Theory of social change and its relevance to choice of methods
There is much debate about what constitutes social change – or what are the pathways to equity-sensitive social transformation.
The theory of social change should determine the design of the evaluation – including the questions asked and the interpretation of the findings – but it does not affect the methods used.
For example, the theory of how a program results in social change could be, by:
- Helping participants cope with their reality; or
- Strengthening participants’ ability to humanize their social reality but not fundamentally challenge the logic of social relations; or
- Building awareness and skills in participants to revolutionize the social system to make it more equitable.
Based on the theory of change for each of the examples above, the focus of the evaluation would be:
- Coping skills, e.g., asking participants about their coping skills before and after the program
- Social engagement, e.g., documenting participants’ changes in social engagement
- Hierarchical relations and social activism, e.g., observing changes in hierarchical relations within the group and examining the nature of social activism
Although the focus of each of the evaluations is different, they could use any of the methods (i.e. quantitative, qualitative or arts-based) and therefore any of the data gathering techniques (e.g., surveys, interviews, etc.).
The above A, B, C designation can be seen simply as relating to social change at the micro (individual) level; meso (group level), or macro (societal level). However, as theorist Dr. Jennifer Spiegel points out - these are not mutually exclusive categories. She writes:
“Shows may critique a social system - or not - but what is learned, finally, is a way of relating, creating and adapting to structures of production itself. Here the act of expression is what matters rather than that which is said - how it is put together rather than what is put together… Personal and interpersonal transformations, particularly at the level of sensibilities and modes of relating…could lead to broader social transformation; and conversely, social and political transformations could shape subjectivity at both the individual and collective level.”
Is social change the same as social transformation?
In discussing theories of social change, Dr. Jennifer Spiegel writes:
“It is important to recognize that process-based theories of change do not require attaining utopian equality as a condition of success. Transformation is a process, not a destination.”
But she also cautions:
“The need for an NGO to sustain a program’s funding [could] undercut its ability to bring about long-standing and far-reaching social transformation. For the extra step toward not only collective “expression” but also collective social transformation, the process itself may require not only the shared unpacking of collective expression and its relation to personal goals, but also shared development of pathways forward.”
The third example above (“Building awareness and skills in participants to revolutionize the social system to make it more equitable”) would be a transformative paradigm of social change as it encompasses systemic and collective levels of change.
A transformative paradigm (or way of thinking) examines issues of social justice and marginalization. Transformative paradigms are often associated with language such as: critical theory, neo-Marxist, feminist, critical race theory, Freirean, participatory, emancipatory, advocacy, grand narrative, interventionist, queer theory, race specific and counter-hegemonic, among others.
Simply put, adopting a transformative paradigm means making social justice a central objective of the program and its evaluation; but just like the different theories of social change, it does not restrict the evaluation techniques employed – all methodologies of data gathering (quantitative, qualitative, arts-based) could have a place.