Theories of (limited) change

When we think of how we can generate positive change, we often think of tactics such as awareness raising, increasing transparency and street protest. I read three articles this week that sit quite nicely together to outline the limits of each.

Firstly, awareness raising. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has looked at a plan to create change that has “awareness raised” as an outcome and asked “for what purpose?”. Are we assuming that an increase in the information that people have will help them have more enlightened opinions, make better choices or change their behaviour? In some cases that may be true, but we must look at all the incentives people face when forming their views or making decisions. We do not only take into account cold hard evidence but also what the people around us think and how it all coheres with our greater theory of what we value.

Experiences from our early years can have a big effect on this. If pushed, I would find it hard to defend the fact that I eat meat on a daily basis given the environmental, health and ethical issues. However, growing up in a traditional Cornish rural setting on a farm means that I find it harder to make a concerted push to becoming a vegetarian so I engage in some kind of cognitive dissonance where I ignore the issues.

At the level of national politics we think that if only the other side had more information they would come to our point of view as the only reasonable outcome. This is the ‘More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings’. However, Ezra Klein writes about how “Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.” This is why climate change skeptics will ignore overwhelming evidence and people still believe in homoeopathy.

That Mitchell and Webb Look: Homeopathic A&E


The second article, hosted on Duncan Green’s blog, included three wonderfully honest responses on the limits of transparency from leaders in the movement. There is a perpetual tendency to see new technology as a silver bullet. In this case, ICTs can enable information that used to be for governments’ or corporations’ eyes only  to be open to all. In theory, armed with this information, campaigners can pressure large organisations to make changes and the population can hold their government to account. However, as Rakesh Rajani from Twaweza points out “just because technologies can allow us to collect, store, analyze and communicate data and ideas in unprecedented ways should not lull us to think they can address old, entrenched problems in unprecedented ways. The primary constraints for human action are non-technological in nature.” [emphasis mine]. Using flashy technology  doesn’t mean we can get around thinking politically or doing groundwork in forming relationships with those we wish to influence. Transparency itself is a great output but is not an impact in itself.

Finally, The Atlantic asks, “How can so many demonstrations accomplish so little?” Many of the mass street protests that have erupted around the world over the last few years have had little or no direct impact. Government responses are often shallow, avoiding the structural changes that protesters ask for. They can also be repressive and lead to a tightening of control, therefore making the protest seem counter-productive, at least in the short-term.

So how can so many well-meaning individuals coming together lead to so little? Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, writes that “Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision-making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.” As with transparency, technology at first seems like a great enabler. In this case though it not only fails to complement traditional methods of organisation, it substitutes for them, making movements weaker overall.

As Peter Eigen says “Transparency is not a magic bullet but rather part of the arsenal.” Awareness raising and street protests can be part of the same arsenal and the weapons used depend on the appropriate strategy for whatever war is being fought. (I think that’s enough of this analogy).

Furthermore, while it is notoriously difficult to attribute eventual changes to any single cause. Maybe we cannot see how street protests have changed the political climate but in a decade or two we will be able to look back and see how they were pivotal in a long process of democratisation or of putting inequality and disenfranchisement on the global agenda.

Awareness raising, transparency and street protest all have their place, but none are guarantors of success by any means.

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