Leonard Jason (2013) “Principles of Social Change” Oxford University Press.



Leonard Jason is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Centre for Community Research at DePaul University, Chicago. As such he has received more than $26 million in federal grants to support a wide range of research-based projects involving creating social change in a wide range of public issue areas. This is not, however, an academic argument in a conventional sense, but rather one presented by a man who understands how to use his personal and academic abilities to work with individuals and communities for the general good.

There are many reasons to read this book. Given my own interests, I initially read it in large part as an argument for interdisciplinary, non-hierarchical approaches in education and to academic research, approaches based on constant critical evaluation of underlying assumptions and presuppositions, including those of one’s own disciplinary context. But it is perhaps best represented as an argument for a particular practical understanding, one based on outward-facing academic work that mindfully engages in multi-constituency activity oriented by a desire for social change. By action that is in particular (‘second-order’) ways focused on addressing social issues through building appropriate senses of self-sustaining community through ‘pooling resources, exchanging information, and supporting multiple perspectives’ (p.73).

The book consists of six chapters: Changing the Rules of the Game, Challenging the Status Quo, Navigating the Maze, Creating Communities to Foster Success, Means to an End, and finally The Root of the Issue, in which he describes his own background and the context in which he locates his life and work. While interesting enough in its own terms, this final chapter is in my view somewhat ancillary or tangential to the main argument and I will focus primarily on the previous five. What follows outlines what I take to be the core of Prof Jason’s argument and identifies some of the issues that follow from it. However, the reader should be aware that much of the strength of this argument lies in the specific examples used and the way in which these are presented and, in consequence, should read this book for her or his self.

Changing the Rules of the Game

After establishing the need for ‘resilient, optimistic members of the community’ (p.2) as the prime engine of social change, Prof Jason sets out to distinguish between first- and second-order change, using the image of a life-guard faced with a situation in which people either fall into the water from a cliff or wade out too far and get into trouble. After a while it becomes clear to her that this is happening more and more frequently and she simply cannot continue trying to rescue them all (the first-order solution to their danger of drowning). Instead she envisages a second-order solution: railings to prevent people from falling from the cliff and swimming lessons so that people do not get into difficulties in the sea. By identifying the problem at an environmental level – the cliffs – and an individual level – swimming lessons – she has a basis on which to confront those with the power to change the situation.

In short, he argues that: ‘successful change agents must have both knowledge and a sense of intuition and urgency to solve complex problems’ (p.4). He also points out that our political culture tends to privilege and promote ‘first-order, top-down’ interventions (p.8) that pay little or no attention to the wishes and particularities of specific environments and communities. Both observations seem to me to go to the heart of the problem of why so much ‘radical’ activism fails, either through lack of appropriate knowledge on which to act or because it replicates, in another register, ‘top-down’, ideologically-driven interventionism that is not grounded in the community’s own understanding of its needs.

His first principle is, then, to focus on second-order change ‘that influences the individual and his or her social network, as well as all other components of the environment that may contribute to the particular problem” (p.9). He points out that to engender such change often requires proceeding via ‘small, practical, and realistic steps that set the process in motion’ (p.13), the antithesis of so many of both official and ‘radical’ interventions. In this context, Prof Jason points out that it took him and his fellow campaigners two decades to bring about the changes needed to impose proper and necessary limits on the power of the tobacco industry. Drawing on that experience, he stresses the need for patience, an adequate knowledge of the politics of any given power system, of networks of peer support, and of the individual passion necessary to take the risks required when confronting power holders.

His points are important because of the lengths to which those in powerful positions – economic or political – will go to protect their vested interests: from discrediting individuals, misrepresenting their arguments, refusing to acknowledge scientific research that contradicts their own arguments, manipulating definitions, through to committing perjury and pressuring or bribing elected representatives to support them. This is something about which he reminds the reader throughout the book, making absolutely clear that there is no limit to the ‘conniving and obfuscation’ (p.24) used by those in power to attempt to frustrate any change that will reduce their profit or power. He also makes clear that this ‘conniving and obfuscation’ is not restricted to those with obvious power. As the example of local opposition to the Oxford House movement – as potentially damaging to house prices – makes clear (p.74), this is likely to feature wherever notions of community are reduced to the economics of possessive individualism. This is not, however, to disparage economic arguments. As the account books of the Oxford House initiative make clear, the project represents a saving of hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers collectively (p.75).

As a result of his two decades long battle with the tobacco industry Prof Jason believes that he learned the following lessons, all pertinent to his overall argument: to focus on second-order change, to identify and weaken the power holders, to create coalitions with communities and other activist groups, to maintain a persistent and long-term engagement, and to constantly evaluate and refine his strategies and tactics.

Challenging the Status Quo

As he approached his 40s Prof Jason became ill with what was finally diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). The resulting experiences – including the way in which his illness was misunderstood and disbelieved, sometimes by the very people with most power to address it (p.28) – focused his understanding of the need to understand issues of power in order to combat them successfully. Thus he writes: agents of change need to be ‘armed with a keen knowledge of the power system’ they are attempting to Change, along with ‘the principle players, and the environment in order to continually monitor and fine-tune strategies’ (p.29). Furthermore, he argues that we can only bring about lasting change through ‘grassroots, community support and coalitions to change power relationships’ (p. 52).

Overall the chapter addresses issues of power and its relationship to, for example, the distribution of resources for research or policy implementation, the ability of those in power to abuse democratic processes such as committees, or the ways in which the medical, psychiatric and related industries sanction blatant abuses of human rights rather than accept that the reality of patients’ lived experience if it challenges their own professional position (p.39). He makes it clear that those in power will do almost anything to hold onto that power and that, as a result, we are increasingly subject to hierarchical institutions that contradict the basic principles of the very democracy that supposedly distinguishes ours from authoritarian systems of governance. Although this chapter focuses on his work on CFS, his argument throughout the chapter makes it absolutely clear that unless there is fundamental structural change in our society concerning the redistribution of resources, any attempts at reconceptualising power on the individual level will be unsuccessful (p.52).

Navigating the Maze

The chapter Navigating the Maze focuses on the need to identify and mobilize individuals and community groups so as ‘to influence the cultural and political landscape affecting social change’, where ‘the key is citizen participation in democratic processes that ensure that community members have meaningful involvement in decisions that affect them’ (p. 55). Our ability to do this, he argues, depends in large part on understanding ‘why people develop a psychological sense of community’ (ibid) and reflects his role as a major figure of the Community Psychology movement. (In this context it would have been interesting to know a little about how his approach relates to those discussed in, for example, Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman’s 2008 book Towards

Psychologies of Liberation).

The examples used draw on his very extensive engagement with alcohol and drugs rehabilitation in general and the Oxford House recovery movement in particular. Of particular interest here is his observations on the way professionals – in this case those employed by the established halfway house organisations – tend to do everything they can to derail ‘bottom-up’ self-help movements because they see them as a threat to their own jobs, as ultimately making them redundant.

Of interest in the context of criticism of short-term interventions and other first-order solutions is the fact that the Oxford House representatives, Prof Jason, and his team spent twelve months attending each other’s meetings and generally getting to know each other prior to starting their project in earnest, something that relates directly to his emphasis throughout on the need to share experience and encourage awareness and trust. As he also makes clear, a significant guiding principle throughout his work is that help from official sources, governmental or otherwise, ‘should never involve eliminating the authority or leadership of a successful grassroots organization’ (p.77).

Creating Communities to Foster Success

The chapter opens by stressing that patience and long-term commitment are vital to those seeking serious and lasting social change for the better and that, despite the difficulties involved, the pay-off is that ‘the longer the effort to bring about meaningful change, the deeper the change agents’ understanding of what needs to be done’ (p.81). However, this requires that groups develop both resilience and substantive inter-personal skills so as to build lasting links between multiple constituencies and organizations. To do so requires recognition that, as Prof Jason makes clear, the leadership of large companies, official organizations, and social institutions such as universities, is increasingly authoritarian, with ‘rigid systems of control, stagnant bureaucracies, and few incentives for creativity’ (p.85). While the organization of his own academic research centre is clearly designed to avoid this, it is important to note that seeking profit at the expense of honouring all other commitments is now very firmly embedded in the academic research world, a growing tendency that communities seeking to work with academics should be aware of and take active steps to guard against.

Prof Jason’s discussion of leadership in relation to community activism is refreshingly pragmatic (at least to someone who has tried to grapple with current theorizings of the relationship between art and politics, art and ‘the commons’, and similar related issues). Following the work of Joseph Nye (The Powers to Lead, 2008), he stresses the centrality of five key qualities: ‘emotional intelligence, vision, communication, the use of Machiavellian tactics, and contextual intelligence’, which he discusses at a level of detail it would be foolish to try to summarize here. In many respects this chapter, with its reflections of the implications of these leadership qualities, constitutes the practical heart of the book. One does not have to agree with all aspects of Prof Jason’s analysis – from what I know from friends working in Egypt his reading of the roll of the April 6 Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood in recent events there is chronically over-simplified – to value his larger points.

That this chapter discusses his own working environment with in the psychology department at DePaul and with the Centre for Community Research there in this chapter is of particular importance to the practical project of book as a whole. As he notes, the liberal and egalitarian rhetoric of many academics is frequently compromised by their compliance with the values of the status quo within the university system, which in the United Kingdom has been described by one Vice-Chancellor as among the most archaic and reactionary of our national institutions. While the senior academic administrators who now run universities may, like many dictators, believe they are furthering the common good by imposing their solutions upon their subordinates, in doing so they are in reality creating institutions that are increasingly simply incapable of working for that common good. Prof Jason’s account of operating successfully in the working environment he has established at DePaul provides both a potent rebuke to the senior managers of universities and an important benchmark against which anyone thinking of working with academics, but themselves located outside the university system, can discuss and judge the good faith – or otherwise – of academics’ claims regarding ‘inclusivity’, ‘accountability’, ‘democratic processes’, etc.

Means to an End  

In this penultimate chapter Prof Jason addresses the importance of effective research, information gathering and careful evaluation, a process he introduces using the example of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, predicated on the professional evaluation and synthesis of very large amounts of disparate scientific evidence. However, he is also quick to stress the importance of ‘participatory approaches’ to research in contrast to traditional academic models based on notions of professional exclusivity that exclude members of the community the research concerns from the planning, execution and evaluation of research processes (p.112). Again, the argument in this chapter is made through detailed examples to which its not possible to do justice here.

Some concluding reflections

The main body of the book concludes with a chapter entitled The Root of the Issue but, as already indicated, I see this as somewhat ancillary to the extraordinary value of the main argument. This is based on first-hand experience of issues in which Prof Jason has been directly involved over long periods of time and, as a result, carries a quiet but powerful authority. This is not quite the case in the final chapter, however. While I absolutely agree with the premise of this chapter, that historical context influences the principles he sets out, I find the discussion of what he refers to as the Four Vulnerabilities paradoxically both too generalized and too particular to his own autobiography and, as a result, not particularly helpful.

For example, while his analysis of power abuses and the recent economic crisis in this chapter is certainly cogent and to the point, it is not clear to me why this should be discussed under the heading of human aggression rather than, say, human greed or sloth (to borrow from Buddhism). Equally his second and third vulnerabilities might be as productively discussed in terms of the polarities between polytheistic and animistic metaphysical systems on one hand and the monotheism of the Religions of the Book and their secular, scientific inheritance on the other. (Although I appreciate that such an alternative approach might appeal less well to the American market). I also find his sympathy for Joseph Campbell’s understanding of the hero archetype – today in my view all too bound up with the cult of possessive individualism – both problematic and somewhat out-dated. This brings me to a more general criticism, albeit a relatively minor one.

There is a sense in which this book is very much predicated, as already indicated, on an American’s first hand experience of his own country and particular problems within it. Where Dr Jason departs from this experience and cultural milieu, as in his discussion of the political situation in north Africa and the Middle East, he at once appears on rather less solid ground. Since I have recently met with good friends who have been living in Cairo, his account of the relationship between the April 6 Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood offered me something of a test case for the application of his understanding outside his own milieu and context. While it would be unfair to be unduly critical of his reading of the highly complex and often paradoxical nature of events in Egypt, there is a sense in which his generalized account – he makes no mention, for example, of the key role played by the Ultras – somewhat undermines the points made in Navigating the Maze. It is difficult to avoid the impression that, had he been referring to the causes and playing out of community riots in Chicago, his account would have been more nuanced.

However, these are obviously issues of personal interest, concern, and orientation as much as anything else and, as in the context of adversarial collaboration central to so much work towards social change, it seems best simply to acknowledge that Prof Jason and I hold differing views about how best to identify and describe the wider context in which we each find ourselves.

This points to perhaps one of the most important messages of this book. Namely that what is ultimately of the greatest importance is not the personal opinions of individuals but their ability to acknowledge difference while acting on a shared underlying desire to find and employ practical tools for effecting social change.


I sent an earlier draft of this text to Prof Jason in order to ensure that I had reasonably and accurately represented his views and have corrected an inaccuracy he kindly pointed out to me. In his replies he also makes two points worth reproducing here. The first reads as follows;

“When I wrote the passage about Egypt, I was somewhat swept away with the enthusiasm and idealistic possibilities that seemed to be opening up.  If I were to revise the book, I certainly would have put more emphasis in these two sentences: “Ousting Mubarak, the common goal, was easy to agree upon. Now it will take hard work and negotiation to ensure that the forces of change produce a democratic state rather than another dictatorship or pseudo-democracy (Calingaert, 2012).”  My overly optimistic views of what occurred would certainly need to be tempered with what has ensued over the past year”.

The second relates to the final chapter of the book:

“… as  I worked on this last piece, I thought to myself that the four vulnerabilities dealt with many complicated historical, sociological, as well as philosophical arenas, that I feared I would either over simplify some issues and/or provide inaccurate conclusions with others (and my expertise was really much more limited and within  the examples from the prior chapters).  But I also thought to myself that the values and beliefs that shaped my writings and thinking are the grist or foundational values from which I generated the principles.  Perhaps naively, I thought this last chapter might allow readers to get into my head, to know how I see the world, and whether correctly or not, it was a way of being explicit with the reader about my prejudices and biases. And even as I wrote pieces, I wondered if the text would be meaningful to others, and I recognized that parts of it would make implications that were contradictory to the message of the prior chapters.  For example, I also had some concerns with Campbell, and some of his ways of approaching the world do worry me.  With that being said, the last chapter was my effort to encourage readers and activists to get to know the deep values of  those that they read, interact with, and form partnerships with. By letting people know more about me and my values, I thought that I might be encouraging readers always to have a context for the information that is  being disseminated”.