Folk working in the sustainability space often talk about theories of change. Related to this are theories of action; that is theories of how and why people do what they do, which may for example draw on psychological research or social theory. An interesting spin on this is to think about how ‘theories of action’ can be related to ‘theories of change’ that are used, and to reflect on this component of our work. I decided to review some theories of action, some of which are summarised below (I’d love to hear what theories of action and change you use, particularly if they’re different to those listed below):
Cultural theories of action
Social theorists such as Durkheim have argued that people often obey norms (even if such action is inconsistent with some of their interests or preferences) because either: A) they are fearful that others will sanction them if they don’t conform to those norms; and/or B) they are seeking out approval from significant others (and therefore conform to their norms in order to be accepted). The underlying theory is that, as social beings, we care deeply about our standing (reputation) with significant others.
If this is our theory of action then a way to achieve major social change is to somehow generate some changes to particular norms (or the creation of new ones) – such as via a vanguard who aim to lead or influence the masses. If sufficient momentum is generated, then the rest of the public will be expected to then “fall into line” with emerging cultural norms and, thus, conform with the new culture.
One critique of this theory is that it’s based on an “over-socialised” conception of the individual, making them “cultural dopes” that are presented as mindlessly following taken-for-granted “scripts”.
Critics dispute other ideas about how culture influences action. For instance, Ann Swidler (Stanford University) argues the belief “culture shapes action by supplying ultimate ends or values towards which action is directed” is “fundamentally misleading”. Swidler argues “culture” – defined as “symbolic vehicles of meaning” – provides resources (not ends), and strategies of action are cultural products.
Rational actors (or ‘bounded rationality’ as per Kahneman & Tversky and behavioural economics)
An important theory of human action within economics and political science is the rational choice model of human behaviour which, for example, argues that human actors have fixed preferences and aim maximise their expected utility through self-interested behaviour. A related idea or belief is that action is governed by interests (rather than by cultural processes and/or by non-rational values).
|Similarly, Austrian economists have developed “praxeology”, which they define as the scientific study of human action. Human action is viewed as teleological (using means to achieve an end).|
If this is your theory of action then two related ways to achieving change are providing information (so people can make fully informed choices and, hopefully, therefore more rational decisions) and modifying incentives (e.g. through a price on carbon). The latter influences the pursuit of interests. Rational actors in markets are expected to, for example, react to price signals (e.g. introduced by a carbon price).
One important critique of this perspective (aside from the psychological research questioning the extent to which humans act in rational ways, through their powers of reason) draws on the observation that humans must act in the context of other actors, groups and/or organisations. Some sociologists argue that this means that actors often must allow their interests to be (re)defined in the course of interaction, such as interests being formed in and through political processes. A related critique is that interests and preferences may be more malleable than claimed. For instance, institutional entrepreneurs help to produce new collective identities and, in doing so, create new interests (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012).
Perhaps the most important critiques of rational choice theory are the psychological critiques. Models of “bounded rationality” aim to be more psychologically plausible (but don’t completely abandon the idea that some kind of reason underlies decision-making processes).
The role of power in human action
Another vast literature addresses power, such as the roles and use of power in organisations, or within politics and human society. Social theorists have also examined the role of power in establishing and naturalising shared meanings (a link to cultural accounts). When people take account of the social environment in which they act power is an aspect which people generally need to consider.
The key point here is that if your theory of action emphasises the roles and use of power then your theories of change also might emphasise the use of power to achieve change. This might then, consequently, lead to a focus on instrumental political efforts (seeking to advance in, or to influence, power structures) or on social movements (understood here as being politics by another means).
A related idea is the concept of “political opportunity”; suggesting action is taken when the right circumstances emerge (e.g. when the existing power structure has significantly broken down).
Alternative sociological theories of action
A range of additional theories of action exist. Some emphasise that action is typically socially embedded and influenced by others in contexts (e.g. within the groups that a person is a member of), e.g. social psychological theories. Others (e.g. Neil Fligstein, George Herbert Mead) have emphasised the roles and uses of empathetic understanding, such as for collective action, and have theorised the “social skill” and related existential aspects that are often involved. Such perspectives aim to provide an enhanced sociological micro-foundation to our understanding of human action.
Related motivations are emphasised by sociologist Doug McAdam (from Stanford University). He argues that “most individuals act routinely to safeguard and sustain the central sources of meaning and identity in their lives”. He links this to conformity (the process noted above), arguing that this results in “conforming to the behavioral dictates of those whose approval and emotional sustenance are most central to our lives and salient identities”. This would also suggest theories of change whereby desired changes are linked to salient identities and the (re)appropriation of cultural resources.
Thinking about such theories in relation to prospective exercises and my sustainability work
A few general thoughts come to mind. Early on I probably had a stronger belief that information matters and that providing new information would change behaviour etc, whereas now I see this as often being just one piece of a more complex puzzle – with social, cultural, and many other, factors at play. Theories that assume or stress individual autonomy (not meaning to bring up the free will thing here, but…) miss the social embeddedness of much human action, and are therefore partial (at best). I also had a less sophisticated understanding of science and issues related to the use and interpretation of data and information. Additionally, considering the micro-foundation, much of the theorisation of prospective practices like scenario planning has to-date emphasised ‘mental models’ and how these influence decision-making, with efforts made to challenge these through such practices. A sociological micro-foundation may also be useful, but this perspective is yet to be drawn on in theory and practice.
Additionally prospective practices themselves might be viewed as “strategies of action” (Swidler’s term) and might be fruitfully analysed as cultural products and as shaped by culture. Swidler argues that a culture has effects by “providing the characteristic repertoire” from which “lines of action” are built, and such a perspective could be adopted when assessing or considering prospective practices.
Much more reflection on this is needed, though!