At the end of every year, people reflect “wow, some pretty huge stuff happened this year.” 2015 witnessed the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the 13 November Paris attacks, the acceleration of the refugee crisis and the death of Freddie Gray, which fueled the Black Lives Matter campaign. 2014 saw the outbreak of Ebola, the mystery of flight MH370 and the Scottish Independence referendum. And so on…

But oh my. 2016 has been major. It feels to many of us as though something has shifted in the world’s mood. Something fundamental has, in some sense, changed. To keep things simple, I’ll talk primarily about Brexit and Trump’s rise to victory.

Image from the Daily Mail

A class on theories of change got me wondering whether 2016 had a particular combination of change theories that account for these monumental events – events which seemed inconceivable just a year ago. A theory of change is a conceptual model which can explain how to get from “here” to “there” (Stachowiak, 2013, p. 2). Although they are usually employed to develop a campaign strategy, it can also be interesting to assess past events in their light.

Stachowiak identifies 10 theories of change: 5 global, which are encompassing and mutually exclusive (although I am not convinced that the latter point is completely true), and 5 tactical, which can be used in conjunction with one another (Ibid., p. 4-25).

The global theory most applicable to the climate of 2016 is the large leaps theory (Ibid., p. 4-6). This says that when conditions are right, change can happen in sudden, large bursts. This can be to do with issues becoming more salient, or new actors being involved.

Brexit is a good example of this. It’s clear that certain issues were salient around the time of campaigning which created the right conditions for the vote to leave the EU. An Ipsos MORI survey showed that immediately before the vote, more people cited sovereignty (32%) and migration (48%) as the important issues, than economy (27%).  Framework and messaging of the Leave campaign, and the influence of certain media outlets can be seen to have created conditions in which a major leap was possible, emphasising certain issues and generating a disposition of nervousness about them.

Image from The Independent

Turning now to Trump, I will look at two tactical theories which worked hand-in-hand: 1) Messaging and Frameworks theory (Ibid., p. 16-17), in which people develop preferences based on the ways in which options are framed; and 2) Media Influence theory (Ibid., p. 18-19), which argues that mass media significantly influences the public agenda.

Much has been made of the media coverage surrounding Trump’s campaign. The ‘alt-right’ were accused of circulating false news stories demonising Clinton and her campaign, contributing to Trump’s success. Even discounting fake news stories, the pro-Trump arms of the media, in conjunction with Trump himself, successfully framed his campaign in a way which appealed strongly to certain groups. This blog takes an in-depth look at campaign messaging, suggesting that Trump’s strong word choices – rapists, murderers, punish – helped to frame his core message that political correctness is at the root of many of the USA’s problems.

Of course, this is a superficial look at two major events of 2016. Books will be written about why these things happened. However, I believe that theories of change can help analyse the climate of 2016: one in which messaging and frameworks worked closely with the media to allow space for some very large leaps.



Stachowiak, S., 2013. Pathways for Change: 10 Theories to Inform Advocacy and Policy Change Efforts. [Online] Available at: < > [Accessed 8 December, 2016].




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