Please help me answer some scary smart student questions on Power and Systems

Tomorrow night I am doing an ‘ask me anything’ session on skype with some students from Guelph University in Canada, who have been reading How Change Happens. They have sent an advance list of questions, which are really sharp. I’d appreciate your views on 3 in particular:

  1. Are there important differences to note between processes of long-term change and temporary victories of social movements? How can we tell which one we are witnessing?
  2. How can we tell if something is a short scandal or a true critical juncture?
  3. How would you say we could determine if a movement is successful?

All 3 are basically about the difficulty of ‘navigating through the fog’ of complex systems that are characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and unpredictability. Everything looks beautifully clear in hindsight – we can now say that Gandhi picking up salt from the sea shore was an act of genius. But could we have said so when he was planning it, or at the time? Was it only effective because of the over-reaction of the British?

I could do some hand waving about how a good power analysis can help you place your bets better, understand how a short term victory can be translated into legislative or institutional change. Which in turn raises the importance of insider-outsider alliances – social movement victories, if they are on policies or legislation, need to be translated into practice by insiders.

But part of me also thinks this is a fool’s errand. All you can do is use your best judgement, and learn as much about the system as you can, but in the end the fog only clears in hindsight and that’s just how life is. Anyone got a more satisfactory answer?

As for the last question, success is in the eyes of the narrator – when a big social or political change happens, there are usually multiple possible explanations, all overlapping, and which becomes the accepted version is down to who writes the history. Activists often credit other activists with victories, and downplay the role of other players and luck. For example, many diplomatic breakthroughs in recent years have come in the wake of terrorist attacks – The Doha Development round as a response to 9/11; the Gleneagles agreement on aid, debt and climate change in response to the London bombings that happened in the middle of the summit; the Paris Climate Change agreement, which happened just weeks after the horrendous shootings in Paris. Yet the narratives around those events often give the credit to leaders and/or campaigners.

And here’s the full list of questions, in case you want to add further advice – like I said, really sharp:

Systems thinking and social change in complex systems:

  1. Can you give examples about practical ways activists (and non-activists for that matter) can apply complex systems thinking in every day strategies and activities?
  2. Why is it important for activists to adopt systems thinking when looking at states and elaborating their strategies?
  3. Are there important differences to note between processes of long-term change and temporary victories of social movements? How can we tell which one we are witnessing?
  4. Is fundamental change (e.g. a real shift in our approach to environmental protection) possible in today’s political system?
  5. How can we tell if something is a short scandal or a true critical juncture?
  6. One of the videos we watched suggested that the three core requisites for social change are: engaged individuals, organizational infrastructure, and critical junctures (political opportunity). Would you agree with this view?
  7. Why is it important for activists to learn how to “dance with systems”?

Social movements, citizen activism, and leadership

  1. How would you say we could determine if a movement is successful?
  2. Do you think that all successful social movements must be non-violent?
  3. Are, on average, movements led by a charismatic figure more likely to succeed than those with a horizontal structure?
  4. Do you think mass social movements need to attract high-profile allies or can the mases be enough by themselves?
  5. If you were to come up with your own definition of power – what would you say the primary source of power is?
  6. What is the biggest mistake activists make in their power-mapping exercises? What is the most useful approach to power-mapping exercises?
  7. Do you find that social media is overall helping youth movements or is it a distraction?
  8. What is the most pressing issue social movements should be addressing today in your opinion?

Over to you.

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13 Responses to “Please help me answer some scary smart student questions on Power and Systems”
  1. Andrew Wells-Dang

    These are the most fun kinds of social/political questions. But they’re hard to answer in the abstract without consideration of examples of current or past social movements in particular contexts. I suspect that answers to many questions vary across space and time, which is why they’re so challenging.
    In writing on networks and coalitions in Vietnam and China, I’ve tried to answer the success question as a combination of 3 factors: does the network attain its initial policy objectives? Does the network sustain itself beyond a single episode of contention to press for change over time? And what are the effects of the network’s actions on political/civic space more broadly? The catch is that #1 often works at cross-purposes to #2 and 3. And #3 is unpredictable and may not be known until much later. Applied to critical junctures, this suggests that while some are obvious at the time (leadership changes, economic crises) others cannot be identified well except in retrospect.

    • Duncan Green

      Agreed, so the problem is what can we say in the pre-hindsight period (or ‘present’ or ‘real life’ as we sometimes call it). Systems thinkers warble on about ‘weak signals’ – early signs of a looming tipping point. Any ideas on how to distinguish such signals from random noise?


    The first three questions:
    Q1. Are there important differences to note between processes of long-term change and temporary victories of social movements?
    A1. Long term change is very often just a series of short term victories threaded together like beads that ossify into a solid piece of historical fact that is subsequently mythologised into a “golden age”. Think Global and act local. Lots of local actions driven by aggregate local demand will eventually become the ossified reality.
    Q1A. How can we tell which one we are witnessing?
    A1A. Short answer you cant -BUT – Complex adaptive systems only make sense in retrospect, at the time they look like fairly random events which only when strung together like beads make sense.
    Q2. How can we tell if something is a short scandal or a true critical juncture?
    A2. Again tipping points are only clear in retrospect, but there is an evolutionary principle to illuminate this issue Punctuated Equilibrium. ( or in more mechanical situations a Khunian paradigm change) If the situation appears to have come about as a result of a political, economic, technical or natural shock ( the equilibrium has been punctured) then you are likely to be at a tipping point.
    Q3. How would you say we could determine if a movement is successful?
    A3. One useful heuristic that I was told be an African Freedom Fighter from the Horn was that they knew they were going to succeed when the bought their first Presidential Minister. You do not measure your success by what you are doing but by how your opposition reacts (opposition takes many forms, economic, technical, political and even theological). When they start to break ranks and join you you have turned a corner.

  3. Priyanthi Fernando

    Just a comment on your three ‘diplomatic breakthroughs’ happening in the wake of ‘terrorist attacks’. I would say that they illustrate that diplomatic breakthroughs happen in the wake of attacks on existing power structures (which seems to be how we define ‘terrorist’), as a conciliatory effort to those who are oppressed…. we don’t see the same diplomatic breakthroughs happening in the wake of the horrendous killings in Yemen, for instance…..

  4. What a set of interesting questions! I would like to suggest an alternative and complementary point of departure to answer them: it is to combine what they learn from others´ experiences and knowledge with their inner wisdom/source to co-develop their own answers. Sometimes it is more about looking into internal benchmarks and principles rather than waiting from external signs. I believe Ghandi knew within himself quite a lot about the relevance and effects of picking up that salt.

    Parker Palmer in his book “Let your life speak” presents a very useful concept to illuminate what I want to express: he calls it the “Rosa Parks decision”. “Legend has it that years later a graduate student came to Rosa Parks and asked, “Why did you sit down at the front of the bus that day?” Rosa Parks did not say that she sat down to launch a movement, because her motives were more elemental than that. She said, “I sat down because I was tired”. But she did not mean that her feet were tired. She meant that her soul was tired, her heart was tired, her whole being was tired of playing by racist rules, of denying her soul´s claim to selfhood.

    Of course, there were many forces aiding and abbetting [my note: systems thinking] Rosa Parks´s decision to live divided no more. She had studied the theory and tactics of nonviolence at the Highlander Folk School, where Martin Luther King Jr was also a student. She was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colores People, whose members had been discussing civil disobedience.

    But in the moment she sat down at the front of the bus on that December day, she had no guarantee that the theory of nonviolence would work or that her community would back her up. It was a moment of existential truth, of claiming authentic selfhood, of reclaiming birthright giftedness -and in that moment she set in motion a process that changed both the lay and the law of the land.

    Rosa Parks sat down because she had reached a point where it was essential to embrace her true vocation -not as someone who would reshape our society but as someone who would live out her full self in the world.”

    What if we had a lot more of “Rosa Parks´s decisions” in our daily lives?

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Vanessa, yes it’s hard to bring the importance of instinct, emotion and gut into the world of rational decision making and strategising, but we have to try!

      • Agree; Duncan, it´s hard and one feels vulnerable when raising these issues in our field, but just sticking to the rational approach has not led us to the expected outcomes in general, so why not go deeper and add new sources/resources? Rather than convince about the importance,we might want to ask questions about what else/different could we think/test/try?

  5. Kenneth Smith

    “which becomes the accepted version is down to who writes the history” – I always thought “Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan” was from Caesar but was Kennedy apparently., My Latin master obviously didn’t mind rewriting history