The State and Social Change

Change happens at the intersection of systems: sometimes through negotiation, sometimes neglect, sometimes conflict. Today i am #WorkingOutLoud building out some thinking around Social Movements and the evolution of the Dominant Narrative.

That term, the ‘Dominant Narrative’ is one that i use to describe how groups (from social tribes to formal societies) understand things to operate, to be. For example, we understand that when you order lunch in a restaurant, at the end of the meal you should pay, and walk out. If you see someone get up and run, chased by the waiter, the odds are that they have broken that narrative. But these narratives evolve: in times of Covid i find myself in a restaurant scanning a QR code, to order, and pay, through an App. But the essential narrative remains intact: whilst the rituals change, and the technologies and process, the core story, that i order a meal and pay for it, remain unchallenged.

Some Dominant Narratives are held in social convention: ways that we are polite, that we behave. Others are codified into law: you must pay your taxes, whether or not you wish to. You must stop at a pedestrian crossing, whether or not you wish to. These narratives carry consequence within them: they are backed up and enforced. If you steal, you will be punished, even if you steal to feed a child who is hungry. Laws may not respect context, although sentencing and judgement may.

The judicial system itself lies at this intersection of formal and social systems: part of the structural mechanism of state sanctioned control, including state sanctioned violence, which is a heavy responsibility to bear.

In an ostensibly civilised society we value individual expression and freedom, and yet that expression and freedom is not without limits. So even civilised societies recognise that there are boundaries that cannot be crossed, and that sometimes we must seek to prevent that crossing, and sometimes we must punish those who cross anyway.

So the State can be violent, but only within limits, and hence the State must sanction violence, and does so through the mechanisms of the police, army, and other formal structure, but with mechanisms of restraint on that action: essentially the State absolves the individual of responsibility for their violent action so long as they act within the sanctioned boundaries of action.

This is almost counter intuitive: when i worked with a group of young Canadian Public Administrators, the definition of ‘government’ that they came up with was a primary duty of protection. Protecting everyone, not just the dominant voices. So the State acts as a kind of formalised tribe: erecting boundaries and being violent (in the most civilised way it can imagine) in protection of that entity.

But whichever way you look at it, there is always a conflict boundary: either an uncontrolled social one, or a formalised State one.

Social change may happen at the intersection of these systems: almost inherently the State seeks to persist in the current state, and almost inherently social systems seek to evolve to be the most advantageous to inhabit. So a dynamic system meets a codified and static one.

Change happens of course, because the mechanisms of State have structural methods of changing: primarily through laws, and the shape and distribution of civic structures (like planning offices, local authorities, even schools and universities). But in this sense, as with all socially built structure, it often represents the beliefs of the past – it changes, by design, slowly, carefully, as it should. A State would not be stable if it changed on a whim, or an individual opinion.

I remember being oddly fascinated to realise that many of our mechanisms of Government are designed to be locked, designed to be stagnant, designed to house conflict safely, precisely because you do not want the scales to swing wildly. So the ‘good’ people struggle to get things done, but so too do the ‘bad’ ones. Essentially it’s a defensive measure: i will accept that my ‘tribe’ doesn’t get everything it wants, because that is the price i pay to ensure that yours does not either.

But in essence, formal structures represent a shadow of yesterday’s beliefs, and it is more likely in the social systems and movements that we will find the formation, rehearsal, and action, that will give us those of tomorrow.

Movements like #BlackLivesMatter are examples of this in action, and it’s easy to see how the people seeking to drive change come into conflict with those who guard the status quo, especially when you find a flashpoint.

When you look at Social Movements, there is often a flashpoint, which represents the potential shattering of an existing Dominant Narrative. Social Movements may not start with a flashpoint, but like a wave they may break over one.

Examples include the shooting of a teenager, the toppling of a statue, a death in custody, or the imposition of a new rule or law. If these things take place against a backdrop narrative of frustration, oppression, or desire, they may spark.

This specific mechanism: flashpoints, conflicting narratives, sparks, and the precursor networks of trust and reputation that cohere communities, give us some insight as to why social change is not necessarily a matter of planning and volume, so much as timeliness and luck. Much like the culture change we so often talk about within Organisations.

There are broad principles we may come to understand: networks that are highly interconnected are more likely to allow for the proliferation, amplification, and spread, of new narratives, and group consensus tends to collapse like a waveform around specific action, or a new story. This collective collapse, collective consensus around what will come next, is one of the most dynamic, unpredictable, and important aspects of all.

How do we all come to believe what we collectively believe?

There was a point at which is was acceptable, or tolerated, to use certain language or behaviour in the workplace that is no longer permitted or tolerated – but how did that conversation evolve?

Movements like #MeToo provide an intense microscopic illustration of this in action: the way that a succession of highly authentic stories crack open the space, and how they themselves create the space and permission to share further stories – and off the back of which, the Dominant Narrative evolves. Or hopefully does so.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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