Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
How Change Happens$

Duncan Green

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785392

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785392.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 25 November 2020

(p.177) Part III What Activists Can (and Can’t) Do

(p.177) Part III What Activists Can (and Can’t) Do

How Change Happens

Duncan Green

Oxford University Press

Keywords:   citizen activism, citizen activists, civil society, social consequences, political activity, urbanization

Keywords:   leadership, progressive leaders, leadership from below, leadership styles, activist leadership

Keywords:   advocacy, lobbying, campaigning, formal institutions, informal institutions, systems thinking, good advocacy

There is a much-quoted phrase attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead (although no original source can be found), namely ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has’.1

These words have inspired generations of activists, but they always leave me with mixed feelings. If we focus on ‘committed’ and lose sight of ‘thoughtful’, we can fall into the seductive trap of thinking that change comes from a noble and pure band of brothers and sisters, willing to go up into the mountains or onto the streets. I don’t think that’s how change works.

JK Rowling satirizes that kind of ‘committed’ campaigning in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,2 when Hermione sets up an ‘Elf Liberation Front’ to free the house elves who serve the wizard community. The house elves are horrified—no-one had asked them if they wanted to be ‘liberated’, which to them looks very much like being unemployed. (p.178) Hermione didn’t consult the elves; she merely assumed she knew what was right for them. She really needed a proper theory of change.

In contrast, a ‘thoughtful’ power and systems approach emphasizes humility and curiosity about the system we are seeking to influence. Passion is essential, of course, but it must be tempered with critical thinking. Activists need to be reflectivists too.

The next three chapters explore how activists of different kinds go about that task. They cover grassroots citizen activism, the often-ignored role of leaders, and advocacy to influence the institutions analysed in Section 2. It is a necessarily partial and personal view, reflecting my own background and drawing on the activists, leaders, and campaigners I have met, worked with, and above all learned from. I said at the outset of the book that there was no ‘department of change studies’ that activists can turn to for guidance—the history and variety of activism is an excellent substitute.

The book will then conclude with a ‘so what?’ discussion that fleshes out the power and systems approach and its implications for activists and their organizations.


(1) The Institute for Intercultural Studies, ‘Frequently Asked Questions About Mead/Bateson’, http://www.interculturalstudies.org/faq.html#quote.

(2) J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (London: Bloomsury, 2000).