One morning the villagers look up from their houses to see very clearly that the dam has suddenly burst and a huge quantity of flood water is incontrovertibly rushing down the valley towards the defenceless settlement.
It has all happened so fast there is no way of stopping it. And no-one is doubting the reality of the predicament: the village is about to be entirely consumed by the raging flood.
So far, so certain. The facts are there to be seen by all. So, given this, why doesn’t everyone do the same thing? Surely the best course of action is obvious.
The theory of Four Cultures suggests that even when the facts are clearly known, there are four main ways people interpret their environment. These ‘cultural biases’ give clear pointers as to what should be done and, particularly, how things should be organised. And they are in conflict with one another.
Individualism operates by the maxim “It’s every one for themselves”. Some villagers will rush out and drive off, hoping to save their skins. If they’re canny, they’ll spare a moment to make a buck out of selling someone a lift. As they leave, they’re already thinking of the endless rebuilding opportunities…
Hierarchy works on the basis of order and control: “Women and children first!” is the motto. Follow the leader is a favoured strategy for evacuation. There is a silver lining to this cloud: at least now everyone knows who’s in charge.
Egalitarianism despises both of these approaches and says: “All for one and one for all”. We’re all in this together, and we must all help one another. While the dam-burst is the terrible disaster that could have been predicted years ago, there is at least a warm feeling to see everyone pulling together at last.
Lastly, Fatalism says “Just my luck!” and entails either sitting back and waiting to drown since there’s nothing anyone can do anyway, or else opportunistically leaving by the easiest means possible, as long as it’s not too much effort. For fatalists, this is just the latest in the long line of freak ‘accidents’ that we call life.
Even when the evidence is clear and unchallenged, we still have four very different strategies available for action and for organisation.
The claim of the Four Cultures is that this, in essence, is what we see happening all day, every day, everywhere we look. But each of the four cultures is trying hard to stop us from seeing the other three as realistic, relevant or possible. We can give in to this pressure and live inside the prison house of just one of the cultures, or we can resist their monopolising claims on us and recognise that we always have more degrees of freedom to act than might at first appear possible – whatever the facts of the matter.
So much for the parable.
Charles Tilly’s book, Why? (2006) is an insightful analysis of how real people make sense of and explain the events unfolding around them, and seek ways of taking meaningful action, even when, as almost always in real life, the facts aren’t fully known.
Tilly shows that in explaining events, in stating why, we resort to: conventions, narratives, technical cause-effect accounts and codes or workplace jargon. The contention of the Four Cultures analysis would be that in each of these four discourse types, the four cultural biases may be discerned. Great as Tilly’s work is, it still needs the insights of the Four Cultures to complete it.