How to think about deliberate social change

What is involved in trying to create a better world? That is: what is involved in being an activist, a reformer, a radical, a revolutionary, or – for that matter – a reactionary? And how do the various forms of knowledge provided by areas of research in the social sciences play into this question? Is reforming the social world more like dreaming or more like building a cabinet?

This is an interesting set of questions for several reasons. One has to do with a very basic and crucial human feature – our capacity for rational-intentional manipulation of our various environments. Marx (and Hegel) put this feature of human capacity at the center of a rich conception of human “species being” – homo faber, the human tool-user, the creator through intelligent labor. The essence of “labor” is the use of one’s skills and knowledge to transform materials into objects that satisfy our needs, wants, and aesthetic values. And we would like to suppose that we can use our intelligence, our abilities to cooperate, and our practical skills at building social institutions, to construct a better world.

When we put this question in terms of transformation of the material world, we are talking about technology. We are led into a reflection on the knowledge provided by the natural sciences and the ways in which these forms of knowledge permit human beings to transform and build the natural environment; we are led to the disciplines of craftsmanship and technology. We are led to a consideration of practical intelligence and the artful transformation of nature. But what about purposive social change? How should we use knowledge and intelligence to bring about a better social world?

An important preliminary question is the scope of the possible: to what extent can we remake either the natural world or the social world? On the side of the natural world, the answer is fairly clear; humanity has thoroughly transformed the surface of the earth through its use of technology and scientific knowledge. (What is less clear is whether we have done so in ways that serve our collective interests, and whether unanticipated consequences have often derailed the benefits we sought.) An aircraft is the result of an integrated design process; a city is the result of a combination of plans, designs, accidents, and uncoordinated choices. So an aircraft is a much more intentional artifact than a city.

In the realm of the social world, the evidence is less clear when it comes to intentional transformation. There is ample evidence of social change, of course; but to what extent is that purposive or intentional social change? To what extent, perhaps, is largescale social change more like an ecological system than a building designed by an architect; more the result of many small and often unintended interventions rather than the result of a blueprint?

We can also ask the question: what sorts of things are we thinking to change, when we yearn for change? Here are several important possibilities: basic social structures; intermediate institutions; patterns of human behavior; mentalities and forms of social consciousness; social practices; and patterns of exploitation and domination.

So where do the social sciences come in when we consider the project of social reform? There are at least three locations within this story:

  • in the theory of the present (why does contemporary America embody racial inequalities? What are the current social mechanisms?);
  • in the theory of an ideal future (description of feasible institutions that produce equality); and
  • in the theory of a strategy of change (description of feasible actions that can be taken over time leading to the establishment of new social arrangements).

What this comes down to is three rather different applications of the empirical and theoretical findings of the social sciences. First, the social sciences can provide the basis for a causal-institutional analysis of the way that the current system works. Second, the social sciences can allow us to “test” the viability of an institutional change and a new set of institutions, to try to estimate the way that these new institutions will function. This is a bit like simulating the behavior of a new device under a set of test conditions. Third, the social sciences can provide an inventory of a large number of mechanisms and processes of change – protest, demonstrations, armed struggle, lobbying, public relations campaigns, … This application permits us to attempt to evaluate the credibility of a proposed strategy of change.

So how should we think about purposive social change – especially change in the direction of novelty, systemic change, and large change of behavior and mentality? Careful reflection on the nature of the social suggests that social arrangements and processes are always conditioned by contingency, heterogeneity, and plasticity; so there are no “iron laws of history,” no general theories that tell us how social processes work. Instead, good social science theories shed light on specific, mid-level social mechanisms and processes – very ably described by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention. So we can forget about the social sciences providing a general “physics” or “mechanics” that might provide a blueprint for social design – as our understanding of the natural sciences does in fact permit in the design of material technologies. Instead, we can derive from the various areas of the social sciences some pragmatic rules of thumb about how mid-level social processes work.

How does this help to answer our question? Because we can use the open-ended totality of the learning that research in the social sciences has made possible about how the social world actually works, to help guide our thinking as we think about social reform and social change. We can attempt to mentally model the way that new institutions would work. We can attempt to foresee some of the glitches that will arise as we undertake a process of extended social reform. We are forced to be humble: prediction is very limited, there are always confounding factors that we haven’t incorporated into our mental models, and contingency runs deep. But we can make a start at evaluating a change strategy – the likely features of functioning that a given institutional design will display; the failures that may arise as a process of communication or coordination is undertaken; and the forms of corruption, weakness of the will, freeriding, and gaming that we can expect in any large process of social change.

A good example worth considering is the inadequate efforts that were undertaken towards reform of the financial industry following the 2008 financial crisis. These efforts were not highly successful, for several identifiable reasons: industry capture of the process, inadequate understanding of complex interactions among rules and regulatory institutions, and failure to anticipate innovative strategies to circumvent the rules. But equally difficult questions arise every kind of social reform – the design of a new set of tenure procedures in a university, the design of a system of regulation to end disparate use of force by US police departments against racial minorities, or the design of single-payer health insurance system.

Several ideas seem to come to the top out of these reflections.

(1) Designing social change is difficult, in part, because it requires us to imagine and create social arrangements that don’t yet exist. So we have to exert our analytical and empirical intelligence to try to estimate the way these arrangements might work – and how ordinary people might live within them. Are they feasible? And do they produce the intended social effects?

(2) The social sciences set some loose limits on our reasoning as we think about both systems and pathways; but social science will never permit precise calculations about the future. There is a very broad range of possible outcomes for almost any social intervention.

(3) The kinds of atrociously bad outcomes that twentieth-century “modernizing projects” have led to have occurred as a result of aggressive and misplaced confidence in social theories and models. This is a deeply important lesson. There is a very wide gap between theory and reality. Marxism and neoliberal purism alike have created enormous human suffering in the past century.

(4) This being recognized, social innovators ought to be risk-aware: take small steps, evaluate, examine; and proceed further. Just as designers of nuclear power plants need to design for worst-case scenarios and soft landings, so social innovators should be cautious as they push forward their reforms.

(5) All these cautions properly acknowledged, we have no choice but to attempt to create a better social future for humanity. And this means respecting the constraints of democracy even as we struggle for substantively better social arrangements.

(Here are several earlier discussions relevant to this topic; linklinklinklink.)

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