Someone just called their new book How Change Happens – here’s my totally impartial review

Finding out that someone’s called their new book ‘How Change Happens’, and that it’s about social movements, is disturbing – a bit like finding out that someone who looks just like you has assumed your identity and is chatting to your mates. But the new book by Leslie R Crutchfield ‘How Change Happens: Why some social movements succeed while others don’t’ sounded pretty interesting, so I tried to swallow my annoyance (did no one think to google the title?) and review it. Still, you probably need to make due allowance for lingering authorial irritation.

This HCH starts with a great question: Why have US social movements on things like tobacco control progressed so fast, when others, eg on gun control, have got nowhere? ‘How could society simultaneously grow ‘more gay’, stockpile unprecedented caches of guns, quit smoking, stop driving drunk, and remove the toxins from the air that created acid rain and destroyed the ozone, only to later fail to cap carbon emissions in any meaningful way?’ OK, you’ve got my attention.

To answer this, Crutchfield put together a 20 person research team and identified a range of case studies from recent US social movements. A good start, reminiscent of Friends of the Earth’s great research on the lessons of historical campaigns in the UK.

The book’s greatest strength is the in-depth case studies of a politically diverse range of US social movements, from equal marriage to the NRA. On the basis of these, it concludes that:

‘Change will only come when there is a grassroots-fueled movement led by individuals with the lived experience of the problem agitating from the bottom up, along with savvy networked coalitions of organizational leaders at the grass-tops who understand that their role is to coordinate and align the players around them in collective action. They do this by building ‘leaderfull’ movements and focussing on changing hearts as well as policies.’

The book bigs up activism, and downplays everything else: ‘One of our foremost revelations was this: Change happens not by chance. It is determined by individuals and the organizations and networks that bind them together.’

Becaus being right isn’t always enough……

Erm no, actually. Here’s where the two versions of How Change Happens part company. Sure, activism can have big impacts – I wouldn’t work for Oxfam or write books like How Change Happens (the other one) unless I believed that. But lots of change does happen by chance – new tech? urbanization?

What’s more, encouraging activists to believe that ‘it’s all about us’ makes them worse activists, spending all their energy internally on building the right coalition, or training new leaders, at the expense of learning to ‘dance with the system’ of society, power, politics and the economy that to a large extent will determine the fate of even the best-organized campaign. (The book mentions systems thinking, but then only applies it internally to the ‘system’ of social movements).

The book also exemplifies a dilemma I wrestled with while writing my own version of How Change Happens: should you boil it all down into a handy checklist for better activism? Codifying and ‘professionalizing’ activism in this way worries me because it risks isolating activists off as a separate tribe, talking to each other, swapping top tips on the best way to organize a petition or stir up a twitterstorm, while ignoring the context.

In the end, I stopped short, talking in terms of a general ‘power and systems approach’, but reluctant to go further. Crutchfield has no such scruples. She sets out 6 ‘practices’ (power to the grassroots; operate at local and national levels; target attitudes as well as policy; manage conflicts within your movement; work with business; cultivate dispersed leadership) and sets out lots of ‘questions to consider’ for each.

What we end up with is a book entirely focused on what I call ‘theories of action’ – the tactics and qualities of activists – with only the most cursory discussion of ‘theories of change’ – how the system is changing without those activists. What tech, demographic, political, economic processes are driving change? What critical junctures (crises, scandals, new political actors) shape it? Not relevant, apparently.

Instead, it is now all about us, a kind of social movement version of those ’10 ways to be the next Steve Jobs’ manuals that plague the airport bookshops. ‘How US Activism Happens’ would be a more accurate title (the rest of the world doesn’t exist in this book).

Rant over – sour grapes or fair comment? Feel free to read the book and tell me which it is, but be warned, it’s not cheap (£24.99 in the UK) and (unlike my version), it’s not free online.

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17 Responses to “Someone just called their new book How Change Happens – here’s my totally impartial review”
  1. Good for you for digging into this book, Duncan. You make really valuable points about changing basically being more complicated than a 10 step plan. However, as an American activist living in the UK, I can also say that Americans especially NEED 10 step plans. We like to be told what to do and don’t always appreciate that a problem is more complex (as one American put it so well “ain’t no one got time for that”). I’m seeing a trend toward this sort of thinking in the UK, too, as concerned citizens grow weary of being told “trust us–we’re doing complicated work” by the charity sector. Can’t there be a compromise?

  2. Michael

    Great critique, and yet your assessment of agents as being ‘activists’ has a perspective of activists as being somehow ‘not belonging’ or as being ‘from outside’ i.e. not local. Am I being fair? If agents are locals surrounded and exposed who move to engage and resolve, taking on the bottom up, top down connecting adaptively and locally the partnering and coalition building of low and high level agents makes sense. Michael

  3. Mike Morris

    Given a critical awareness of those contextual factors (e.g. technological, demographic, political, economic, climate change processes), Crutchfield’s 6 ‘practices’ (power to the grassroots; operate at local and national levels; target attitudes as well as policy; manage conflicts within your movement; work with business; cultivate dispersed leadership) don’t seem so far out of place, Duncan? Perhaps – and essentially down to your suitably funny review – I need to read the wretchedly expensive book.

  4. Catherine Pettengell

    Just did a bit of a search and there isn’t even just two ‘How Change Happens’ books, you’ve also got: How Change Happens: A theory of philosophy of history, social change, and cultural evolution by R Forrester, and How Change Happens―or Doesn’t: The Politics of US Public Policy by Elaine C. Kamarck, and probably more besides… time for a full on comparative analysis?! If it’s any consolation, your book seems to be much more widely across the Net than any of the others!

  5. Change is always interesting… Though seems this book is more about “How” it happens and not about “WHY” change happens, or, even more interesting, why in some cases change DOES NOT happen even though all points in the direction that it should. The “how” is always easier (diagnostic description of what you see) than the “why”, which is more related to the underlying processes and (hidden) forces.

    What I have seen so far, is that change is very difficult, especially when it is related to activities and habits that people have had for many many years and that it mainly happens when a lot of money can be made to follow it through, or that a lot of fear is being exposed. You need extremes.

    In “our” world of development work, that is mainly driven by funds raised through feelings of compassion, it is even more difficult to change because there is often no relation between Inputs and Outputs. You don’t get more funding if you do a good job, but if you get more funding if you hit the right buttons with the donors, who often have no clue at all what goes on in reality. They just follow the flow.

    “Change, yes we can” it is easier said than done. One of the main challenges that I experience nearly every day in the work of the FairWater Foundation, is that so many NGOs practices are not concerned by the impact of what they do, as long as they have the feeling themselves that they are doing “something” for the right cause, all seems to be allowed and nobody should question or criticize what they do, because: “they work for a good cause”. But they don’t see the greater picture.

    I have been working in this field of “Development” in the Rural Water Sector for over 25 years now, and have seen many examples of how people were absolutely convinced they did the right thing, and even when they were confronted with the poor results, they still could not admit that they should change their approach.

    For instance, in the car industry, and in aviation, it now goes without saying that safety should be a leading factor in the design. However, this was not always the case. In the early days of the safety belt, the car industry tried to stop this because: “using safety belts could give people the impression that driving a car was dangerous”. Only when the numbers of cars on the road and the fatal accidents went up, the public became aware of the problem and the car industry had to follow, not in the last place because it became obligatory in the law.

    Conclusion; Seems the book above does not give these answers to why NGOs are so reluctant to change, so what’s the use? Can anyone tell me, how can we change the mindset of NGOs, to change for more long-term Impact and not focussing on the quick gain, without making these guys feeling offended?

    That is the question!

  6. Lesley Adams

    Dear Duncan
    Does one author have to be right and the other wrong? Is there just one explanation or a number of view points that are all worth considering.
    And don’t you have different audiences?
    The more voices get out there the better. Getting people to think about why change happens, and why it doesn’t, and doing something about it.
    I thought you were bashing activists unfairly – but by “activist” I don’t refer to you or I… I’m talking about the people with experience of the problem. Their voices ARE vital and therefore movements which promote their voice to hold authorities accountable can be catalytic.
    So activists’ voices need to be put centre stage and their work celebrated for they risk their lives and are rarely paid.
    Policy wonks are also important of course but we need to give credit where it’s due.
    I laud you for making your publication free to download.
    Knowledge is power (etc).
    Apologies if I’ve misrepresented your rant. I’ve got your book (purchased) and have yet to read it right through, and yes I’ll also buy this new book.

        • Hi Vickie – I’m Leslie Crutchfield, author of the “other” How Change Change Happens. I just wanted to say that I appreciated your viewpoint on this blog, and agree that there can be many valid answers to the question of “how change happens.” I’ve just posted a more detailed comment below in response to Duncan’s review of my book, but wanted to highlight that my research is based largely on interviews of people with the lived experience of driving social and environmental change. So my research findings aren’t so much my personal opinion about “how change happens” as they are a synthesis of what I learned by spending several years talking with people with direct experience advocating, agitating, legislating, lobbying and defending on all sides of the issue. Of course, I brought my own personal biases to that analysis and it’s impossible to be purely “objective,” as most things are relative, but I tried to present a coherent synthesis of what I learned from doing “bottom up” research on social change.

  7. So, if you are looking for a title for your next book – choose something unique, bizarre, weird or strange, but highly memorable, that is unlikely to be copied. Leave the descriptive title as the second part or sub-title. How likely is there to be a copy of “The left-handed giraffe – how change happens” or “Talking to cup-cakes – how change happens”. Maybe it says something about authors and potential readers of this type of book that there is so much desire to have a clear descriptive title and not a weirdly memorable one 🙂

  8. Hello Duncan, I’m Leslie Crutchfield, author of “How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t” (Wiley/2018). I appreciate your reviewing my book and offering your candid perspectives my research findings. As you point out, there are number of differences between our books, despite the same main title. The most important difference I believe is in our research approaches. In writing my book on how change happens, I took an inductive, or “grounded theory,” approach to studying social change. I started by making a list of some of the biggest social and environmental changes that have occurred in the U.S., or were U.S.-led, since the turn of the 21st century. Then, with help from members of my research team at Georgetown University, I spent three years studying how those changes happened, interviewing NGO leaders, advocates, government officials, corporate executives and others who played key roles in driving those changes – including leaders who triumphed as well as those who didn’t. I asked open-ended questions like: “What are the top 3 most important factors that you believe contributed to the change?” and “What would you have done differently if you had the chance today?” Then I culled through hundreds of pages of interview notes, looking for patterns and clues that would explain why some changes happened while others didn’t. I also read books and articles about the issues (and on systems and movement theory as well) but I based my conclusions mostly on what I learned from those individuals who had direct, lived experience in the changes. The results are expressed in the six key findings that form the core chapters of my book.
    For instance, I found that successful movements leaders do things like invest in and amplify their grassroots networks; deliberately try to change hearts and minds, not just public policies; and involve companies and industry as part of their change campaigns. Whereas movements that struggle don’t do these things – or don’t do them as well as their opponents.
    Which brings me to why the conclusions in my book, “How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t,” differ from yours. You note that I don’t write much about the need to learn how to “….dance with the system of society, power, politics…” I don’t write about that because it didn’t come up as a key theme from my interviews with diverse leaders directly involved in the issue (and I interviewed elites and grassroots players both for each cause). I would say that learning to work with and through powerful elites plays a role in every change, but it wasn’t the “make or break” factor for the changes that I studied. There were other factors that could explain why in the same time frame (1990 – 2016), Americans allowed LGBT couples to legally wed, largely abandoned smoking, and massively expanded rights to own and use guns. You could say that “dancing with powerful elites” was “necessary, but not sufficient” to explain why some changes happen and others don’t, to paraphrase Good to Great author Jim Collins.
    By contrast to my inductive research approach, it appears that you took a deductive approach to writing your book, ie. you started with theories of change and then tested them against real international examples. I appreciate how you brought your deep knowledge of systems theory, and coupled it with the experience you’ve gained from decades of working in international development, and then applied those frames to movements like Arab Spring. But not surprisingly, your deductive approach yielded different insights than my inductive approach. (Also, as you rightly point out, you focused internationally while I focused largely on the U.S.)
    Which leads me to a forward-looking question: One of things I’ve I’ve always been curious about is, what would you find if you took an inductive (or grounded theory) approach to studying the major international / global changes that have occurred in our lifetimes? Perhaps that’s a project worthy of a trans-national collaboration.
    Finally, regarding the discomfort you’ve expressed about the fact that our books share the same main title, I can honestly say that I feel your pain: Cass Sunstein, co-author of the bestselling “Nudge” with Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist Richard Thaylor, is releasing a new book in April under guess what title? “How Change Happens” (MIT Press/ 2019). If it’s true that great minds think alike, then I’m honored to be in the company of thinkers like you and Sunstein.

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