Theories of Change

In this course, we will tackle the question of social change. More specifically, we will: (1) analyze various organized efforts trying to make social change happen; and (2) troubleshoot their different methods, strategies, ways of operating, and sets of assumptions about how they think social change works. Through close analysis of these initiatives we will explore how 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 one’s key beliefs, assumptions, and hypotheses about how social change is thought to occur. These are usually depicted through narrative and causal chain diagrams which portray how a given group envisions and intends to enact change.

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…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 not merely an interesting intellectual exercise. Given the severity of present environmental crises, getting our theories of change right, their characterizations of what we are now confronting, and their claims about how we are supposed to get from Point A to Point B, have never had higher stakes. 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, power structures, entrenched inertias, dynamic relationships, idiosyncratic personalities, 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 (and maybe even save) our world.