The Institutional Dynamics of Culture – a review

For those with a serious interest in Grid-group cultural theory, an indispensable anthology has recently been published in two volumes extending to 1134 pages.

Part of Ashgate’s International Library of Essays in Anthropology, The Institutional Dynamics of Culture is edited by Perri 6 and Gerald Mars (professors of social policy and anthropology respectively) and includes 52  of the most important essays from the field published between 1980 and 2004.

The first volume groups together essays covering Theory, Methods, Politics and History, while the second volume covers Business, work and organisations, Environment, technology and risk, Crime and, lastly, Consumption.

Some of these are reprints of leading chapters in seminal books or reports (for instance Mary Douglas’s essay ‘Risk and Blame’, from her 1992 monograph of the same name). But on the whole the book is a careful herding together of more or less dispersed papers from a wide variety of scholarly and professional journals – a fact with in itself demonstrates the sheer breadth of dissemination of the theory across disciplinary boundaries and its potential and actual application in a wide variety of settings.

But the entirely laudable breadth of intellectual reach of The Institutional Dynamics of Culture does present a few questions.

First, what exactly is it that links all these ideas together? Does the appellation neo-Durkheimian, favoured by co-editor Perri 6 (see Vol. 1, chs 6 & 9), do full justice to a theory which has suffered somewhat for going under a number of different monickers over several decades (Mamadouh 1999)? That the same could be asked of the term, institutional theory of culture, foregrounded here, demonstrates that the naming issue – and by implication the coherence issue – has not yet gone away.

Second, while the breadth of interests represented in the collection is surely a great strength, there is the age-old danger that a theory of everything ends up explaining nothing (but see Rescher 2000). The collection makes one wonder what grid-group cultural theory can’t explain (c.f. Boudon 1983).

This leads to a question about dissent. The anthology could perhaps have been strengthened by including a section of Critique. There remains no single location where one may consult those cultured despisers of grid-group cultural theory, of whom there are more than a few (Boholm 1996; Sjöberg 1998, for instance).

While the high price of the two volume set is likely to put off all but institutional purchasers, this gathering and sorting of key materials nevertheless represents the most important publication of this type in the field to date. It is likely to prove indispensable to teachers and researchers, as well as to advanced students. That no essays published after 2004 are included in the collection does nothing to detract from this. For making such a diverse and important body of work accessible for the first time in one place, the editors are to be applauded. No doubt this collection will stimulate the further development and application of the grid-group paradigm in social science and beyond.

Perri 6 and Gerald Mars, Eds, (2008 ) The Institutional Dynamics of Culture (2 volumes). London: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-2617-6

A. Boholm (1996) Risk perception and social anthropology: Critique of cultural theory, Ethnos 61 (1-2): 64-84.

Raymond Boudon (1983) Why Theories of Social Change Fail: Some Methodological Thoughts, Public Opinion Quarterly 47:143-160.

Virginie Mamadouh (1999) Grid-Group Cultural Theory: An Introduction, GeoJournal 47(3): 395-409 .

Nicholas Rescher (2000) The Price of an Ultimate Theory, Philosophia Naturalis, 37:1-20.

L. Sjöberg (1998 ) World views, political attitudes, and risk perception. Risk: Health, Safety and Environment, 9: 137-152.

Contents page:

Click to access Institutional_Dynamics_of_Culture_Cont.pdf

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