Posts Tagged ‘sociology’
Fourcultures has previously reviewed the work of Perri 6 , Professor of social policy at Nottingham Trent University. The Institutional Dynamics of Culture (which he edited with Gerald Mars) remains the most important compendium of sources on Mary Douglas’s cultural theory.
His latest book is Explaining Political Judgement, which looks to be a very thorough explanation of the relevance of Cultural Theory to the kinds of decisions made during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and to the social sciences more generally.
“Explaining political judgement” lays out a full specification of a neo-Durkheimian institutional theory of political judgement, emphasising its causal mechanisms as much as its typology. It argues that political judgement is best understood as a form of thought style, and it proposes a set of measures for capturing thought styles in political decision-making. These styles are best explained, it argues, by the work of informal institutions shaping the ways in which decision-makers are organised. Those institutions shape judgement by quotidian ritual processes in meetings and exchange of memoranda etc. To make an illustrative case for the theory’s promise, plausibility and for its comparative merits over rival explanations in the social sciences, the book re-examines the evidence about decision-making by the US, Soviet and Cuban governments in the period immediately before and during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The case has been chosen to set the argument in direct comparative relationship with one of the great classics of the social sciences, Graham Allison’s “Essence of decision” (2nd edn, 1999, with Philip Zelikow). “Explaining political judgement” concludes with arguments about the prospects for the neo-Durkheimian approach generally.
Margaret Heffernan has written a book on willful blindness [excerpt] and there’s a great article in New Statesman. Here’s just one of the telling quotations Heffernan uses to illustrate her case. It comes from the economist Paul Krugmann, speaking of the blind spots in his own economic modelling:
“I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that the stuff that I stressed in the models is a less important story than the things I left out because I couldn’t model them.” [Paul Krugmann]
We all risk seeing only part of the story – the part we want to see. It’s really important to notice this and try to do something about it. I’ve written before now that Cultural Theory is one attempt at trying not to fool yourself. It seeks to understand how our social contexts effectively do some of our thinking for us. They make some thoughts easy and others hard. They make some things easy to see and render others invisible. Margaret Heffernan cites the example of Richard Fuld, the former head of Lehman Brothers. Before that company’s collapse Fuld would get to work by helicopter and chauffeured limo in such a way as to avoid seeing anyone. The point is that while he may have made the bubble in which he lived, nevertheless the bubble also made him.
The subtitle to Willful Blindness is “Why we ignore the obvious at our peril” . Surely part of an answer is that the obvious is less obvious than it should be. It is our institutions, not just our brains, that make it so.
This blog, by Daniel Little, chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, I like.
As mentioned in a Fourcultures post on how to beat the odds and escape your fate, Hood wrote:
“Contrived randomness denotes control of individuals… by more or less deliberately making their lives unpredictable in some way”.
Hood et al., eds (2004) Controlling Modern Government. Variety, Commonality and Change. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Press. p.8.
And as eagle-eyed readers of Fourcultures will observe, this scheme of control is modeled closely on the wider typology of grid-group cultural theory. You can compare the diagram above with this diagram of Cultural Theory to note the consistency.
Mutuality – Egalitarian
Oversight – Hierarchical
Competition – Individualist
Contrived Randomness – Fatalist
I’m interested in Hood’s work because he is one of the few proponents of Cultural Theory who recognize the salience of what may be termed Fatalist Activism – the idea that the Fatalist cultural bias is just as active as the other three biases and constantly seeks to shape our institutions.
This work is very useful for understanding all kinds of social contexts and institutional arrangements. Fourcultures has previously shown how the four cultural biases can be marshalled to develop a fourfold typology of educational equity. Hood et al.’s four types of control can be added to this kind of analysis. In the next post I’ll show how Cultural Theory and especially the concept of fatalist activism is highly relevant for the specific case of public policy on gambling.
Add only this: it’s not actually very easy to be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Few people have ever met anyone who has been (militant atheists have been trying it recently, with limited success). This is because exclusion is a very uncharacteristic measure for a hierarchical organisation. It sits rather better with Egalitarian organisations which have no other sanctions against persistent dissenters. Indeed, for hierarchies, exclusion makes almost no sense, since one thereby excludes the wrongdoer from punishment. Note that in describing excommunication theological commentators sometimes refer to it as being of medicinal benefit. It supposedly encourages the wrongdoer to realise the seriousness of their offence and thence to repent and return to the fold.
So, far from being another indication of the terrible hierarchy at its terrible worst, as some commentators have suggested, the restatement of the Church’s willingness to excommunicate those attempting the ordination of a woman is really more evidence of just how far Egalitarianism has made inroads into that most hierarchical of hierarchies. Lacking other more coercive sanctions, the Church is reduced to fighting Egalitarianism with its own weapon, exclusion.
But the excluded who won’t repent don’t merely vanish. These days they turn up in America where they take a largely competitive, Individualist approach to religion: if you can’t join them, beat them. Does it seem unlikely that a small group of women could change the church’s longstanding practice? Perhaps these women and their supporters might take a little encouragement from the story of Mary Mackillop, the Nineteenth century Australian nun who was excommunicated for inciting disobedience. In October 2010 she’ll be made Australia’s first saint.
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.