On the relationship between behaviour and context in Cultural Theory

In reply to Matthew Taylor’s  question over at his RSA blog:

“how can it be true both that there are some social environments which encourage particular attitudes and behaviours (which could be said broadly to fit an egalitarian outlook) while, at the same time, in relation to any specific problem or decision, a set of conflicting responses (of which egalitarianism is only one) will emerge?”

1) Scale is crucial. Just as there isn’t a single rationality but four, neither is there a single scale. At one scale of operation, one of the four cultures may be dominant, and may seem to be a good fit with the landscape, but at other scales other cultural biases may be a better fit. See the work of ecologist Buzz Holling on this.

2) Similarly, time is also crucial. The social-ecological model of Holling and others in the Resilience Alliance suggests that ecological succession has a social counterpart. What appears optimal at one moment will become less optimal as time changes the environment, so that alternative problems arise, leading to alternative solutions and alternative institutions.

3) The ability to defect is also crucial. I have been quite taken with a cellular automata problem called the density classification problem. In short this seems to suggest that even in simple mechanistic systems, total knowledge is impossible. This means there is always room for the dominant answers to be wrong and for defectors from the main view to get it more nearly correct. Given that a) social-ecological systems are far more complex than cellular automata and b) evolution has fine-tuned human responses to problem solving, it seems possible that human society is an environment which rewards a dominant viewpoint without punishing too severely a minority of dissidents.


5 thoughts on “On the relationship between behaviour and context in Cultural Theory

  1. With scale in mind I find the concept of niche construction useful here too.

    And useful at the two levels.

    One is at the individual level where despite reality biting hard, the individual holds to their truth/bias/ideology regardless. This indicates that there must be a pay-off in holding-true regardless of the outcome to that individual. There is probably more than one pay-off, but in reference to niche construction I’d like to suggest that by holding-firm that social space or territory is exercised and maintained like breeding stock in a drought. This could be an example of altruism to those who share genes but who are not directly genetically related, and mediated by culture alone and not just, say, smell (of kin).

    So then at the group level there are processes, which allow that space to be maintained in a time of reality biting (the drought) that particular bias/culture. This is also niche construction by individuals but in aggregate, in a competitive contesting aggregate which allows the currently wrong to survive.

    This is a meta-niche construction, it can maintain all biases/fourcultures and their expression through time regardless of which currently and temporarily has the best fit. It must also limit attempts for any bias to dominate (because if any bias takes over the entire meta-niche, it’s possible the ‘niche’ will collapse entirely when reality prefers a different fit. Especially when the search for stability leads to change>>> succession.) (Neandertals anyone?).

    It’s all rather fractal.

    To repeat, the individual who seeks to defend their worldview is attempting to built a secure niche for themselves in the social landscape, for we are political animals and in a polity the real world is at once removed from our concerns. However this ‘deluded’ removal, this virtual world the individual creates (or inherits), allows, in its interaction between individuals and their tribes, a larger contested cultural space. A space created in being contested (Fight Club) and maintained by it’s contestable ‘nature’. It’s the best meta-fit we can come up with– for the best fit of the four cultures is all of them, and none. It’s fractal.

    So the liberal project then becomes, if we are personally and bodily biased to one of the fourcultures, and we feel our ongoing survival depends on our defense of that bias, how does one avoid chauvinism, that indulgent will-to-power, of one’s preferred fourculture culture. Classic liberalism sought to get over the wars of religion, when worldviews were sacred, through tolerance and forbearance, like the way one can tolerate a poison. But how are we to avoid the culture wars that may cycle our societies into great rifts and collapse independently of real world forces, and actually mean the sky is falling.

    RE: Defection, a sudden musing
    makes me suspect the isolationist/fatalists could be the grease that keep the whole thing moving along, as they don’t care if they defect or not, “it’s all the same to me” is this why Mary Douglas said they don’t count (in Thought Styles, thus the “isolationist” label), because, in fact, contrarywise, they do so count (invisibly).

    Niche construction basically puts group selection</a. to bed, depite what E.O. Wilson et al says recently.

    1. Meika, thanks for this comment. I found it fascinating, which, partly is why it’s taken me so long to respond. (The other reason is a total computer melt down). Anyway, I’m intrigued with the niche construction material, which I hadn’t come across. I’d agree with the authors of the book that this area is worthy of greater study, but can’t help wondering whether it really does constitute a new way of looking at evolution. My concern is really just an uneasiness, but can be summarised like this: Standard evolution takes the environment as a given, but many species actively change their environment. Well, yes, OK, but for evolution to take place surely it doesn’t matter how environmental change is caused, only the consequences. It’s still effectively a given, whether caused by uncontrollable external events or caused by a species’ own behaviour. In other words, for most (all?) species, their own behaviour is also a given, and therefore can be characterised as just another part of the environment. We humans like to think we’re different and have free will etc, that our own behavioural choices make a difference to our lives. No doubt this is true experientially at a personal level, but at the evolutionary level, we just do what we do and can’t help it. Yes, niche construction adds an extra feedback loop in the system diagram, but I wonder whether that alters the overall result. Clearly I have to think/read about this a bit more. I don’t think it puts group selection to bed. I think it could go either way. But there are probably other reasons for contradicting standard group selection.
      Having said all that, there surely is an important and little understood link between the human and the natural sciences that cultural theory may contribute something to – and thanks for making me think about it some more. My hunch is that grid-group might be open to game-theoretical modelling, and that this would then offer something to evolutionary theory, in the way that Axelrod’s evolution of cooperation did.

  2. It’s possible that group selection exists only as a ghost, i.e. more apparent than a real process, e.g. trying to explain “race” as opposed to accepting that arbitrary population groups have their own historical characteristics, which, if so, I suspect it’s ghosting niche construction processes. That’s my bet.

    If we consider an animal and it’s landscape (or umwelt) as literally a composition (stealing terminology but not methodology from Henri Bergson), i.e. an animal composes it’s body and its landscape from the substrate of the terrain (which will include others’ unwelten and landscapes, or bodies as landscapes if you are a parasite), then we can begin to see that niche construction is as ‘vital’ to an animal as it’s actual body. This landscape will include members of it’s own species, i.e. those animals who share a lifestyle, in competition or co-operation. If so the landscape part of the composition will be just as subject to natural selection as the body.

    (Group selection, I assume, proposes that an aggregation of bodies can be the subject of darwinian evolution, but I cannot see how.)

    If the ‘landscape’ (rising sea levels under global warming kiling off stockmarket builders around the world because they are nearly all at sea level) is subject to natural selection as the animal’s body is, then niche construction, where it includes cultural transmission of “techniques”, styles, or methods, will also be subject to natural selection.

    But not the styles themselves, nor perhaps event the facility for the styles, but the ability to negotiate different styles will be selected upon.

    Humans (recent hominids generally?) are the only animals known to occupy more than one ecological niche. They did this socially, they did it by somehow negotiating roles (hunting AND gathering) and once they did it, they could do it again in another environment, and then use those new landscapes as the substrate/terrains of other new compositions of animals(including groups)and their landscapes (getting fractal again). Except no new forms of bodies were required.


    Group selection has nowhere to go on all this. Ants are allocate functional roles in a nest but a nest does not occupy more than one niche as far as I know.

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