‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’, said Karl Marx in one of his most celebrated passages, which eventually became one of his two epitaphs (the other one being, ‘Workers of all lands, unite’).
Marx was certainly right to argue that social theories should be not just about understanding the status quo but also about offering a vision for its improvement; but he was wrong to imply that no one before him had thought like that.
For the last several thousand years at least, human beings have tried to imagine a different world from the one they live in, and worked together to create it. Human history is littered with countless visions of—and struggles for—an alternative social order. These may have been large-scale social experiments based on elaborate theories, like Marxism, the welfare state, or neo-liberalism. Or they may have involved daily struggles for survival, safety, and dignity by oppressed and underprivileged people, even though they may not have had any sophisticated theory about their alternative world. However, the capacity to imagine an alternative social order and cooperating to create it is what distinguishes humankind from other animals.
Despite the fact that much of human history has been about attempting to create different realities, we do not understand the process of social change very well.
To be sure, we have grand historical narratives that describe social change as the results of interactions between technological forces and economic institutions, such as property rights; Marxism is the best (p.xii) example of this. We know quite a bit about the way in which society is transformed because of the changes in political-legal institutions, such as the court system or international trade agreements. We have interesting and detailed accounts of how certain individuals and groups—whether they are political leaders, business leaders, trade unions, or grassroots groups—have succeeded in realizing visions that initially few others thought realistic.
However, we do not yet have a good theory of how all these different elements work together to generate social change. To put it a bit more dramatically, if someone wanted to know how she could change certain aspects of the community, nation, or the world she lives in, she would be hard pressed to find a decent guidebook.
Into this gap steps Duncan Green, the veteran campaigner for development and social justice, with How Change Happens, an innovative and thrilling field guide to—let’s not mince words—changing the world.
Many conventional discussions of how change happens focus either on technology (mobile phones can bring the revolution!) or a brutal account of realpolitik—how oligarchs and elites carve up the world. While not ignoring such factors, How Change Happens develops a far better framework for understanding social change by focusing on power analysis and systemic understanding; this is called the ‘power and systems approach’.
The power and systems approach emphasizes that, in order to generate social change, we first need to understand how power is distributed and can be re-distributed between and within social groups: the emancipation of women; the spread of human rights; the power of poor people when they get organized; the shifting power relationships behind the negotiations around the international economic system. While emphasizing the role of power struggles, the book does not see them as voluntaristic clashes of raw forces, in which whoever has more arms, money, or votes wins. It tries to situate those power struggles within complex systems that are continuously changing in unpredictable ways, affecting and being affected by diverse factors like social norms, negotiations, campaigns, lobbying, and leadership.
(p.xiii) Providing a theory of social change that is convincing is already a tall order, but Duncan Green sets himself an even higher bar. The book aims to be a practical field guide to social activism. More than that, it aspires to be a field guide not just for the kinds of people he normally works with, such as NGO campaigners or grassroots organizers. It is meant to be a field manual for activists in the broadest sense: politicians, civil servants, businesspeople, even academics.
This is certainly a hugely ambitious project; how can anyone write a book that can provide sophisticated theories of social change, while providing practical advice to activists?
However, amazingly, How Change Happens delivers on its promise. Those who are purely interested in understanding better how societies change will find a treasure trove of theoretical insights and empirical evidence. Those who want to change the world through formal politics will certainly learn a lot from the book in terms of how to establish political consensus and legitimacy, how to build coalitions, and how to use national and international laws to initiate and consolidate changes. Civil servants who want to make things better for citizens, or business leaders who want to do more than simply maximize profits will also find plenty of lessons to draw from the book in devising policies and corporate strategies that can make the world a better place in realistic but innovative ways. The book will even help academics, like myself, who try to engage with real-world issues, to grasp better the role that their research and outreach activities can play in bringing about (or hindering) social change.
Drawing on his impressive knowledge of the relevant areas of the social sciences, his thirty-five years of diverse experience in international development and many first-hand examples from the global experience of Oxfam, one of the world’s largest social justice NGOs, Duncan Green has produced a unique and uniquely useful book addressing a hugely important but largely neglected issue. Everyone who is interested in making the world a better place should thank him for it. (p.xiv)