The Six or Seven Axioms of Social Change: Margaret Mead’s Gift

by Alexis Schroeder July 1, 2005

By Zaid Hassan, July 2005

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The anthropologist Margaret Mead gave us the gift of what can be called Mead’s Axiom, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” While I have heard this quote being used hundreds, if not thousands of times, I personally haven’t had much of an understanding of how it happens to be true. It seems to be an article of faith, at least amongst social activists, hence an axiom in the technical sense. My intention here is to corroborate it with my personal understanding of mass social change.

On good days my work involves enthusiastically trying to form and catalyze such groups. On bad days I curse and wonder where these small groups of thoughtful, committed people are and what they’re waiting for. Regardless of what day it is, I feel that Mead’s Axiom provides us with a compelling vision for mass social change. It deserves attention. This essay is animated by a burning desire to understand what could be thought of as the mother of all axioms, at least when it comes to mass social change. I propose a series of lesser axioms, all drawn from trying to understand how Mead’s Axiom operates in the world.

Despite the tidiness of Mead’s Axiom, mass social change is not usually a nice linear process. There are, of course, situations where social innovation follows a linear path, for example with the take-up of an innovation (See Chapter 9 of “Believing Cassandra” by Worldchanging contributor Alan AtKisson). But these situations are rare when it comes to social systems which are complex and stuck. My colleague, Adam Kahane, in his book “Solving Tough Problems,” explains:

“Problems are tough because they are complex in three ways. They are dynamically complex, which means that cause and effect are far apart in space and time, and so are hard to grasp from firsthand experience. They are generatively complex, which means that they are unfolding in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways. And they are socially complex, which means that the people involved see things very differently, and so the problems become polarized and stuck.”

When studying mass social change as a phenomenon there is always a temptation to order events as they happened, in a timeline. Then by implication we assume that one thing follows another and one thing neatly causes another. A very real danger for those wishing to learn from historical social change is the trap of seeing social change linearly. This is a trap is because we know (for example from research on complex systems) that social change, that is changing a complex system, is less about planning and more about creating the conditions for change. To mangle an old adage, no plan survives contact with reality. Mass social change is messy, unpredictable and often ugly.

Modern institutions are not well suited to the work of catalyzing social change because they suffer from a touching need for linear and predictable processes. Such processes in turn demand that risk be minimized and a plan be proposed, which is often used as a script rather than a point of departure. If we’re being honest with ourselves, then we’d recognize when the function of a plan is purely psychological comfort in the face of unpredictable and frightening change.

Some appetite for risk is, however, a key capacity required of anyone with a commitment to sustained social change in such turbulent times. If this appetite does not come naturally then it must be built slowly over time, like an immunity. As James P. Carse, in Finite and Infinite Games puts it, “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained, to be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”

Risk therefore should not be confused with recklessness or blindness. Risk can be understood, embraced and internalized as an intrinsic quality of the systems that we’re dealing with. It cannot be banished and any attempt to do so should be treated with the same sympathy that any other pathological condition demands.