Theories of Change

Clashing perspectives about how to envision and enact “social change” have long riven the environmental movement, animating deep disagreement among activists. In this seminar, we will explore these debates by (1) analyzing various efforts aimed at “changing the world” and (2) troubleshooting their different methods, strategies, and underlying ideas about change. Through close analysis of these initiatives, we will examine how self-described practitioners of social change conceive of social change: what it is, what it looks like, how it happens, and how to do it.

Our entry point into these discussions will be through “theories of change.” Typically, a theory of change outlines key beliefs, assumptions, and hypotheses about how social change works. These are usually depicted through narrative and causal chain diagrams portraying how a group envisions and intends to enact change in its context. This course contends that theories of change are more than just tools for strategic planning. They can also serve as windows into pivotal tensions at the heart of the environmental movement, encompassing longstanding debates between reformers and radicals, insiders and outsiders, incrementalists and revolutionaries, realists and…well, other kinds of professed realists. By foregrounding these implicit underlying beliefs—essentially, making us show our political work—theories of change force us to talk openly about, and thereby directly confront and reckon with, fundamental disagreements about the nature of power, social struggle, and where we ought to stand in relation to established patterns of political and economic order.

By design, theories of change render these questions uniquely and unavoidably explicit. They offer revealing glimpses into how activists of varying stripes are wrestling with the political meaning of the current moment and what can, and should, be done about it. To say that opinions differ on such matters would be comic understatement. As such, we will engage a range of intellectual traditions, political orientations, and strategic outlooks regarding social change through in-class discussion, targeted course readings, and a series of structured assignments.

I don’t need to remind you that these questions are more than just an interesting intellectual exercise. Given the severity of present ecological crises, much is at stake in getting our theories of change right and in assessing their contending claims about how we are supposed to get from Point A to Point B at this critical juncture. Moreover, don’t let the word “theory” give you the wrong impression. This work is inherently messy and personally involving. An important goal of this class is to give you some exposure to this reality as you learn how organizers contend with the everyday dilemmas, entrenched power structures, idiosyncratic personalities, dynamic relationships, emotional rigours, rambunctiousness, and occasional windows of opportunity that all combine in different ways to define the terrain of today’s ongoing struggles to transform our world.