“Since we have not more power of knowing the future than any other men, we have made many mistakes (who has not during the past five years?), but our mistakes have been errors of judgment and not of principle.” J.P. Morgan Jnr, 1933
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So Y asked three interesting questions regarding Grid-Group Cultural Theory. This is a line of thought, a method of inquiry, developed by the British social anthropologist Mary Douglas, along with numerous collaboraters, and more recently numerous younger adopters who never actually worked with Douglas. Its early presentation was in the influential book Natural Symbols.
DMK has already given a response to this in the original comments (many thanks!), and here’s my additions.
1. is the theory considered to be a post modern one?
Quick answer: no. Slightly longer answer: The theory was developed on the cusp of the rise of the postmodern as a dominant category of analysis. Neither Mary Douglas nor Aaron Wildavsky were involved with anything that would be recognisable as explicitly ‘postmodern’. Like Derrida, Douglas was strongly influenced by the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. But whereas Derrida subverted structuralism, Douglas extended it. In particular they each took quite different approaches to Levi-Strauss’s methodological use of the distinction between nature and culture. In many ways Cultural theory might appear to advocates of the postmodern as hopelessly compromised by the ‘grand narrative’ that there are four and only four cultural worldviews. That’s what I like about it. On the other hand, there are many, I think, who see the ‘constrained relativism’ (Marco Verweij) of Cultural Theory as being too relativist for comfort. I like that too.
For more context, Richard Fardon’s book is invaluable: Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography.
2. does it have prestige in the academic world or is considered niche theory?
I think it has some prestige, but precisely as a niche theory. For example, in the study of risk, CT is one of three main approaches to the subject, but only one. In social anthropology it would probably be seen as obsolete. Fardon’s book has a section entitled ‘Theoretical Marginality”. However, it’s quite possible to make an academic career out of Cultural Theory (or a re-branding of it) and a number of highly respected academics have adopted or adapted a CT approach for at least some of their work. But there is no large movement or institution that has adopted it as a significant approach. CT’s strength/weakness lies in that fact that it has been applied piecemeal in a large number of different disciplines. It appears to have an explanatory power as yet not fully realised. I think the conceptual strengths of Cultural Theory have not really been matched by its methodological capacity. There is potential to further develop rigorous methodologies that develop some of the concerns of Cultural Theory.
3. do you think that online/virtual communities on the internet can also be classified according to the grid group (like wikipedia, linkedin etc)?
Yes. Prof Sun-Ki Chai, at the University of Hawaii is a very rare individual in that he has both published on Cultural Theory (he edited a book of essays by Aaron Wildavsky, I believe) and patented a web crawler that can analyse web data according to several social science approaches. His work shows a way to do what you suggest, from a predictive social science angle.
- Some questions about Grid-Group Cultural Theory (fourcultures.com)
The way we power our homes has a strong connection with our cultural expectations.
Here’s an extract from the book Before the Lights Go Out.
Author Mark Haddonmakes the intriguing observation that we don’t have a word for processes that appear to be intentional but actually aren’t.
Is he right?
If so, I suspect that this is because at some level humans find intentionality in everything. It’s safer to assume there’s a predator behind every bush than it is to assume the opposite.
Witness, for instance, the horror implicit in Jacques Monod’s paean to ‘blind chance’. He surely wanted it to impart the feeling of sublime terror. Almost reads like HP Lovecraft…
“Drawn out of the realm of pure chance, the accident enters into that of necessity, of the most implacable certainties.”
Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity. New York: Vintage Books, 1971
Behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely’s interesting website has a question about why we seem to care so much about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when we don’t seem to care as much about other big environmental disasters such as the ongoing destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.
Some good points are raised, including some fairly obvious ones
- the Gulf is nearer to the US,
- there was a definite starting point for the oil spill,
- there are clearly defined bad guys,
All of these kinds of explanation lend themselves very well to analysis on the basis of bounded rationality – we make use of cognitive biases to organise ourselves and these biases aren’t very rational, or are rational only in a limited way. For example, it is somewhat rational to be concerned about environmental problems close to home, but it would be more rational (if that’s possible) to be concerned also about distant problems since they may still have a local impact. Indeed, even for a resident of Louisiana it’s possible that the destruction of the Amazon could be more significant than the oil spill – not in terms of column inches perhaps but in many other ways.
But here I want to put concern about the oil spill in anthropological context and suggest it’s about pollution. (more…)
Writing in Risk and Blame: Essays on Cultural Theory, anthropologist and sociologist Mary Douglas expressed the importance of recognising one’s own biases, the importance of reflexivity.
‘My own preference has emerged as an idealized form of hierarchy. This has always given me to some degree the professional advantage of feeling out of kilter with the times. It gives me a standpoint from which to see that in this 300-year expansionary trend of Western civilization two kinds of cultures have come to dominate, two that are opposed to hierarchy. Today I am arguing that unless we learn to control our cultivated gut response against the idea of hierarchy we will have no choice among models of the good society to counter our long-established predatory, expansionist trend. By sheer default, among cultural forms hierarchy is the rejected Other. We take it for granted that hierarchy will always fall into traps of routinization and censorship; we see its dangers but have no clear model of how it would be if it worked well. Yet hierarchy is the social form that can impose economies, and make constraints acceptable.’ (Douglas 1994:266).
This use of Cultural Theory as a tool for reflexivity is laudable. How does this particular passage make the reader feel – comfortable, or uncomfortable? Perhaps that’s a measure of how far one agrees or disagrees with a hierarchical world view or cultural bias.
Myself, I’m squirming. Especially when Douglas speaks of ‘imposing economies’ and ‘making constraints acceptable’. If these are hierarchy’s trump cards, I’m playing the wrong game. It is not ‘by sheer default’ that the shortcomings of hierarchies have been highlighted. There really are some serious shortcomings.
For the targets of Douglas’s criticism, Egalitarianism and Individualism, it can hardly be said we need more hierarchy, greater bureaucratization, more red tape, a renewed emphasis on distinctions between races, genders and classes, stronger, more ordered leadership. The idea that Egalitarianism is one of the two kinds of cultures that have come to dominate is laughable. If only that were true!
But looking through the four-faceted prism of cultural theory, instead of through the Egalitarian face alone, enables a wider view. This fourfold vision (to quote William Blake, quite out of context) enables an understanding that:
- the opinions I tend to express are just the sorts of thing I would say, as though they had been scripted in advance;
- my own cultural preferences have indeed made great and lasting inroads into Western society, many of which I simply take for granted;
- if I want to convince people, or connect with them, I need to recognize the seriousness of other perspectives. Other people aren’t stupid or wilfully unobservant. But they may have a different cultural preference with its concomitant axioms and norms.
- Douglas does have a point about Hierarchy – as we set about destroying the bastions of unearned privilege and discrimination in the name of freedom (the Individualist slogan) and equality (the Egalitarian mantra), we do indeed hardly pause to consider what Hierarchy might look like ‘if it worked well’. Perhaps we should. There’s a warning in Douglas’s work that we may be ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’. Well, maybe, just maybe, we are.
The passage begs a few questions. It’s interesting that Douglas uses her Cultural Theory to characterise an historical trajectory. She is telling a story here about the sweep of centuries. ‘in this 300-year expansionary trend of Western civilization two kinds of cultures have come to dominate, two that are opposed to hierarchy’. It’s highly suggestive, a bit like Habermas’s tale of the detachment of the Lifeworld from the System, or like one of Foucauld’s genealogies. But there’s a need to be careful with such sweeping historical retellings. If the theory offers a perspective to help explain the temporal trajectory of a civilization, one cannot then also work the other way around and use the history to ‘prove’ or ‘demonstrate’ the theory…
Then there’s the question of balance. Durkheim and the founders of modern Sociology imagined society to be in equilibrium. Many economists still do. They worried about the forces that threatened to unsettle this eirenic scene. Underlying Douglas’s conception of society too is a concern that things have become unbalanced somehow. With Hierarchy in retreat, what could possibly counterbalance ‘our long-established predatory, expansionist trend’? Well, one answer would be: nothing! We’re all going to hell in a handbasket! But who says society actually is a balanced system? It’s all just a metaphor. So we could as well say, as some now do, that the social world can be better characterised as being in dynamic disequilibrium, that tension and unbalance is the order of the day. If this were the case, the demise of Hierarchy, or one of the other cultural biases, is just the kind of thing we might expect to happen from time to time, and yes, it would be unsettling, but not necessarily disastrous. It’s hard to think about this, since our cultural biases predispose us to privilege different trajectories. Hierarchy would of course prefer an equilibrium that required careful management, while Individualism might be more enthused by a bit, or even a lot, of creative destruction.
Mary Douglas may have been ‘wrong’ in the sense that her position in favour of an ‘idealised form of hierarchy’ may be critiqued by those who don’t share it. But she was surely very right to recognise that we do have cultural biases, and that recognising them and owning them is the first step to transcending them.
some recent applications of Mary Douglas’s theories to contemporary concerns.
Interview with Mary Douglas.
“We do not support the notion of discrimination. But you have to distinguish between people.”
These were the words of the Archbishop of Westminster in response to the Pope’s comments on the proposed equality legislation in the UK (reported by the Guardian).
Note the slipperiness of language. In its non-pejorative sense, discrimination does mean distinguishing between people or things, but the more popular usage makes discrimination a thing to be discouraged: distinguishing with the aim of unjustly favouring some over others. I am discriminating in the movies I watch. There is no question of injustice here. The Glenn Miller Story is clearly the greatest movie of all time. But if I discriminate in the people I offer jobs to, it’s reasonable to ask what my criteria are, and whether they are just or unjust.
The problem is that we have four broad versions of justice, not one, and these versions are at odds with one another. In fact they define themselves in relation to the others, so that my version of justice is specifically not yours. (more…)