The meaning of culture

When Glasgow won the honour of hosting the 1990 European City of Culture festival the joke was, Culture? Isn’t that what we’ve got growing on our walls? (from memory,  this was Rab C Nesbitt’s contribution). It wasn’t far off the mark though. I interviewed an amazing woman, Cathy McCormack, who had successfully campaigned for a medical and, yes, cultural recognition that the mould growing in council houses was a contributing factor to Glasgow’s high incidence of heart disease, and that therefore, it shouldn’t be assumed that people with heart disease had brought it upon themselves by eating a poor diet (deep fried mars bars and pizzas notwithstanding).

So culture can mean different things depending on context. I rather like Edgar Schein’s description (1991: 111):

‘Culture can now be defined as a pattern of basic assumptions, invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore is to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems’.

That’s certainly neat, but it’s not necessarily straightforward. I’ve previously mentioned here the meaning of culture, and it should be noted that a well-known study by Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963) identified 164 unique definitions of the term ‘culture’, while van der Post et al. (1997) listed more than 100 dimensions and according to Ott (1989) there were 74 elements of organisational culture.

These references come from a very interesting appraisal of organisational culture in Britain’s National Health Service  which was published online in 2008. From the perspective of Grid-group cultural theory it’s interesting because while the report notes that Cultural Theory has been an influential approach to the study of organisations, it is clear that there is no tool or metric currently available that might allow an organisation like the NHS to be measured in this way. Is this because Grid-Group Cultural Theory isn’t amenable to this kind of use, or is it rather that no one has actually developed such a thing?

Going back to Mary Douglas’s original formulation of her grid-group typology , in Natural Symbols (1970, 2nd edn 1996), it is worth noticing that while she writes of ‘culture’ frequently and unproblematically in her 1996 introduction, she refers to it nowhere at all in her chapter on grid and group. Society, network, social type, typical bias, cosmology – yes. And in Chapter 9 social patterns, world view, social form. Culture, however, no. In those few places in the book where Douglas does mention culture it is entirely in passing, as though we already knew what the term meant. If only. This approach is also evident in Douglas, Mary (1982). “Cultural Bias,” in: Douglas, M.: In the Active Voice, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; 183-254. Here’s a link to a video of Prof Marco Verweij delivering a paper by Mary Douglas at the 2002 Culture and Public Action conference: ‘Traditional Culture, let’s hear no more about it’.

The title of this piece, though not its content, makes me wonder whether we can’t do without the term ‘culture’ in cultural theory, as Douglas actually did in her early descriptions of it. I am not convinced the later use of the term particularly  improved the clarity of the concept. Perhaps, like Rab C Nesbitt, culture is something we can live without.


National Co-ordinating Centre for the National Institute for Health Research Service Delivery and Organisation Programme (NCCSDO) (June 2008). Measuring and Assessing Organisational Culture in the NHS (OC1)

Now for some real culture


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