What is Theory of Change?

§0. This article will follow up the organizational framework discussion with a strategic framework discussion. It is an attempt to introduce and clarify basic terminology for social movements and for strategy discussions. The main motivation is for us to have similar languages and terms so that we can spot convergences and divergences without getting lost in misunderstandings.

§1. In politics, there are four organizational layers: the ideological, the political, the strategical and the tactical layer.

In the ideological layer, there is a strong theoretical consolidation within the organization. Political parties organize in this level of abstraction. In the political layer, there is shared vision. Most social movements organize at this level. Strategies are the steps an organization takes to reach its political vision. Alliances and campaigns belong to this level. Finally, the tactical layer includes every concrete thing we do in real life.

Logically speaking, people would first organize at the ideological (more fundamental) level to then build politics around it, then strategy for the political program, and then tactics to have strategic victories.

In real life, people organize in reverse: they join or create organizations through particular events or actions in which they meet each other. Tactics involve more people (with different backgrounds and different visions) than the deeper layers.

People may involve in organizations organized in any of these layers. Each layer requires a different kind of organizational culture and leadership.

See Four organizational layers: a guide for grassroots activists on organizing and organizations for more details.

§2. In activism, we have goals (objectives). Sometimes we have them explicitly stated, sometimes they are our personal expectations.

We do things to reach those goals. Those things are what people generally call “activism”.

Depending on at which layer you are organized, your goals would differ: for a political party, the change may be to overthrow colonialism (as was the case for many anti-imperialists struggles); for a civil society organization, it can be political change (like fossil free Europe); for a campaign, it can be a policy change (like reduction of working hours); for an action, your goal may be media coverage.

Then, we do things to reach those goals. Some talk to decision-makers, some talk to general public, some organize disruptive action, some make videos, some produce memes, some produce policy reports, some talk to business leaders, some publish blog posts… and don’t forget, “change” is not automatically “good”: some kill people of another ethnicity, some beat another person, some explode themselves on a marketplace, etc. People have their visions and their goals, and they act to achieve those goals.

§3. You may notice that the above paragraph is independent of activism. Any change, even in your personal relationships, work this way: you want to change something, therefore you do things. To keep the kitchen clean, you set up a meeting with your flatmates. To deal with frustration about your partner, you talk to them (or maybe you talk to someone else: a friend, or a therapist). To get less hungry, you eat snacks. To pass an exam, you study (or prepare cheat sheets).

§4. You believe that certain actions will take you closer to our goals.

That belief is your theory of change.

§5. I identify four poles of theories of change for social movements: 1) Reason. 2) Representativeness. 3) Empowerment. 4) Disruption.

Reason is the theory of change when there is almost no conflict of interest. Sharing knowledge and appealing to rational arguments would bring about change through negotiation.

Representativeness is the theory of change when the people who are affected by change are themselves the agents of change. If you persuade them (rationally or emotionally (or by manipulation)) by raising awareness, then change would follow; because you believe that society represents people’s opinions.

Empowerment is the theory of change when there are two unequal poles of power. If you organize the less powerful pole, you would make the powerful yield to your demands.

Disruption is the theory of change when there is a strong conflict of interest or when the status quo does not have flexibility. In this case, you would mobilize to force them to compromise.

§6. Theories of change may be fact-based, as in the example of hunger and food. They may be supported by evidence, as in some cases of societal change struggles. Many times, unfortunately, they are not based on anything.

Theories of change always depend on our own analysis of the world.

There are two questions guiding our theory of change: the size of the problem and the flexibility of the status quo.

When we establish (consciously or heuristically) a theory of change about a subject, we make a series of assumptions about how the world operates.

Then we decide “what it takes” to make change happen.

§7. Very rarely does a single act alone bring about change. We generally need a combination of actions to achieve change.

Strategy is a consciously built sequence of diverse tactics that would take us to our goal. Our strategies are informed by our theories of change.

We might fail, and we might draw lessons (or not). We might study other examples and learn from them. Sometimes we might “learn” things that don’t apply in our context. Sometimes we might miss essential parts in a learning process.

Sometimes we conclude that our strategy was wrong. Sometimes we conclude that our strategy and our theory of change were in contradiction. Sometimes we decide that our theory of change was wrong all along. Many times, no one does any of these.

Some strategies are compatible with each other: although they use a different set of tactics, they may have similar theories of change (a mass demonstration and a picket line, for instance). Some strategies contradict each other: although they may appear to have the same goals, their tactics may cancel out each other (denouncing lack of independence of the court system while at the same time suing public authorities at the same courts, for instance).

§8. Strategic thinking involves a conscious analysis of the change, a more or less explicit statement of the underlying theory of change, planning of several tactical steps, execution of those steps while monitoring the impacts of each tactical steps, evaluation of the entire process, and updating the strategy and perhaps the theory of change itself.

§9. Recent leaderships in the climate movement put on the spotlight the failure of a series of theories of change previously relied on by the majority of the movement. Most of what is said now about negotiation tables, about international diplomacy, about corporate influence, etc. has been said before by the back-then-smaller climate justice movement. However, there are two crucial differences now: 1) We have very little time left; and 2) The previous theories of change that remained within the existing socio-economic system are now proven to be wrong, as they are already tested for decades.

These evidences turned the tables in favour of those who defended a theory of changed focused on empowerment (organize) and disruption (mobilize), rather than reason (negotiate) and representativeness (awareness raising).

Together with the theories of change, strategies are also being re-evaluated and new tactics are being tested by the movement. Schools strikes, mass urban blockades and climate strikes are examples of such tactics.

§10. The failure of the previous theories of change as well as the novelty of the newly introduced tactics brought in a massive amount of activists to the struggle. This is a wonderful opportunity, and at the same time our weakness.

People who joined the movement arrived through tactics (see §1.) and we are many now.

To win, we need to build strategies; but strategies are loaded with other theories of change. Some are replications of the old ones, some are radical. Some, people themselves are not yet aware of; some are well thought of. Some are based on historical examples (and some claim so without a careful study of those cases), others are mere heuristics.

This is a difficult situation.

There are a lot of contradictions.

But contradictions are good. It’s the only way a thing can exist (and yes, I am saying this in the widest, ontological sense). Dialectical method tells us that contradictions are the only way to produce anything new.

§11. Many times, however, this discussion has taken place at the wrong level of abstraction. Sometimes, tactics are being proposed without strategy; strategies are being discussed in void without a tactical component; and all of these are discussed without an awareness of the theories of change in the room.

We need to be a bit more explicit about ourselves and our organizations: at which organizational layer am I organized (what degree of agreement is necessary within my organization?), what theories of change do we defend, are those compatible with each other, can we combine various theories of change into a coordinated escalation strategy?

We don’t need to answer affirmatively to all these questions. But some positive answers can help us grow in a healthy way and some negative answers can clarify misunderstood frustrations.

§12. The climate justice movement needs an honest and permanent conversation guided by strategic thinking.

We have some spaces to achieve this, like the By 2020 We Rise Up campaign in Europe (together with its Iberian variety 2020 Rebelión por el Clima). Some UN Climate Summits also may serve as such spaces, where the activists from Global North can have a change to learn from the comrades from the Global South. We should make very good use of these spaces. And we should create many more of them internationally, nationally, and regionally.

It will be a lot of fun.

prepared by
Sinan Eden

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