Models, Theories of Change, and Peacebuilding

Models, Theories of Change, and Peacebuilding

This is a week when the topic of my blog post lies at one of the complicated places where my lives as an academic and as a practitioner do not intersect smoothly. Academics worry a lot about developing good theories and models of conflict behavior — or anything else they study for that matter. Practitioners worry more about “getting stuff done” and often downplay the role that theory could or should play in our work.

As I lurch toward the conclusion of my introductory textbook on peace and conflict studies, I’ve realized that I have to take this question on because debates over whether or not we need theoretical models invariably misses the mark. So here are some core thoughts.

In the simplest terms, you can’t ignore the role theory could and should play. If nothing else, implicit understandings shape the way you understand conflict and then how you deal with it. So, it behooves us to think about the role theories and models should play


Mature sciences have explicit paradigms or at least theories that structure an entire discipline. For good or ill, peace and conflict studies does not have its equivalent of the periodic table of elements or neo-classical economics or any such paradigmatic theory. As a result, both our academic research and our peacebuilding projects lack the conceptual rigor we find in those fields.

That does not mean that we work randomly or whimsically. Instead, our best work is guided by models or simplified depiction of the phenomenon we are interested in.

Models come in a variety of forms. Scott Page is best known for computer based formal models that combine a series of “if/then” statements with dozens of feedback loops.Those kinds of models can be sophisticated and productive, starting with the ones on altruism and cooperation in complex systems that won Elinor Ostrom the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics.

For the purposes of a blog post or an introductory course, the most useful models are simple, visual representations of more complicated realities. As you will see in the conclusion of this post, more and more of us now use some form of systems theory to structure our work. No model — including that of a system — ever shows you exactly how or why something works, because it is a simplified representation of some complicated phenomenon you are interested in. Therefore, a good model is simple enough and realistic enough for you to see how the conflict operates by focusing your attention on features like the cockpit or rotor.

Page,= says that a good model allows you to do seven things by:

  • Exploring its dynamics in detail
  • Reasoning through its component parts fit together
  • Predicting how the modeled phenomenon will unfold
  • Explaining why that occurred
  • Communicating your understanding of the conflict to others
  • Designing at least the first stages of a response to the conflict
  • Acting on the basis of that design.

Theories of Change

My Peacebuilding colleagues rarely think in terms of explanatory theory the way we do in comparative politics and other mainstream social sciences. Instead, we tend to use models and evidence as inputs for what we refer to as theories of change which are the kinds convoluted strings of if/then statement and feedback loops I mentioned above.

The Center for Theory of Change defines their subject as:

essentially a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused in particular on mapping out or “filling in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a program or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved. It does this by first identifying the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify all the conditions (outcomes) that must be in place (and how these related to one another causally) for the goals to occur. These are all mapped out in an Outcomes Framework.

Theories of change are important because the vast majority of peace and conflict scholars do not do their research merely to further our understanding. With the exception of a tiny handful of pure scholars, we got involved in peace and conflict studies because we wanted to change the world. Models that do not lend themselves to use in the field tend to get ignored.

In recent years, the best practical programs are now based on some kind of model that has a theory of change built into it. That was not the case early on. However, by the time we started applying systems approaches to what we did in the field, we increasingly based our activities on something theories of change, albeit ones that went beyond the simple if/then statements we first used.

What Differences Does Any of This Make?

The bottom line is pretty simple. The most promising peacebuilding projects today start with systems approaches that have a theory of change that at worst lurks a bit below the surface. As the Omidyar Group’s systems team or Peter Senge’s Society for Organizational Learning suggest, we should think about the system’s deep structure or the most important feedback loop and then base our actions on the leverage points at which the entire system can be nudged in a desired direction as quickly, easily, and fully as possible.

Originally published at Chip Hauss.