what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Windows of Change

One of the issues which fascinates me is social change – how alliances can and do reach sufficient “critical mass” to force governments to change direction. My background is political science but, when in 1990 I moved into consultancy on “capacity development” I did my homework on the “change management” literature which was then so fashionable.

The pandemic has given us a “new kid on the block” to contend with – the social network theorists - whose father and inspiration has been Spanish sociology Professor Manuel Castells.

“The Rules of Contagion - why things spread and Why they Stop” by Adam Kucharski (2020) is a typical of this new genre. It’s actually been lying on my shelves for a few weeks and it is only a much-hyped book by Damon CentolaChange – how to make Big Things Happen” which has made me aware of the questions now being raised in this field.

I have to confess that I am reading it with a jaundiced eye. I am not impressed with the conceit of an author who tells me in the opening pages 

“I have a unique perspective on these ideas….in fact, over the past decades, my ideas have helped shape this new field” and that “I directly manipulated the behaviour of entire populations”

Hasn’t this guy heard of hubris? Or of Icarus who got burned when he flew too high?

Centola is a Professor (of Sociology in a school of Communications and Engineering) who has done a lot of work on both social movements and epidemiology – so clearly has something to say and I will read the book carefully. Indeed I can already spot where I need to amend my own theory of change which currently runs as follows - 

“I have a theory of change which emphasises the individual, moral responsibility as well as the dynamic of the crowd. Most of the time our systems seem impervious to change – but always (and suddenly) an opportunity arises. Those who care about the future of their society, prepare for these “windows of opportunity”. And the preparation is about analysis, mobilisation and integrity.

·              It is about us caring enough about our organisation and society to speak out about the need for change.

·              It is about taking the trouble to think and read about ways to improve things – and

·              To help create and run networks of such change

·              which mobilise social forces

·              And it is about establishing a personal reputation for probity and good judgement 

·              that people will follow your lead when that window of opportunity arises”. 

Centola’s presentation presents evidence which disputes that final point – showing that key actors in the Egyptian Spring with such reputations failed a week before the crucial catalyst. The key events were triggered by others…..

One of his central points is that social change 

“is not about information……it’s about norms……social networks are not merely the pipes…but the prisms that determine how we see those behaviours and interpret the ideas”

I’ll let you know more about the book once I get through it…..

afterthought;

The last book I read about networks was probably Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower –networks, hierarchies and the struggle for global power (2017) which was actually a historian’s fascinating take on the issue. My comments on the book ranged pretty widely and had more to do with my own discovery of the importance of networks but a subsequent post referred to another article not referenced in Ferguson’s copious notes but which place the idea of networks in a far more insightful context than Ferguson – namely Tribes, institutions, markets, networks – a framework for societal evolution by David Ronfeldt (RAND Corporation 1996). It's an important article which argues that each form is necessary – one does not replace the other….With a great table of which I have selected some excerpts - 

Comparison of the 4 models

Tribe/clan

Institution

market

Network

Key realm

Family/culture

State/government

economy

Civil society

Essential feature

Give sense of identity

Exercise authority

Allow free transactions

Share knowledge

Key Value

Belonging

Order

freedom

equality?

Key risk

Nepotism

Corruption

exploitation

Group think

Identity

Solidarity

Sovereignty

competition

Cooperation

Motivation

Survival

Rules

Self-interest

Group empowerment

structure

Acephalous

Hierarchical

atomised

Flat


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