Stage 1.2   Relating to the Larger Social Space

What are the norms in the community?

No group of human beings is completely isolated from the influence of "outsiders." All systems and organizations exist within a context of other systems of which they are a part and upon which they are dependent. Therefore, as a change agent you must not only consider the characteristics of the particular client you are serving, but you must also consider the nature of the community, the larger social system of which your client is a part. 

Assuming that you are new to the system and are just beginning your relationship, there are three questions about this larger system that you must be able to answer with some degree of specificity:

  • Who are the most powerful and influential people in the community?
  • How do these people usually react to change (e.g., open, neutral, defensive)?
  • How can these people be influenced to endorse the change effort?

Who are the influentials in the community?

If you are able to review the history of the community, you will usually be struck by the prominence of certain groups - pressure groups, key individuals, and basic institutions - that have had a very strong influence over what has gone on in the  past. Business owners, school board members, local political leaders, department chiefs, clerics, social clubs and charitable organizations of various kinds each may have a say or a stake in any kind of change. What is their relative strength to advance, interrupt, or redirect a change effort? Inside or outside pressure from any source, (including you!) can lead to increased conflict within the client system; it can create an atmosphere of rigidity and complacency. You must be sensitive to the likely effects of these different "outside" pressures, for you will need to be able to make a quick assessment of the relative potency of various forces while you are in the process of developing the relationship.

What is the community leadership like? 

Is the leadership cohesive? Does it work as a harmonious system or is it factional and strife-ridden? Or is it merely diffuse and weak? Can an outside change agent safely make contact directly or should he/she work through emissaries? If leadership is factional, are all factions approachable? Furthermore, are there specific kinds of conventions that must be observed when dealing with the leaders of each faction?

What percentage of your efforts should be devoted to these outside forces?

The effort you expend in identifying and dealing with these outside social forces will vary greatly from case to case. Sometimes, it may only be necessary to make a casual accounting of these external forces. Nevertheless, the testimony of countless change agents suggests that these outside forces are almost invariably underrated in the early stages of a project. 

Figure 1-2 suggests some of the complexity of social forces which can effect change within the environment in which you find yourself.  It does not indicate which forces are likely to be dominant in any given situation. This will probably vary depending on the concern on which you have chosen to work on. Some of these groups will have a viewpoint and identifiable norms relevant to this change topic or any change in general. Some may be merely irrelevant. Others may be sleeping giants that you may not want to awake.  As in the case of Figure 1-1, take out a piece of paper and try listing the outside forces and groups that might be relevant to your situation. If possible, show how they overlap and inter-relate. Then ask yourself these questions:

  • How strong are connections between your client and the larger community? Is there a tight bond or do the two systems operate  independently?
  • Where does the real power lie? Who is really in charge? Who calls the shots?
  • Are there community factions which toss issues back and forth?
  • Are there certain issues on which there is community-wide consensus?