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Polarities of Democracy: The Role of Theory in Effecting Social Change by Scholar-Practitioners

Recorded on October 4, 2018

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Last updated 10/28/2018


Visual: Title slide “Polarities of Democracy:  The Role of Theory in Effecting Social Change by Scholar-Practitioners”

Audio: Instrumental Music

Visual: Slide changes to “Polarities of Democracy” and includes”

  • Critical theory of positive social change (Benet, 2013).
  • Based on the conceptual framework of Barry Johnson’s Polarity of Management (1992/1996).
  • Developed as framework to help build healthy, sustainable, and just communities.
  • Ten elements of democratic values in five polarity pairs.

Audio: Suzanne Rackl: As we explore the Polarities of Democracy theory, the first element to note is that it is a critical theory. In the broadest sense, critical theory provides basic framework for research that focuses on decreasing repression or [indiscernible] of humanity, an increase of liberty in all forms. Polarities of Democracy theory is based on the polarity thinking of Barry Johnson, which takes an unsolvable problem attention and recognizes that it must be maximized to [indiscernible] the best. Imagine inhaling and exhaling [indiscernible] individual organization. One can't exist without the other.

One thing to note is that each element of the pair has both positive and negative aspects. The goal, then, is to leverage the positive elements and minimize the negatives of each pole. We will look at this in a visual representation in a moment. Polarity of Democracy uses 10 elements of democratic values in five polarity pairs. These draw on Dr. Benet's extensive doctoral work and [indiscernible] social change efforts in order to build healthy, sustainable and just communities. Let's take a look at those 10 elements in five pairs.

Visual: Slide changes to “Polarities of Democracy Theory: Pairs” and includes: Freedom and Authority, Justice and Due Process, Diversity and Equality, Human Rights and Communal Obligations, and Participation and Representation.  

Audio: Suzanne: There we go. So, Polarities of Democracy model focuses on democratization of workplaces and society in the areas of freedom and authority, justice and due process, diversity and equality, human rights and communal obligations and participation and representation. Each of these elements and pairs physical importance within the Polarities of Democracy theory. In each case, neither element of the pair functions well independently. Each element has positives and negatives and the goal in using theory of social change work is to leverage the positive elements of the poles in each pair. I'm going to ask Dr. Benet to take us through a graphic representation or map of the theory.

Visual: Slide changes to “Polarities of Democracy: Polarity Map” and includes an image.

Audio: Dr. William Benet:  Thank you, Suzanne. So this is a graphic representation of the theory, to the theory as a whole. I'm not going to try to go through every aspect of this map because it's pretty complex. But you would actually develop for the theory five of these maps.

The most important thing from Barry Johnson's polarity thinking and Polarity Management theory is that whenever you have a polarity, with a pole on either side, there are four quadrants. And as you can see, the upper quadrant are where you want to be. Those are the quadrants that give you the positive aspects of each of the elements. And, the lower elements, the lower quadrants, are where you want to avoid or where you want to minimize. Those are the negative aspects of each element. And of course, that also leads to the idea that each one of these 10 elements, when placed into their polarity relationship, has both positive and negative aspects. So, freedom, on the left side, we have positive aspects or negative aspects. You want to minimize the negative aspects. You want to maximize the positive aspects and the more that you can do of that, in my theory, the greater democratization you have, whether in the workplace or in society.

And, according to Barry Johnson, one of the problems you have is that it tends to be this push and pull between the two sides. People championing for one element because they don't see the positive aspects of the other side and they don't see the negative aspects of their side. So you can push back and forth and the more you do that, the more you go into the negative aspects of both elements.

It's very complex understanding how you manage or leverage these elements to get the positive aspects, but certainly, if people are more interested in that, there will be lots of contact information at the end of the session. Suzanne, let me give it back to you.

Audio: Suzanne: I am going to keep going unless I see anything in the chat. So, we are going to move on to the next slide

Visual: Slide changes to “Polarities of Democracy: From Research to Application”

Audio: Suzanne: which should bring us up to talking about from research to application.

First, we will talk about the scholar practitioner aspects. I originally met Dr. Benet in my first doctoral residency, he was a presenter and I signed up randomly, actually, for an individual advising session with him. I was briefly introduced to his theory and he was introduced to my dissertation topic around proactive, community-based philanthropy and systemic social change at the neighborhood level.

Not long after that, I found myself in one of his courses placing NGOs in a global context. In this elective class, I had the opportunity to explore a number of theories including the Polarities of Democracy theory and the Dr. Benet had probably what we consider to be ample opportunity to evaluate my writing and positions regarding social change. I was invited to join the Polarities of Democracy learning community that Dr. Benet maintains in recognizing the potential for the theory in my dissertation work, I asked Dr. Benet to chair my dissertation committee when I completed my coursework. I began to explore Dr. Benet's theory would serve as a framework in my dissertation while I was still completing coursework in the research sequence in my doctoral program and was beginning to draft a dissertation prospectus.

While all five polarity pairs in the theory form an educated model, it is possible to focus on one or two pairs that may be most applicable to a topic or issue. My doctoral research is about community foundations or place based [indiscernible] that is proactive rather than reactive in nature and how this philanthropic investment and policy concerns further or [indiscernible] detracts from positive social change, especially in distant neighborhoods.

Several of the polarity pairs of the theory are more applicable to my research on community level change than others. Funders, grantees, or residents' perspectives around economic and quality-of-life indicators can benefit from using a lens, for instance, recognizing diversity and equality one of the five pairs and analysis. For example, are longtime residents of lower economic status being pushed out by gentrification? Are people of color being able to maintain their homes, remain in the neighborhood or move into the community? Is there housing available for people of all income levels? Are the schools on par with others in more affluent communities?  Depending on the answers, one could determine if both diversity and equality are being leveraged. Is diversity and identity and the diversity of needs of the population celebrated and supported, and are there also equitable opportunities for everyone, regardless of their situation and background, both diversity and equality?

One can also take that a step further, looking to achieve an outcome such as school readiness for all children, understanding that you may need to leverage certain aspects of diversity by providing funding for at risk children now in order to level the playing field to leverage the equality pole for everyone to be treated the same as they progress through school and into the workforce later on.

Another polarity pairs from the theory that may be emphasized and used in analysis in my research around community-based philanthropic investment is participation representation. This polarity pair does not only apply in the voting and governing sense of democracy, but also from a standpoint of what kind of engagement community members have in their community and what kind of community organizing exists to support both polarities of representation. It can also be applied to what nonprofit and organizations operate in a community and [indiscernible] were present at or how residents have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making that those organizations have about the community -- their missions and how they, in turn, interact with the government and private funders on behalf of the community.

We can talk further about how the theory can be applied to research or analysis in the Q&A segment, as I also want to touch on my other experiences working with Polarities of Democracy theory in the other professional capacity.

Now we will move on to that aspect, and it again circles back to the learning community. Through the learning community, I became aware of other students and projects that were using the theory in Dr. Benet schools to disseminate the theory for wider use. I approached him regarding my own professional background in fundraising and philanthropic work and we began to look at options for expanding the reach of Polarities of Democracy through grant funding. At the same time, senior members of Barry Johnson's polarity partnerships firm were taken interesting in Polarities of Democracy and together Dr. Benet and [indiscernible] and Barry Johnson both of [indiscernible] forms the Institute for Polarities of Democracy, a new, nonprofit organization. I agreed to advise them in nonprofit management and fund development.

At the same time, my own use of the Polarities of Democracy theory continued in my dissertation and then began to expand into my consulting work with clients and philanthropic foundations and now, with even community-based economic and social justice organizations.

As the Institute launched, I became more involved with this project management administration, working closely with Dr. Benet and Cliff evaluating mission, future goals and funding opportunities. The Institute, through a grant from polarity partnerships, launched its first fellowship cohort which included training and action plans that applied the theory and polarity thinking directly to organizations the fellows were working with. I applied for a scholarship and was accepted into that group.

More recently -- and I will interrupt to say, I think we have a couple other fellows from that group in the chat room with us today -- more recently, the Institute has developed its first book in a series on Polarity of Democracy theory, an online training course that introduces you to the very topic Dr. Benet, which I participated in, as well as several Walden students, graduate and faculty. In short, Polarity of Democracy has become a defining theory that I use across the board to further social change in my own research, scholarship and professional life.

Before we move on to the next section, I want to touch briefly on how the theory intercepts or has applicability in social change across a broad spectrum of issues in different organizational or societal levels.

Why is this theory applicable in both research and applied settings? Dr. Benet's theory came out of his work with a nonprofit political and social change sectors. I believe he would tell you that he identified a commitment to democracy, but a lack around fully achieving functional democracy and so his theory effectively addresses this. I would add that the integrated nature of rubric during the versatility supported by polarity thinking allows it to be used in small organizations and at a wider societal level. I will turn it back to Dr. Benet regarding that. He can disagree or not and [AUDIO GLITCH].

Visual: Slide changes to “Interactive Discussion: Relevance to Current Events” and include the five pairs of polarities.  

Audio: William  Thank you, Suzanne. We are going to have time for questions and answers with Dr. Schulz, but as you look at the five pairs, the 10 elements of Polarities of Democracy, and I do argue that the full democratization requires you getting the positive aspects of all 10 of these elements, none of which are sufficient in and of themselves. And in addition, each pair is interrelated with the other. So it's very complex, but it's important if we want to truly achieve democratization and that becomes very important our everyday lives.

So, just to give you a few things to think about current events and how the theory may be applicable, if you think about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the diversity and equality pair, the freedom and authority pair, the participation and representation pair.  Think about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, human rights and communal obligations. The current asylum seeking families down at our border, justice and due process, diversity and equality. And in all of these different, real life, everyday situations, we see Polarities present and we see opportunities to either hinge them more effectively to get more of the positives, or to do a very bad job and get more of the negatives.

Just very quickly, I have argued that democratization requires all 10 of these elements, it requires the positive aspects of all 10, none of them are sufficient in and of themselves. And, it gets a little tricky, because each pair is interrelated with the others. But I just want to give you a couple of examples of things that you can be thinking about when we get to the Q&A with Dr. Schulz.

In the real world, if you think about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, I would say we were dealing with diversity and equality and freedom and authority and participation and representation. Last year in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, we were dealing with human rights and communal obligations. Right now, down in our border with the asylum seeking families, we are seeing issues of justice and due process, diversity and equality, freedom and authority.

So all of these real-life examples everyday show as Polarities of Democracy that need to be leveraged effectively or, if we do a bad job, we get the negative aspects of those. So if you want to make a comment about any of them, you can put that in to the chatbox, but in just a couple minutes we are going to get to the Q&A session with Dr. Schulz from the Walden Center for Social Change, and we can address some of these real-life issues at that time if you like.

Visual: Slide changes to “References” and includes two reference entries-

Benet, W. J. (2013). Managing the polarities of democracy: A theoretical framework for positive social change. Journal of Social Change, 5(1), 26-39. doi: 10.5590/JOSC.2013.05.1.03

Johnson, B. (1992/1996). Polarity management: Identifying and managing unsolvable problems. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.  

Audio: William: While we are waiting for Suzanne to get back, there are a couple of references up on the screen that you can see. One is to managing the Polarities of Democracy, an article in the Journal of Social Change. And that can be found, if you look in the web links to the bottom of the screen, the first link is the Walden Library Collection. The Center for Social Change is creating collections of social change research completed at Walden and placing those collections in the Walden Library.

The first collection is the Polarities of Democracy. My article is in there. There are six completed dissertations that are in there at this time. There's another six dissertations where our students have IRB approval and are finishing the studies. They are going to be in there in the next semester or two. And we've got about another 20 students that are working in and have dissertations in the pipeline. Suzanne, are you back, do you want to take over, again?

Visual: Slide changes to “Scholar Practitioners and the Future of Polarities of Democracy Theory” and includes links to current resources.

Audio: Suzanne: I'm sorry about that. Again, outside of Walden, we are still working on developing resources for the institute for students, faculty, postdoc graduates on their practitioner social change projects. You can email either of us to learn about ongoing research, the resources we are developing, fellowships and future training opportunities. I'm going to move us to the next slide.

Visual: Slide changes to “Contact Us” and includes contact information including email and website links.  

Audio: Suzanne: So that is our contact information. And, you can reach out to either of us through our Walden emails or our professional websites. Before we hand things over to Dr. Schulz, and I continue to work on my microphone, I want to thank everybody for participating today. I'm glad that my microphone didn't conk out until almost the end. Dr. Benet and I hope that you have gained an understanding of the role of theory from both academic research perspective and practitioner application in social change work. And I hope you have learned the basics of Polarities of Democracy theory to achieve potential change and the potential for applying it at the research, community or societal level. And I will make sure that we show you the references.

Visual: Slide changes back to the “References” slide.

Audio: Suzanne: And again, I would encourage you to check out Dr. Benet's article. With that, I'll turn over to Dr. Schulz.

Audio: Dr. Schulz: Bill knows that I'm interested in this, my background before I went into strategic management was in political science. Mel and I were talking briefly as you were making the presentation, and Melanie said wow, you can really uses multiple sets of contexts and the kind of insight that I had never verbalized before, I built a course in systems thinking using cause-and-effect kind of mapping, pretty traditional systems thinking based on Peter Senge's work.

It struck me that the polarity thinking in the polarity model is a systems thinking. If you go back to the slide with your five pairings, that would be useful.

Visual: Slide changes to back to “Polarities of Democracy Theory: Pairs”

Audio: Dr. Schulz: These are big, big buckets of constructs, but they do absorb and essentially guide human behavior in organizations. All organizations. So it's a really robust theory, that way, if you're interested in sort of, what can human beings do when we work together or not? The theory can help explain failure, as well.

This really is an interesting systems theory and I saw interesting questions from Joel and others about, how can I learn? Is there a playbook, how can you learn the logic for thinking along the Polarities thinking line? I would argue, Bill, there's probably an opportunity there for you guys to invite more people to the Institute and clearly to think about ways in which we can perhaps have some side conversations about how we can use this to inform some curricular work, as well. Because what I see, and I know everybody on the phone is frustrated by this, we see a very dysfunctional, broken political system in the United States and maybe even globally. And it struck me that -- Bill, your paper addresses some of this -- it struck me that the theory itself is very powerful and perhaps deconstructing the various takes on democracy.

So my question, really, Bill, for you is, as I see it…I'm  kind of a Madisonian. James Madison checks and balances, he really advocated for that, that our form of a Republican democracy, democracy that infuses the 50 states act as independent republics, as a way of building in checks and balances for experimenting in the various ways to implement the Polarities.

But what is your take on that kind of an insight? And do we lose the very essence of who we are as a United States if we get too much control at the federal level, sort of extinguishing the ability to explore the Polarities and their sort of robustness? I know it's a complicated question. But I want to throw it out of there.

Audio: William: It's a great question. Let me start with Barry Johnson and his polarity thinking and the concept that Barry talks about is "both/and" thinking. So when you have freedom AND authority, and you're getting the positive aspects of both and minimizing the negative aspects of both, that's about the best worlds. And in that respect, you shouldn't be losing any of those traditional ideas that we have about the really robust and good things about American democracy. And certainly, there have been some tremendously good things for a couple hundred years. We have had some very nasty things, as well, but we had some very good things. Using Polarities of Democracy should only advance that by getting the positive aspects of both in all of these cases. Does not begin to answer that, a little bit, Bill?

Audio: Dr. Schulz:  I think that's right, out of the business world there was a very interesting book written by Jerry Porras, and I can't remember his other author, but it was called Built to Last, and in Built to Last, they make the same argument, if you think "either/or," you're pretty much done as an organization. It has to be the logic of "and." And somehow, our country has lost or is in the midst of a cycle where it's lost that ability to see "and." And I'm not exactly sure why, what is going to break that cycle, whether it be some sort of external threat, but it's interesting. This framework poses a way to go systemically back and look for ways in which one can see how the system broke and find ways to potentially improve it.

Joel has mentioned this a couple times, let's look at Joel's question, too, I think is really interesting. As you have noted, probably three or four times, it's a complex theory, right? What's interesting about systems theory in general is, the logic appears simple but the execution is ridiculously difficult. If it wasn't, if the complex systems weren't complex, we have the answers pretty quickly. Is a little bit of knowledge about Polarities of Democracy is dangerous? Is it such that you have to get a little deeper before you can truly apply it well? I think, Joel, sort of wants the recipe book or a playbook that would help people put this into practice.

I guess my question is, can you just put a toe in the water or do have to dive in all the way?

Audio: William: I don't think it hurts to dip your toe in the water. I don't think it necessarily would be too dangerous. But yes, if you really want to see how the theory plays out, you really have to dig into it and do a little dive.

Let me say this, it's certainly my hope that as we go forward, the expanding understanding and depth of commitment to this theory can be used to address very real problems that we're facing right now in America, but that we're facing all around the world. You see the rise of authoritarian governments in Europe and across the world. I think that the Polarities of Democracy can offer a way to move beyond that so that we are getting both/and, not either/or.

I do want to mention real quickly that, on one hand, a lot of my thinking came out of democratic theory and governmental theory. But also, it was rooted in systems theory, with Blake and [indiscernible] managerial grid theory, Peter Senge that you mentioned of systems thinking. You are absolutely correct when you identify that aspect of it in the theory.

The other thing, in terms of its broadening applicability, right now, the 12 doctoral dissertations that are either completed or almost completed have all been in the School of Public Policy and Administration. But I am talking with faculty members in other disciplines, particularly human services, right now, about the possibility that this theory could be a very good theoretical framework for dissertations in the school -- particularly because of its implications for positive social change.

Audio: Suzanne:  I want to mention, I will piggyback on what Bill just said, I concur with all of that from a research and a broad applicability standpoint. But I do also think that I am finding, when I'm using an applied setting with clients on the ground when I'm explaining it to somebody who thinks it might be a useful assessment tool and that there are certain Polarities that they want to jump in on, that they don't necessarily have to have the deepest understanding, themselves, in order for their organizations to benefit from the theory.

I'm working with an organization now that has engagement issues in the community and is trying to figure out how to best engage with its stakeholders. It is of course, serving a vulnerable population, so it is strength to do it with honor. I would say that, while the maybe most senior staff has done a more deeper dive into understanding how the theory works and its tenets, a lot of the people who are working with us answering questionnaires, using assessment tools, they don't necessarily have to have the same level of understanding for it to be producing really good information and useful information that can provide results.

Audio: Dr. Schulz:  That's very encouraging, thanks for that context, fantastic. Joanne asked a very interesting question, too. I can't read it all out, can you see that, Bill and team?

Audio: William:  I can, about parallels to these Polarities in the work on moral psychology. Yes. Carol Gilligan was a large influence on my thinking. When she taught about the lack of research in terms of how women view morality versus the traditional research that had been done on that, that had been focused mostly on the male perspective. And again, my research didn't study this, so I can't say it with authority, but the question in my mind, as I live those moral psychology issues and differences from a male and a female perspective, it seemed to me that there might be masculine and feminine perspective here in, again, in which getting the best of both consistent with Johnson's polarity thinking would lead us to a better world. And as I developed these 10 elements and tried to identify both the positive and negative aspects of each of the 10 elements, that was very much in my mind. Certainly, my suspicion is that these require that both/and in the moral psychology, and differences in values and perspectives, as well. Probably a good area of research, if anyone would like to do a dissertation on it.

Audio: Dr. Schulz:  Yes, indeed. What I can tell you is Walden is planning to, if we can pull this off next year, to hold a couple of virtual conferences, not necessarily social change conferences, but virtual conferences that will differ from what we are doing today in the sense that they will be targeted specifically at interdisciplinary teams looking at particular large-scale, complex problems or issues. So, Bill, I'm going to make an invitation to you right now and to Suzanne and others that are in your network, to perhaps consider, when the call goes out, participate in one of those upcoming conferences. There will probably be two year, maybe three. And I very much would like to feature this Polarities thinking, I think it's a real powerful theory, I think it's really interesting that Walden and our students and you, under your leadership, have really made this a thought leadership approach. We will do what we can to try to support you getting it into more hands so it can be used in a more interdisciplinary fashion and get some more publication so people really begin to put it to the test.

Audio: William:  I would love to do that, thank you, Bill.

I did want to say one other thing about the Institute for Polarities of Democracy, which has only been operating a year. It is a 501(c)(3) organization, and we are in the very beginning of creating resources that would give people the tools to more effectively use theory at both the organizational and community and societal levels. We have a virtual course in Polarities of Democracy that goes very deeply into all five of these areas. It's about nine sessions of about an hour to two hours each. It is tuition based through the Institute, but it is open to Walden students, faculty and alumni without charge. So, again, we're just in the beginning of creating those types of resources, but if you are interested, email me or go to the Institute website. We have a lot of things available already and, there will be a lot more on the way.

Audio: Suzanne:  I want to mention again that Bill and Cliff are working on the first of a book series that will do a deeper dive into the theories themselves in each of the pairs. I know that some of you have questions further up in the chat that I can’t see about the pairs themselves.

Behind the scenes there's quite a lot that has been done between the Institute and the fellows that have been working with the Institute in the last year, year and 1/2, on what we call mapping or polarity mapping. Each of these pairs. And questions associated with the positive and negative aspects in the four quadrants on that chart that we showed you before, which I am trying to pull up.

Visual: Slide changes back to “Polarities of Democracy: Polarity Map”

Audio: Suzanne:  There we go. So, imagine each of these with only one pair at a chart that encompasses questions that would allow you to have conversations to even quantify, perhaps, people's perceptions around whether or not you are maximizing the positives of these various elements.

And then, take it a step further, and look at what are the action steps associated with the positive sides of these quadrants that we might want to look at. If I was working with a neighborhood-based client, we might be looking, again, as I referenced before, community engagement. And the action steps we would associate with the positive, the top two quadrants, around let's say, participation representation, would be things that could become a plan. And at the same time, we could identify warning signs for the lower two, negative quadrants that we want to minimize the time that we are spending down there in order to achieve the goals and to leverage that particular polarity.

There's a lot being done to make sure that, really, heavy lifting by Dr. Benet, other fellows, I think that a couple folks, I think I saw in the chat room, [indiscernible] last name, and Morris [indiscernible] who is also faculty at Walden, I think they are in the chat. And they participated in this mapping exercise, as well. So the Institute is really making a concerted effort to develop tools that we will be able to use in order to further our consulting work, our research work, whatever avenue of social change that you are pursuing, we are trying to make sure that the tools will be available.

Audio: Dr. Schulz:  That's great, thank you so much. I think we are running up against the end of our formal time.

Visual: Slide changes to “Questions and Answer Section” and then “Contact Us”

Audio: Dr. Schulz: I really want to thank the presenters and the folks who have been able to participate and ask such great questions and listen to what I think is a really compelling way to analyze the world around us. Thank you.

Audio: William:  Thank you, Bill.

Audio: Suzanne:  I will stick around in the chat for just a few minutes if anyone else has any questions. I will encourage you to reach out to us and will be happy to connect you to more information about the theory.

Visual: Closing Credits

Audio: Instrumental Music