The Dam Bursts

credit: mandj98Imagine a village nestled in a valley below a large dam.

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.

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4 thoughts on “The Dam Bursts

  1. Perhaps we all operate in one of these four ways but I don’t think any of us are so caught up in any single mode to be incapable of seeing the merits of the other. If you’re a member of a gang that is turning violent you may decide to “go your own way”. If you are trying to build a new company for personal profit you may see merit in a collective effort. There is a time and a place for working with those around you and a time and a place for taking a solo stand. Is the individual who agrees to lead a group acting on their individuality or on their collectivist instincts?

    For me the major issue in regards to the bursting dam is should we be free to decide how we defend our life and property. In other words the means are (in my book at least) of primary consideration. Should we decide freely or should we be forced into a given course of action. If you or I wish to leave on my our own should we be forced to stay and help? Or if I want to stay and defend the villiage should I be forced to leave for my own safety?

    Life is about both means and ends. Both freedom and utility. I want people to be free to find utility. Not unfree so they can be utilised.

    1. Thanks Terje – and welcome! You’re right of course. The locus of the four cultures isn’t really in the individual. This is a social theory about social patterns, not a psychological theory about people’s brains (although there is clearly a link since people’s brains build the social structures). The dam burst as an illustration fails to make this clear, I realise. I’ve depicted the cultures as individual responses, when really they should be seen as social structures that encourage people to behave like this. For instance, the hierarchical actor would benefit greatly from a pre-existing context that has already identified the village’s ‘chain of command’. You notice that the Individualist escaped by car. This might be seen as an example of an Individualist technology encouraging an Individualist culture (driving-as-freedom).
      I’d like to comment on one thing you said: ‘we should be free to defend our life and property.’ There are many examples of situations where people have sacrificed both in the service of a ‘greater’ cause. The theory of Four Cultures helps explain how this could be ‘rational’, even when many would see it as ‘irrational’.

  2. I have sacrificed in the name of a greater cause. At personal cost I have participated in Australias embryonic freedom movement. It has cost me money, time and on occasion it has impacted on precious relationships. It may be irrational if the self is defined extremely narrowly but I don’t know anybody that actually believes that, at least not based on revealed preferences. Those libertarians that I know (and it is quite a number these days) that you might call individualists, or who want a culture you might call individualism, are not narrow people.

    The essence of individualism is the locus of sovereignty not the nature of participation. Individualism says that individuals should be free from coercion except in circumstances of self defence. It doesn’t mean we should operate alone or that we should be uncharitable. And it makes no generalised exception towards state based coercion (although usually some specific concessions in practice).

    I think culture is extremely important to understanding the nature of both individuals and society in general. However in my view it seems that you are not really demonstrating an understanding of individualism.

    On a separate note I think your blog should have some form of comment log on the main page. That way returning visitors can know where the ongoing dialogue is happening. After all we are social animals.

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