A recipe for social change

In April 2014 as Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Julia gave a lecture at York St. John University where she outlined her take on the ingredients needed to bring about social change.


JRF was established over one hundred years ago in the city of York, a city that has more claim than many to be the kitchen of social change in the UK. The first place in Europe where mentally ill women were held without manacles through the visionary work of William Tuke at the Retreat. The site of one of the first garden villages in New Earswick, the prototype of so much suburban housing in the UK. And the first place where people living in poverty were counted, measured and studied in the ground breaking, influential reports by Joseph, and later Seebohm Rowntree. And now, York aspires to be a Living Wage City, working with employers, voluntary organisations and the local press to ‘stamp out poverty’. It aspires to be a model for a dementia friendly city, one in which all the people of the city, and their visitors, can feel safe, welcomed and able to lead good lives with dementia.

In assessing that legacy of pioneering architecture, influential and challenging research, we witness a tireless journey in pursuit of social justice. But we also witness centuries of social change, and in this lecture tonight I want to try and understand what makes social change happen. What are the ingredients and processes in the recipe? Because social change does happen. Sometimes dramatically and visibly, and more frequently through the slow accretion of rights, the shifting attitudes, the small
adjustments, which mean we suddenly look round and recall. The past was a different country. They did things differently there.

You do not need to be a starry eyed subscriber to the Whig theory of History, or indeed a Blairite humming “things can only get better”, to spot social change. In the lifetime of the JRF – since 1904 – we have seen:

  • The emancipation of women, our right to vote, and our entry into the workforce in
    large numbers;
  • The rising of the school leaving age, and the growth of literacy and numeracy;
  • Health gains that could never previously be imagined;
  • The development of personal and sexual freedom – changing the shape of family
    life, sexual identity and our definition of marriage;
  • A break in the historic link between squalor and poverty – for the last 30 years it has been possible for even the very poorest people to live in decent homes.

And in terms of behaviour and norms we readily accept that we can no longer smoke where we wish, that driving when drunk is socially unacceptable, that church going is no longer the norm and that automatic deference in response to age or class is not required.

Each of these changes, and a host of others, have in their wake brought other changes, some more positive and others more negative, but taken together they signify a very different society from the one that Joseph Rowntree would have seen as he strolled along Bootham.

Not one of these changes – and all the many others – would have been possible without conflict, without the use of power. Sometimes the mobilisation of the powerless, sometimes the assertion of rights by an otherwise marginalised and silenced minority.

The progress of social change owes a huge amount to movements – and it challenges and takes on vested interests, frequently with apparently overwhelming power. This much is, in a sense, self-evident and the celebration of these movements, the history written by the challengers, is a vitally important part of understanding social progress. Now before I go further I need to acknowledge that there is a vast body of theoretical thinking and writing on the question of social change, the nature and validation of such change, the methodology that is used and the calibration of effect. I don’t intend to litter this lecture with theoretical constructs, or reference the extraordinary, powerful and rigorous work by both academics and activists. Instead I want to draw some simple themes from this body of research, and associate it with examples that will, I think, be familiar to people here today. There are plenty of powerful analyses of the nature of social change movements, just as there is a compelling body of evidence about how government is influenced.

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