Acknowledging our own biases

Writing in Risk and Blame: Essays on Cultural Theory,  anthropologist and sociologist Mary Douglas expressed the importance of recognising one’s own biases, the importance of reflexivity.

‘My own preference has emerged as an idealized form of hierarchy. This has always given me to some degree the professional advantage of feeling out of kilter with the times. It gives me a standpoint from which to see that in this 300-year expansionary trend of Western civilization two kinds of cultures have come to dominate, two that are opposed to hierarchy. Today I am arguing that unless we learn to control our cultivated gut response against the idea of hierarchy we will have no choice among models of the good society to counter our long-established predatory, expansionist trend. By sheer default, among cultural forms hierarchy is the rejected Other. We take it for granted that hierarchy will always fall into traps of routinization and censorship; we see its dangers but have no clear model of how it would be if it worked well. Yet hierarchy is the social form that can impose economies, and make constraints acceptable.’ (Douglas 1994:266).

This use of Cultural Theory as a tool for reflexivity is laudable. How does this particular passage make the reader feel – comfortable, or uncomfortable? Perhaps that’s a measure of how far one agrees or disagrees with a hierarchical world view or cultural bias.

Myself, I’m squirming. Especially when Douglas speaks of ‘imposing economies’ and ‘making constraints acceptable’. If these are hierarchy’s trump cards, I’m playing the wrong game. It is not ‘by sheer default’ that the shortcomings of hierarchies have been highlighted. There really are some serious shortcomings.

For the targets of Douglas’s criticism, Egalitarianism and Individualism, it can hardly be said we need more hierarchy, greater bureaucratization, more red tape, a renewed emphasis on distinctions between races, genders and classes, stronger, more ordered leadership. The idea that Egalitarianism is one of the two kinds of cultures that have come to dominate is laughable. If only that were true!

But looking through the four-faceted prism of cultural theory, instead of through the Egalitarian face alone, enables a wider view. This fourfold vision (to quote William Blake, quite out of context) enables an understanding that:

  • the opinions I tend to express are just the sorts of thing I would say, as though they had been scripted in advance;
  • my own cultural preferences have  indeed made great and lasting inroads into Western society, many of which I simply take for granted;
  • if I want to convince people, or connect with them, I need to recognize the seriousness of other perspectives. Other people aren’t stupid or wilfully unobservant. But they may have a different cultural preference with its concomitant axioms and norms.
  • Douglas does have a point about Hierarchy – as we set about destroying the bastions of unearned privilege and discrimination in the name of freedom (the Individualist slogan) and equality (the Egalitarian mantra), we do indeed hardly pause to consider what Hierarchy might look like ‘if it worked well’. Perhaps we should. There’s a warning in Douglas’s work that we may be ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’. Well, maybe, just maybe, we are.


The passage begs a few questions. It’s interesting that Douglas uses her Cultural Theory to characterise an historical trajectory. She is telling a story here about the sweep of centuries. ‘in this 300-year expansionary trend of Western civilization two kinds of cultures have come to dominate, two that are opposed to hierarchy’. It’s highly suggestive, a bit like Habermas’s tale of the detachment of the Lifeworld from the System, or like one of Foucauld’s genealogies. But there’s a need to be careful with such sweeping historical retellings. If the theory offers a perspective to help explain the temporal trajectory of a civilization, one cannot then also work the other way around and use the history to ‘prove’ or ‘demonstrate’ the theory…

Then there’s the question of balance. Durkheim and the founders of modern Sociology imagined society to be in equilibrium. Many economists still do. They worried about the forces that threatened to unsettle this eirenic scene. Underlying Douglas’s conception of society too is a concern that things have become unbalanced somehow. With Hierarchy in retreat, what could possibly counterbalance ‘our long-established predatory, expansionist trend’? Well, one answer would be: nothing! We’re all going to hell in a handbasket! But who says society actually is a balanced system? It’s all just a metaphor. So we could as well say, as some now do, that the social world can be better characterised as being in dynamic disequilibrium, that tension and unbalance is the order of the day. If this were the case, the demise of Hierarchy, or one of the other cultural biases, is just the kind of thing we might expect to happen from time to time, and yes, it would be unsettling, but not necessarily disastrous. It’s hard to think about this, since our cultural biases predispose us to privilege different trajectories. Hierarchy would of course prefer an equilibrium that required careful management, while Individualism might be more enthused by a bit, or even a lot, of creative destruction.

Mary Douglas may have been ‘wrong’ in the sense that her position in favour of an ‘idealised form of hierarchy’ may be critiqued by those who don’t share it. But she was surely very right to recognise that we do have cultural biases, and that recognising them and owning them is the first step to transcending them.

Now read:

some recent applications of Mary Douglas’s theories to contemporary concerns.

Interview with Mary Douglas.

5 thoughts on “Acknowledging our own biases

  1. ‘Balance’ is a human construct. I’d call it a bias but as all thought styles will use the concept in criticising the perceived overweening grab-for-total-control of the other thought styles, its construction is probably more a result of the interaction of those biases. An outcome, which possibly allows the body politic to move forward. After all, balance is a metaphor that comes naturally enough to animals, bilateral creatures that walk, run swim. Even if it does not exist outside of that human experience, in ‘nature’ itself.

    Somewhere I read on this blog that re-naming ‘hierarchical’ as ‘positional’ would be a better sell to it’s fourculture critics. Certainly a place for everything and everything in it’s place can be hierarchial in its pure form, but there’s no reason why inclination in favour of a ‘positional’ bias cannot include equal places. Place is place after all.

    It’s simply that ‘hierarchists’ have, through their ability to colonise social movement through time, refined ‘positional’ cultural artefacts (rituals, rites of passage, social standing) so as to be perceived as only representing hierarchy, for good or ill. And not anything else. No wonder egalitarian iconoclasts like to smash them (China’s cultural revolution anyone?)

    The quoted blocks make me squirm too. But as I am married to someone who is very ‘positional’ I can see and appreciate a different outcome. My partner likes rituals, that everything be in its allotted place (apparently I am a ‘randomiser’ in the kitchen cupboards), a sense of orderliness in day to day activities, as well as year to year family celebrations (Easter, birthdays, Christmas) while not being at all religious or even conservative, but is open and committed to consensus decision making in many areas of her professional work.

    I’m a recovering egalitarian.

    There’s no reason why egalitarians/individualists cannot help create positional social structures in balancing negotiations with more ‘hierarchically’ biased people. They are just less likely to, as well as being more likely to view any ‘positional’ elements as ‘hierarchical’. These creates a positive feedback loop as more ‘devotedly hierarchical’ positionals seek to purify all social structures as hierarchically hierarchic.

    By appreciating the strong grid-group bias I can accept a ‘positional’ element in my life. This ‘Positional’ thinking, as a compromise (in our house) can be a complex balancing act. And so the need for balance comes before our biases I suspect. But we all walk with a limp, which we are inclined, necessarily, to make a virtue of, if not sanctify as the holiest, cleanest way to walk.

    The quotes above are examples of a simple tribal indulgence which we all easily give in to (especially when absolute power corrupts absolutely). I try not to do it now, but *cough* I am still misunderstood *cough*.

    1. Meika, thank you – I found this very illuminating and it gets to the heart of what I was groping after. What could a non-hierarchical take on hierarchy possibly make of it – if it could only get over seeing it as entirely bad? Douglas got the idea of the positional culture from Basil Bernstein, who contrasted the positional family with the personal family. In the former, a child asking why must I do this? gets an answer ‘in terms of relative position’ (Douglas 1996:26). Douglas clearly thought this had some merit, and cited with disdain the problems of Jean-Paul Sartre’s youth, where he had no such structure and so ‘there was no society organised in general categories of age, sex and hierarchy in which his developing role could be seen as necessary to some overall pattern’ (34). The result (documented in ‘Words’, 1967) was Sartre’s distinctive form of anomie. In the personal family ‘the child is freed from a system of rigid positions, but made a prisoner of a system of feelings and abstract principles’ (29).
      When I visited villages in The Eastern Cape of South Africa I was told that the boys live together with the dogs untill they are old enough to become men. They are treated as dogs, and in some senses they really are dogs. This seems like an extreme version of a positional family structure of the sort Bernstein described. It’s possible that this boy = dog formula forms part of a prevailing social pressure to undergo initiaton and some of this is reflected in a recent article by Thandisizwe Mavundla [], in which urban teenagers in East London are ‘merely’ told they are dogs.
      Can one have a positional family that isn’t (to my mind) abusive? Perhaps if the positions are recognised as arbitrary rather than ‘natural’. So, for example, in your house and mine I guess no one is arguing that the contents of the kitchen cupboards have their place (random or otherwise) by some immutable law of nature. The problem with my attempt to come up with an equitable form of positional family arrangements (‘it’s not nature, just the way we happen to like it’) is that they very quicky start to veer towards the ‘personal’, in which things are justified with resort to feelings (eg ‘I hate/love it when you mess up the cupboards). Clearly I need to think more about this….

  2. Although hugely admiring of Douglas’ work, and having used her grid-group and purity concepts in my own research, I’m very much skeptical of her analysis of hierarchies as somehow missing from the sociocultural discourses and practices of latter-day society (meaning the W.E.I.R.D. countries – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic).

    If she were right, sociologists – to the degree that their main concern is social stratification and deviance – would be out of a job a while back. Not so.

    In fact, my own field – that of social psychology – is rediscovering structural social features as pertinent explanatory concepts. Scholars such as Jim Sidanius, John Jost, Alan Fiske and Dan Kahan are taking insights from amongst others Douglas and applying these to phenomena such as stereotyping, discrimination, inter-group conflict and other forms of violence. Social status of self and other (position in a hierarchy of symbolic value) is central to these theories.

    And of course, writing on the day after the UK electorate has rendered unto the Tory party a majority of the seats of Parliament, how can Douglas possibly be right? Conservatism is all about “natural” vertical order, and it has and remains a strong force in UK and European social and political culture.

    So, despite Douglas’ valorisation of reflexivity on our own cultural bias, ironically, she simply could not see that she herself was strongly captured by her own preference for hierarchies.

    1. Thanks Christian – I hadn’t come across Social dominance theory or system justification theory, but will now acquant myself with them. Putting Douglas in context, she was critical of the Second Vatican Council’s seeming acceptance of the claim coming from sociologists such as Robert K Merton that ritual tends to become ’empty ritualism’. Her experience was that far from being empty, rituals could be very significant. While it may have been that the Latin Mass prior to Vatican II was rather inaccessible to people for a number of reasons (including the fact that it was in Latin), the replacement, the egalitarian-inspired Vatican II style of worship can be ritualistic, but in different ways, which can also be construed as empty of meaning. That is to say, a ritualism that attempts to be somehow less ritualistic loses sight of its own purpose. Catholicism appears to be attempting egalitarian forms of ritual but can only manage them halfheartedly, since it remains a hierarchical organisation.
      My working assumption is (I’m guessing here) like yours , that hierarchical ways of organising still dominate. Where Douglas is useful is to remind us just how far hierarchy has been rolled back, and sometimes in areas that those not attuned to hierarchy fail to notice. When I first read the passage I quoted in my post, it made me wonder whether this rolling back is always and everywhere a good thing.

  3. Thanks for the reply, FC! Thanks also for giving me some context to the Douglas quote. The thing you say about a less ritualistic ritual losing sight of its own purpose – is that a paraphrase of Douglas’ position, or your interpretation? That position just seems strange to me – as if ritual cannot be ritual without a hierarchy.

    Of course many rituals are hierarchical, but the ethnographic literature abounds with egalitarian, individualistic, heterarchic and even fatalistic rituals (rituals of chance?).

    You’re right that I assume that hierarchy is still key to WEIRD ways of organizing our societies and interactions, both in terms of institutional and interpersonal agentic relations. Military-industrial-scientific complex, anyone? Or simply the still ongoing structural dominance of man over woman, old over young, rich over poor and so on.

    Which is not to say that hierarchy hasn’t been attenuated in certain fora and in certain places. Or that hierarchy shouldn’t ever have a place. If I break my leg I’m gonna find myself a medical doctor, not a homeopathist.

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