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The Six or Seven Axioms of Mass Social Change
Zaid Hassan, 25 Jul 05

Margaret Mead’s Giftprotest

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 catalyse 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.

(Thanks Alan, Jeff, Mille and Sera for comments.)

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 catalysing social change because they suffer from a touching need for linear and predictable processes. Such processes in turn demand that risk be minimised 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 recognise 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 internalised 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.

I fell headfirst into the trap of seeing social change as a linear process. I wrote down what I saw happening, one step after another. It took me a little time to see the obvious and to realise that while such an approach might make me feel like I have a handle on my subject, it was largely an illusion. Instead, I offer an unbundling of Mead’s Axiom in the hope of prompting further dialogue and thought.

Change happens.

Or to be more precise, positive social change happens often.

Deeply entrenched and traumatic social problems can cause despair. When problems appear to go on for decades with no resolution in sight, it is easy at adopt an attitude that things do not, will not or cannot change. Everything however is subject to the law of entropy, everything decays and everything will die. This is true of institutions, regimes and reigns of injustice. When confronted with monolithic systems that seem to defy time, we are in, fact, confronting our own attitudes towards our own mortality.

While it’s true that the existence of an unjust system may be extracting a high price from the people subjected to it, and that should always drive us, there is a more fundamental question that requires attention. Are we willing to see our work as bigger than ourselves, as a generational project if need be, in the faith that things will change? The attitude and commitment that such a position would entail is rare and becoming rarer still. While not a requirement per se, the adoption of such attitudes can liberate us from the paralysis caused by life under the weight of soul crushing social problems.

If we’re willing to look beyond the concerns and demands of our own mortality, or do whatever else it takes, in order to believe that change is possible, then this is what we will see. The Quit India Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the collapse of the Soviet Union are all outstanding examples of mass social change where systems that seemed timeless either collapsed or changed beyond imagining.

A stuck system is like a black hole.

Stuck social problems, or stuck systems, like black holes, rarely come into being overnight. Often they are the result of long historical processes. A system might be stuck because those in power are benefiting from the status quo or it might be stuck because there are fundamental disagreements as to how it should change.

One way of understanding the increasing “stuck-ness” of social systems is to visualise them as sending out signals during the course of coming into being, as they progress in their development as problems. In the early phases of a problem, the signals from a system may be very localised, visible and audible only to those inside it. A defining characteristic of a “stuck” system is when all signals being sent from it are somehow being blocked or ignored. They arc out into the world but before getting too far, they fall back to the surface. People outside the system, not directly affected by the problem perceive little. Often people within the system, those directly affected, become attuned to the very same signals trying to escape. They have lived with the problem so long that they come to believe it as being an unalterable state of affairs. In other words they forget the axiom that ‘change happens.’ The problem, by all accounts, has been left to its own devices, to evolve as it may, into increased conflict which potentially generates louder and more powerful signals.

A black hole, is by definition black, because no signals from it can ever escape its gravitational field. We see it as a hole, as a non-entity. It does however make its presence felt, because it has a lot of mass and hence we are affected by its strong gravitational pull. We can know it exists in other words, and how big it is, without knowing much more about it. The space inside a black hole is known as a singularity, and it is a place where the laws of physics, the laws of the universe break down. We do not know what laws operate inside of a black hole. We only know that they are very different to anything we know and understand. Similarly, when a stuck system is left to its own devices it enters into a phase where all known laws break down, when the most unimaginable things can and do happen.

Luckily stuck problems are not black holes, they are only like black holes. As the problem grows in complexity, intensity, and urgency, the strength of the signals emanating from the system grows, and sometimes force their way into the public consciousness. They break free of the gravitational pull of the stuck system. Eventually these signals, in the form of eye-witness accounts, refugees, news reports and so on from the system, may become so strong and urgent that action of some sort becomes necessary, as in the case of Darfur or military action in the Balkans. At this stage the problem can be seen as more akin to a crisis or all out warfare. Or the signals may be recognised too late, as was the case in Rwanda.

While these examples bring to mind extreme conflict situations, these very same characteristics arise at many scales, from small organisations to rural communities. It would be a mistake to assume that “mass” social change only occurs at national or global levels.

Unlike a black hole, which is the product of the laws of physics at work, a stuck system is the product of human processes. This means that its qualities, such as the fact that signals do not escape its gravitational pull, are somehow man-made. We can change them. In the situation of stuck-ness, there is essentially something people are somehow choosing not to see, not to feel, and not to do.

The first move towards change is usually undemocratic.

A stuck system, like a black hole, contains massive energies. These energies can be seen as that which is stuck. They are frozen. The first move that sets these energies into motion, like cutting a stretched rubber band, has been called a “power move” by systems thinker Barry Oshry. The power move then is one where tremendous energies are unleashed.

What’s more it’s usually an individual who, waking up in the middle of the night, get it into their head that they must do something. Oshry claims that the thought of what to do comes with great clarity. Even if such individuals are politicians who seemingly have a mandate from the electorate, this first move is often seen as a betrayal by many people. (And it rarely makes sense to ask permission in order to do something that will be perceived as a betrayal.) As Oshry points out, Abraham Lincoln, Anwar Sadat and Yitzak Rabin are good examples of politicians who went beyond their official mandates in order to change a situation that was dramatically stuck. All three were shot for their troubles.

The first move, an act of self-nomination, is profoundly undemocratic. It’s “paradigm shattering” because it changes the rules of the game. It’s a move made by an individual tired of endless committee meetings and discussions that change nothing. It’s the move made by a seemingly helpless individual simply and profoundly tired of being subject to power, the logic of which is beyond their rational understanding (think of all those moments of anonymous bravery during periods such as the Holocaust). To make the first move is to risk everything, it is to make the ultimate wager.

Fraught with risk and danger, the first move is made by an individual who finally sees, in a moment, that they actually have it within themselves to change a world. The defining act of leadership, the first move, increasingly, is rarely practiced by those who call themselves leaders and is more usually found amongst those that don’t.

The group is smarter (but not braver) than the individual.

When a previously stuck social system suddenly becomes “unstuck” a river of possibilities start to flow. It’s almost as if the system instantly shifts from being a solid to being liquid. In order to cope creatively and constructively with the energies of a liquid system, a vast array of decisions need to be made, usually in a short space of time. While such changes appear to be sudden for many people, for those working to create them, they are often the product of many long years of work and not sudden at all but long overdue. Such moments exemplify the idea of the a “tipping point,” when a system shifts from one state to another.

It’s in such moments of historic flux that we see dictators seizing power or billionaires being created (the oligarchs of Russia are a good example). These are individuals who have seized the moment for their own benefit. For individuals, however, to know how and when to act for the greater public interest during such periods is much more difficult. Few, if any individuals, regardless of how talented or dedicated they are, can turn chaos into positive social change within the complexity of a roiling liquid system. This alchemical task is much better suited to the genius of the group.

A very particular and peculiar set of qualities are demanded of a group in order to intelligently cope with such a situation. The group needs to be characterised by something that has recently been labelled “collective intelligence,” which can be thought of as the ability to act with a single intelligence or will. Collective intelligence arises out of the process of diverse and dissenting individuals working well with each other within the context of a group.

On the other hand a group that displays schizophrenic qualities, such as being of two minds, will not be able to capitalise of the possibilities of the moment. Instead of acting, they’ll spend all their time trying to figure out what they themselves think of the fast-changing situation. A group which is homogenous will not exhibit collective intelligence either, rather it will exhibit group-think, that is, a form of collective blindness.

The existence of a group which can display such demanding characteristics also points to the non-linear nature of mass social change. It’s virtually impossible to bring into existence such a group in the short and confused moments after a system becomes liquid. The group needs to be built over a long period of time, with patience and skill.

It’s usually the case that any number of lesser opportunities are what practically bring the group together in the first instance. It’s working on lesser opportunities that the group develops the capacities to take advantage of a window of historic opportunity. The defining moment in the life of any group is that historic moment where they are called to act in an instant, with perfect trust and co-ordination.

Ideas (and viruses) acquire people through small worlds.

The most effective way for an epidemic, either of ideas or viruses, to spread widely is through people who don’t know each other well. Every time we meet an individual we know only slightly, we’re coming into contact with an entirely distinct web of social relationships from our own. While somewhat counter-intuitive, in a network the existence of a “light dusting” of weak social links makes the world a small place.

We all have a tight cluster of relationships around us, if these clusters are then weakly connected to each other, we get what is called a “small world.” A small world is a particular network architecture within which every member of a network is connected to every other member through a short number of connections, say six degrees. Airports are small worlds and this is why they are such dangerous places as far as the spread of disease goes. Every stranger that comes (weakly) into contact with a diseased individual is a vector to an entirely different part of the globe, into an entirely different cluster of relationships (often urban). If everyone in an airport were going to the same place or if people didn’t live in dense urban clusters then stopping a modern epidemic would be child’s play. Malcolm Gladwell calls the individuals which provide the weak ties between clusters “connectors.” They can also be thought of as “carriers.”

All social change is a change from one state to another. Where mass social change is concerned, a tipping point can be thought of as that point when a phenomenon shifts from being localised, that is, affecting a relatively small number of people, to affecting a relatively large number of people - in a very short period of time.

The presence of a minimum threshold of connectors along with a number of dense clusters is what determines if an epidemic or an idea will tip or break-out of its point of origin.

Mead’s Axiom Redux

For a small group of thoughtful and committed people to change the world, they must believe that change is possible. They must be ready to act the moment a stuck system becomes liquid. They will only be effective if they display collective intelligence. Finally, they must live in a small world.

Further Reading

"Solving Tough Problems" - Adam Kahane

"Leading Systems: Lessons from the Power Lab"- Barry Oshry

"Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks"- Mark Buchannan

"Come Together" - Craig Hamilton

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Insightful & candid, thanks. Is entropy an appropriate point of reference for social change? (or for organic systems?)

Posted by: Janelle on 25 Jul 05


I'm following the evolving Bird Flu story closely and am struck by how little it attention it is getting outside a small network of Flu-watchers. We're all carriers of the "flu-is-significant-and-dangerous" meme but have a very hard time communicating that outside our little network of peers.

The dangers, the immediacy of the threat, and the scale of the issue all raise credibility issues. So here's an example of a small world with very little impact. Here is also an example of one of the problems with the Internet and global media, in that real, credible, and significant developments (in Bird flu for example) don't get attention outside of their little circles of interest. We're all so heavily enganged in very specialized interest that something that should cause general alarm and should mobilize action (such as planning for a pandemic, especially at a local government level) gets no notice.

After saying all that, I'll share nodes in my little flu network that highlight how serious things have become in the past 2 weeks:

Chinese Sources:
(this site, "Boxum: Abundant News" first broke the SARS story. They're now covering human-to-human H5N1 transmission in China)

Summary & Comment by a genetics / public health expert:

A bulletin board service with useful translations of Chinese sources. Usual mix of good commentary / insights and crap.

The frightening thing is that Avian Flu is far more dangerous than SARS, so if they are experiencing an outbreak, we can all be in DEEP trouble.

Posted by: Narmer on 25 Jul 05

Just a quick note to say that the notion of a "small world" as I've used it here is very specific. A "small world" is defined as a world with clusters of relationships which are weakly linked. So for example a small village with a very clear social structure is not necessarily a small world - it may simply be a tight cluster.

One reason why the Bird Flu story is not spreading may be that there are not enough "weak links" connecting this cluster to other clusters. If the number of "weak links" through which the story can spread goes above a certain number, then perhaps the story will "tip".

Posted by: Zaid on 25 Jul 05

Then perhaps we need to design a strategy to that effect? Activate our weak links? Hmm - we need to do some work over at Or readers who prefer blog format may prefer to go to

Or do we need elevator speeches? "There's a risk, say higher than 10%, of 100 million people dying in 3 terrible years with disruption guaranteed for all if it happens - we need to selforganise around that for a better world." :-?

I share the same feelings about being a carrier of a meme that doesn't have enough human-to-human transmission - yet. In fact that was my very first reaction at reading this article!

Of course, I'm also a carrier of other memes - aren't we all?

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 25 Jul 05

A more concrete example would help this essay a long ways I think, especially and example which would flow through all the axioms.

The best example I can think of that fits everything pretty well (except for "positive social change") is the Neocons and their rise to power after September 11.

The only axiom that I don't quite follow is the business about stucks systems and black holes. After all Israel and Palestine are just about the best and easiest example one could thing of, and they in many ways have dominated the news more than any other story.

In fact, I would argue that there are plenty of stuck systems that everyone is perfectly aware of -- maybe it is just that we don't believe change can happen.

Posted by: adrian on 25 Jul 05

For a small group of people to change the world they must have a unifying vision. Our unifying vision of the future is one of ecological restoration and biological sustainability. Right now, most people, if they think about such things, believe that such a world is too expensive or not possible. We have to it real enough, possible enough, affordable enough so that they can dream that is our present unifying vision.

Posted by: gmoke on 25 Jul 05

The axiom only works if there is enough humility in the system that people can understand who are their peers and who are their betters. That's the true measure of the flexibility of a social system: Humility. It's the indicator specie. If humility is in danger, then the social ecosystem is in trouble.

So, if you want to be able to latch on to and support the work of a small, committed group of individuals, you have to have enough humility to approach it with an open mind and see its value.

That's why Israel/Palestine, though having a huge amount of media play throughout the world, and the attention of every political philosopher with dreams of fame, remains a stuck system. The problem isn't the settlers or the wall or the holy city or whatever. The problem is an epic lack of humility.

Once you're stuck, it's tremendously hard to begin to have humility. You can't give up anything, which is why you're stuck. You see your stuckness as the measure of your righteousness, not as a liability preventing you from solving the problem equitably, once and for all. Stuck actors won't even see equitability as desirable, and might not even give it lip service. Has George W. Bush ever said 'equitable' in public?

So the issue is not how to create social networks, or how to seed the right small, commtted groups of individuals, though those things are important. The issue is: How does one cultivate humility without losing power? *Can* one cultivate humility without losing power? How does one learn to listen from a position of power?

Posted by: Paul on 25 Jul 05

Interesting article. I would think systems are very often in flux enough that they would respond to change. Especially large systems- countries or corporations, which are often not one coherent system but many. Critical problems like contagious disease in countries often turn around when new leadership/government comes in and enacts positive change. I like the suggestion that our perception of change is confined to our concept of mortality -very neat.

Somehow though, the labels are disconcerting, perhaps simply because I'm not familiar with the lingo. A "system" is animate, comprised of many *people* all pulling and pushing in various directions with various motivations. A "plan" may give false assurance but one can't underestimate assurance or risk management. Entities are formed with plans. A corporation is a collection of many plans which have worked however imprecisely (one may judge), to hold all the pushing pulling people together to produce something or move in a certain direction for decades maybe. So proposing something new is threatening on many legitimate levels. Animals are nothing if not risk averse. I'm reminded of one small mouse stuck in our apartment one time that we were trying for hours, literally, to herd out the front door. It kept running the other way and flinging itself brutally up another door that we had closed off in our herding attempts. Why? Unbeknownst to us that was where the hole that it came in by. Of course. We're all little rats in many ways.

Part of the large activation energy demanded to overcome inertia is aptly defensive. How does one know whether a leader is benevolent or malevolent? Most often one doesn't. There are obvious examples throughout history where brutal dictatorships ran roughshod over populations or individuals while neighboring countries and populations could only cock their heads quizzically and speculate what was going on. Should we trust the one who says "trust me"?

Look at leaders around the world today. Should the ex-prime minister of Nepal be jailed by the king? Should Arroyo step down or change the constitution? Is S. Africa on the road to solving it's AIDS crisis or not? Should India be welcomed into the nuclear club? Is there any example of a leader/act that is purely positive? Acts that our purely positive? How do we know what's positive or negative? Avian flu for instance. It's been in the news for a while (years actually)- I wrote about it again over a month ago w/ regards to the Chinese government's mass innoculations of birds -to them a critically good move- to others critically bad. The point is how can we annoint ourselves the ultimate judges of what's positive change in a "system"? Your positive may be your neighbor's black hole.

Whether or not anyone *should* feel that they are knowledgeable enough to enact change in other peoples lives (as few do), we are well conditioned (systemic dumb-down marketing, religion, school etc.) to concede that we *don't* know enough to except this risk. We accept one another based on our ability to toe these imposed social mores gracefully. Who is Judge Roberts? Anyone who steps out of the lines is most often quickly reigned in. Unfortunately or fortunately, it may be just these ones who are the future benevolent - or malevolent leaders.

Despite my obvious perplexity with these problems- good small world concept (reminds me a bit of Zeldin), great article. I shall put these books on my infinite reading list.

Posted by: jensan on 26 Jul 05

There's another axiom. It didn't come from Margaret Mead; it was from Gandhi: "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

Posted by: David Foley on 26 Jul 05

Paul, I appreciate that you brought humility into the picture. I'd like to ask "how does one learn to impose humility on a position of power," but somehow that just doesn't seem appropriate =).

The interplay between grassroots and leadership (in the traditional sense) would be an interesting one to explore. Thinking about Lincoln, for example: we know there was a strong grassroots abolition movement, and we know that this movement effected (infected?) Lincoln through his wife. But it was the vision of Lincoln that pushed the idea over the hill. It was his added strength, from a (humble) position of power that made the end of legal slavery in the USA possible. The group may have been smarter, but it was useless without him.

Is this universally true? Will the grassroots ever be capable of tipping the balance without one (or a few) key people from positions of power lending their support? Perhaps the Bolshevik revolution shows a fully grassroots-induced mass social change (please correct if I'm wrong), but that was through violence and it exacerbated massive suffering for people already ground down by the Tsar and wars with Japan, Britain, and Germany. Questions about the worth of communism aside, I pre-suppose that "violence is not the answer."

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 27 Jul 05

Stephen writes: "Paul, I appreciate that you brought humility into the picture. I'd like to ask "how does one learn to impose humility on a position of power," but somehow that just doesn't seem appropriate =)."

No, not entirely appropriate, but not entirely inappropriate, either. A governmental system of checks and balances, like the one which exists (theoretically, at least) in the US is an example of enforced humility, or at least an enforced conscience. At best. Maybe not the best example, but you get the point, hopefully. :-)

It seems to me that figuring out if you need a focal point person is secondary to the issue of power itself. If your constellation of grassroot orgs have collective power, a person to carry it will step up and lead. The Dean campaign in 2004 is a great example of this. I would wager that Lincoln's involvement in the issue of emancipation worked that way. The issue isn't celebrity, but leadership.

Where does this intersect with humility? Examine, if you will, the Democratic party leadership's reaction to the grassroots credibility of Howard Dean for a potential answer. First they hated him, and then they only disdained him, and then they only thought he was a jerk. Then, in a moment of humility after their ass was handed to them by the Republicans, they let him lead the DNC.

Posted by: Paul on 27 Jul 05

A structure for "small groups of committed, thoughtful people":

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 28 Jul 05

Here is a white paper about network weavers in action -- those who know how to create effective small-worlds...

Posted by: Valdis on 31 Jul 05



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