How Does Social Change Happen?

David Roberts on the Gristmill blog shares what he learned from Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink) when he gave a keynote address about social change at a luncheon in Seattle:

Stripped of the anecdotes, the basic thesis of the talk was that social change has three somewhat unexpected features:

  1. It almost always happens faster and cheaper than anybody predicts. See: Berlin Wall falling.
  2. It is typically brought about not by people with great political or economic power, but by people with great social power — “connectors,” as he calls them. These are folks who are part of an unusually large number of social circles, who can bring disparate groups together.
  3. It usually happens after a seemingly intractable problem has been reframed. The example here was the spread of seatbelt use in the U.S. For a long time it was a “government meddling” issue. Then a bunch of child-restraint laws were passed, and little Johnny started asking mom why she didn’t buckle up, and it became a “family responsibility” issue. In a matter of just two or three years, seatbelt use rates soared from 15% to 65%.

So, although social change can be somewhat unpredictable (see #1), we can set the stage for it and work to create the conditions in which it can happen (see #2 and 3).

Think about who your “connectors” are for your audiences and how you can hook into their networks. And see if you might be able to reframe the issue so that it connects with the core values of the people you are trying to reach. For example, the issue of school choice has been defined by its opponents (primarily teachers’ unions) as an attack on public schools and teachers that subsidizes private and religious schools. But if you reframe the issue as one of social justice — that poor children are being denied their right to a good education — or one of government waste — that taxpayer funds are being inefficiently used by the bloated and overbureaucratized school system — then you might be able to mobilize new constituencies that had not previously thought about the issue in that way.

One of the commenters to the post, CyberBrook, shared some useful information on community organizing for social change. I especially liked the “M Factor” organizing template:

mission (plan)
message (what’s the point?)
mainstreaming (creating cultural resonance)
money (funding and resources)
mechanics (how to)
mapping (where best to organize, where best to marginalize)
might (strength and power)
marketing (getting the message out in appropriate ways)
media (using the mass media, supporting / creating alternative media)
management (organization)
measurement / market research (feedback)
mobilization (getting people organized and involved, developing capacity and leadership)

It’s like our social marketing Ps but from a community organization angle. The rest of the comments are also worth checking out.

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