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

September 13, 2018 15 By Duncan Green

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.