Social Change is entering an age of “enlightenment” so says New York Times author David Borstein. He writes an ongoing series called “Fixes,” focused on solutions to social problems and why they work, so he has a birds-eye-view on trends and patterns across many dimensions of significant social and cultural changes that are happening.
“Much of my time over the past few years has been spent talking to people about the creative responses to social problems that are emerging across the country and around the globe. It turns out there’s no shortage of these stories. I’m often struck by how much ingenuity is out there and being directed to repair the world… I see a side of reality that goes unreported: namely, that we’re getting smarter about the way we’re addressing social problems. In fact, I would go so far as to say we’re on the verge of a breakthrough — maybe even a new Enlightenment,” writes Mr. Borstein.
Consider what the Enlightenment period was in history, whimsical thinking giving way to more rational, cause and effect understanding. It inspired new scientific methodology, challenged ideas grounded only on faith, and advocated the restructuring of governments and social institutions based on reason. Mr. Borstein consolidates his observations into three emerging trends:
1. Increasingly social problems are being addressed with the recognition that human beings don’t behave rationally much of the time. Recent research from behavioral psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated the different ways that emotions, unconscious drives, group identities, and situational cues guide human behavior. People are paying more attention to how other people really operate, and are applying that knowledge to solve problems. For instance, if we want to mobilize people to protect the environment, it’s probably less effective to issue dire warnings, than it is to organize campaigns that tap into people’s sense of pride in their community.
2. More and more data is being gathered, well-conducted studies have ample history to pull from, and evidence-based decision making is being used to evaluate and sharpen the effectiveness of social interventions. Private and public funders, and a wide array of watch groups are increasingly holding social programs to the task of proving their effectiveness. This puts everyone in a better position to recognize what works and what doesn’t. For a long time people with good intentions worked on social problems with no one checking on their progress, today they are increasingly being asked to prove that they are getting somewhere. Raising expectations and creating pressure for others to respond.
3. In contrast to an assembly line principle, where each person has a highly specialized task, today people are coming back together to build comprehensive solutions as a collective whole. Social issues are multi-dimensional and must be addressed from multiple angles, and with an array of expertise. Health problems in low-income communities, must also be looked at as housing problems and lack of access to healthy choices. More people are beginning to think about problems in this way. There is an awareness and integration of vast social functions, that for decades before had only been handled in piecemeal ways. This strategy has come to be called “collective impact,” through which scores or hundreds of organizations, or individuals, are pulled together to align behind an agreed on set of measurable goals. And only through their collective efforts are real answers found.
– Mary Purcell