The Trajectory of Social Change


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How does social change “happen”? And what can social change leaders and groups do to help it happen? Before getting into the philosophy or techniques for movement-building, or for ‘accelerating’ or influencing social change, I’ve found it helpful to unpack the basics. So I’ll start with what, to me, is the seminal and still-useful model for how social change takes place.

Back in the early 1960s, Everett Roger and his academic pals developed the “Social Diffusion Theory”, outlined in the book Diffusion of Innovations. Picture a basic bell-curve: The model describes the trajectory of new idea or technology as it spreads through a community. First, the idea is taken up by “innovators” – a small group educated risk-takers. From there it spreads to a larger group of popular, socially influential “early adapters,” followed by the socially-connected “early majority”. The idea continues to spread through the community, through to the more skeptical, traditional low-income “late majority”, and finally to the cautious and less-connected are “laggards”. Awareness has a role – but “just give the people the info” doesn’t do it on its own.

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At the personal level, Rogers’s theory outlines five steps: Knowledge (just becoming aware of the issue); Persuasion (‘coming to judgment,’ as Daniel Yankelovich would describe it), Decision, Implementation, and finally Confirmation. Other factors are interest, evaluation, trial and finally, adoption. These last five stages more or less correspond to the seven-staged model outlined by the “dean” of public engagement, Daniel Yankelovich, in his seminal book Coming to Judgment. When about 15% of the community’s population has taken up the idea, then it has reached its so-called “tipping point, ” as Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book of the same name.

Social networks are key to social change. From personal ‘tribes’ of family and friends, to broader communities of interest and organized citizen groups, social networks are the main pathways along which new ideas travel, and take root or whither. So, in this age of ‘non-joiners’, what is the future of social change? And where do social change groups and leaders fit in?

So, that’s a place to start. Stay tuned for future postings on the ‘two-pronged’ impetus behind the growth of movements, from tobacco-free activism to environmentalism.

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