One of the most important things I’ve taken from my philosophical engagements – notably Levi Bryant, Gregory Bateson, and Bruno Latour – is that change (even existence) takes work. I’ve talked a lot about work before. This is because it is, for me, a foundational concept. In order to understand something, we have to follow the work that it took to produce it. Furthermore, in order to change things – to make a difference – we have to do the work that is required to make the change. I think this is an increasing problem with scientific thought – particularly in the environmental sciences.
I’ve worked with a number of scientists now on a variety of projects, and the thing they really like to talk about – particularly when social scientists are involved – is “behavior change.” It’s become a buzz-phrase that’s thrown around casually at meetings and conferences as if it were the most natural thing for scientists to think about. I don’t know the exact history of this phrase and how it came to be so popular. However, I believe that it’s a reaction against two things 1) the ideal of dispassionate science, and 2) politically correct notions of non-intervention and relativism. Scientists are not content to do research, provide information for policy makers, and educate the public. That’s great, and I’m all for a more engaged science. However, what’s resulted is this “behavior change” attitude that suggests that scientists know what’s best for everyone, and that we all should just listen to the. When we don’t listen, then they turn to social scientists to tell them how to get people to listen as if we have some magic answer that will propagate their message (and behavior change) through the system. Certain social sciences are more than willing to sell that – even though they don’t really have it. It’s a kind of snake-oil social science where, if you just craft the right slogan, use the right social media, conduct surveys and focus groups to inform the whole thing, then everything will work out just fine. These media campaigns tend to fall flat. Why? Because they have to compete with things that people enjoy like cats with pieces of bread on their heads (I’ll spare you the images) – those things people are happy to do the work to propagate. It takes millions of people doing little bits of work (liking, sharing, replicating, spoofing, etc.) to make those “memes” successful (to make them “go viral”), but it seems like magic and it makes people interested in using social media to effect social change drool. Often those social media campaigns created by scientists and others don’t catch the kind of work that’s needed to make them truly “viral” or even to get the message out beyond a restricted group of people (who likely are already aware of the issues). Furthermore, it’s not clear that such social media campaigns lead to substantial change in behavior even when they do “work.”
When the social media campaign falls flat, the scientists turn to the ultimate form of systemic behavior change – the law. In fact, the law itself takes a lot of work to create, maintain, and propagate – think of all of the congresspersons, their staff, bureaucracies like the EPA, state agencies, federal enforcement officials, state and local law enforcement, courts, clerks, fines, prisons, and so on that are required to make the law work, it’s just that this work is institutionalized and prepackaged. Even so, the law may still fail to create the desired change.
So what’s wrong with “behavior change” mentality? Aside from being a sort of paternalistic (or even outright imperialistic at times) attitude, it ignores the work that needs to be done to make a difference, and the potential (even probability) for failure. Furthermore, it’s a position of relative invulnerability for the scientists. It suggests that, as Stengers points out “scientists know, the rest of us believe.” Therefore, scientists place themselves in a position of firm ground that requires little change on their part – the real change must come from the public. I believe that the insights of science are invaluable – it provides us with an abundance of information that could help create a much better world. However, scientists (including social scientists) need to understand that they are only one group among myriad others and that societies are complex – there are no single solutions and all change takes a great deal of work. In place of the idea of “behavior change” I would suggest the idea of “negotiation.” At first glance it sounds like a weaker position – like crass pragmatism or giving in to public whim – but I think it’s actually a much stronger position to start from. For one, it doesn’t carry the paternalistic overtones of “behavior change” and so it’s less likely to generate knee-jerk reactions against being told what to do (nobody likes being told what to do!). Second, there’s no reason in a negotiation why a person or group can’t take a firm stance as long as it’s recognized that others may reject that stance completely and simply ignore you – this means you’d have to be open to modifying your stance, adapting it to the contingencies of the negotiation process. Third, it recognizes the work that needs to be done to convince others. This work might use things like social media, legislation, surveys, workshops, education, slogans, etc., but none of these becomes the single solution, and all of them may fail. Finally, it not only conveys a sense of the work that needs to be done, it also conveys a sense of “working with” others as opposed to imposing upon. The goal should be to create the possibility for change with the people who will be affected by it rather than telling people they must change and getting frustrated when they don’t.
If scientists and others interested in “behavior change” were to shift their attention to “negotiation,” and attend to the work that needs to be done, I think a lot more significant change would get accomplished. But even “negotiation” is no silver bullet – it’s always prone to failure as is any social change method – but it puts us in a much better position to pick up, dust off, and start again with a new negotiation. Finally, I realize that what I’m asking for is a kind of “behavior change” among scientists, and this is paradoxical. I don’t expect anyone to be convinced by this short blog post, but in my work with scientists, I try my best to convey a sense of the work that needs to be done, and the complexity of the issue rather than sell myself as a social media magician who can transform the world with the flick of a wrist. Little by little, I hope to convince them that negotiation is the right approach, the best approach, and the way to a better world.