Thinking about change

In a surprise move, for all the rhetoric was about resistance, Jacob Zuma surrendered to law enforcement officers late Wednesday night and was taken to serve his prison sentence. This followed negotiation with senior police, and any deal that was hatched remains presently unknown. The surrender is good news for the rule of law and democracy in South Africa, although the terms of any deal will need to be closely considered.

Thinking about change

There are at basis – and putting it very simply – three main explanations of how change occurs in society. The first is that it all happens at the top, at the level of social structures such as economy and polity. The second is that it all happens at the bottom, in the fabric of everyday interaction and arises from the activities of human actors. The third is that it is a complex amalgam of structural and interactional activities, events and processes. The first and the second, the structural and the interactional, in a sense have their explanatory positions embedded in them from the start, that the structure propels, or that the interaction propels. The third explanation, that of amalgamates of structure and interaction, has a harder job of work to do, because it needs to piece together how this happens, in what ways they become amalgamations, how they unfold and whether this is always in the same way or differs according to circumstance and precise mixtures.

There are also variants within this middle-ground approach as well. In some earlier blogs and also in discussion of the work of Norbert Elias, a distance has been drawn from his idea that in a sense ‘the action‘ comes from the interactional level interfacing with the structural and making it unfold and change in grounded practice. The objection to this was raised on behalf of many changes that have occurred in South African (and other) society over the past three centuries, in which there have been marked disjunctures between things going on at structural level and things going on at interactional level, with the structural often out of sync, the structural changing only latterly, and many different and sometimes conflicting changes happening at local levels.

Practice-based accounts grapple with these complexities, and here too there are variants, many of which take up what is on balance more interactional or more structural positions. An interesting attempt to break the impasse has been provided in an interesting book by Theodore Schatzki, Social Change in a Material World (2019, Routledge). This brings into consideration the fact that practices are not individualised but exist in what he refers to as ‘bundles‘, and these include the materiality of the contexts in which practices occur and which together with the occurrence of events give rise to new practices.

So far so good, at the least thought-provoking, and even a stimulus to putting some of these ideas to work in research activity. But does it progress conceptually beyond the ideas that already exist within the domain of practice theory? Certainly it does in Schatzki’s determination not to fall into the ‘it’s really structure’ or ‘it’s really interaction‘ binary trap, with his own approach worked out in full across the chapters of this stimulating book.

Other honourable exceptions to the ‘sliding into the binary trap‘ aspects are of course to be found in practice theory and other approaches that explore the middle-ground of the third approach. For instance, particularly notable in this respect is the stellar work of Elizabeth Shove and colleagues (Researching Social Practices, 2018, Sage), a ground-breaking book which also teases out the precise dynamics at work at a micro-level and with attendant changes in the patterning of this over time.

For a project such as Whites Writing Whiteness, which is specifically concerned with changes over time, recognising the fact that change is not a smooth process but lumpy and bumpy and contains reverses as well as forward-moving trajectories is fundamentally important to its analysis. So too is fully taking into account the impact of events, that is, it involves the recognition that not all change is of a low-key kind, and that sometimes events explode or unfold which have a galvanic and not just a galvanising effect. But the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution or the Mexican Revolution are not necessarily the be all and end all of event-based analysis. Sometimes such galvanising events can be much more local, but no less profound or even more so in their consequences.

Backtracking a bit, it is important to add here to what was said at the start of this blog – the rather over-simple ‘there are three approaches to social change‘ statement. Although a component of other approaches, it could with justification be suggested that an event-centred model has gathered enough traction since its early appearance within accounts focused on revolutions to constitute an approach in its own right. An interesting example of this has been discussed earlier on the Whites Writing Whiteness website, regarding the work of William H. Sewell, who has written interestingly and influentially about the role of events in propelling social change generally. Events after all come in many sizes, shapes, compositions and consequences.

In Sewell’s case the French Revolution figures large. It also figures interestingly – but in a sense knowing that an event becomes uber large-scale and continues to be influential now ‘cooks the books’, for all manner of events do not have the long-term largely uni-directional consequences of this one. So back to practice theory, which has the capacity to be fully cognisant of events, but which sees these in practice-terms rather than fixing on the ‘grand‘ events of revolutions and the like.

So far the assumption has been made that change occurs, that we know what it consists in, that it can be identified, and therefore it is available for practical substantive research as well as conceptual inquiry. Certainly it has been researched, and certainly it has been available for conceptual inquiry of different kinds. But whether what change is can be identified in quite the easy way often assumed is however debatable. It is not just a matter that something is different over time, it is also whether the ‘something‘ being compared at  time 1 and  time 2 is actually exactly the same thing, so that all changes inhere in this thing itself. It is also whether this something is being defined in exactly the same way at these two points in time, for after all that it has changed introduces the fact that there are differences. And in addition  it is by no means easy to answer whether all these changes were caused or, to use a less loaded word, impacted by the same thing.

And the list of such questions continues. Indeed, it was thinking about such things in relation to some practical research enquiries I carried out in the 1980s that has underpinned my long-term interest in these questions. They are not easy to answer let alone solve, but they are fascinating to explore in different kinds of grounded contexts and situations.

Theodore Schatzki, Social Change in a Material World, 2019, Routledge.

William H Sewell, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation, 2005, University of Chicago Press.

Elizabeth Shove Mika Pantzar and Matt Watson, The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and How It Changes, 2012, Sage.


Last updated:  8 July 2021