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7 Sep 2023

Theory Series: Social Organization Theory of Action and Change

This month, Military REACH continues the Theory Series, by diving into the social organization theory of action and change (Mancini & Bowen, 2013). We will provide an overview of the model and provide context for how military families and communities can benefit from its implementation.

Overview: Social Organization Theory of Action and Change

The social organization theory of action and change (Mancini & Bowen, 2009, 2013; Mancini et al., 2018) is a framework used to identify the processes (i.e., creating shared responsibility and trust to support communities) and antecedents (i.e., networks and resources that are available and currently established in the community) required to promote community capacity. Community capacity is the extent to which community resources are leveraged to solve problems, maintain well-being, and foster resilience, and is composed of two essential elements: collective competence and shared responsibility. When a community is collectively competent, it demonstrates the ability to mobilize resources and embrace opportunities to address families' needs. Likewise, communities must also exhibit a shared responsibility; that is, a genuine care for one another and willingness to offer help.

To achieve collective competence and shared responsibility, certain structures must be in place to facilitate social connection and achieve resilience.

Social Organization and Change Model (Mancini & Bowen, 2009)

Community conditions and characteristics, or the physical and social infrastructure are important antecedents to adequately address community needs. It is not simply the existence of these structures, though, that build community capacity; ideally, these structures are created intentionally with the community in mind. The physical infrastructure (e.g., safe roads for travel, places to gather) should serve to facilitate social processes which, in turn, create support networks (e.g., relationships with friends, social service programs) for individuals and families.

Implications for Military Families and Communities

Approximately 70% of military families live in civilian communities (Sonethavilay, 2019) and move, on average, every 2-3 years (Office of People Analytics, 2023). This transitional nature can disrupt social connection (O'Neal et al., 2016; O'Neal et al., 2020); however, when families can establish a sense of community in both a military and civilian context, there are greater opportunities for support. Communities can best support military families when they are collectively competent; that is, communities have infrastructure and resources that are sensitive to military family needs. This means creating partnerships and programs with military families in mind.

Communities: Building culturally sensitive resources

Establish multidisciplinary partnerships. Military families can benefit from connections with both the military and civilian community (Akin et al., 2020). Multidisciplinary and collaborative partnerships are beneficial to community capacity because they combine respective strengths to achieve a shared vision. For example,

Incorporate military cultural competence into service delivery. While not all families are the same, military families do have common shared experiences such as deployment, spouse unemployment, and school transitions after relocation. Helping professionals may not know they are serving military families, so it is important to identify them in order to provide tailored solutions and in turn, develop more trust and participation. For example,

  • The Star Behavioral Health Providers program connects military families with therapists who have completed training on military culture.
  • The Military Child Education Coalition provides a two-day professional development course for individuals working with military-connected children (e.g., guidance counselors, school nurses, social workers). This course teaches participants how to best support military-connected children and bolster resilience in response to military-specific stressors.

Military Families: Achieving a sense of community

Take advantage of community resources to cultivate social support, connection, and integration. Military families should feel like they can turn to civilian social networks, programs, and organizations for support. When these resources are made with military families in mind, social connections are more easily developed and can help bolster families' resilience. By building a sense of community, Service members and their families can achieve not only a sense of meaning and purpose (Jetten et al., 2017), but also long-term psychological well-being (O'Neal et al., 2016).

  • Seek out events that connect military families to one another as well as the larger community.

Help new families navigate community resources once you’re settled. When military families can fully participate in their community, they develop a sense of community and shared responsibility, which can lead to a reciprocal relationship in which they help to further these support networks and help future families. Although it is important to integrate into the civilian community, the shared culture among military families is powerful and can help protect against stressors and challenges (Conforte et al., 2017).

The social organization theory of action and change serves as a useful guide to identifying community strengths as well as gaps in services. Communities can use this framework to create or enhance partnerships that address military families’ needs and establish opportunities for social connection. When opportunities for connection exist, families can take advantage of them, feel a sense of belonging within the community, and reciprocate this benefit to others.

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