How does a community or society bring about social change? A complimentary question asks how does change filter through a community? For community development workers and those working for social justice it is useful to have some model to understand the processes of change. All models are just that – a model. They can be accurate or inaccurate; they can be useful or useless. They can be simple or complex. They can all be tested. Here is a model relating to the filtration of new ideas and behaviours that seems to be reasonably accurate, useful, simple and has stood the test of time. I present it here for your use. I call it the “Arrow of Change”, because of its shape, not for some warlike analogy. (With thanks to Fillippe Franchette - a Catholic Priest from Mauritius)
|Diag1. The Arrow of Change|
This model suggests that the way in which change makes itself manifest within society is through a series of transitions from one group of people to the next group, rather than occurring en masse. The transition from one group to another can, admittedly, be very quick, almost instantaneous, but I think you’ll agree that such transitions within society do take place with any social change.
This model suggests that there are three major groupings when it comes to social change. The Agents are those that see that change needs to happen and try to raise the need for change publicly. The Implementers are those that take up the new ways of acting and thinking. Then there are the Adopters, those that utilise the change and normalise it. This is the phase at which a Social Change Agent may declare that the desired change has occurred within society at large.
Each of these major groupings can be further broken down into sub-groups for ease of understanding. It is important to note that these groupings are not mutually exclusive. People can, and usually do, belong to two or more of these groupings at the same time. The groupings should be thought of as describing behaviours or actions rather than describing the people or actors.
Visionaries: This is the sub-group that asks questions such as “why is this the way it is?”, “how can we make this better?”, “what will improve this situation?” It is the role of people in this sub-group to unlock our normal ways of thinking, to unfreeze our standard patterns of behaviour. Visionaries have a dual role of critiquing present situations as well as enunciating a vision for the future. These people can sometimes be reviled in their lifetime, yet hailed as innovators, visionaries or history-makers in future years. Think of people like Martin Luther King Jr, Lech Walesa or Copernicus. All thought of as cranks or rebel-rousers when they first came to public attention, but later recognised as the leaders of a new way of thinking and acting.
Supporters: These are the people that listen to the Visionaries, take up the cause or issue that the Visionaries are espousing and set about demonstrating the new ideas within society. These are the people that can often be seen on the streets with leaflets, demonstrating in front of Embassies or camped out on sacred lands etc.
Proclaimers: No social change would proceed beyond these first two sub-groups were it not for people who worked at gaining grass-root support for the new ideas – the Proclaimers. Beyond the very visible role of the Supporters is that of discussing the new ideas and generating policies and practices related to the ideas. These are the people who will discuss the new ideas with work colleagues, sports mates or friends and family.
Experimenters: It has been said that ideas change the World. That is necessary, but not sufficient. The Experimenters are those that try out the new behaviours, test the ideas out and thus show what the new ideas and behaviours might look like. In the 1960s and 70s many young people in Western cultures tested out new living arrangements then known as “mixed flatting”. It was to be a testing time for how men and women might come to relate to one another.
Legitimisers: The next transition from experimentation is that of legitimising the ideas and behaviours. In order for this to happen the ideas and behaviours need to be utilised by influential groups, such as churches, professional bodies, political parties etc. For example, although the environmental movement had been around for a number of years it was not until political parties began to be formed with the environment as a central concern in the 1970s that such issues became part of the political landscape.
Teachers: Although I have used the term “teacher” here, it is used in both a formal and informal sense. This group teach the new behaviours and ideas to others. For example, formal courses in bi-culturalism or cross-cultural communication are now taught in schools and tertiary institutions. Prior to this formal education, Non-Government Organisations and informal groups of citizens were holding study sessions and workshops within community settings.
Only when the new ideas and behaviours are adopted by large groups (if not the majority) within society can the social change be said to have become an accepted part of everyday life. By this stage it is difficult to think of these ideas and behaviours as “new”. However, I shall continue to use the term for clarity sake.
Early Adopters: This is the group within society who will be amongst the first to adopt the new ideas or behaviours as part of their normal, regular or ordinary day-to-day life. Although adopting something different to their normal modus operandi they do so without fuss and bother. They do not actively try to teach others, or in other ways proclaim the ideas. They are the first in society to “normalise” the ideas or behaviours. This group however, are still a minority within society, and hence open to ridicule, uncertainty and loss of motivation.
Maintainers: Social change, if it is to become part of the norm of society requires maintenance. This next group are those that overcome the potential for Early Adopters to “give up”. They have affirmed the new ideas and behaviours so much within their lifestyle that they are unable to return to the earlier ways of thinking or modes of behaviour. Again, there is no fuss or bother shown by this group. The new ideas or behaviours are now firmly embedded within the normal patterns of everyday community and social life.
Users: Finally, the social change is so much a part of the everyday normal patterns of social life that people just use the ideas and behaviours without wondering where the ideas or behaviours came from or even questioning their veracity. It has been said that there are three kinds of people: Those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, those that wonder what happened. The Users could be described as belonging to a fourth kind; those for whom although something has happened, for them it has always been thus.
This model sounds simple, indeed it is. However, life is never that simple and any individual person could be a member of more than one of those groupings at the same time or move through these phases within their own lives.
What initiates change? A human acting? But then, what makes that person act? We must first think (whether it’s a thought that asks “what if I do this?” or “there’s something wrong here – let’s fix it”) it’s our thoughts that begin the process. Ah, but that’s a further discussion for a later time.