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A Theory of Social Change and Implications for Practice, Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation

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Author: 
Doug Reeler
Affiliation: 

Community Development Resource Association (CDRA)

Publication Date

January 1, 2007
2007

"Understanding deeply and respecting what change processes already exist can help us to respond to and work with a deeper sense of reality, rather than its shallowly perceived set of problems and needs. In facing this challenge to observe what we are working with more deeply, we may then be able to develop more successful and measurable practices and impacts, helped by frameworks that enable us to more deftly manage our practice and relationships, including processes and systems for planning, monitoring, learning from, evaluating, rethinking and reporting on practice. But where are the debates and discussions about how change really happens, where is the research and thinking? I have asked numerous development practitioners and donors from the North and South what their thinking and theories of social change are and for the vast majority it is the first time that they have ever seriously engaged the question!"

Motivated by the above-quoted observations, the author of this 34-page paper characterises it as "an observational map to help practitioners, whether field practitioners or donors, including the people they are attempting to assist, to read and thus navigate processes of social change." Doug Reeler contends that social development practitioners need theory to help them ask good questions, more systematically and rigourously, as well as to guide them in discovering "the real work we need to be doing, primarily assisting communities and their organisations to understand and shape their own realities."

To begin, Reeler identifies the need to observe and understand the change processes that already exist in a living social system, explaining that "If we can do this before we rush into doing our needs analyses and crafting projects to meet these needs, we may choose how to respond more respectfully to the realities of existing change processes rather than impose external or blind prescriptions based on assumed conditions for change." To facilitate this first step of honing in on what change processes already shape us, in the first section of the paper Reeler describes a world in which economic and cultural globalisation, climate change, and competition for markets and for strategic and scarce resources are forcing new complexities on all sectors of societies. At the same time, however, he believes that "entrenched structures and patterns of power are still playing themselves out in old managerialist and militaristic ways." As a result, he says, the most marginalised and voiceless people in the South are paying "the heaviest price", as they are experiencing multiple forces of change that are not easily visible to them and seemingly out of their control/influence.

In this context, Reeler explains (quoting unpublished words by James Taylor, 2007), "Civil society organisations (CSOs) are recognised as having access to and knowledge of those aspects of society that are being defined as 'targets for change'. Yet, in the power dynamics of the world CSOs are not seen as drivers of change but as potential delivery agents of solutions, of programmes and practices developed and promoted by those at the centre..." Reeler describes various trends in the relationships between Governments, donors, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CBOs), freelance international development consultants, private companies, and social movements, claiming that these relationships are increasingly being shaped by a tendency to put projects "to tender, paying people as service providers to achieve centrally determined outcomes." He discusses here the consequences of this "projectization of development work", such as the renewed pressure on NGOs and CBOs to show results and justify their existence in "this new marketplace." Reeler calls this "the season of accountability", noting that stress over issues of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is widespread among many organisations and projects, in his recent experience.

The second section of the paper outlines what Reeler construes as the current, conventional theory of social change. He opens by claiming that "Projects have become the almost unquestionable contracting and managing frameworks for social development practice. The most prominent format for Projects is the Logical Framework Analysis (Logframe) which has some cousins in ZOPP, Project Cycle Management (PCM), and other businesslike tools for managing practice, in particular for planning, monitoring, evaluation and reporting (PME&R)." Reeler explains that there is an implicit theory of change here with the following set of (unconscious) assumptions:


  • "Project interventions themselves introduce the change stimulus and processes that matter and are the vehicles that can actually deliver development. (Existing, indigenous social change processes, usually invisible to conventional analysis, are seldom acknowledged and are effectively reduced to irrelevancy...;
  • problems...are discernable or visible to the practitioner upfront out of cause and effect analysis. Solutions to the core problems analysed can be posed as predetermined outcomes. (The use of logical problem trees is common, despite that fact that they are incapable of dealing with feedback loops and other complex systemic problems);
  • participatory processes in the planning phase can get all stakeholders onboard, paving the way for ownership and sustainability. (This would be nice but people are seldom so compliant!);
  • unpredictable factors...are, at worst, inconveniences to be dealt with along the way;
  • desired outcomes, impacts or results, sometimes envisioned several years up the line, can be coded into detailed action plans and budgets and pursued in a logical and linear way..."


Reeler argues that, "more often than not, particularly in situations where there is a greater need for development assistance, conditions do not allow for these assumptions to hold." In response to his thinking on this, he advances an approach that acknowledges the value of various theories, including the conventional one described above, but seeks to bring them together into something that is more integrated, recognising the diversity of social change. This theory was developed out of practice and tested in practice, from Reeler's work on numerous field accompaniments and learning processes over many years. Specifically, his alternative theory involves descriptions of (not prescriptions for) 3 distinctly different kinds of social change ("which underpin most social processes of development"):


  1. Emergent change describes the day-to-day unfolding of life, adaptive and
    uneven processes of unconscious and conscious learning from experience, and the change that results from that. Reeler quotes Anais Nin, who says, "We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations." Based on this paradigm, Reeler describes 2 processes characteristic of emergent change: "less conscious" (which "tends to occur where there are unformed and unclear identities, relationships, structures or leadership, under shifting and uncertain environments, internally and externally, with no crises or stucknesses being evident and being unfavourable for conscious development Projects.") and "more conscious" (where conditions "occur where identity, relationships, structures and leadership are more formed, the environment relatively stable and less contradictory. Conditions for emergent change can also materialise after resolution of a crisis (transformative change) or after a period of projectable change (described below)...")
  2. Transformative change is spurred by crisis or "stuckness". Reeler quotes M. Scott Peck, who says, "...our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers." Unlike emergent change, which is characterised as a learning process, transformative change is, as Reeler conceives it, focused instead on "unlearning", or "freeing the social being from those relationships and identities, inner and outer, which underpin the crisis and hold back resolution and further healthy development." He elaborates that "For practitioners, understanding existing transformative change processes or change conditions demands a surfacing of relationships and dynamics that are by their nature contested, denied or hidden and resistant to easy reading. This reading can take time, effort and require patience and an openness to sudden shifts of perspective as layers of the situation and its story are peeled away."
  3. Projectable change occurs when the internal and external environments, especially the relationships, of a system are (relatively) coherent, stable, and predictable, and where unpredictable outcomes do not threaten desired results. Well-planned projects become possible if these conditions hold, and if one of 2 approaches is pursued - either a problem-based approach (working logically with plans from the present into the future...a "direct fix") or a creative approach (imagining or visioning desired results, not as a direct solution but as a new situation in which old problems are less or no longer relevant).


Reeler goes on to stress that these 3 types of change are interconnected; thus, "[f]or the practitioner this means that there is no simple reading of change processes and he or she will need to stay alive to the movement of change - a challenge to keep reading the situation and adjust practice accordingly..." Section 5 of the paper lists and describes various "challenges of reading change"; to cite only one example: "The ability to work with biography and story is a strong alternative to simplistic analysing of cause and effect. The craft here lies in facilitating and eliciting the true stories or biographies of a social being, its drama, direction and movement..."

Next, the author explains that his theory is connected to a number of ideas, values, and purposes, which he finds relevant to development practitioners and which he describes in detail here. For example, he explains why "Development is a Natural, Innate, Intangible and Complex Process", "Not All Crises are Failures", "Simple Cause and Effect Thinking is Misleading", "Learning from Experience is the Basis of Freedom and Independence", and "Power Lives and is Transformed in Relationships". Mutuality, Freedom, and Equality are 3 other concepts that Reeler discusses here in the context of the social change framework.

The sixth section of the report explores specific strategies for practitioners working with each type of the change processes described above. For instance,


  • Emergent change practice can include action learning as a core process; good practitioners using this technique, Reeler says, "spend time to connect with the life of the people, to learn about what is really happening, or moving, what is possible or not, what hidden resources or resourcefulness exists, what stumbling blocks exist. They ask questions and help to connect people to each other, to bring to light what people have and can build on, building relationship, community and trust and laying the basis for more conscious change and continuous learning from their own and their peers' experience..."
  • In contrast, he says, transformative change approaches are underpinned centrally by the U-process of change, which involves "surfacing the hidden roots, revealing the repeated patterns of behaviour, culture, habits and relationships that unconsciously govern the responses to the experience of crisis that people have. Further work requires bringing to light the deeply hidden and no longer appropriate values, beliefs or principles governing people's behaviours and habits - those that are real rather than the stated values and beliefs....Often this means working with resistance to change, most commonly rooted in fear of what might be lost, of doubt or self-doubt as to whether there is any real alternative that can be embraced, or of hatred, resentment or self-hatred, the residues of the crisis that needs to be dealt with. A period or process of grieving what has to be let go of by those whose identities have been vested in the past may be required."
  • Finally, projectable change practice revolves around planning and implementation that value the project-cycle as core process. This line of thinking involves a "humanising of project approaches". Reeler contends that, externally brought projects may claim to have a participatory approach - e.g., a survey or needs analysis is carried out "and you can be sure that whatever is being offered happens to match the priority need of the community who knows from the beginning what it is they can access if they demonstrate their needs in the right way. The community will make it appear so, for how else can they attract support and who can blame them for being so resourceful?" Thus, he believes that, "however participative in their bringing, [these projects] often have a hard technical edge and culture that alienate." In contrast, he says, projects "need to live in the culture and context of people themselves in order to engage their full will." He uses quotations from development practitioners "in the field" to illustrate how this strategy is carried out; for instance, one source he quotes tells the story of a woman who works in an informal settlement as a community development facilitator by making "house-calls", visiting individual households, meeting people face-to-face, and getting to know them before trying to implement the action (trying to get a group in that community to start a savings club). In her visits she shows interest in the lives of people, she asks about their children, and so on; in her words, "You have to know what is in their souls [which you can only see by] looking in the eyes." This process, she says, is time-consuming, and the development project of which she is a part wants to see results - an operating savings club. Reeler discusses this tension.


The penultimate section of the paper explores implications of the theory for Learning, participatory monitoring and evaluation and research (PME&R), and donor practice. He outlines specifics for each of the 3 types of change summarised above; one section outlines "alternatives to partnership".

In concluding, Reeler shares the following thoughts: "Change cannot be engineered but can only be cultivated....Processes of change, whether emergent, transformative or projectable, are already there, moving or latent, and must be read and worked with as natural processes inherent to the lives and cultures of people themselves. This kind of orientation, applied respectfully and skillfully, may indeed yield the impact and sustainability that is so desperately sought. Perhaps then our obsession with accountability may be allayed, not because we will have learnt how to better measure impact, but because we will have learnt to practise better, to read change more accurately and work with it more effectively."

Contact Information: 
Source: 

Email from Doug Reeler to The Communication Initiative on February 20 2007.

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