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.

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.

Dirt – is it ‘matter out of place’?

Keep calm and pick up a broom

“The Wellcome exhibition starts with a quote from Mary Douglas, the great social anthropologist who wrote Purity and Danger. Dirt she defined as “matter out of place”. She remains a key thinker, prefiguring many of the bigger, better known French structuralists. In analysing taboos about the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane, Douglas makes us see that context is everything. Dirt, then, is in the “eye of the beholder”.” [The Guardian]

Admirers of the anthropologist Mary Douglas would have appreciated the exhibition on dirt, which took place in 2011 at London’s Wellcome Gallery.

If dirt is a matter of cultural bias, the question of who cleans up becomes an important indication of social organisation.

Egalitarianism: Everyone cleans up; strong group motivation based on moral imperatives. Recent example: Egyptian revolution – the protesters cleaned up after themselves. Cleaning denotes status. Anyone seen to be not cleaning is morally inferior to the group.

Fatalism: No one cleans up. Why bother, it will just get messy again (and keeping it messy is an important, unstated method of social protest). ‘Mattter out of place’ isn’t ‘dirt’ – it’s a succinct description of the whole of life. Ability to cause dirt to someone else’s property denotes status. Example: graffiti.

Individualism: I’ll clean up! (There’s brass to be made from muck). Example: the entire recycling industry. The rag and bone man of my childhood.

Hierarchy: cleaning denotes status. The cleaners are socially lower than the cleaned. This is made to appear self-evident,obviously true, inevitable.

Mary Douglas saw dirt as ‘matter out of place’ not because dirt simply is matter out of place, in some essential or definitional sense, but because she tended to align herself with an Hierarchical view of the world. In hierarchical institutions ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ is a key maxim. The parade ground, for instance, is proof that neatness, order and regimentation is everything. The strong assumption of the Hierarchy is that the army that walks together the most neatly is obviously the most intimidating and the most likely to win a battle. Extremely clean, neat, ironed and polished uniforms will definitely go a long way to providing certainty about a nation’s capacity to repel invaders.

Individualism will see dirt as matter under-priced. Treasure from trash is a leading business model.

Fatalism will see dirt as inevitable – and take a quiet, stoic pride in it.

Egalitarianism will see some kinds of dirt as proof that ‘we’re all in this together’. But large scale trans-national dirt like radiation or carbon dioxide is seen as a threat against which we need to all pull together as one.

See also: The Toxicity Panic

Image credit: Brett Jordan/Flickr

Equality and Hierarchy in Denmark

Hedeby
Hedeby, probable site of the first school in Denmark

Further reflections on the concept of horizontal and vertical teaching methods.

A recent edition of the journal Social Analysis (55.2, 2011) is entirely devoted to the contrast between hierarchical and egalitarian pressures on Danish Society.

The introduction begins with a discussion of the work of the anthropologist Marianne Gullestad (1946–2008). Gullestad developed a theory of Scandinavian social life based on the two dichotomies of hierarchy-equality and individualism-holism , which she derived from Louis Dumont (Dumont, Homo æqualis Paris: Gallimard, 1977). It continues:

“Our ethnographies suggest that simple dichotomies between egalitarianism and hierarchy or between individualism and holism do not hold.” (p.13)

One of the articles, by Karen Fog Olwig, focuses specifically on education in Danish kindergartens: ‘Children’s sociality: the ‘Civilizing’ Project in the Danish Kindergarten’.

These kinds of analysis would benefit from a consideration of the Cultural Theory typology in which besides hierarchical (vertical) and egalitarian (horizontal) approaches to education there are also Individualist and Fatalist institutional arrangements.

More generally, it’s possible to be suspicious of comparative national analyses which reify types of behaviour and then seek to apply them to national population groups, as though distinctive national characteristics were so easily demonstrated in this manner.

My concern here is that analyses which identify national characteristics do less to clarify those characteristics than they do to reinforce a kind of nationalist essentialism. This reassuring thought – that we’re doing the right thing when we organise along national lines – seems to me to have had its high point in the mid to late Nineteenth Century with the development of modern nation states, and then another peak after the Second World War with the rise of post-colonial independence movements. It is getting another airing in our time as part of a collective anxiety about globalisation. Most recently, the decline of European currency forces a rethink of national economic arrangements. The national is being renegotiated and redefined.

I’m arguing here that the process of identifying national characteristics is at least partly born from a certain cultural anxiety regarding national identities in an era of globalisation. So to argue that some nations have particularly ‘vertical’ teaching methods and that this impacts on governmental effectiveness, as do the authors of the study previously mentioned, reveals something about the context and preoccupations of the research itself. There is a market for clients (broadly construed) who are interested in reinforcing their ideas about the social reality, the solidity, of nation states.

Analyses inspired by the Cultural Theory approach of anthroplogist Mary Douglas instead start from the assumption that cultural differences are to be found as much within social groups as between them. That is to say, the cultural biases inherent in institutions operate at all scales, from the household (Gullestad’s ‘kitchen table society‘) to the global. This is not to deny the possibility of empirically observable national characteristics, but to contextualise them in a series of nested (Hierarchical), or competing (Individualist), or incompatible (Fatalist), or wholistic (Egalitarian) scales. An interest in identifying the dominant scale (natonal, supranational, something else?) reveals a Hierarchical cultural bias.

Where can Cultural Theory aid these kinds of investigation?

First, as mentioned, it identifies, parsimoniously, a further two ‘ideal types’, beyond ‘horizontal’ egalitarianism and ‘vertical’ hierarchy.

Second, it allows for a questioning of national characteristics as particularly national.

Third, following on from this, it renders visible contesting social forces within societies and institutions. So for example, where Hierarchical approaches to social organisation appear dominant, Cultural Theory can show how they may not be quite as dominant as seen at first sight (because they fit within a dynamic of contested worldviews), and it can show where the possibilities of change lie in already existing institutions and relationships.

To end on the idea of anxiety about national identity in an era of globaliisation, two books are particularly helpful on this:

David Held and Henrietta L. Moore, eds (2008) Cultural Politics in a Global Age: Uncertainty, Solidarity and Innovation. Oxford: Oneworld.

 Henrietta L. Moore (2011) Still Life: Hopes, Desires and Satisfactions. Cambridge: Polity.

References

Bruun, Maja Hojer; Jakobsen, Gry Skrædderdal; Krøijer, Stine (2011) Introduction: The Concern for Sociality—Practising Equality and Hierarchy in Denmark, Social Analysis, Volume 55, Number 2, Summer, pp. 1-19. [http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/sa.2011.550201]

Louis Dumont (1977) Homo æqualis Paris: Gallimard.

Moving beyond a failure in the marketplace of ideas


The following is a guest post from Prof Dan Kahan in response to a previous post here, on Margaret Heffernan’s book, Willful Blindness.

4culture’s insightful post put me in mind of something important that in fact he has said explicitly before: Understanding the contribution that cultural influences have on our perceptions of risk (and like facts) cannot only explain but also improve our situation. If we know we have cultural “blind spots” & where they are, then we should be able to do something to reduce their dimensions even if we are constrained (not so unhappily!) always to be who we are and thus see what we see.

In that spirit:

Imagine a “cultural theory” response to the “marketplace of ideas” view of free speech. This view holds that “truth” can be expected to emerge naturally & rapidly take hold in society through the competition of ideas in a “free speech” market (associated with J.S. Mill; Justice O.W. HolmesJr., US S Ct; and others).

Cultural Theory helps to show why this laissez faire attitude toward transmission of knowledge is naive. Through biased search and weighting of evidence, people conform their assessments of information to their cultural values. Accordingly, even if the market of ideas furnishes them with an ample supply of information that it would be very much in their interest to accept and act on (because, say, they are more likely to die if they don’t), culturally diverse people won’t come to see it as true (or at least not nearly so quickly) if it denigrates the worldviews of some portion of them. This “cultural market failure,” Cultural Theory tells us, warrants some sort of corrective intervention. Some possibilities:

1. Affirmation framing

A cognitive rendering of Cultural Theory would say we are unconsciously motivated to resist information that threatens our cultural worldview. One way to mitigate the potential for bias inherent in this dynamic, then, is to try to strive to frame information in ways that affirm a plurality of worldviews simultaneously. Thus, when presenting information about climate change, it might make a lot of sense to give prominent billing to greater use of nuclear power or to the development of geoengineering, steps that are identity-affirming for individualists, rather than focus predominantly on carbon-emission limits, a policy that threatens individualists,

2. “Subsidize” hierarchy

Wildavsky believed that signature blind spots of each worldview meant that societies are most likely to prosper when they have a rich inventory of all worldview types. He was worried that in contemporary America, at least, hierarchy was being driven out by “the rise of radical egalitarianism” and so he proposed that hierarchists should be treated with respect and not vilified so that the value society gets from having hierarchical insight remains available. (Mary Douglas too was very anxious about the decline of hierarchy.) Actually, I think conspicuous efforts by egalitarians and individualists to find ways for hierarchical meanings to co-exist with theirs through adroit framing (point 1) is a way to subsidize; it puts a brake on the instinct to attack and also furnishes evidence to persons of hierarchical sensibilities that they are not under attack and thus promotes their full participation in public debate.

3. Puncturing culture-pluralistic ignorance

It turns out that people tend to overestimate how uniform & how strongly held positions on risk are within their cultural group & within opposing ones. This perception feeds on itself: because individuals sense that they will likely be put at odds with their peers if they take a dissenting view, they are less likely to form one and less likely to express it; such reticence amplifies the signal that views are uniform and strongly held, which increases the pressure to conform, etc. Well, one way around this is to promote (particularly in formal deliberative settings) a deliberative norm of acknowledging the “strongest counterargument” to one’s position. Such a norm gives people an “immunity” from sanction within their own group so they voice equivocation and dissent more freely. The voicing of equivocation and dissent mitigates the impression that views are uniform and strongly held; as that impression recedes, so does the pressure to conform . . . voilà!

I’m sure others can think of more ideas. But the point — as the post makes clear — is that Cultural Theory is not just a theory of bias but also a guide to possible debiasing as well. After all, wasn’t that what Douglas & Wildavsky were trying to provide us?

Related articles

Kahan, D. Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature 463, 296-297 (2010).

Sherman, D.K., Nelson, L.D. & Ross, L.D. Naïve Realism and Affirmative Action: Adversaries are More Similar Than They Think. Basic & Applied Social Psychology 25, 275-289 (2003).

Willful Blindness (fourcultures.com)

Image credit: http2007/flickr

BP Oil Spill – why we care

A beach after an oil spill.

Image via Wikipedia

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,
  • etc.

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. Continue reading

L’analyse culturelle de Mary Douglas

- une contribution à la sociologie des institutions.

Here’s a good summary of Mary Douglas‘s Cultural Theory written in French (with an English abstract). It was published in SociologieS in 2006.

Marcel Calvez, « L’analyse culturelle de Mary Douglas : une contribution à la sociologie des institutions », SociologieS [En ligne], Théories et recherches, mis en ligne le 22 octobre 2006, Consulté le 07 septembre 2010. URL : http://sociologies.revues.org/index522.html

A Cultural Theory of Cricket?

Bat & Ball Inn near Hambledon Cricket Club, CC via WikipediaFascinating uses of Mary Douglas’s cultural theory pop up every so often.  The latest relates to the venerable game of cricket.

The hypothesis of cricket blogger downatthirdman is that as the culture of the English downlands shifted from strong grid – strong group Hierarchy towards a weaker grid- weaker group Individualism in the Eighteenth century, so the game of cricket became an ideal carrier of the new values.

Cricket’s mix of team work, rule formalism and recognition of individual prowess (earned status as opposed to ascribed status) was exactly suited for the times. It’s certainly an interesting idea.

“As the requirements of the social structure changed so the culture responded in the type of rituals (including games) needed to reinforce the system. Cricket with its mixture of team work and individualism exactly met the need. Its time had come.”

You can read more at Chalk and cheese: towards a cultural theory of cricket.

And there’s a second instalment here, with some great pictures: The cradle of cricket was an old fashioned car boot sale.

Given the recent match fixing scandal that has engulfed international cricket in recent weeks I can’t help wondering whether a similar analysis could be made of the current situation.  One way of looking at corruption in professional sport might be to see it as an over-emphasis on competitive Individualism, in which rule-following is a hindrance to financial success and the winners are the ones who get away with it.

Acknowledging our own biases

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.

But…

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.

Now read:

some recent applications of Mary Douglas’s theories to contemporary concerns.

Interview with Mary Douglas.

Don’t stop believing – purity, danger and Glee

Germ-Free Adolescents by Daniel Trilling in the New Statesman, looks at our ideas of purity and ritual in relation to the way the TV series Glee depicts teenagers. He makes use of the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s views on dirt. Adolescents can be seen as ‘matter out of place’, a mixing of kinds (child/adult monster). Moving swiftly to another sanitized and ordered musical number is much safer, it seems, than acknowledging  the ambiguity.

‘If uncleanliness is matter out of place, we must approach it through order. Uncleanliness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained. The same principle applies throughout. Furthermore, it involves no special distinction between primitives and moderns: we are all subject to the same rules.’ (Purity and Danger 1966: 53)

‘In the primitive culture the rule of patterning works with greater force and more total comprehensiveness. With the moderns it applies to disjointed, separate areas of existence.’ (Ibid.)

Interview with Mary Douglas.