Is change really coming?

Benito L. Teehankee

June 2, 2016

The View from Taft


“Halika na. Baguhin natin ang bayan. (Come on. Let’s change the country.)”, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte told Senator Peter Cayetano in their campaign video five months ago. The mayor is now president-elect, and not surprisingly, one of the most quotable quotes these days is his campaign motto that “Change is coming.”

Is it really?

Let’s do a reality check. Do a catchy slogan and the euphoria of a just-concluded election make social change a quick and simple matter? Will an authoritarian leader imposing his will on more than 100 million people lead us smoothly to the ideal society we dream about?

Social change is when people’s voluntary behaviors change in accordance with changes in social structures and cultural values. How does social change come about? A good analogy for this process is trying to change the shape of a spring mattress. Lie on it, and it follows the shape of your body. Get up, and it springs back to its original shape. But if you lie on the bed often enough, the springs begin to sag and the mattress begins to crater, matching your body shape. This can take a long time because the springs resist your weight while the bedframe supports the springs.

Three parts of society interplay to enable or suppress social change; these are social structures (the bedframe), the cultural system (the mattress springs); and people acting in the face of such structures and cultural values (the person lying on the bed).

Social structures are the positions and powers that people have in society, the relationships of these positions with each other, and the rules that cover these positions and relationships. Elements of the country’s social structures, while not fixed nor consistent nationwide, are known to most Filipinos. Examples are the authority of parents over children; the relationships among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; the contractual employment of workers; the control of major corporations by elite families; the control of local governments by political dynasties; and the patronage relationship of citizens with elected leaders.

The cultural system is made up of ideas, beliefs, and values handed down from generation to generation. As examples, many Filipinos believe the following: “God provides.” “The welfare of one’s family is the most important thing.” “The rich and the powerful deserve privilege.” “Compliance with the law is optional.” But cultural systems can contain contradictory ideas, and this is true in our culture. Thus, other Filipinos believe opposing ideas such as “The rich and the poor should receive equal treatment.”

While social structures and cultural systems are the givens of a society, people choose to act to maintain or change them. Desired social change happens only when the three elements of society change together in support of a desired social value – like a three-way dance. The social structures must change with the support of the cultural system. And the people must choose to act in ways supportive of the social structures and the cultural system.

People may act individually, but to effect social change, they must act in organized groups. But why would people choose to act together to promote a social belief? Because doing so benefits them or the people whom they care about. However, other groups who may be disadvantaged will contest the actions of the initiating group. The initiating group will win this social contest only if it manages to change the relevant positions, powers, and rules while convincing more people that the proposed social belief benefits them.

To show how this process works, let’s consider the example of promoting discipline among minors. The president-elect has announced his plan to impose a nationwide curfew on minors, which amounts to a social structural change in the rules. Will such a change in rules, led by the new president and backed by his millions of supporters, result in more disciplined minors? It will depend on whether discipline among minors will be actively valued by enough people as evidenced by their disciplining their own children and endorsing the change in, say, Facebook.

For a preview of things to come, Quezon City has enforced its existing ban on public loitering by minors from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Parents of minors recently caught loitering have been detained under this ban and, expectedly, some have complained to media that they are being treated unfairly. The rules have changed, and the mayor and the police have acted accordingly. The social contest has begun over traditional and social media.

Can President Duterte bring about real social change? It depends on how well he and his supporters orchestrate the three-way dance of changing the social structures and selling their proposed cultural values to enough citizens by convincing them that it benefits them to do so. If he does not win this important social contest during his term, the result will be as predictable as a spring mattress – our society stays the same.

Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is a professor of management and organization at De La Salle University. He is also Vice-Chairman of the CSR Committee of the Management Association of the Philippines.