Soros – who situates it nicely in this very personal story. Basically it states that our capacity to read about events makes predictions impossible. We can and do take actions to minimise any dangers of which we are warned.
That’s why I take Centola’s the seven strategic recommendations he makes at the end of his most recent book with a strong pinch of salt. Forewarned is forearmed!
Other Recommended Reading
How Change Happens; Duncan Green (2016)
How Change Happens – why some social movements succeed while others don’t ; Leslie Crutchfield (2018)
Duncan Green’s comment on the 2018 book