A short summary of grid-group cultural theory

Grid-group cultural theory was devised by anthropologist Mary Douglas and her collaborators to describe how organisational structuring and individual ways of thinking combine to shape the social world in which we live.

The theory is based on the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim, who claimed there are two dimensions of institutional variation – social regulation (which Douglas called ‘grid’), and social integration (which She termed ‘group’). This results in a model with four distinct ways of organising society and of viewing the world.

This diagram, courtesy of People&Place, summarises the four worldviews, or rationalities, entailed by the model:


Ironically for a theory of institutional organisation, no institution has pursued Mary Douglas’s work. There is no ‘Douglas Institute’, or ‘Centre for Grid-group Studies’. Nevertheless, the approach has been very widely influential, way beyond its original home in British social anthropology.

While Mary Douglas first developed the theory, many scholars in numerous disciplines have since taken it further. To give just one example, Marco Verweij and Steven Ney both collaborated with Douglas [pdf] and have continued to write on the subject:
Messy institutions for wicked problems: How to generate clumsy solutions?
Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 33 (6), 2015, 1679-1696.

More recently, Douglas’s approach has been instrumental for the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School.

You can find many other examples in many fields of study, and some are documented at this website. However, a search on Google Scholar for grid-group theory, or cultural theory of risk, or Douglasian cultural framework, or just Mary Douglas theory, will show there are far too many directions of research for one website to cover in any detail. Indeed, one recent article called Douglas-inspired research just in the area of risk analysis alone “diverse, fruitful, but scattered” (Johnson, B.B, and Swedlow, B. 2021. Cultural theory’s contributions to risk analysis: A thematic review with directions and resources for further research. Risk Analysis, 41(3), pp.429-455.).

Mary Douglas’s cultural theory is a useful tool for thinking, because it offers a way of trying not to fool yourself. It encourages the entertaining of uncomfortable knowledge and a reflexive approach (see Singleton et al. 2022. Pp.73-85).

Most of the time we see ourselves as fairly rational people, while we view everyone else as wrong, or stubborn, or even stupid. Our own way of life appears to be nothing but common sense while others seem to behave senselessly. This can’t really be correct, but our daily lives depend on us fooling ourselves like this. “I’m right and everyone else is wrong”. If we doubted too much our own ability to understand the world in order to shape it, how could we make decisions? In order to act we must be right, right?

An alternative to fooling ourselves is to consider the possibility of ‘plural rationalities’. That’s to suggest there may be more than one way of seeing the world and more than one way of organising. It might help to consider that people and institutions aren’t being deliberately annoying: they just have varying worldviews, or cultural biases. But on the whole these worldviews are ‘outsideless’. In other words, they don’t just happen in our heads and hearts, but also within the institutions and environments in which we exist. Inside one kind of rationality it appears as though there is no outside, and no other perspective could make sense. Our social structures support our worldview to make it appear to be nothing more than common sense, as though “that’s just the way things are”. Like Jim Carey’s character in the movie, The Truman Show, we find it hard to move outside of the worldview we already inhabit, to see what it’s like from another perspective.

It may be hard, but it’s not impossible. If I wish to relate to others, to be a social being, grid-group cultural theory suggests there are only four stable ways of doing this. I can and do choose, but only between these four.

Why only four? If that seems a tight fit, remember that most typologies in sociology only allow for two options (such as ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘mechanical’ versus ‘organic’, and so on). Compared with only two choices, four options seems like a marked improvement. But if you accept there may be multiple ways of seeing the world and of organising society, exactly how many are there? Perhaps there are a hundred! Why stop at only four?

One answer is that grid-group cultural theory provides a parsimonious model of society. It important to remember that the world is extraordinarily complex and this is only a model of the world, not a copy of it. But Douglas claimed her model is parsimonious. In other words, it is the simplest model that can usefully describe what it models. More complex models can and do exist, and if you find them useful you can go ahead and use them. However, too many models of society are not complex enough. The left-right divide in politics is a classic example. Everyone agrees this is simplistic, but no one can agree on a suitable alternative. Even worse, theories of economic rationalism presuppose that everyone is the same. Human complexity is banished. In contrast both to infinite plurality and no plurality, the grid-group model of social organisation involves constrained plurality. It has just enough complexity to be useful. (If you really want to examine this, read Verweij et al. 2020. DOI: 10.1177/0735275120946085)

This website, Fourcultures, takes its name from a short article Mary Douglas wrote to review the development of her theory of the elementary forms of institutional organisation.

Douglas, M. 1999. Four cultures: the evolution of a parsimonious model. Geojournal 47:411-415. DOI: 10.1023/A:1007008025151

Here’s a short article from the Guardian newspaper from 2007 that explains grid-group cultural theory quite succinctly. It describes a lecture the anthropologist Mary Douglas gave for the Young Foundation in conjunction with University College London.

If you want to understand Mary Douglas’s work in its intellectual context, you ought to read Fardon, R. 1999. Mary Douglas: An intellectual biography. London: Routledge.

Another very good appraisal of Douglas’s significance is 6, Perri, and P. Richards. 2017. Mary Douglas: Understanding social thought and conflict. New York: Berghahn.

The same authors wrote the much shorter Mary Douglas entry in Oxford Bibliographies online (DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199766567-0075)

This article was first published in March 2010, and progressively updated, including a revision in March 2022.

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