Four Ways to Make Social Change Work Better: The Transition Movement and the Four Cultures

Transition actually looked like a good tool for the job. They were picking it up by whatever handle they grasped. They were swinging it as earnestly as they could.’ – Jon Mooallem, NY Times

The Transition Movement, a grassroots coalition pioneered in the UK by Rob Hopkins, is a great case study for understanding and improving the process of social change. In this article I aim to clarify the microdynamics of social change by using Grid-Group Cultural Theory (the four cultures) as an analytic tool. The theory, first developed by anthropologist Mary Douglas, suggests there are four competing ways of organising and disorganising society, at every level, and that a balance between these makes for a better outcome than an exclusive over-emphasis on one or another of them. Most social activists recognise a basic conflict in social-political visions between, broadly, left and right, conservative and liberal. The four cultures shows that there are actually four basic positions, not two, and that social interaction is much more intelligible when we take all four into account.

It’s my conviction that the Four Cultures approach can help social change agents ‘to bring in the people that conventional activists have failed to reach’, by showing how to be more inclusive while also becoming more focussed on what kinds of inclusion really matter.

Without knowing it, a New York Times article by Jon Mooallem, about the Transition Movement taking off in Sandpoint, Ohio, makes clear the ways in which a fundamentally Egalitarian vision can both engage and alienate those who happen to see things quite differently.

Here are four key lessons that can be drawn from the experience. These are pointers for how to use the Four Cultures to promote social change, and all the quotes come from the article.

1. It’s about being positive. Transition is based on the idea that climate change, peak oil and financial meltdown are leading us to the mother of all social crises. But rather than creating yet more gloom and doom, the movement promotes an all singing, all dancing approach to finding a way forward. Party like it’s the end of time! Not everyone likes this, of course: “If I knew how to convey how serious, how urgent the situation is without sending people into fear and helplessness, it would take a great burden off of me.” But at least it takes the unappealing edge off the resolutely and single-mindedly Egalitarian apocalypticism of some: ‘Heinberg said, “There’s nothing wrong with being motivated by fear if there’s something to be genuinely afraid of.”‘
To be upbeat at the same time as staying realistic – that’s the trick (probably not like this: “In a dream there’s no problems. There’s only solutions.”)

2. It’s also about working the connections. Making links between people who don’t usually see eye to eye, but who can work on shared projects, even when they may have very different reasons for doing so.
Great quote: how to connect the rednecks with the hippies? “The best way to bring them together is a Willie Nelson concert”. If you take ‘Willie Nelson concert’ as a metaphor for a time and place where different sections of society come together as one, we need as many of these as possible. You know it’s working when someone can say something like this: “All the things Transition’s doing basically line up with what we’re trying to do, which is create better-paying jobs.”

3. Thirdly, it’s about making space for those with different visions of the future. To put it mildly, not everyone finds motivation in the Egalitarian ethos of imminent social breakdown necessitating greater frugality and more sharing/caring with an emphasis on the local. As one participant put it, “I can’t live with the ambiguity of pending disaster”.

And as another said, “If you start a business to produce food locally and there are opportunities to make money by taking it to other areas, you’re going to do it. You may believe in Transitions and local production and local consumption, but hey, man, we’re still Americans.”

The trick then is to thrive by enabling people to find ‘a way to interpret the movement as extensions of their own visions’.
So, for instance, it’s important to make room for Hierarchical views of how government is still and always the key tool for social change:
“Government used to be the place in our community where people came together and made civic decisions,” he told me. “That’s what we should do again, and that’s what’s going to bring us back together: not having government be this force somehow outside of us, that’s bearing down on us or annoying us, but as a force that we actually embrace and want and that does what we want.”
It’s also important to allow for a more Individualist approach which focuses on the power of human ingenuity to solve all problems:
‘She had a lot of faith in the ethic and ingenuity of younger generations and also told me, contradicting what seems like a central tenet of Transition, “I think technology is going to be one of our saving graces.”‘
Besides Egalitarianism (Transition’s natural constituency), Hierarchy, and individualism, there is also Fatalism, and this approach too needs to be acknowledged and nurtured. As seen recently on a t-shirt: ‘Some see the glass as half-full. Others see it as half-empty. I just wonder who the hell’s been drinking my beer.’ There are probably people wearing this kind of thinking in Sandpoint Ohio and in your community too.

4. And finally, it’s about alienating the right people, not the wrong people, by making the process as friendly as possible to potential allies, even when they come from a very different place. This is how not to do it:
‘John T. Reuter, a Republican city councilman a few seats over, told me that when Berta told them to hold hands, he was looking around the room, counting up the people he knew Transition just alienated.’
And this is how to do it:
‘”We are not fighting against something,” Kühnel told me. “We are for something.”‘
This is difficult to achieve, not least since the theory of Four Cultures suggests that the four competing worldviews actually define themselves as much by what they are against as by what they are for (So, for instance, if someone tells you they don’t ‘believe’ in climate change, they’ve just significantly narrowed the odds that they’re also against gun control and abortion – otherwise mysterious connections which Grid-group cultural theory explains rather well). However, it’s possible to go quite a long way by ingeniously finding the things most people would support and by prioritising those actions that are ‘for’ rather than ‘against’. And in the right context, these kinds of actions, like eating ice cream and smiling in Belarus, become intrinsically change-making.
And who are the right people to alienate? I think that’s probably some kind of Zen koan. If you really must annoy the pants off some group or other, the Four Cultures at least gives you the tools to do it consciously, rather than by mistake.

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