Theories of Change

In this course, we will tackle the question of social change.

More specifically, we will (1) analyze various organized efforts trying to make social change happen; and (2) troubleshoot their different methods, strategies, ways of operating, and sets of assumptions about how they think social change works. Through close analysis of these initiatives, we will explore how practitioners of social change conceive of social change: what it is, what it looks like, how it happens, and how to do it.

Our entry point into these discussions will be through “theories of change.” Typically, a theory of change outlines one’s key beliefs, assumptions, and hypotheses about how social change happens. These are usually depicted through narrative and causal chain diagrams, which portray how a given group envisions and intends to enact change.

This course contends that theories of change are more than just tools for strategic planning. They can also serve as windows into pivotal tensions at the heart of the environmental movement, encompassing longstanding debates between reformers and radicals, insiders and outsiders, incrementalists and revolutionaries, realists and, well, other kinds of professed realists. By foregrounding these implicit underlying beliefs—essentially, making us show our political work—theories of change force us to talk openly about, and thereby directly confront and reckon with, fundamental disagreements about the nature of power, social struggle, and where we ought to stand in relation to established patterns of political and economic order.

By design, theories of change render these questions uniquely and unavoidably explicit. They offer revealing glimpses into how activists of varying stripes are wrestling with the political meaning of the current moment and what can, and should, be done about it. To say that opinions differ on such matters would be comic understatement. As such, we will engage a range of intellectual traditions, political orientations, and strategic outlooks regarding social change through in-class discussion, targeted course readings, and a series of structured assignments.

I don’t need to remind you that these questions are not merely an interesting intellectual exercise. Given the severity of present environmental crises, getting our theories of change right, their characterizations of what we are now confronting, and their claims about how we are supposed to get from Point A to Point B, have never had higher stakes. Moreover, don’t let the word “theory” give you the wrong impression. This work is inherently messy and personally involving. An important goal of this class is to give you some exposure to this reality as you learn how organizers contend with the everyday dilemmas, power structures, entrenched inertias, dynamic relationships, idiosyncratic personalities, emotional rigors, rambunctiousness, and occasional windows of opportunity that all combine in different ways to define the terrain of today’s ongoing struggles to transform (and maybe even save) our world.

Middlebury Contact: Daniel Suarez


For those of you wishing to grow (or flex) your nascent organizing skills, this course comes with an invitation to get yourselves stuck into the middle of things. Each of you will develop a term project that will involve selecting a particular social change initiative and, over three successive assignments, exploring their efforts to create social change (i.e., you will pick a specific group or organization that you will then investigate over the rest of the semester).

I will give you the option of undertaking your term projects either (a) as an individual project or (b) as a group project (which would be conducted in pairs). There are many potential trade-offs at play here. Before making a final decision please think carefully about what initiative you would be excited to study and whether it would make most sense for you to work individually or together with a partner.

The spirit of this project is to help you bring together what you are learning throughout the course and to apply that learning to something real, living, and in motion. Whether on campus, in the surrounding community, or somewhere farther afield, there is no shortage of people struggling to change how things are. I am certain that members of our group will have plenty of ideas about ongoing initiatives, campaigns, and social struggles that might be ripe for engagement. We will dedicate abundant class time in the first two weeks brainstorming project ideas. Your readings will also cover an assortment of real-world examples that might serve as inspiration and help you find an interesting initiative you would like to explore in greater depth.

Paper 1undertaken individually by student

Paper 2undertaken individually by student

Paper 3 – The final assignment for this class can involve either conducting a culminating research project about the group at the center of your analysis or potentially undertaking some form of collaboration with that group (and/or simply arranging to deliver your final product to them). All variations of this assignment will include submitting written work, though the expectations will differ depending on the project you end up designing.

Whatever direction you decide to take, your final assignment must explore some aspect of the ongoing movement debates we have wrestled with over the semester and the key questions, guiding concerns, and tremendous urgencies that animate them. On our last day of class together, you will be invited to present your work to the wider group.

Option A — The most straightforward option would be to simply write me a term paper (or other substantial creative or analytical contribution) that explores some specific aspect of your chosen social change initiative. As you conducted your first two assignments, perhaps there was an underlying question that piqued your curiosity; an intriguing dimension of their work that caught your attention; a new strategy or set of tactics that you would like to better understand; a key event or process they helped bring about which surprised you (and which might need some explaining); or something else entirely. Whatever line of investigation you do end up pursuing, you will need to come up with your own argument (with a clear thesis statement of your choosing) which contributes a theoretically informed analysis supported with solid evidence and detailed research. I expect many of you will likely wish to take this option.

Option B — However! As you grow familiar with the work of your chosen initiative (and as you start getting acquainted with the people in it) you may find yourself wanting to develop not just an academic piece about that group but potentially something intended for that group or something undertaken collaborative with that group. In this scenario, you will be submitting your final projects not just to me but to the actual people involved in the initiative you have been studying all semester. For those pursuing this option, we can negotiate what a final product might look like, including expectations for assessment. Above and beyond whatever outputs these more “collaborative” projects end up generating, you will still need to submit a short individually written commentary reflecting on the work, the process, and the nature of your own interests, animations, and positionality (i.e., where you stand and what motivated you to relate to this group in the way that you did).

Keep in mind that three months is not a lot of time. Indeed, as we will discuss in class, doing this kind of work quickly, rather than carefully, can often go very poorly. If you do decide to pursue something more interactive with your chosen group, remember that doing so responsibly and effectively will require planning ahead and getting an early start. Much will depend on your ability to earn the respect and trust of the group you are studying, on building a shared understanding and equitable working relationship with them, and finding a meaningful final project that will be of shared interest to everybody involved—all of which takes time and patience.

I am the course instructor and would be responsible for coaching students through their interactions with a potential community partner and providing whatever scaffolding needed (on the academic side) to develop the project.

Students would be applying advanced academic knowledge gained through the course (principally, from social movement studies) to the analysis of different aspects of a given organization’s approach to creating change.

The project would take place over three months (the approximate length of one semester at Middlebury College).

Expectations could vary considerably and the course is structured to accommodate a range of modalities for engagement. Examples might include simply receiving products arising from independent student investigation at the end of term or something involving much closer coordination and collaboratively defining objectives, deliverables, roles, and responsibilities.

I taught the Community Engaged Environmental Practicum (ENVS 401, the “senior seminar” for Environmental Studies—see website for further details on past projects and partnerships). This class (i.e., Theories of Change, ENVS 310) can be understood as a pared down and somewhat more modest version of that (more intensively collaborative) work undertaken through the senior seminar.