Eating less meat?

In Ghent, Belgium, every Thursday is officially Veggie Day

“Our thinking has created problems which cannot be solved by that same level of thinking,”

(Attributed to Albert Einstein in Leonard D. Goodstein and J. William Pfeiffer, eds, The 1985 Annual: Developing Human Resources, Issue 14 New York: John Wiley & Sons, p. 185)

What you think about why I don’t eat meat is culturally conditioned.

I stopped eating meat when I was 18 and for many years was a vegetarian. Over the last few years I’ve also been eating seafood about once a week on average.

Why? Many vegetarians forswear the flesh because they are concerned about animal welfare. They are right to be concerned, in my opinion. But that’s not my own motivation. The chief reason for limiting the meat in my diet is that it’s an inefficient method of producing food. Many crops are grown specifically to feed meat livestock such as beef cattle and pigs when they could have gone to feed humans directly. Sure meat is tasty, but then so is a lot of food. And I don’t think the inefficiency is worth it. According to a recent article in Nature, ‘Solutions for a Cultivated Planet’, by converting animal-feed farming to human-feed farming, up to 50% more food could be grown. In a world with a strongly growing population, this figure is significant and may well be a matter of life and death.

“Shifting more crop production toward food use could potentially add about 50% more calories to the global food supply.”

More at http://storymaps.esri.com/stories/feedingtheworld/

All this is just the preamble to what I want to talk about. This post is not about me, it’s about you. I wrote the words above to get you to feel something. How did you feel when you read my reasons for eating a low meat diet? Did you nod sagely, stroke your chin and reflect how wonderful it is that at least some people in this crazy world have the good sense to care about others? Or did you frown slightly, try to skip sentences and contemplate how tasty a good steak is and how you’ll stop eating it when you’re good and dead and not a day sooner?

How you responded doesn’t just depend on your own personal eating habits, of course. It also depends on your theory of change. You might well agree about the need to change farming practices to feed a growing population, but disagree strongly on the effectiveness of individuals changing their diet in a piecemeal way. So the cultural conditioning of your views on my diet is a two-stage process. First, your take on the evidence itself is culturally conditioned. You may actually disagree that farming practices need to be changed, or you may disregard the evidence altogether. Second, your take on the appropriate response is also and separately culturally conditioned. In each stage, there are four possible approaches, corresponding to the four cultural solidarties or worldviews identified by Cultural Theory.

To illustrate, vegetarianism is a classic response to the cultural understanding that the world has limited (possibly declining) resources. On this general view we need to be careful, eke it out, act frugally and share what we have. So cutting out the meat is a very clear and simple cultural marker. Egalitarianism disproportionately favours vegetarians. That’s the first stage, the stage relating to the evidence, the facts of the matter. Egalitarians are hyper-sensitive to empirical evidence that we’re about to run out of resources. The second stage is all about the theory of change that goes along with this view. Read any Egalitarian tract you care to mention and the last paragraph or the last chapter will seek to answer the question ‘so what should we do about all this doom and gloom?’ The answer – the Egalitarian answer – is nearly always the same: we need a collective change of heart. Tinkering about the edges of the problem won’t fix anything in the long term. Instead we need to change the human soul, specifically in order to recognise that ‘we are all one’.

But does the solution – culturally speaking – always have to fit the problem?

In the case of meat consumption, Egalitarian institutions tend to assume the only workable strategy is a kind of voluntary mass-conversion to something like vegetarianism, (or at least meat-free Mondays Thursdays). The issue is cast in moralizing terms to drive home the point.

“Cultural Theory starts by assuming that a culture is a system of persons holding one another mutually accountable. A person tries to live at some level of being held accountable which is bearable and which matches the level at which that person wants to hold others accountable.”
(Mary Douglas, ‘Risk as a Forensic Resource’, in Edward J. Burger, ed., Risk. University of Michigan Press, 1990:10)

But why do we have to have only an Egalitarian solution to an Egalitarian problem? Isn’t the solution space much bigger than this? This unexamined matching of the solution to the problem is widespread and goes far beyond Egalitarianism. The same worldview that selected the problem in the first place tends also to prescribe certain kinds of solution and to proscribe certain other kinds. Each cultural solidarity has its own special version of that much-parodied car bumper sticker: ‘The answer is Jesus – now what’s the problem?’

Looked at this way it’s possible to see that while there might be only four kinds of problem, there are actually sixteen kinds of solution; or that while there are only four kinds of solution, these can solve sixteen types of problem. Most of these are culturally disallowed, but there is no reason why they should not at least be entertained. For example, an Individualist response to the issue of meat consumption might be to promote vegetarian dining as a high status, exclusive activity, in sharp contrast to the lentils and sandals image of Egalitarian vegetarians. A Hierarchical approach might be to deprecate personal preferences and make changes that affect large numbers of people simultaneously – for example by subsidising certain types of farming or land use while taxing others.

 “Often the best ways to solve environmental problems are invisible and not available to the consumer in the supermarket aisle. We can tax or regulate offending activities, such as fertilizer runoff or the bad treatment of animals. But we cannot always tell how much environmental evil any given foodstuff contains.” (Tyler Cowen, reviewing  Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006)

The upshot is that since we are culturally conditioned to pair certain types of problem with certain types of solution we fail to see beyond the horizons of our own cultural biases. In many situations it’s pretty hard to see further than this but Cultural Theory offers tools for doing so and it provides a framework for innovating solutions to otherwise intractable problems. My own residual Egalitarianism leads me to assume that there is a great value in modelling social change at a personal level, to be, as Gandhi put it, the change you want to see in the world. Cultural Theory helps remind me that a) others may well find this unbearably smug and b) there may be other ways of doing it.

Trusting our feelings

http://www.columbia.edu/~tdp4/recentpub.html Recent Publications from the journal of consumer research. Michel Tuan Phan and colleagues have been writing some interesting articles on the ways in which we use our feelings as information. Interesting not least because I want to ask where those feelings came from in the first place.

Does Cultural Theory predict its own rejection?

Commenter ‘riskviews’ recently suggested:

I would guess that Grid-Group Theory would predict that it would not itself be widely accepted.
In fact, I belive that if it WERE widely accepted, then that would prove it false.

There are a few possible responses to this interesting proposition.

First, riskviews could be right. Cultural theory has been explored in many different academic fields, but not widely accepted in the way some other social science concepts have been. In particular it does seem to suggest a perspective that requires self-critique. This may be difficult.

Second, it may be that one way of achieving this is to somehow rise above the four cultures as described by Cultural Theory and see them as partially complete perspectives. Michael Thompson proposes that there may be a fifth cultural worldview- that of the autonomous ‘hermit’ – which does not enter into the coercive ways of organising and disorganising that the other four take for granted. So far from being widely accepted, Cultural Theory may be only narrowly accepted by a small section of society, which recognises ‘what’s really going on’ and then chooses to reject cultural bias. (For the record, I don’t find this line of thought very helpful).

Third, it may be argued that the four cultural biases only pause to reflect on their own partial nature when their proposed solutions to complex problems fail to have the desired effect. This kind of failure can be seen as a catalyst for better solutions which take account of something like Cultural Theory. This is the approach of Marco Verweij’s latest book, Clumsy Solutions for a Wicked World. The subtitle is optimistic about the possibility of accepting CT’s analysis and using it in policy formulation: ‘How to improve global governance’. Most writers on Cultural Theory seem to take the position that a wider understanding of its analysis might lead to better social outcomes. So, far from predicting its own rejection, Cultural Theory tends to argue for its own increasing adoption as a solution to a variety of problems.

Fourth, and this is my position, Cultural Theory, like many social science theories, can be seen not so much as a set of propositions to be believed, accepted, or verified, but more as a set of tools for thinking with. It’s quite possible to use it without accepting it. The matter then to be verified is not the theory itself but the further insights it gives rise to.

I hope I understand what is meant by the suggestion that if CT were widely accepted, that would prove it false. My take on this is that the theory claims there are four mutually incompatible ways of organising around truth claims. To accept this, would be (perhaps) to recognise the incompleteness of one’s own cultural worldview, and therefore to step outside it in a way that would call into question whether it really existed in the first place. Actually, I don’t agree with this. I think self-reflection is possible to an extent, both for individuals and for organisations. This is helped by that fact that however biased ourselves and our institutions may be, they still rub up against the world as world, not as pure fantasy. As Richard Ellis says, a cultural worldview is  ‘a prism that biases the way one experiences the world, not a prison that shuts one completely off from that world’ (quoted in Verweij 2011:205).

So what do you think? Does cultural theory predict its own rejection?

Selling the Sizzle

English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...
Image via Wikipedia

Every salesperson has learnt that you don’t sell the sausage, you sell the sizzle.

Sizzle: “the desirable, tempting and enticing sounds and aroma that convince you to eat what is basically a dead pig.”

Sausages are only the start, of course. Wouldn’t you love more time? This new dishwasher will give you what you want! A dishwasher is what you have to offer, but the promise of more time is what you actually sell.

Don’t you long to stay young forever? This new cream/car/drink will make you look as young as you feel! The promise of eternal youth is so desirable, tempting and enticing that it can be used to sell almost anything.

This approach has been highly successful at selling dishwashers, cars, creams and drinks as well as sausages, but can it work with social issues? The social marketing movement certainly thinks it can, and it has some great ideas for improving communication (think Hillary Clinton vs. Obama, or the old Hillary versus the new).

But like all simplifying processes, it misses out something important. The sizzle approach assumes we all desire the same thing, that our needs and wishes are simple and fairly undifferentiated. In the background to all this is the highly influential hierarchy of needs established by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. In short, Maslow claimed we all look for food and shelter before worrying about status and self-actualization. We only seek the higher order needs once our basic needs have been met. Seems obvious, but research carried out at Goon Park showed that primates don’t actually work like that: those baby rhesus monkeys sought out maternal comfort [even though fake] before basic food and water. Harry Harlow wrote, “Certainly, man does not live on milk alone.”

The secret to selling the sizzle of social progress is to recognize that the sizzle comes in four distinct varieties. Not one. Not two. Sure, four is harder to deal with than one, but the good news is it’s not ten – or fifty. If you can get your head around just four varieties of sizzle – four alternative storylines – then you can sell refrigerators to Eskimos and to everyone else for that matter.

Jonathan Haidt has a new book out which goes some way towards explaining the significance of emotions and intuition for moral reasoning. He says it much more elegantly, but the gist it that it’s not all sausage – a lot of moral reasoning is sizzle. However The Righteous Mind sticks to the traditional conservative/liberal distinction and so in my opinion misses some of the opportunities that a Cultural Theory perspective offers.

For more details read The beetroot lesson: the politics of disgust.

http://www.futerra.co.uk/downloads/Sellthesizzle.pdf

More on Questions about Grid-Group Theory

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

Here’s some provocative questions about Cultural Theory from Y.  Before I attempt an answer, I wonder if anyone else reading this has an opinion or comment…

1. is the theory considered to be a post modern one?

2. does it have prestige in the academic world or is considered niche 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)?

Any thoughts?