We will refer to these two processes as ‘personal transformation’ and ‘social transformation.’ Neither is sufficient without the other. Rather, all efforts towards change need to work on these two fronts simultaneously. The top-down approach, which seeks personal transformation by changing social structures, rarely works in the long run because it tends to be perceived as an imposition and is met with resistance. Alternatively, the bottom-up approach, which pursues organizational reform through merely personal transformation, results in frustration, as it generates the will to change but does not establish the institutional arrangements needed to channel that volition towards the desired result.
For example, in the fight against corruption, often activities aim to impose a new organizational culture from above by establishing new regulations, laws and policies regarding transparency, prosecution and penalization. Then these codes of conduct are socialized in an attempt to spread the new culture. The results are usually far from optimal. Although these measures are very necessary, they are not sufficient. There must be a change in the way people think and act, in order support a culture of trust and transparency.
An example of the bottom-up approach is seeking world peace by changing the way individuals think and act without altering the social structures that perpetuate conflict within and among countries. This doesn’t work either. Although the masses of humanity are basically gentle, peace-loving people, this changes neither the structures that promote political and economic conflict within and among countries, nor the institutional paradigms on which such struggle is grounded. As Shoghi Effendi has stated:
We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.1
1. Shoghi Effendi, from a letter to an individual dated February 17, 1933.