Don’t stop believing – purity, danger and Glee

Germ-Free Adolescents by Daniel Trilling in the New Statesman, looks at our ideas of purity and ritual in relation to the way the TV series Glee depicts teenagers. He makes use of the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s views on dirt. Adolescents can be seen as ‘matter out of place’, a mixing of kinds (child/adult monster). Moving swiftly to another sanitized and ordered musical number is much safer, it seems, than acknowledging  the ambiguity.

‘If uncleanliness is matter out of place, we must approach it through order. Uncleanliness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained. The same principle applies throughout. Furthermore, it involves no special distinction between primitives and moderns: we are all subject to the same rules.’ (Purity and Danger 1966: 53)

‘In the primitive culture the rule of patterning works with greater force and more total comprehensiveness. With the moderns it applies to disjointed, separate areas of existence.’ (Ibid.)

Interview with Mary Douglas.


Levi-Strauss for the masses?

I’ve been enjoying Logicomix, a graphic novel about the quest of Bertrand Russell for the logical foundations of mathematics. So it was with delight that I stumbled upon a Claude Levi-Strauss comic in the Financial Times, produced by the same team of writers and artists – Apostolos Doxiadis, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna.

I’m also looking forward to reading Prof Marco Verweij’s paper on the links between Levi-Strauss and Cultural Theory, which he’s presenting at the Midwest Political Science Association Conference in April. [He’s the co-editor of an excellent book of what I’ll call ‘applied cultural theory‘.]

Hat tip to Culture Matters.

Detroit: a city fit for superheroes?


Chatting with my young son this evening it occured to us that superheroes require certain types of cities, certain kinds of urban form, in order to thrive. Spiderman needs tall buildings closely packed in order to leap between them. The Hulk needs impressive edifices to knock down. Only certain types of urban form are fit for superheroes.

There’s a new documentary about the rise and fall and return of Detroit. The director of Requiem for Detroit? , Julien Temple, was fascinated by the idea that Detroit was at the leading edge of American urban for many years, leading the rest of America into the future. Now Detroit is doing it again, showing us what the first post-American city looks like.

Will it be a city fit for humans?

Image Credits: Daquella manera/Flickr; laughlin/Flickr; walid.hassanein/Flickr

Detroit statue

downtown detroit

Fresh Thinking on Systemic Risk

Tyrol danger signFresh thinking on systemic risk:

Levin and Sugihara on the ecology of finance

George Sugihara at the Resilience Alliance

complex systems: ecology for bankers

New dimensions for understanding systemic risk

extending non-linear analysis to short ecological time series

Image credit: Flickr/Katz2110

Culture and the Science of Climate Change

George Monbiot at the Guardian has finally begun to take account of Cultural Theory as a possible explanation for why people either believe or ‘refuse’ to believe in climate change. He cites an article in Nature by Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project.

Prof Kahan says:

‘we need a theory of risk communication that takes full account of the effects of culture on our decision-making.’

However, Monbiot claims the cultural biases in CT don’t fit his particular case, since he sees himself as an Egalitarian who has unwillingly been put in the invidious situation of defending scientists against their detractors, many of whom are themselves Egalitarians.

But a closer look at Monbiot’s article reveals that he has in mind an ‘ideal type’ of scientist, who precisely fits the Egalitarian conception of how scientists should behave. There are three key characteristics.

  • First, Egalitarian scientists should do no evil. Weaponising anthrax is out, as is the development of terminator genes in food crops. A non-Egalitarian argument can be made for both these activities, but Monbiot isn’t interested in that.
  • Second, Egalitarian scientists should produce freely accessible knowledge. Locking it away in pay-to-access journals isn’t on, and all well-meaning scientists should act together to end the monopolisation of knowledge the journal publishers have created for themselves (actually I think it’s a cartel, but we’ll let that pass).
  • Third, and most importantly, the kind of scientific knowledge Monbiot as an Egalitarian is especially interested in is what he thinks scientists should be producing impartially: hard evidence of major threats to civilization. A fact, on this view, is something that has the power to bring the group closer together and promote group behaviour. What self-evidently guarantees the veracity of such facts is the classic Egalitarian resort to ‘consensus’.

Taken together, these features of ideal science make it clear that the Egalitarian worldview describes Monbiot’s position to a tee.

He asks how it is possible to persuade people who just don’t want to be persuaded – and has no answer. The answer, from a cultural Theory perspective, is fairly straightforward.

People and institutions with different cultural biases create, fund, support and pay attention to four very different types of evidence. What matters then is to produce and shape a variety of evidence, not only the Egalitarian evidence that Monbiot privileges as the only kind of truth.

Here are some suggestions: Continue reading “Culture and the Science of Climate Change”

“People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook”

…according to law professor Don Braman, that is. NPR has an interview with members of the Cultural Cognition Project, who have been demonstrating experimentally that people’s climate change beliefs are strongly linked to their worldview.

It’s intuitively obvious that our views, opinions and beliefs are linked together a bit like constellations in the night sky, but when it comes to working out what exactly it is that connects them, it’s quite hard to come up with a viable answer. Now it seems the pattern is becoming clearer.