How change happens

Published on


There is a wide - and bewildering - range of explanations, ideas, and viewpoints on the general subject of how and why change takes place. So what do we really know about how human societies change? To what extent do strategies to tackle poverty and inequality, and to promote human development, draw upon what has been learned about change in domains of knowledge outside development studies? Has development thinking become too narrow in its approach to change, trapped by specialised knowledge and habitual approaches? These are the questions at the centre of this paper. The analysis is divided into three parts. Part 1 describes different approaches to how change happens from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. These include, among others, history, politics, sociology, psychology, economics, international relations, legal studies, and ecology. Part 1 addresses the diverse kinds of change that concern each discipline; for instance, political scientists are interested in transformations of political systems, psychologists in individual behaviour, sociologists in worldviews. It highlights the general factors and conceptual frameworks used to explain change, not empirical content. The second part sets out a tool for thinking about change, drawing on the various perspectives described in Part 1 - in the form of a table called ‘The rough guide to how change happens’. It then examines an example of major social change - the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain - which illustrates the utility of the ‘rough guide’ as a tool for understanding and explaining how change takes place. The third part of the paper explores the extent to which contemporary development strategies to tackle poverty and inequality employ the full range of approaches to change proposed in the ‘rough guide’. It examines strategies such as managing markets, reforming the state, empowerment, and corporate social responsibility, and traces them back to their roots in particular academic disciplines.


Roman Krznaric

Available languages