Broadening the Scope of Societal Change Research: Psychological, Cultural, and Political Impacts of Development Aid


  • Nina Hansen
  • Tom Postmes


To date, the study of societal change in social and political psychology has been dominated by an intergroup relations research agenda. But in addition to intergroup dynamics, there are other major pathways to societal change and emancipation, which are almost never systematically considered in psychological research. The distribution of technologies (e.g., “ICT for development”) or money (e.g., microcredits) are among the supposed drivers of societal change. Many development aid projects are anchored in expectations about the effect that such instruments have on anticipated primary goals and the emancipation of particular groups (such as women). In the current paper, we begin by reviewing theories in the field of social change. Social psychological theories mainly address the conditions under which social change stimulated by intergroup dynamics is likely to occur, while other mainly historical and sociological research has focused on the role of different technologies as drivers of social change in history. Next, we review recent research focusing on the anticipated primary goals and (often) unanticipated psychological and cultural changes resulting from development aid interventions, presenting two examples of such interventions in Ethiopia and Sri Lanka in more detail. We suggest that (1) development aid projects can instigate profound psychological and cultural change and (2) that the pathways to such changes are markedly different from those traditionally examined in the literature. At the political level, we reflect on the unanticipated side effects of development aid. We conclude with some recommendations for practice following from the research described.