Notes on theories of change

Here is a short summary of the things discussed in yesterday’s SIDC lecture and workshop on ”Theories of change”.

This lecture broadly deals with the issue of strategies that one can follow when trying to produce social change. These are obviously different depending on the context, and there is a limit to what an academic like myself can bring to the discussion. Nevertheless, I hope that the argument can give you some tools with which to conceptualise your own work.*

The term ”theory of change” is something that I have borrowed from a textbook on social entrepreneurship, but here, I have expanded this notion somewhat. On a very fundamental level, our discussion will concern the issue of ”strategy” – a term which can designate many things. We are used to hearing about corporate strategy and military strategy, but there are other ways of understanding the term. Freedman (2013) thus distinguishes ”strategy from above” (corporate strategy) with ”strategy from below” (activism). Here, we will deal mostly with the latter, though the different forms of strategic thinking are interrelated. Thus, as Freedman points out, the activist strategies of the 19th century were influenced by military strategy: For example, Engels read Clausewitz extensively. So, along the way, there will be one or two references to strategy from above – and some of the ideas discussed in relation to activism have also been adopted by military commanders.

Let us first make one introductory point: Any theory of change also implies a theory of the nature of the thing or system that one is trying to change. In other words, when talking about different theories of change, we are also talking about different worldviews or ontologies. We can find those everywhere, and they may differ considerably. Consider the example of The Matrix: At different points in the film, different theories of change and underlying worldviews are presented. Thus, in an early scene, where Neo pops the red pill given to him by Morpheus. This will enable Neo to wake up and see the underlying truth obscured by the matrix. Heath and Potter (2006) has argued that this was the worldview and theory of change espoused by the American counterculture activists of the late 1960s – through sit-ins and transgressive lifestyles, they wanted to be the red pill that awakened the conformist masses from their slumber. This approach, I would argue, rests on a theoretical conception of society operating like a motor: Indeed, many of the modern social scientific scholars were influenced by mechanisms of motors when conceptualising society. Thus:

For the countercultural youth, the only way out of this total system (which operates as a motor) was to throw gravel into the machinery, jamming its modes of operation, thus baring the monstrosity of the machine for all of the world to see. Public demonstrations, sit-ins, subversive art and various ways of ”˜dropping out”™ mainstream culture were all different approaches
to achieve this effect. (Palmås, 2006: 75)

In the ending scene of The Matrix, another conception of the world is expressed, one which implies another theory of change. This, of course, is when we all realise that Neo is ”the one”, by virtue of his ability to see and decipher the code of the matrix. With this ability, he can tweak and modify the ”natural laws” that supposedly prevail in the matrix – I write ”supposedly”, because once Neo understands the software that produces these laws, they become subject to modification and hacking. As suggested by the term ”hacking”, this approach to social change presupposes that the world is construed as a computer. If one believes that the world is more like a computer and less like a motor, the objective of activism does not have to revolve around the themes of disruption of societal processes, but instead of attempts ”to modify them in a very tangible manner”. (82) Activism becomes a matter of experimentation, craft and engineering, rather than a matter of disclosing obscured truths.

However, activisms that focus on the experimental may also shift general perceptions of truth – or, rather, experiments can shift people’s perception of what is possible. Consider the example of Occupy Wall Street. On the one hand, it can be understood as a demonstration – in the traditional political sense of the term – that aims to express discontent with the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the extraordinary power and wealth of ”the 1%”, and the plight of ”the 99%” suffering under a neo-feudal system. However, as Graeber (2013) points out, it was also an experiment in democracy: By which other mechanisms could it work? How, in practice, could another form of democracy be enacted? Thus, it can also be understood as a practical demonstration of alternative modes of organising citizens’ self-government.

The term that Graeber prefers for these experiments is ”prefigurative politics”. During a window in time, one may engineer a small pocket governed by alternative logics, and this experiment may hopefully become understood as a shadow from the future – a small-scale version that prefigures a grander-scale change about to come into existence. Note that the onus is on demonstrating or proving the practicability of a certain mode of organisation previously deemed impossible. Here, prefigurative politics can be contrasted with civil disobedence. In both forms of activism, there is an ambition to ”be the change”, and thus embody the desired future state of things. However, in the latter type of activism, the focus is rather on exposing the operations of an unjust society, in the hope of generating broad sympathy for the cause. A clash with the legal system may facilitate this cause – but this also implies that successful civil disobedience depends on a context of rule of law and free press.

A theory of change may also imply a theory of how movements grow – how they scale up and become mass movements, again using strategies ”from below”. One way to a approach this is through the idea of contagion: How can currents of imitation be orchestrated, how do things ”get viral”? While this theme has been prominent in recent years, with authors writing about ”tipping points” and similar concepts, the question of how to manage the diffusion of ideas has a long history within the social sciences. This goes back to early attempts to spread agricultural knowledge to rural farmers, but also to the advent of modern public relations. (Lindberg & Palmås, 2013) Another way to approach the issue of how to create mass movements is through self-organisation: Here, too, there has been considerable work on phenomena like ”emergence”, in which collective agency can emerge without the aid of leadership. One example is that of how ants are organised – not via a supposed ”ant queen” (Johnson, 2002), but through simple protocols through which the individual ants relate to one another. (Another example is the famous slime mould.) The concept of emergence, following simple protocols, may also be applied to the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig in the fall of 1989. More recently, the business world has attempted to harness similar logics in the form of corporations organised along the lines of ”holacracy”.

One last issue to consider is whether a business form may be conducive to one’s initiative for change. Provided one can find a workable business model, running an operation in the form of a business may make it easier to secure resources. However, beyond this issue, there is a further aspects to consider. First of all, it is important to recognise that business has long had the effect of radically transforming social life – this idea is central to both Schumpeter and Marx. Moreover, in relation to strategies of change, one may argue that the aim of corporate strategy has become more geared towards the deliberate re-organising of industries. (Note the shift of the 1990s: Hamel and Prahalad’s focus on not listening to consumers that invariably want more of the same, and not simply ”positioning” oneself in a pre-given industry, but instead actively shaping the future.)

This potential may be leveraged for ends related to social change: Indeed, one can see a business identity as a cloak for doing radical things without having to accept political responsibility. As a business leader, one may drive operations that fundamentally change society, while at the same time arguing that ”it is not me that is acting, my business is simply following the natural laws of the market”. Still, this requires that one plays the business game – and in some cases, where the nature of the economic action is controversial (such as services related to piracy), it may be difficult to pull that strategy off.

There are other ways of thinking about this issue. With reference to ”prefigurative politics”, and Neo’s hacking of supposed natural laws, one can modify the supposed natural laws of the economy by demonstrating other modes of economic organisation. In fact, one can understand the politics of the economy in precisely those terms – as ongoing experiments, of which some end up successful enough to breed imitators. (Palmås & Lindberg, 2013) Such demonstrations may attempt to operate outside of the traditional capitalist formation – say, the copyleft movement – or they may attempt to do something new inside of this formation. One example is that of microcredit, which could be construed as an experiment in whether it is possible to lend money to people without collateral. Once the idea was proven – remember, prior to the work of actors like Grameen Bank, the idea was thought to conflict with the ”natural laws of banking” – it got adopted and imitated. However, as is often the case, such a process is difficult to contain – and now we know that the various enactments of this logic make it difficult to speak of this innovation as an undivided success.

This last point chimes with the general conclusion that one can draw from processes of social change – they are rarely, if ever, undivided successes. When historicising such changes, we tend to imagine them as radical breaks; instantaneous shifts from a sad to happy states. We also tend to see them as borne by heroic individuals. Again, this tends to obscure the sheer complexity through which these changes occur.

– – – –

*: This talk does not deal with the thorny issue of how to deal with contexts characterised by outright physical violence. Nor will it discuss the challenges facing the liberal-democratic model of governance – but let’s just note that there is an interesting discussion that has emerged on this point. (Runciman, 2013)


Freedman, L. (2013) Strategy: A history.

Graeber, D. (2013) The Democracy Project: A history, a crisis, a movement.

Heath, J. & A. Potter (2006) The Rebel Sell: How counterculture became consumer culture.

Johnson, S. (2002) Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software.

Lindberg, J. & K. Palmås (2013) ”Winning the hearts and minds of farmers: Institutionalised innovation diffusion in Sri Lanka”

Palmås, K. (2006) ”After counterculture”, in von Busch & Palmås Abstract Hacktivism: The making of hacker culture.

Palmås, K. & J. Lindberg (2013) ”Livelihoods or ecopreneurship? Agro-economic experiments in Hambantota, Sri Lanka”.

Runciman, D. (2013) The Confidence Trap: A history of democracy in crisis from World War I to the present.

6 tankar kring ”Notes on theories of change

  1. Stefan Larsson

    Thanks for posting!
    Yes, it seems absolutely like the ”contagion” track is a relevant one to address, on top of the other in the reflections around ”theories of change”.
    btw, how would you conceptualize the environment in which en initiative that seeks to achieve change is placed within, or meets? – The context that likely will decide to what extent the initiative will spread, grow, permute or simply just die. We spoke of it in terms of something ”gaining traction” or so. It seems like that there is something of a core interest for the issue of change in just that – being able to tell and strategize about to what extent or how initiatives for change will be received, yes?

  2. Kalle P Inläggsförfattare

    With regards to contagion, I would suggest looking at stuff like ”tipping point” arguments – there you will find more thoughts on the context necessary for the spread/scaling-up of viral processes.

    More generally, I do think it is important to choose your strategy according to the context – so, for instancem, as discussed during the lecture/workshop, civil disobedience is futile unless there is a context of free press and rule of law.

  3. Magnus

    Another thing to consider in relation to the environment of an initiative is Latours point that ”there is no transportation without translation”, so something spreads not as a fixed thing but by becoming translated into the language and practice of its environment. It always meets already existing local practices that it needs to make an impact (an irritation) on in order for them to have to deal with it by somehow integrating it and therefor be transformed by it and also transform what that initiative was.

  4. Kalle P Inläggsförfattare

    True! No naive diffusionism here. A further point, on the notion of contagion: During my Sri Lanka fieldwork, I realised how easy it is to miss the fact that actual diffusion is to a large extent formatted by ”the members'” ideas about diffusion. So, in our case, the spread of an agricultural trend or doctrine often uses the agricultural extension profession as ”vector”. This profession, in turn, uses practices that are themselves premised on certain conceptions of innovation diffusion. (See this paper.)

    So, in relation to the activist purposes discussed in the SIDC2013 context, it is certainly worth bearing the ”practiced worldviews” of prospective vectors in mind.

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