Torry Dickinson Blog

Social Change
July 9, 2012, 2:14 pm
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Elements of Social Change

Once you delve into social change research and practice, you may be shocked to see how little most educators and activists understand about social change. If you are interested in making effective social change, it’s important to have an understanding of society as a historical system. It’s important to recognize that we all live in a global society and that, in some way, we are involved in every social relationship. This also means that potentially we are connected to every social movement, and that all social movements are linked together.
In order to understand social change, it’s important to have a clear framework that enables you to see the different aspects of social change. Then you can organize and categorize knowledge from your readings and fieldwork. This will help you apply this knowledge when you write or when you are working in community settings.
I believe there are two general aspects of social change. They relate to each other, but they can be analyzed separately because they are two conceptually distinct aspects of change.
First, there is the subject of how our global-historical society, or our social system, has changed over time. But even as it has changed, our social system as it has essentially stayed the same over 500 years.
Today our social system is now breaking part in some fundamental ways. It can be argued that the system cannot continue because global capitalism has begun to exhaust and use up the sources that have enabled it to go through cycles of expansion. These sources (according to Immanuel Wallerstein in World-Systems Analysis) can be seen as:
1. the global decline of pools of super-low-paid, rural working households (that increasingly send household members and often all household members to mid-size urban areas, which drives up wages and increases working people’s demands on the state and businesses);
2. the global destruction of environmental resources and the dumping of toxic wastes across the world (the loss of forests, plantations’ overplanting and their pesticides/herbicides, the impact of war, the loss of plants and wildlife for food and biodiversity,
the lack of good and historically free drinking water, the impact of wars);
3. the growing costs for governments and businesses to maintain order (wars, activities of global crime syndicates, and the inability to keep passing the costs of system maintenance to working people—the externalization of costs has enabled the system to grow, but now states and businesses are forced to consider picking up and “internalizing” their own costs of “doing business”);
and I’d personally add:
4. a growing critique of ideologies of the system (e.g., racism, classism, colonialism, sexism, governing through overt/covert violence in all walks of life,
just to mention a few sets of beliefs that have engaged working people in maintaining the system). Today many people question whether this historical system will meet even the basic physical needs of the world’s majority.
So one side of social change has to do with how the system has changed and yet has not shed its engine. And this engine has been the increasing accumulation (of capital, wealth and power) on a world scale by a few powerful people and small groups.
Second, there is the aspect of social change that has to do with groups’ intentional efforts to create new ways of living that meet all people’s needs and that contribute to everyone’s well-being through democratic participation at all levels.
This second aspect of social change has to do with how different groups of people work to resist the social system and to change and transform society (or parts of it). One general way this happens is by the development of alternative social pathways and the creation of new holistic, sustainable ways of living.
This intentional activity to define life by and for the world majority and its groups has been a tremendous force of social change for 500 years, and it has shaped how the system has developed. But, until the last few decades, it hasn’t seemed that groups of people and different global movements (working together and on their own) have had a chance to really establish new ways of living for large parts of the word and for most people. Now, it seems, that there is that chance for major transformation, particularly since the system may have reached its
limits in terms of endless global expansion.
Most social change analysts consider one or more areas of alternative or sustainable development. But they rarely look at how all movements grow off each other and help each other to reshape the lives of all people. Each movement provides some answers and visions for a better world. But they are incomplete without all the others.
One challenge is that movements often grow out of the divisions that the system has created: women’s movements may address gender, sexuality movements may address heterosexism, anti-racist and anti-colonial movements may address national to global aspects of racism, environmental movements may look at some aspects of sustainability, and nonviolence movements may look at certain aspects of violence but not most aspects of violence. This means that we need to work together to create a comprehensive vision for the future. For example, most nonviolence movements in the U.S. don’t look at the violence perpetuated by the social system, especially as they hit the world-majority populations, and they don’t appreciate the diversity of nonviolence movements.
We need each other more than we ever have. In order to frame an overall discussion of nonviolence or any other concept that forms of the center of one’s analysis, I think it’s important to develop your own framework of “the whole.” For example, how do you see society perpetuating violence as it works in its usual way (both today and maybe in the past, too)? How do you see people working to minimize the violent aspects of the system? How do you see people working to change the system by creating alternative ways of organizing social relations between individuals and groups? How do you see people bringing about long-term changes in institutions and in governance at all levels (including in families, neighborhoods and at work)? How do you and others envision a society that will work for the historically disenfranchised and for world majority?
I think it helps to read World-Systems Analysis and Historical Capitalism by Wallerstein to get a sense of how the system has worked for 500 years. I’ve found this framework and his analysis to be very useful when I develop social change projects.
If you look at the analytical book I wrote and edited with Robert Schaeffer, Transformations: Feminist Pathways to Global Change, you can see how we look at how social movements in relation to how the historical system has developed. Our book is about how movements intersect and interweave with other movements. It suggests that all forms of violence and inequality need to be addressed together.
If you pick up Transformations, you might read the sections and chapters that interest you the most and just skip around. You will find a lot of writers and thinkers who are associated with movements that many might see as pushing “on one main front.” But all fronts of change are interconnected. And we can make social change more effectively when we learn from all of our connections.
By bringing together knowledge generated by movements, researchers, and practitioners, we can help deepen our understanding of collective social change. This is a very important way of creating sustainable change with others and for others.

Torry Dickinson
July 5, 2012

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