Social diffusion and where social change comes from

Over the past few months, we’ve have multiple speakers in to discuss the idea of social innovation: where do the world-changing ideas come from, and how do they become world changing? Yesterday, we had MIT’s Xavier de Souza Briggs in to give a very nice talk. One idea that stuck in my mind concerned his notion of “creative coping”, which I shall return to in a a minute, and local maxima–the best you can do locally–versus a global maxima. The local versus global maxima strike me as very interesting mathematical metaphors. I believe he means the local maxima as the best one can do in particular situations of injustice or human need, whereas the global maxima means the sort of wholescale social transformation of culture and society.

My question, and I am not sure I got a satisfactory answer, concerns whether one can ever really distinguish the local maxima from things that are going to lead to a global maxima. He began his talk by mentioning rights, which struck me as an excellent example, indeed, of an idea that changes the world and human practice in significant ways. It’s another situation, though, where I think the idea of social change came about very slowly, and I referred to William of Ockham and the role he played in expanding the idea that people can make claim-rights against institutions–in particular, agains the Catholic church. He wasn’t saying to himself that he was starting a rights revolution in the history of western jurisprudence/ethical thought. He was, as I put it yesterday, sassing the Pope. But it was more than that: he was a philosopher. He was arguing a set of principles that seemed right to him, both intuitively and logically. He got lucky and wound up sheltered in a court in Bavaria where he could write and think and stand by his principles.

It’s interesting to me that so far, none of our scholarly speakers really seem interested in the notion of advocating principles.

After William’s willingness to stick by his principles, it seems to me, that good ideas can and do catch on, though not all of them, and they become morphed and extended through time. It would be nice to understand that diffusion the way my friends in sociology, like the brilliant Gabriel Rossman. Surely good ideas die simply because of timing.

Of course, William of Ockham himself was stepping into a stream of human thought and culture that was rapidly changing in its conception of the worth of individuals, precisely because of the Christian tradition he was working in. Natural law theorists, with the behavioral experiments on animals, are starting to look more and more correct after years of scholarly neglect: we have an innate sense of justice, and we apply that our mores and institutions in an incremental and highly imperfect way.

So that’s what I am thinking about this morning. What are you thinking about?