Tag Archives: leaders

Stabilizing Collectives in the Study of Transformation: Instead of “key-individuals”

This deserves perhaps an even longer blog post, but I wrote this quickly as an appreciation to the previous blog by Juan Carlos Rocha.

The previous blog post puts focus on a quite problematic nexus within social-ecological studies, and management theory more generally: the focus on “key-individuals”, “leaders”, and “institutional or social entrepreneurs” to explain change and ‘transformation’. In my new chapter on “Transformative Collective Action” (Ernstson, 2011a; see blog post here) I review some of that literature and conclude that such constructs can create an analytical trap, or blindness, since these constructs provides the analyst a too easy way out for explaining change; ‘key-individuals’ tend to step out on the scene like ready-made ‘magic boxes’ to put things right, very much like a deus ex machina in Greek or Brechtian dramas, who suddenly solves intractable problems.

To take research beyond key-individuals on one hand, and external/structural factors (equally ready-made) on the other, seems crucial to me. The references put forward by Duncan Watts in Juan’s post are highly useful here (LeBon, Tolstoy, Berlin), as are the search for mechanisms like those Jon Norberg studies through the clean world of agent-based model experiments.

However, what is also badly needed in the field of resilience and social-ecological studies are more empirical work, and more theoretical constructs, frameworks and registers that allow us to appreciate the often messy but profoundly collective nature of transformative or revolutionary change. (These ways of doing research should also acknowledge that change processes will be quite different from place to place.) To study such change must necessarily be more than just dividing a process into ‘phases’, looking for ‘windows of opportunity’, and plug in certain individuals in the account who can ‘seize’ these windows and usher in a new way of doing things.

To the particular tedious task of doing empirical studies of transformations, there are probably various ways. So far, in my own work, I have especially built on social movement theory, a field that par excellence has studied transformative and revolutionary change. Here social movement scholar Mario Diani has showed how to use social network analysis to understand “network-level mechanisms”, which I view as:

“social actions made possible through, and emerging from, the patterns of relations between mobilizing actors, and thus dependent on the full structure of the social network, and not just the local surrounding of single actors” (Ernstson 2011, p. 258).

Another important Italian is Alberto Melucci, who used a constructionist and cultural approach to collective action, emphasizing that collective action needs to be constructed and that ‘structural’ or external factors are not enough to explain change since a practice of engagement is needed to translate ‘structural/external’ factors into tangible action. He also emphasized that collective action necessarily also produces or constructs new ways of knowing, thus necessarily upsetting and challenging dominating ways of knowing (and one needs to account for how such knowledge is constructed in and through collective action).

Thirdly, I have been drawing on scholars like Jonathan Murdoch, Bruno Latour, John Law and Annmarie Mol who use post-structuralist geography and actor-network theory (ANT). This body of scholarship decenters the human subject in studying change, and thus “reassembles the social” (Latour, 2005) so as to allow also non-humans to be part in constructing/producing collective action. This makes it possible as an analyst to stabilize accounts of ‘distributed agency’, where the ability for change resides among people and things, which together come to make up quite heterogeneous collectives. For instance, in my case study here in Cape Town (Ernstson 2011), certain plants seem to participate in modes of empowerment, and play an important role in stabilizing collectives that can carry action across space and time. For the Occupy Movement, tents, streets, squares and Internet seems key but exactly how these things are enrolled into a stabilization of collective action needs ethnographic engagement. Importantly however, careful analysis of such heterogeneous collectives can come to also show how alternative ways of knowing and becoming are produced in and through the same collectives that carry or produce action, and thus such analysis lends itself to study how collective action engages the world in epistemological and ontological politics. The latter seems key in any transformation worthy the name.

This was just a short burst in response to Juan’s interesting blog post. If anybody has more ideas on this, tips on empirical studies or theoretical treatise in the area of social-ecological studies that relates to this, please make contact, or post comments, as usual.


Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. “Transformative collective action: a network approach to transformative change in ecosystem-based management.” Pp. 255-287 in Social Networks and Natural Resource Management: Uncovering the Social Fabric of Environmental Governance, edited by Ö. Bodin and C. Prell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. “Re-translating nature in post-apartheid Cape Town: the alliance of people and plants in generating collective action.” Presented at London School of Economics workshop on Actor-Network Theory in Development Studies, 3 July 2011 organized by Richard Heeks.

[Also posted on my blog http://www.rhizomia.net/]

What Are Leaders Really For?

A week ago I had an interesting discussion with Jon Norberg, a professor in Systems Ecology here at Stockholm University, about leadership.  Jon is working on, among other things, an agent based model about how leaders influence opinion change in social networks. He’s been inspired by one of the iconic examples of transformation in resilience science: the case of the governance system of Kristianstads Vattenrike in Southern Sweden.

I have to confess that I’ve been skeptic when it comes to leadership. My feeling is that the literature give too much importance to key individuals, the product of history tends to fall in the actions of few key individuals that acted in the right moment bridging organization or spreading initiatives. I don’t find it surprisingly given the fact that most of us grow up watching Captain America and Superman. What a good times.  Anyway, the literature on complex adaptive systems have addressed the same issue from another perspective: swarm dynamics – how emergent patterns rise from local interactions between agents. In a swarm, any individual could be an agent of change. All it has to do is following the rules and send the right signals in the right moment to scale up the movement of the swarm or the flock and avoid predators or mountains. On this perspective, leaders are not superheros, but rather individual with agency (the power to produce change locally) that act accordingly with the signals of its own context and the network structure. In that sense, Hitler or Gandhi were not driving the change, rather they were part of it, they were rather driven by the bubbling of the social activity of their time. Jon told me that both versions belong to different schools of thought in sociology, which names I can’t recall at this moment.

Today, Duncan Watts, on of the authors on my to read list, wrote something similar that illustrate the issue of leadership inspired on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here is his blogpost from Harvard Business Review, I copied all so you don’t miss the details (source: What Are Leaders Really For? – Duncan Watts – Harvard Business Review.)

The Occupy Wall Street movement has both perplexed and frustrated observers and analysts by its persistent refusal to nominate an identifiable leadership who can in turn articulate a coherent agenda. What is the point, these critics wonder, of a movement that can’t figure out where it’s trying to go, and how can it get there without anyone to lead it?

It’s a reasonable question, but it says at least as much about what we want from our social movements as it does about the way movements actually succeed.

Typically, the way we think of social change is some variant of the “great man” theory of history: that remarkable events are driven by correspondingly remarkable individuals whose vision and leadership inspire and coordinate the actions of the many. Sometimes these individuals occupy traditional roles of leadership, like presidents, CEOs, or generals, while at other times they emerge from the rank and file; but regardless of where they come from, their presence is necessary for real social change to begin. As Margaret Meade is supposed to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It’s an inspiring idea, but over 100 years ago in his early classic of social psychology, “The Crowd,” the French social critic Gustave LeBon, argued that the role of the leader was more subtle and indirect. According to LeBon, it was the crowd, not the princes and generals, that had become the driving force of social change. Leaders still mattered, but it wasn’t because they themselves put their shoulders to the wheel of history; rather it was because they were quick to recognize the forces at work and adept at placing themselves in the forefront.

Even before LeBon, no less an observer of history than Tolstoy presented an even more jaundiced view of the great man theory. In a celebrated essay on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin summed up Tolstoy’s central insight this way: “the higher the soldiers or statesmen are in the pyramid of authority, the farther they must be from its base, which consists of those ordinary men and women whose lives are the actual stuff of history; and, consequently, the smaller the effect of the words and acts of such remote personages, despite all their theoretical authority, upon that history.” According to Tolstoy, in other words, the accounts of historians are borderline fabrications, glossing over the vast majority of what actually happens in favor of a convenient storyline focused on the skill and leadership of the great generals.

Thinkers like Le Bon and Tolstoy and Berlin therefore lead us to a radically alternative hypothesis of social change: that successful movements succeed for reasons other than the presence of a great leader, who is as much a consequence of the movement’s success as its cause. Explanations of historically important events that focus on the actions of a special few therefore misunderstand their true causes, which are invariably complex and often depend on the actions of a great many individuals whose names are lost to history.

Interestingly, in the natural world we don’t find this sort of explanation controversial. When we hear that a raging forest fire has consumed millions of acres of California forest, we don’t assume that there was anything special about the initial spark. Quite to the contrary, we understand that in context of the large-scale environmental conditions — prolonged drought, a buildup of flammable undergrowth, strong winds, rugged terrain, and on so — that truly drive fires, the nature of the spark itself is close to irrelevant.

Yet when it comes to the social equivalent of the forest fire, we do in effect insist that there must have been something special about the spark that started it. Because our experience tells us that leadership matters in small groups such as Army platoons or start-up companies, we assume that it matters in the same way for the very largest groups as well. Thus when we witness some successful movement or organization, it seems obvious to us that whoever the leader is, his or her particular combination of personality, vision, and leadership style must have supplied the critical X factor, where the larger and more successful the movement, the more important the leader will appear.

By refusing to name a leader, Occupy Wall Street presents a challenge to this view. With no one figure to credit or blame, with no face to put on a sprawling inchoate movement, and with no hierarchy of power, we simply don’t know how to process what “it” is, and therefore how to think about it. And because this absence of a familiar personality-centric narrative makes us uncomfortable, we are tempted to reject the whole thing as somehow not real. Or instead, we insist that in order to be taken seriously, the movement must first change to reflect what we expect from serious organizations — namely a charismatic leader to whom we can attribute everything.

In the case of Occupy Wall Street, we will probably get our wish, for two reasons. First, if OWS grows large enough to deliver any lasting social change, some hierarchy will become necessary in order to coordinate its increasingly diverse activities; and a hierarchy by nature requires a leader. And second, precisely because the outside world wants a leader — to negotiate with, to hold responsible, and ultimately to lionize — the temptation to be that person will eventually prove irresistible.

Leaders, in other words, are necessary, but not because they are the source of social change. Rather their real function is to occupy the role that allows the rest of us to make sense of what is happening — just as Tolstoy suspected. For better and worse, telling stories is how we make sense of the world, and it’s hard to tell a story without focal actors around which to center the action. But as we witness a succession of popular movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, we can at least pause to appreciate the real story, which is the remarkable phenomenon of a great many ordinary individuals coming together to change the world.

As a final thought, I don’t think leaders actually drive social change, at least when it comes to opinion formation and value change that has driven transformations in governance systems of  Kristianstads or the establishment of Australia’s Great Coral Reef Park cases. The “transformations” were rather driven by a self-organization of the system itself, it was ready for change. Leaders played a role on the course of action that history take, on the developing of the facts. But as the forest fire example proposed by Watts, it is more the change in slow variables rather than the spark what dominate the dynamics of fire. A more relevant question is then, what are the slow variables that underly regime shifts in society?