Does Cultural Theory predict its own rejection?

Commenter ‘riskviews’ recently suggested:

I would guess that Grid-Group Theory would predict that it would not itself be widely accepted.
In fact, I belive that if it WERE widely accepted, then that would prove it false.

There are a few possible responses to this interesting proposition.

First, riskviews could be right. Cultural theory has been explored in many different academic fields, but not widely accepted in the way some other social science concepts have been. In particular it does seem to suggest a perspective that requires self-critique. This may be difficult.

Second, it may be that one way of achieving this is to somehow rise above the four cultures as described by Cultural Theory and see them as partially complete perspectives. Michael Thompson proposes that there may be a fifth cultural worldview- that of the autonomous ‘hermit’ – which does not enter into the coercive ways of organising and disorganising that the other four take for granted. So far from being widely accepted, Cultural Theory may be only narrowly accepted by a small section of society, which recognises ‘what’s really going on’ and then chooses to reject cultural bias. (For the record, I don’t find this line of thought very helpful).

Third, it may be argued that the four cultural biases only pause to reflect on their own partial nature when their proposed solutions to complex problems fail to have the desired effect. This kind of failure can be seen as a catalyst for better solutions which take account of something like Cultural Theory. This is the approach of Marco Verweij’s latest book, Clumsy Solutions for a Wicked World. The subtitle is optimistic about the possibility of accepting CT’s analysis and using it in policy formulation: ‘How to improve global governance’. Most writers on Cultural Theory seem to take the position that a wider understanding of its analysis might lead to better social outcomes. So, far from predicting its own rejection, Cultural Theory tends to argue for its own increasing adoption as a solution to a variety of problems.

Fourth, and this is my position, Cultural Theory, like many social science theories, can be seen not so much as a set of propositions to be believed, accepted, or verified, but more as a set of tools for thinking with. It’s quite possible to use it without accepting it. The matter then to be verified is not the theory itself but the further insights it gives rise to.

I hope I understand what is meant by the suggestion that if CT were widely accepted, that would prove it false. My take on this is that the theory claims there are four mutually incompatible ways of organising around truth claims. To accept this, would be (perhaps) to recognise the incompleteness of one’s own cultural worldview, and therefore to step outside it in a way that would call into question whether it really existed in the first place. Actually, I don’t agree with this. I think self-reflection is possible to an extent, both for individuals and for organisations. This is helped by that fact that however biased ourselves and our institutions may be, they still rub up against the world as world, not as pure fantasy. As Richard Ellis says, a cultural worldview is  ‘a prism that biases the way one experiences the world, not a prison that shuts one completely off from that world’ (quoted in Verweij 2011:205).

So what do you think? Does cultural theory predict its own rejection?

3 thoughts on “Does Cultural Theory predict its own rejection?

  1. Once again, interesting reading : ) I’m stuck here. Cultural theory used to determine perception of risk? or used to determine if the determination of risk was appropriate? Let alone the question which sounds like Gobbledygook to me. Not sure if this can take html tags will soon find out I guess.

  2. Have you noticed that the RSA’s Matthew Taylor has been blogging about Cultural Theory again lately….?

    Here’s one:

    I added a long comment there too, talking about other models of plural rationalities as well, and the issue of common ground etc.

    By the way, can someone send me Michael Thompson’s e-mail? I also wanted to contact Catherine Lee (a colleague of Michael’s, I think), but the e-mail I have for her is almost certainly out of date.

    My e-mail is matthew.mezey at



  3. Just last week, Mitt Romney told Barak Obama that he could not have his own facts. But in the world as described by Plural Rationality Theory, people all DO have their own facts. They have the facts that bolster and agree with their own world view. The way that the delivery of news has fragmented means that someone can receive their own facts, and not need to be unduly bothered by discordant information.

    Eventually, if the unavoidable true reality causes problems for the believer in an alternate reality, then they are more likely to become believers in another singular reality than to start to believe in multiple realities.

    At least, that is my reading of the Plural Rationality material.

    I agree that there may be room in the theory for a sixth group besides the Hermits. A group who are as you describe self-reflective. Aware of the four possible states of the world and seeking to discern objectively the true state and then to act with the knowledge of their best guess.

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