What can Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Matrix teach us about how change happens?

Chatting to academics in the US last week, we swapped notes on the merits of
using shared cultural references to convey some of the key ideas around how change happens. They act as a short cut, allowing subtle, nuanced ideas to be discussed on the basis of a large pool of common knowledge. You need to avoid the pitfalls of cultural imperialism, of course (so religious texts are tricky), but thanks to social media and Hollywood, there are some pretty universal narratives to build on. I picked up a couple in the book, but failed to capitalise on some of the recent blockbusters – Game of Thrones, Hunger Games etc. Can you help?

The Power and Systems Approach (see summary, right) set out in the book talks about the kinds of people we need to be to work in complex systems, and the kinds of questions we need to ask. In terms of popular culture, I came up with the following (please note, not all of these are entirely serious):

In terms of ‘How we think/feel/work’, we have 3 out of 4:

Curiosity = The Wire: ‘Bunk, a dissolute but brilliant detective, advises a new recruit that the key to success is cultivating ‘soft eyes’, learning to spot the important clues that lie in your peripheral vision or that you weren’t looking for. Being a good observer is harder than it sounds. It’s easy to see what we are elf-liberation-frontlooking for, but much harder to notice and register the unexpected, or the evidence that contradicts our assumptions.’

Humility= Harry Potter (or the opposite of Hermione, anyway): ‘In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Hermione sets up an ‘Elf Liberation Front’ to free the house elves who serve the wizard community. The house elves are horrified—no-one had asked them if they wanted to be ‘liberated’, which to them looks very much like being unemployed. Hermione didn’t consult the elves; she merely assumed she knew what was right for them. She really needed a proper theory of change.’

Multiple perspectives, unusual suspects = Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is really a classic multi-stakeholder initiative in which the different

Multistakeholder Initiative, Middle Earth style
Multistakeholder Initiative, Middle Earth style

capacities and skillsets of the participants lead to a stronger overall entity.

So what’s the popular narrative that brings alive the importance of the one remaining element – reflexivity: awareness of our own personal impact on the system we are trying to describe and change?

The second part of the Power and Systems Approach is about ‘The questions we ask (and keep asking)’. I need a bit more help here, as I’ve only got one at the moment:

Power = The Matrix: Power is the underlying matrix of development. Making the-matrixpower visible so that we can think about how it can be redistributed more fairly is like Neo coming to see the Matrix and acquiring superpowers (ahem…)

Oddly, I never quoted West Wing in the book, perhaps because it applies to almost everything (as does South Park, it seems).

Now it’s your turn: what popular narratives can help with the remaining elements of the PSA?

  • The importance of changing norms as well as more tangible things like policies and spending
  • The value of successful precedents, both historical and current
  • The need for feedback loops and course corrections

Remember, the references have to be universally recognizable to a student age range, which probably means they have to be in TV/movie format as well as books.

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22 Responses to “What can Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Matrix teach us about how change happens?”
  1. Understanding Power – via Varys in Game of Thrones

    Riddle : “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”

    Answer: “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less”

  2. Understanding the opportunity from apparent chaos, once more from Game of Thrones .. “Chaos isn’t a pit; Chaos is a ladder…”

    Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish: The realm. Do you know what the realm is? It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies, a story we agree to tell each other over and over, until we forget that it’s a lie.
    Lord Varys: But what do we have left, once we abandon the lie? Chaos? A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.

    Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish: Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

  3. Kimberly Bowman

    Im not sure that this is what you’re looking for (in terms of level of abstraction) and its a British film used to discuss an issue with people from 10 countries in Asia…so Id want someone else to comment on the cultural imperialiam issue…but:

    We used the film Made in Dagenham once to develop a shared reference for a workshop on gender and MEL, once. It touches on a lot of key issues (issues of care work, formal and decent employment, social norms, womens leadership as individuals and collective, class as an added dimension, exploration of gatekeeping in traditional unions and parliament, insider/outsider strategies – you name it) and has the bonus of being feel-good.

    We used it to take a run at different analyses, to develop theories of change and logic models, to talk about indicators and different options for monitoring strategies, etc.

    It certainly prompted a lot of active conversations and a useful common reference point. Had to be viewed together though – not as well known as GoT.

  4. jo

    the animated movie ‘Chicken Run’ is pretty good for exploring power from quite a few angles… would have to watch it again with your questions in mind. But excellent on visible, hidden and invisible power…

  5. Carol Ballantine

    A wise consultant I used to work with often used a metaphor from Driving Miss Daisy. From memory: you have 3 characters: Miss Daisy, the Driver, and Miss Daisy’s Son. Miss Daisy’s Son tells the Driver: “You do what Miss Daisy wants, ok? But I’m the one who pays you.” Frank would draw a triangle and ask us to reflect on the 3 actors. Who are we? Who is Daisy? Who is the money guy? A good way of breaking down some donor-brokered power relations.

  6. Susan Watkins

    Re: both “humility” and Driving Miss Daisy.
    “Humility= When Hermione sets up an” ‘Elf Liberation Front’ to free the house elves who serve the wizard community. The house elves are horrified—no-one had asked them if they wanted to be ‘liberated’, which to them looks very much like being unemployed. Hermione didn’t consult the elves; she merely assumed she knew what was right for them. She really needed a proper theory of change.’”

    This is great. Hermione is exactly like the big donors to development aid,if you substitute “transformed” for “liberated” (see “A Fraught Embrace: The Romance and
    Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa”, forthcoming Feb, Swidler & Watkins, Princeton UP). Projects need to be “sustainable”, which means they train the potential beneficiaries to be volunteers–they should work for free, i.e. unemployed. And the donors decide themselves, in (usually) the complete absence of knowledge of what people want. In a survey in rural Malawi, we asked respondents to rank their policy preferences: programs for agricultural development,improved education, clean water. and AIDS services. Their lowest priority was AIDS services Their highest was clean water. In focus groups with respondents, they said “everyone needs clean water, not everyone needs AIDS services.” At the time, ODA to Malawi (2009) was $4.92 million for clean water,, $153 million for AIDS services (Dionne, Gerland & Watkins in AIDS and Behavior. . 17:3). Similar findings re AIDS vs “other resources” in 2005 Afrobarometer data.

    • Pete

      Except Hermione was only 14 when she set up S.P.E.W. (The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). At that point she had only met 2 house elves that we know of, and one of them, Dobby, had been very happy to have been liberated (he later got killed while rescuing her and her friends).

      • Duncan Green

        weren’t there whole kitchens full of elves at Hogwarts? I am resisting digging out the books and losing what’s left of a Friday afternoon, but it’s not easy……

        • Pete

          I am a bit of a Harry Potter geek – thanks to my daughter who helped me with this…

          All the cooking and other domestic chores in Hogwarts were done by unpaid/slave House Elves, but as Hermione came from a Muggle background (i.e. her parents weren’t magical) she didn’t know anything about them until she was told at the start of her 4th year at Hogwarts – she doesn’t actually meet the house elves in the kitchens until later in the year, so she is guilty of starting a campaign having only met one elf.

          My main point is she was only 14 and this first piece of activism by Hermione may have been naive but it was an early start that grew into her working for the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures at the Ministry of Magic, where she continued to work for the rights of magical creatures – at least that’s what the internet says, so it must be true, while also being entirely fictional.

          • Duncan Green

            Love it Pete! I’ve wondered about this – people start off as activists sometimes doing dumb/naive stuff (I certainly did), but if that is a part of the learning curve, surely that’s OK?

  7. Jude

    1. Glee – from a place of passion and love, they change norms one song at a time.
    2. Modern Family – massive pickle every episode, resolved by the end as everyone realizes they knew the answer when they looked hard enough
    3. James Bond/Jason Bourne – never stop, keep going, running and figuring it out on the way.

  8. There is nothing ‘universal’ about any of these – unless you mean ‘universally understood by English-speaking development professionals of a certain age that live in first-world countries’. I would be horrified/embarrassed/very angry to find myself in a room with a consultant (or anyone else) in a Pacific island country who started spouting this sort of stuff. If your ideas are beneficial, and they most likely are, the best way for them to be expressed is in plain English (which can then be translated into plain ‘other language’ as need).

        • Duncan Green

          OK, so 85% of the world’s population have access to electricity (World Bank figs). Are you really saying that we can’t use approaches that require access? Oops, there goes commenting on blogs……. Nothing is entirely universal, of course, but using Christian narratives worked very well for the liberation theologians in Latin America and elsewhere, so what’s wrong with using a modern, secular equivalent where possible – Hollywood/young people’s fiction?

  9. You beat me to the punch with the reference to Hermione’s house-elf program – my wife and I are going through the Harry Potter series again and during Goblet of Fire I was thinking how awesome it would be if someone from the development community did a full-fledged impact analysis on Hermione’s intervention. I would totally read that 50 page report.

    As far as other examples, since we are in Star Wars season right now, you could look at the ascendancy/rule of the Emperor as an example of the pursuit and abuse of power, while the Jedi serve as a normalizing Force (pun intended) to ultimately dismantle and redistribute that power? There’s also the shifting power dynamics on Naboo with the Gungans (but maybe we should leave the prequels out of it)