Not ‘theories of change’ but ‘theories of how change happens’

Theory of Change has become a buzzword across the development industry. It is a new tool in the toolbox that consultants use for planning, monitoring and evaluation. Not long ago, however, the term was not that well known. Instead, when we used the term we did to refer instead to the theories of how change happens.

This is an important difference. Before any attempt to plan an intervention -or to evaluate one- one ought to understand how change happens or, at least, how change is expected to happen. This question is behind efforts to understand the political economy of research uptake.

A good example of what these theories are all about can be found in Stachowiak’s paper: Pathways for Change: 6 Theories about how Policy Change Happens’.

The approaches identified in that paper are:

  • Large Leaps” or Punctuated Equilibrium Theory, in which  significant seismic changes in policy and institutions can occur when the right conditions are in place, often involving large-scale policy change and major advocacy and media campaigns;
  • Coalition” Theory or Advocacy Coalition Framework, which views policy change as occurring through coordinated activity among a range of individuals with the same core policy beliefs, particularly useful when there is  a strong group of allies and a sympathetic administration in place;
  • Policy Windows” or Agenda Setting, in which policy can be changed during a window of opportunity when advocates successfully connect the way a problem is defined with the policy solution to the problem or the political climate surrounding their issue, particularly useful when readily-mobilized internal capacity exists;
  • Messaging and Frameworks Theory, in which individuals’ policy preferences or willingness to accept them will depending on how options are framed or presented, thus drawing attention to how problems are defined and communicated;
  • Power Politics” or Power Elites Theory, in which policy is understood as the result of power-holders and thus change as a result of working directly with power holders, often incrementally and from ‘the inside’ with strategic allies;
  • Grassroots” or Community Organizing Theory, which views policy change as the result of collective action by members of the community who work on changing problems affecting their lives, in which the advocacy organization can and is willing to play a “convener” or “capacity-builder” role rather than the “driver” role.

Without this kind of analysis, any attempt to develop a ‘Theory of Change’ is useless as it is unlikely to be grounded in any theory of how change could possibly happen.

This and other papers can be found in the Topic Guide on Research and Policy.