Week One and my students are already exposing my limitations – this is wonderful!

February 1, 2018 9 By Duncan Green

This term, I’m teaching a new course at LSE based on How Change Happens. It’s called ‘Advocacy, Campaigning and outliers-positive-devianceGrassroots activism’. It lasts 11 weeks, and is the first fully fledged university course I’ve taught, complete with lectures, seminars and assessed work (essays, but also blogs and vlogs). So far, I’m loving it.

I realized how much fun this could become during the first week of seminar groups (2 x 15 students). Each one hour session is led by groups of students who do the readings and lead the discussion. In week one, the two groups headed off in very different directions and styles. One discussion on Positive Deviance got me particularly interested.

I regularly bang on about Positive Deviance on the blog. It involves identifying and studying the positive outliers on any given issue, to try and understand where the system itself has thrown up solutions to any given problem. Once you’ve identified the reasons behind the outliers, you encourage ‘social learning’ – people in similar situations seeing for themselves, and hopefully changing their behaviours as a result. The Power of Positive Deviance, by Jerry and Monique Sternin, captures both the method and its application to everything from halving malnutrition in Vietnam to FGM in Egypt to tackling superbugs in US hospitals. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. At a deeper level, PD attracts me as an approach because it respects the system, and is not ‘all about us’ and our projects. I’m even thinking about making it the subject of a future book.

What the students wanted to talk about, though, were the limits to PD, some of which included:

  • PD is only useful for adaptations within the existing system of power and institutions, rather than challenging the system itself, so if genuine transformation is needed, it may not be up to it (in fitness landscape terms, you might be looking for variations on the same hill, rather than jumping to a different hill)
  • In fact, isn’t PD in danger of ignoring power and becoming a bit of a technocratic fix?
  • PD seems to work better for identifying and changing behaviours than for crunchier issues like allocating resources such as land, water or money.
  • The PD method of identifying outliers + social learning is only relevant to cohesive communities, where positive outliers can be easily replicated.

Positive Deviance Easter IslandThe interaction between PD and power was particularly interesting. PD works by identifying small positive experiences and scaling them up. But what if the act of scaling tips over from a small variation that can be absorbed by the existing system, and becomes a threat to the powers that be? Would that make the idea of painless scaling a mirage? Is PD a positive-sum or zero-sum game?

PD also relies on some degree of consensus on what is a positive outlier in the first place, but that does not always exist. One person’s positive outlier (on tax reform, land redistribution, sexuality or access to abortion) can be another’s work of the devil.

And anyway, why was I so keen on PD as an alternative to outside intervention and projects? Was my objection ethical (opposition to/guilt over the White Saviour complex) or practical (outsiders are rubbish at identifying the problems, and even worse at solutions)? Some things, eg vaccination campaigns, should be in the form of external interventions, surely?

Thanks to Youmna Cham, Hussam Zalloum, Carlos Alberto Varela Arias, Katu Cyr, Alev Kayagil and Rashad Nimr for getting us off to such a good start. This term is clearly going to be really interesting!