Grid-Group Cultural Theory: a way of trying not to fool yourself?

complaints departmentTwo recent blog comments  are critical of the way I have presented grid-group cultural theory’s four cultures.

At journalist George Monbiot’s Guardian blog, TheNuclearOption says:

FourCultures: Astrology at least gives one 12 choices, rather than limiting it to four. People are wild chaotic creatures who at any time can flap their wings and turn into a Black Swan!

Meanwhile, over at economist John Quiggins’ blog, KieranO says:

Fourcultures, i like what Richard Feynman says ….
“Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

These four cultures that you describe, simply find and fool themselves. Science is about discovery.

To take the first criticism first, why are there only four cultural solidarities – why not two, twelve or more?

The theory I’m calling ‘four cultures’ – grid-group cultural theory –  derives from anthropologist  Mary Douglas’s dissatisfaction with the prevailing (and contradictory) two-fold typologies of social interaction, such as those used by Tonnies, Durkheim and Maine. By describing social behaviour along two axes instead of one she found she could make more sense of anthropological data. Since then researchers in other fields (risk analysis, organisational theory, policy studies, law and several more) have found her typology helpful to clarify their data and organise their research questions. Given that there are two axes being used -‘ grid’ and’ group’ – there are only four extreme, or stable, positions to be taken. A different classificatory system could probably come up with one or more additional axes to create more ‘choices’. But are any more actually needed? The claim of grid-group cultural theory is that it can account for all positions actually observed, without needing more axes.  In other words it is parsimonious. Interestingly it has been possible to map all of the prevailing two-fold and three-fold sociological schema onto grid-group’s four-fold classification.

The comparison with astrology is interesting but misplaced. The grid-group classification does not rely on an incontestable set of claims about the influence of the planets. Instead it asks for observations about the degree of group boundedness in a given population (‘group’) and the degree of social stratification (‘grid’). These are in principle measurable. However, to avoid being labelled a ‘pseudoscience’, I think more work needs to be done on the empirical basis of the theory. Without this it will remain a heuristic tool, rather than having demonstrated explanatory or predictive power. But quite a bit of this work has already taken place, at Yale Law School, for example.

The idea that ‘people are wild chaotic creatures’ is also interesting. Although we might support the concept of free will, this doesn’t mean I could just  choose to speak Chinese any time I like. I’m free to make up a brand new language, or several, but if I want to be understood, if I want to relate to someone else, I have to speak a known language – one known to me, and to those with whom I wish to communicate. There are thousands of languages, but I only know a handful of them. In a similar way, if I wish to relate to others, to be a social being,  grid-group cultural theory suggests there are only four stable ways of doing this. I can and do choose, but only between these four. If that seems a tight fit, remember that most sociological typologies only allow for two options (such as ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘mechanical’ versus ‘organic’, and so on). Four options seems like a marked improvement.

The second criticism, quoting Richard Feynman, is one I can agree with. In fact I don’t see it as a criticism. ‘Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself’ is a great working definition. It comes from Richard Feynman’s 1964 lecture, “What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society,” at the Galileo Symposium in  Italy.

It would be nice if everyone assembled the facts dispassionately, then decided what they mean. But we just don’t operate like that. We decide what to look at first on the basis of our pre-existing commitments. Facts and values are all mixed up. As psychologist Daniel Gilbert says,

The bottom line is this: the brain and the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants (Gilbert 2006:167).

In my view, grid-group cultural theory is a way of untangling this mix-up. If we choose how we see the world, including which ‘facts’ to accept, what are the ways in which we do the seeing? Are there endless variations on the theme of self-deceiving, or are there finite patterns to our prejudices? If so, what are they? Gilbert again:

Distorted views of reality are made possible by the fact that experiences are ambiguous – that is, they can be credibly viewed in many ways. (Gilbert 2006:171)

The contribution of grid-group cultural theory is to suggest that we all hold ‘distorted views of reality’, and they are not necessarily wrong, just partial; and that ‘many ways’ is in practice just four main ways.

KieranO writes: “These four cultures that you describe, simply find and fool themselves.”

The point I would make here is that they do indeed find and fool themselves, and even ‘the assured results of science’ are far from immune from this. This works at at least two levels. First, the bare facts of science are themselves disputed. Second, we argue about what the bare facts actually mean. I think grid-group cultural theory enables us at least to glimpse the contours of these kinds of argument.

In this post, I’ve barely scraped the surface of the possible complaints against grid-group cultural theory, with its typology of four cultures. If you have any more criticisms, I’d love to hear them.

6 thoughts on “Grid-Group Cultural Theory: a way of trying not to fool yourself?

  1. In Cultural theory, considering only “four” positions means that there are, like in a logical square, two main opposed principles and two mediations. The two main principles are “individualism” and “hierarchism”, because the first one is “empty” and the second one “full”. The two other positions are mediations, because they are “half-full/half-empty”.
    Why has this difference between principles and mediations a strong anthropological meaning ? Because it reflects a cultural universal constant : Human beings constantly think and act through categories implied by langage. “Categories” just mean (as the greek etymology points it) making reality “falling” into closed entities, which existence is only guaranteed by contradiction, or systems of contradictions. For example, there is no “Rich” is there is no “Poor”, and reversedly.
    We can assume that, in the human historical destiny, very strong, pragmatical oppositions have passed through various contexts. According to me, it is the case of close and friendly relationships in the very small group (not to be confused with a sect) as opposed to societal necessities (alliances between groups, for instance). In our immense societies, this opposition is dramatic, and even tragical.
    I am quite aware this opposition does not not strictly reflect the douglasian “Individualist/Hierarchist” line, but it helps to understand that a small number of very strong contradictions can last over eons. But, they could not last so long if they were not “mediated”, and somehow relaxed by different styles of action between them. Two important styles appear immediatly and constantly in order to “moderate” the first “clash” : the first mediation is more “metaphorical”, (artistic or religious), the second is based on authority of pure regulation. Again, these mediations do not exactly fit the sectarian/enclavist diagonal in the douglasian model. But they allow everybody to understand that, in every society, believing in a communautarian ideal is not exactly the way of reconciling individuals and groups that is choosen by a pure legal or organizational constraint. So, mediations are at the same time immediatly and constantly necessary, and very different in style.
    That is my way of understanding and interpreting a cultural theory, and maintaining it in front of objections pointing at the small number it is using. “Two” is the destiny of the speaking primate, because speaking always means breaking reality in opposite directions, and ‘”four” is only the beginning of plurality, using mediations to make the human world tolerable. Indeed,”four” is not a limitation : it is the principle representing the fact that human positions must be symmetrical as far as they want to be respected. Equality, here, means “equity”. For instance, a “well ordered society” (to quote Rawls) should be, in a cultural theory perspective, a social conversational field where there would be a balance between communautarian, societal, litigant and friendly/homely ways of building up social links. Please, think about this extension of douglasian concepts as an opportunity… to keep them alive and more recognized; it could also be useful to call for a pluralistic global society, as opposed to.. a world super-state .

  2. In response to denis duclos here: They are not mediations, because grid and group are not the same thing, neither are they part of the same thing. Full Grid does not mean anything for the Group, no Group does not mean anything for the Grid.

    I noticed this myself down here in Kenya, when studying witchcraft. On a two-fold model, both ends of the axis were both “empty” at the same time.

    You can compare it with Claude Levi-Strauss binary oppositions, where each pair of oppositions form a unity to which there is another opposition.

    There is a need for a second axis, to accurately describe how people perceive the world. If people are neither libertarians nor communitarians, which is the opposition to these two? Because, in a four-fold view, you have four oppositions, not two.

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