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(Re)Interpreting Impact – Act I

Everyone is talking about impact, and quite rightly. (Adrienne Skelton, Big Lottery Fund)

If everyone is talking about impact, rightly or not, then we should ensure we talk about it rightly. Over the coming weeks I wish to consider broader definitions beyond the conventional meaning of this 21st century buzzword that offer new possibilities in how we promote positive change.

Impact assessment reports are becoming increasingly prevalent within both for-profit and not-for-profit organisations. Assessing and reporting on the political, economic, social and environmental consequences of policies and activities are identified as powerful catalysts for change. However, these organisations are too often focusing on narrow and incomplete interpretations of the concept of “impact”. The English Oxford Dictionary provides a good starting point for a more comprehensive definition:

Impact, n. |ˈimˌpakt|

  1. the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another.
  2. the effect or influence of one person, thing, or action, on another.

Impact, v. |imˈpakt|

  1. come forcibly into contact with another object.
  2. (impact on) to have a strong effect on someone or something.

Origins early 17th c. from the Latin verb impingĕre, “driven in”.

We have begun to focus too much on the human agents of impact. We also include organisations within this ‘human category’ because we understand them as a community of individuals. As Polly Higgins highlights in her book Eradicating Ecocide, “The legal concept of the corporation as a ‘fictional person’ had in fact been around since the 17th century. (…) [Since 1886] corporations, no longer restrained by governmental restrictions, suddenly had the potential to access unlimited investment which could lead to unlimited growth and profit. Suddenly corporations had rights, just like humans.” Why have we ignored the role of objects, included in the definition above?

As Bruno Latour explains in his Re-Assembling the Social, this forgetfulness has been possible because action has been limited to the intentional and meaningful actions of humans. We all agree that it us humans who turn on the kettle that boils the water; who hold the hammer to hit nails, etc. In this context, objects only exist in the “domain of ‘material’ ‘causal’ relations, but not in the ‘reflexive’ ‘symbolic’ domain of social relations”. Nevertheless, Latour highlights that we cannot “maintain that hitting a nail with and without a hammer, boiling water with and without a kettle … are exactly the same activities”. Objects too have the capacity to modify a state of affairs, i.e. to have an impact – they are “participants in the course of action waiting to be given a figuration”. Impact is far from being an exclusive human activity.

Having re-integrated the role of objects as agents of impact, the next blog post on the topic will focus on the idea that impact is multi-directional. Impact is not only the action or effect of one object on another: both parts are agents of impact. Actor-network theory offers some insightful ideas that will help us re-interpret impact and open up possibilities for new approaches to ‘impact assessment’.

Greta Rossi

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