Review of Gabriele Bammer, Ed. 2015. Change!

Review of Gabriele Bammer, Ed. 2015. Change: Combining analytic wisdom with street wisdom. Australian National University Press.

“Mom weren’t you just reading a book on Change?!” says my daughter as I complain to her that the traditional Halloween costume (in the county of my youth) is very different from her planned costume. “Hey Mom, things change!” Indeed things change and yet we are held captive by our ideas of how things used confused with how things should be. This is only compounded by collective ideas which have shaped structures we’ve inherited and now very difficult to change. How do we lay track for the future changes that are needed? Knowing that in many cases those changes are needed right now – think global climate change, gun control in the USA, human trafficking …

Gabriele Bammer’s edited volume, Change! may be the most clearly written, multi-disciplinary volume on change that I have read. And given that my expertise is in change I hope that is saying something positive indeed. Ranging from scholarly disciplines to the practice domain of politics, itself the art of negotiating change, eighteen disciplines are represented in this highly readable volume (e.g., sociology, biology, international relations, ecology, psychiatry, organizational change, economics, fine arts, etc). As you might imagine, for the intellectually curious, this is a delight. The sub title: “Combining analytic wisdom with street wisdom,” promises what the volume then actually delivers. And more, because there is an informative set of bookends offered by the editor whose clarity is commendable. The editor Gabriele Bammer, herself noteworthy for championing integration and implementation of science, argues that change can no longer be a mere add-on to conventional science. Perhaps once upon a time it was enough to describe the world. Nowadays there are so many pressing reasons for us to figure out how to change the world. And it is at that very sweet-spot, where understanding change and needing to change that we find the fruitful overlap between this volume and the interests of action researchers. We’d easily agree that issues of implementation now need to be front and center as the editor here argues. When we consider that pressing issues, such as global climate change, remain difficult to address because of global political polarization, as well as competing commitments (e.g., competing commitment around short versus long term economic health), we can only agree that change is a compelling matter and that it is, well, complex. It is not that conventional science is irrelevant, it is simply that it too needs to also change emphasis! Change is hard. Moreover, the action researcher in me suspects, that continued effort on conventional science part to veil or deny in its own positioning in the maintenance of the status quo make it part of the propagation of non-change and entropy. Knowledge is political.

Let me pick one chapter to illustrate the cornucopia of information in this volume. Why not one I particularly enjoyed, namely Dee Madigan’s chapter about how advertising works. Along with telling us clearly about advertising’s subliminal messaging and its claims that hew as close, as is legally possible, to those that would make even a snake oil salesman blush, Dee models what she describes. This chapter, like all chapters, is written so that the reader (consumer) is activated. This chapter exemplifies finding simplicity on the other side of complexity – with sub titles that are easy to remember (Mind, Message, Medium, Mores; see I remember!). That is to say we, framed as the reader/consumer get KISS’ed as in “keep it simple stupid.” Of course this simultaneously irritates and delights me. The scholar just doesn’t like simplicity all that much, but the human brain is easily manipulated with simple (visual) messages, something the scholar needs to take more seriously. Along with the 4 M’s I also recall the rather frightening insight about the impact of Maslow’s theory of human needs among the Mad Men/Women of advertising. Never mind that this theory has never been validated. Nor that its ongoing use is precisely against what Maslow himself was so interested in, namely to foster adult development, up the so called hierarchy of needs. But advertisers long ago discovered that by emphasizing the endless self pre-occupation of our fear based “lower” needs (e.g., for security), they get to siphon the human energy that could be used toward advancing to immeasurably more fulfilling forms of self expression (e.g., community building). So when I buy tampons (one of Dee’s memorable examples), I am buying the snake oil claim to “protection” (why not comfort, why not aesthetics? Comfort, beauty etc are not terms that trigger fear; advertising likes to trigger the reptile not primate brain). But being also more than a consumer I for one am reminded that Donella Meadows, (co author of one of the first manifestos for sustainable development, “Limits to Growth”) reminds us that overconsumption is the result when we keep our gaze on seeking satisfaction of endless, fear-based egocentricity. Ironically what we really want is peace, love and understanding, and buying tampons or deodorant won’t get me that. But yes, there is no profitable marketing for peace, love and understanding. Integral human needs are “priceless” (as, ironically, the ad for a credit card used to put it!). And therein is the problem. There are larger questions, what action researchers might call a “double loop inquiry” that is needed when we talk about change. Change for what? Do we want to change the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic or do we want a more sustainable world? And if it’s the latter, then perhaps we need to clarify that what we really want is a revolution, rather than mere change. It is certainly good to understand how public policy can be informed. But one must understand that change agency happens in a context of a regime of trenchant momentum of a non sustainable consumer driven system rewarded by the status quo. Change will take a lot more than some clever messaging.

What’s here for action researchers? The entire volume may be described as “third person,” in orientation, in that it describes the world and enriches us with that description. The chapters each address issues of change in ways that are useful to know about. Because of the “street wisdom” tone that is arrived at, the chapters make useful teaching and conversation materials at a time when multiple perspectives on important content issues is so key. But from there action research perspective there is also much to offer because there is little attention to the types of community building (second person) and personal cognitive/emotional changes (first person) that are needed to make larger needed changes real. Thus implied appeals to an unspecified “we” who “should” make some sort of change, can be clarified for exactly what is to be changed — in some cases government regulations? the tax code? workplace policies? individual behavior? attitudes? That is to say a mix of second and third person implications remain undeveloped which makes the book useful for thinking/talking about how action research can join with conventional scientists’ effort to move our knowledge making toward action, toward change.

To take just one example of who that might happen. We see scarcity presumed without analysis in the chapter about advertising. Advertising is premised on the very idea that people’s experience of scarcity is very alive and easily triggered. And we see a similar assumption in many chapters, such as in discussions of economics and resources. For indeed we have been indoctrinated by economics and advertising to perceive only scarcity. But is there really only scarcity of resources in our world, a world in which our very experience, moment by moment, offers us an actual and profligate use of earth’s goods (oxygen, water…)? Is it not more true then that there is scarcity, and a reinforcement of the concept of scarcity of some resources? Am I just splitting hairs? I pose these not so simple questions (that is I un-KISS!) to underscore that there are political interests, seen and unseen, inside our framing of any change issues. Denial or veiling of these interests is part of the propagation of what needs to be changed. Action researchers can, and should, learn from this fountain of easily digested, multi disciplinary perspectives, and bring a concern not just for influencing but actually co-creating change. I imagine much more work could happen at the interface between those interested in implementation science and those who take an action research approach. I hope that this book will lead us to work together for common cause.