CRISIS post: The dynamics of social transformation – what are the three critical elements of change?

Published by Aubyn Howard on

In my previous post I introduced a hypothesis for how societal change or transformation takes place – that it is a function of compelling narratives, emotionally connecting with tribal identities, mitigated or magnified by forces of habituation and power operating within the context of bio-psycho-socio-cultural-historical human systems, mediated by agency, enabled by catalysts and driven by momentum.

In this post I will expand upon three critical elements or principles of human nature which are at the heart of this equation.  These are:

  • The power of narrative and telling stories.
  • The nature of tribal identityand identification.
  • The polarity of emotionand the rationality.

In the third post that will follow I will add the other key ingredients that influence how change takes place; the paradox of habituation and adaptability; the dynamics of power in human systems; as well as the role of catalysts in initiating or enabling change (such as technology and globalisation over the last twenty years, or shocks to the system such as war, revolution, disease and natural disaster); the nature of momentum and inertia; and how all these come together within the context of human societal systems.

Some context

I am approaching this from the perspective of anyone interested in bringing about evolutionary change towards building a better society and wants to understand the dynamics that influence how that takes place.  Part of the context of my last post was that the coronavirus pandemic crisis has opened up an opportunity for change which could be for the better or the worse, most likely a frothy mix of both. Over this strange period of retreat for many of us, we are engaging in different dialogues about what kind of world we want to emerge out of the crisis and how this might be brought about – my purpose here is to better inform that dialogue and increase the chances of success of any leaders or agents of change that play an active role in this.   

This post is part of a series in which I seek to include inner and outer perspectives, at individual and collective levels, in relation to complex systemic social and psychological subject matter. My style may be confusing at times, for which I apologise to the reader. Please go with the flow and hopefully you will find something of value! 

It is important to point out that the dynamics of change work in the same way for all societal change, whether we might regard it as positive or negative, desirable or unfortunate. It is also worth noting that the current or recent conditions for these dynamics seem to be heavily loaded or leaning towards the forces of reactionary, regressive or populist change. This is partly because it is easier to bring something down than to build something up, to engage people’s negative emotions rather than their higher values, in other words to destroy rather than to create. It is also because populist leaders have been more naturally or intuitively ready and able to exploit the current conditions for their purposes and have experienced less of a learning curve to adapt than their evolutionary counterparts. This may be about to change and at least in part due to the coronavirus crisis.

The three key elements I am highlighting in this article are not new, and of course have been around for a long time.  However, their apparent rise to prominence in the world today has been recent, rapid and retrospectively shocking.  This is partly a material shift that has taken place and partly due to our increased awareness or perception of what is going on. The primary catalysts for the actual change over the last 20 years have been technology and globalisation, for example the impact of the internet, social media, big data and AI in a global free for all.  The perceptual shift has been enabled by discoveries from neuroscience and experimental psychology gradually breaking the prevailing beliefs about how human beings function. Let me expand this out and give some examples for each of the three key elements.

The power of narrative and telling stories

Human tribes have been telling stories since the dawn of time – hence history. Narratives are how we make sense of and give meaning to our lives across the past, present and future, individually and collectively. As Charles Eisenstein says, “the world is built on stories… every culture has a mythology that answers the deep questions like, “Who am I? What is the self? What’s real?”.  As Gervase Bushe describes so well in Clear Leadership, we are psychologically impelled to make up stories to make sense of what is happening wherever there are gaps in our knowing. Narratives are also what shape our most intimate relationships, to quote Phyllis Rose in Parallel Lives: “marriages set two imaginations to work constructing narratives… happy marriages seem to me those in which the two partners agree on the scenario they are enacting”.     

What has gained traction over the last two or three decades is the notion of narrative as an instrument of political, social or behavioural influence and control, although the advertising industry has been plying its trade on this principle for much longer (watch Mad Men, for a reminder). What has also changed is the ubiquity of micro narratives in our lives – for example in sharing the latest meme and the addition of emoji’s in our communications, we are conveying a story.

‘Who is in control of the narrative?’ has become the political question of critical importance these days.  A few nights ago on the Mash Report (BBC 2), a joke was made about how sophisticated Nish Kumar was for using the term narrative in this way. Much public discourse, whether in the new or old media, is about the competing narratives and which ones will prevail.  Simple narratives that resonate with neglected parts of society have been central to the success of populist leaders (Trump’s ‘Make American Great Again’) and political movements, for example with Brexit in the UK (quoting Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer):    

One thing that can be said for Mr Johnson and the team around him at Number 10 is that they have a talent for crafting strong and simple messages, skills with the demotic that were honed during the Brexit referendum and the 2019 election. The frontman for “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done” now bashed into the public consciousness “Stay at Home”, “Protect the NHS” and “Save Lives”.

And it’s not just politics that runs on narrative – if we scratch beneath the surface of the superficially rational language of business and investment analysis, so does the world of business and finance.  James Ball, in a Guardian piece on 2 May about Deliveroo and other tech start-ups, exposes the emperor’s new clothes of the disrupter investment game:  

What these companies rely on is telling a story – largely to people who will invest in them. Their narrative is they’re “disrupting” existing industries, will build huge market share and customer bases, and thus can’t help but eventually become hugely profitable – just not yet.

WeWorks’ recently collapsed IPO is another example, where billions of dollars value seemed to have been created by some artful storytelling, only to crumble away under closer scrutiny. Going back in time there are similar examples scattered through the history of business failures (including Lehmann Brothers, WorldCom and Enron). The recent change is that a growing section of the mainstream investment community are now more wedded to slight-of-hand narratives than conventional business fundamentals (as successfully followed by Warren Buffet over the last five decades).       

As Charles Eisenstein argues, there used to be a broad consensus about what was true and real in society which was held in place by the establishment of the government, state, church, academia, news media and so on. With a gradual erosion of trust in these institutions, people don’t believe politicians, scientists, other experts or those in authority anymore. Within this vacuum, alternative narratives and conspiracy theories proliferate and the internet acts as the medium for generating and spreading these. Cognitive biases play a role within this, along with old and new media’s role in creating hyperbole or hysteria in a self-fulfilling cycle of confirmation bias and increasing polarisation of strongly held viewpoints. Now the metaphorical curtain has been pulled away, the old news media seems so corrupt, distorting and arbitrary in its gaze that it is easy to understand why people might reject it completely in favour of a version of the news shaped entirely by their own values or biases.

However, as part of this trend, the need for popular narratives to have some foundation in reality, rationality, fact or any kind of truth, has become increasingly tenuous. This is partly due to the way the social noosphere has evolved in the social media age under the influence of egocentricity and narcissism, denial and delusionism, stimulus addiction and attention-deficiency.  Instead of needing a factual basis, the success of a narrative is primarily determined by its ability to emotionally connect with tribal identities.  

The nature of tribal identityand identification.

Identity has become a central political, social and psychological issue of the 21stcentury. There are many dimensions to issues of identity, so it is helpful to bring an integral approach to untangle these – to consider the inner and outer dimensions of identity at individual and collective levels.  The most public issues tend to concern individual dimensions of social identity and diversity, for example of gender, race, ethnicity, generation and sexual orientation and the intersectionality of these, in relationship to power and politics, discrimination and marginalisation, as well as the debate about self-identification. Alongside this, we have the rapidly changing broader landscape of collective identities, whether drawing upon faith and religion; different levels of geographical identifications (e.g. global, national, community or local); political, professional or social affiliation, and so on.  Overlay this with the multitude of niche identities (many of them entirely new) that are facilitated by the nature of the internet and social media and we have an increasingly complex picture of identity. 

Then we have what I would describe as the modern day crisis of inner identity, particularly prevalent in the western developed world where traditional collective identifications have been eroded alongside the loss of traditional religious or spiritual paths that guide the individual towards an inner experience of Self.  The relationship and interplay between this inner crisis and the outer chaos of modern identity politics is hugely important but too complex to tackle adequately here. However, it would seem to make sense that in a world in which people have increasingly lost a sense of connection with their inner Self (or true self, higher self, spiritual self, etc.) that they will seek to compensate in terms of stronger external identifications. The psychospiritual approach of identification-disidentification involves first becoming aware of our identifications and accepting these before choosing to let go of them through the recognition that we are not these identities, just as we are not our passing bodily, emotional or mental identifications, nor parts of our personality (subpersonalities) that we become over-identified with. As we are able to disidentify from parts of ourselves, stepping back into the witness or observer of all that we are and are not (like the hindu practice of neti neti, not this, not that), we at least momentarily regain our sense of I and a connection with our true or ultimate identity of the Self. From this place of I-Self the many parts of our personality and the multitude of our identities and identifications can take their proper place in our consciousness. Of course this is a continuous process and we become unconsciously identified again in new and old ways as soon as we engage in the world, however the practice of disidentification helps build our continuing sense of the I (or witness) and the I-Self connection with who we are most essentially.

You may recognise the process I am describing above from meditation or mindfulness practices and of course different approaches will have much in common.  The need for some form of practice to strengthen our sense of I and connection with our essential Self would seem to be increasing in proportion to the speeding up and intensification of our outer lives.  A common experience in this current coronavirus crisis has been relief that the world has temporarily stopped and we have time and space to connect inwardly more (not of course for everyone, depending upon both circumstances and disposition, with anxiety or stress increasing for many).

In the meantime, collective identity continues to morph and magnify in significant ways in the maelstrom of today’s turbulent society. With the systemic loss of many traditional identities or tribes, the collective psyche finds ways to create and shape new ones. The concept of neotribalism suggests that human beings naturally form (whether consciously or unconsciously) into social networks as opposed to remaining in a large undifferentiated mass of society.

My early research in this direction suggests our understanding of how this happens and indeed how to recognise new tribal groupings is still in its infancy. However, we can observe some common patterns, for example, increasing polarisation and tensions between tribal identities, a malleability in the forming and reforming of tribes from old tribes, and multiple overlapping tribal identifications at an individual level *(see end).

The consequences of increasing polarisation are illustrated by a 2018 article in Scientific America by Cameron Brick and Sander van der Linden on How Identity, Not Issues, Explains the Partisan Divide:    

we see that Americans are increasingly divided not just on the issues but also on their willingness to socialize across the political aisle. It is normal that society manifests new social cleavages as it heals old ones. However, when identities are fused with policies that have vast, long-term consequences (e.g., war, taxes, or the Paris Agreement), these divisions imperil our ability to select policies based on their expected outcomes.

In the UK, the Brexit saga has been a catalyst for the re-evaluation of the socio-economic-political tribes by a number of contributors, including David Goodhart’s 2017 The Road to Somewhere – the New Tribes Shaping British Politics and the Fear and Hope 2019 Reportwhich identifies 7 new tribes in Britain based upon attitude segmentation and supported by social and behavioural characteristics, which no longer neatly line up with traditional political affiliations (these include Liberal Remainers at 16.4%, the tribe I would have to own up to being a member of).

The nature of the interdependence between narratives and identities is far from simple, but it is clear that they feed off each other. The necessary fuel for this process is emotion and that is the topic which we turn to next.   

The polarity of emotion and the rationality.

It may help to think about thinking and feeling, or rationality and emotionality, as dichotomous polar opposites within our psychological functioning (the other ones being intuition-sensation and imagination-desire). If we imagine a slider control along this thought-emotion polarity scale, it would seem that as the 21stcentury has progressed, the slider has been pushed further and further towards the emotion end. This can be seen not just with populist politicians and parties, but in every sphere of life, particularly entertainment and media.  The corresponding liberation of our emotions from guilt and shame, the freedom to express our feelings publicly as well as privately would seem a good thing (wasn’t this what therapy and the whole EQ thing was about?), until we closely examine some of the consequences.

Populist leaders have successfully been moving the dial up to max on emotion and simultaneously down to zero on rationality.  Whether by coincidence or design this has combined perfectly with the nature of the internet and social media within the mix of what has been called a post-truth world. Quite simply a set of conditions have emerged whereby populist leaders and others seeking to manipulate or exploit others to their own ends can often say what they want (e.g. tell a blatant lie or distortion of the truth) with little apparent consequence, for example in loss of popularity, providing the narrative is kept moving and continues to emotionally connect with the target tribal identity. The underlying psychological pathologies or conditions that are present in society that make this possible are a topic for another day. Yes, the current pandemic crisis may be exposing the incompetence of many populist leaders and the emptiness of their nostalgic fantasising when it comes to dealing rationally with a health crisis, but this still won’t necessarily lead to the loss of their popular support. However, there is a window of opportunity for those with transformative, evolutionary or progressive agendas to play catch-up. This is not about being anti-populist as described in this Guardian article, but about understanding the systemic dynamics at play and how to effectively engage with them.

We need rationality in public discourse again, as well as in policy making, strategy development and leadership behaviour. However, I am not advocating simply moving the slider back again to where it was.  Now that the emotional cat is out of the bag, it will not go back in. We need to seek a new synthesis of thinking and feeling, in the new way of leadership that we are working towards. I will return to this when I explore synthetic intelligence in a later post. 

Meanwhile, the pervasiveness of emotionality over rationality has turned most public discourse, for example through social media postings (like this one) and newspaper article comments (e.g. in the Guardian or the Times), into little more than a popularity contest, a hooray! – boo-hiss competition. The initial excitement at the democratisation of news media when I first realised I could reply to an article has given way to despondency that unless I deliberately engage in the necessary tribal vernacular, I won’t get very many likes or comments. Soon I get caught in the game and end up feeling shame for wanting more likes.

There are some good things to have come out of the way this all works, for example giving everyone an instant platform and encouraging writers to improve their style to make contributions more interesting, but overall I am wary of the direction we are all headed in. I recently subscribed to a service called Medium, where I had found some useful thought pieces, but notice in my daily email how narrowly formulaic the headline articles are.  There is always a promise of some high-value information to be revealed that will transform some aspect of your life right now, usually packaged as the one secret to… or the five key ideas… So I notice how I end up shaping this piece towards the three key elements of transformational change. Actually there are at least ten or twelve things which are all important, and which will take at least four posts to explore even superficially, but hopefully I manage to disguise this enough to get readers to start reading!         

I observe an interesting phenomenon in relationship to cross-national support for populist leaders which is that although there is often overt mutual respect and admiration between the populist leaders (the narcissistic mirror), their support for each other is little more than skin deep and their collective agendas do not amount to a coherent ideology.

As for their supporters, Boris-Brexit voters might feel some affinity with Trump-MAGA voters, or they may not. More often than not, populist supporters in one country will actually disapprove of the opinions and attitudes of those in another country – e.g. we are patriotic and true to our values, they are racist or xenophobic. Remove the emotional connection between the narrative and the tribe, and the story ceases to have much pull.  The emotional connection develops uniquely for each tribe, drawing upon its situation, history, values and aspirations and does not travel well internationally. Trump’s appeal to many of his supporters has little to do with the content of what he says and all to do with who he is and how he embodies their values. ‘He’s our guy’, is the typical reason given for support – illustrating the emotional connection.      

Meanwhile however, the increasingly polemic splits in each society are more than a superficial stoking of the emotions, as illustrated again from Scientific America:

U.S. liberals and conservatives not only disagree on policy issues: they are also increasingly unwilling to live near each other, be friends, or get married to members of the other group. This rejection based on group membership is called affective polarization, meaning that our feelings (affect) are different towards members of our own group compared to outsiders. 

This radical polarisation between tribes is a development that is in urgent need of tending. How societal leadership might do this is an issue we will return to when we discuss synthetic intelligence in a later post.

In this post I have developed the hypothesis that strong narratives emotionally connecting with tribal identities are at the core of collective social change or transformation, whether they develop organically or are driven by a conscious political, social or commercial agenda. Beyond marketing and advertising, the most visible examples of strong narratives driving change in this way over the last decade have come from populist leaders and movements. However, if the dynamics and principles at play are understood and engaged by leaders and movements with a transformational agenda, there is a window of opportunity, arising out of the pandemic crisis, for a different kind of change.


* I will use myself as an example of multiple overlapping tribal identifications. For most of my life I have considered myself both British and European, alongside which I have been a member of various professional or work-related tribes, including the Programmes-Merchants Group and more recently the Psychosynthesis community.  Politically I could have been profiled as belonging to various tribes, now most likely a Liberal Remainer (see here), although I haven’t strongly identified with political movements since my university days of attending Anti-Nazi League rallies and occupying Senate House. Live music was a context for tribal experiences in my youth and, at different times I have identified with the Chelsea FC tribe and loved the regular buzz of being part of a football crowd, something I also found following English rugby. For thirty years I have been part of a men’s group which continues to hold a sense of tribal connection. Recently my collective identify has been on shifting sands, and following much struggle, raging and grieving after the Brexit vote, my British part has crumpled into tainted Englishness alongside an active choice to become more Irish and a little French, still held within being both a European and global citizen. Looking from the outside, others might see a privileged white male member of the developed-world establishment.  

Yet on reflection, the strongest and most enduring part of my identity is my inner sense of Self and my evolving values of truth, personal growth, compassion and community. My identification with family has never been foreground, perhaps because I am not a parent, although I take pride in being a husband to Diana and treasure both our families. More recently, with the death of my parents and much of their generation I have become increasing drawn towards my ancestors and the legacy they have left me. Discovering hidden strands of purpose and meaning woven through the fabric of my own life’s journey is now an increasing interest as I seek to unfold my mythic narrative. Who am I? and why am I here? are questions that have driven the story of my life and continue to hold power to reveal new answers.   

I invite you to reflect upon your own identify and sense of Self…

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn has 30 years’ experience as an organisational consultant, facilitator, educator and coach, supporting transformational change and leadership development with leaders.