Monday, August 12, 2013

What does a theory of change look like?

complexity sign…Change…we have different ideas about it (often so strongly held as to become more obstacle than motivation), what it is, how to achieve it…but whatever it is and by whatever means, we want it. I had the notion of writing about hours and spent more that a few pulling material and making notes by the time this article caught and held my attention. The piece, instead of jelling, was turning into The Blob. I needed a change. So do adjunct working conditions.

Firstly it’s ‘theories’ not ‘theory’. When people talk about a single ‘theory of change’ (ToC from now on), alarm bells should ring – in the worst case it’s just a new jargon for old-school linear change, impact chains, logframes etc. Instead of a deluded search for a single grand theory of everything, we need to learn to recognize and manage a range of theories, throw them at a problem, and see which ones are helpful (see my recent experience of doing this in Tanzania). 

Yes folks, we’re talking practical post modernism….. Surfacing our deeper, buried assumptions about the motors of change can also help us understand why we keep disagreeing with each other, a crucial skill in coalition-building.
Broadly sketched and somewhat overlapping, the three categories are 1. ‘Systemic meta-theories’; 2. Archetypes; and 3. Change strategies. The archetypes and implied narrative approach make up the most interesting category. Each archetype is paired with a strategy, not unlike a less entertaining version of the Hero's Journey.

Theory makes more sense than expected and is not associated with specific archetypes although structuralist is obvious. Archetypes interact and follow strategies. Theories set the stage and create the obstacles - interact too. The list:

  • Rational Choice: change is unintended outcome of individual choice
  • Environment/techno determinism
  • Long term shifts in deep underlying  norms, values and beliefs
  • Purposive individual/ collective action
  • Marxist/Structuralist: changes in relations of production and economic power structures key
  • Evolution (variation/selection/ amplification)
  • Shocks and wars drive change by transforming social, political and economic relations

It gave me rather a start to see how well so many fit current conditions in higher education. Just contemplating social and institutional change exhausts me. Instead, I'm looking at the categories as a lens for organizational and personal change, both already in the cards. I wonder how/if any will fit my "blogging as commonplace book" project or NFM restructuring.

The typology is a work in progress, with varied comments many including supplementary links.

Read all of From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green  ~Blog Archive ~ What does a theory of change look like? + comments...

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