"Social marketing has been presented and understood as an approach to individual behavior change in which psychological stage models, such as the transtheoretical model, are used to segment audiences, and the marketing mix is used to identify and reduce barriers or costs and increase benefits for behavior change. This theory has guided many marketers’ approach to discovering what the desired behavior might be, its possible determinants, the context in which it occurs - or not, and the consequences that people and society incur. I offer that to fully develop the discipline of social marketing and its promise to be a positive force for social change, we must think about change as it occurs among groups of people (segments, social networks) and at different levels of society (organizations, communities, physical environments, markets, and public policies)…[Ed Note: See Transformative Social Marketing (pdf)].
I start with Duncan Watts, a physicist and sociologist, who presents two problems that bedevil people faced with the challenges of large and complex puzzles. He calls these the frame problem and the micro-macro problem (Watts, 2011). Both of these problems highlight the need for social change programs to adopt theoretical perspectives that are broader than individual determinants. The frame problem proposes that it is impossible to know all the potentially relevant facts and determinants of a puzzle, given the overwhelming number of possibilities and combinations of variables. Consequently, it is then difficult to selectively focus on only certain ones and ignore the others, to look for example at only psychological determinants or to consider only solutions that employ persuasive communications. What the frame problem poses to social marketers is that we cannot know for certain whether we have selected the right set of variables when we choose a theory, or frame, to guide us in thinking about our puzzle.
The second problem Watts (2011) discusses is the micro-macro problem: one that goes at the heart of the social marketing dilemma. This dilemma emanates from our desire to achieve macro outcomes, ones that involve changes among large numbers of people, among population segments, or in society as a whole. Yet these outcomes are driven by the micro actions of individuals (for example, it is individuals whose voting behavior determines the outcome of policy options, individuals’ behavior that sets the tone for an organizational culture, and individuals who connect through social network sites to organize and plan social action). This problem is embedded in definitions of social marketing as changing individual behaviors in order to achieve social good. Although the intentions are commendable, the actual process of moving from individual behavior change to changes at the societal level is ignored, as if this transition will occur automatically - that it is simply a matter of increasing the numbers of people practicing the behavior. As Watts (2011) notes, how micro behaviors become macro solutions is a puzzle in search of an explanation in many disciplines, and this puzzle cannot be simply dismissed or explained away as inconsequential. Moreover, this process does not occur in a simple linear manner, as is suggested by phrases like “increasing the numbers.”
An analogy from biology helps to illustrate the problem. What if we were to consider the entire span of human existence? How do atoms become molecules? How do molecules form amino acids? How do amino acids and other chemicals interact to create a living cell? How do some of these cells organize and specialize to become the brain? And how does this brain develop consciousness and contemplate its eternal existence? The point Watts is making is that many disciplines work with many different scales of reality and they are difficult to integrate. For example, how can we explain consciousness by the chemical activity of a single neuron? The short answer is that we do not. Instead, biologists and other scientists invoke the idea of emergence to describe the shifting from one scale of reality to the next, and use ideas such as complexity, interactions, and systems to consider more than one scale at a time (an atomic scale versus a biochemical or physiological one).
To bring this problem back into the social marketing world, believing that social change will happen “one person at a time” does not conform to what we know about emergence in many other disciplines. It is analogous to believing that consciousness can be explained by the action of a neuron or even many neurons; it may be convenient to think like this, but throughout his book, Watts (2011) takes on these logical fictions with data. Changes in complex social systems involve interactions between people and systems, just as neurons must be connected and interact with each other in systematic ways to create what we refer to as consciousness. This means that social change programs need to consider more than one scale of reality at a time, including scales relating to individuals, social networks, formal and informal organizations, markets, and government regulations and policies."
From: Lefebvre, R.C (in press). Social marketing and social change: Strategies and tools for improving health, well-being and the environment (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, expected 2013).
Watts, D. (2011). Everything is obvious: Once you know the answer. New York: Crown Business.