Everyone loves a quiz

How Risky is it, Really?Everyone loves a quiz and Psychology Today magazine has a cultural cognition quiz for you, courtesy of David Ropeik.

Roepik is the author of How Risky is it, Really? Why our fears don’t always match the facts. His website offers exerpts from the book and -wait for it –

more quizzes!

While you’re here, though, you could take our little fourcultures quiz just to the right of this page. How much is there?

You know you want to.

…and if you really can’t get enough quiz in your life, why not try the cultural theory quiz posted at the OK Cupid website (no, really). According to its creator, ” The test items are taken from Gunnar Grendstad and Susan Sundback’s paper “Socio-demographic effects on cultural biases” published in Acta Sociologica, vol. 46, no. 4, 2003, pp. 289-306.”

Maybe one day I’ll get round to writing about my scepticism of these kinds of tests. There, I said it.

The a href= test

at the if:book blog, of the Centre for the Future of the Book,  Dan Visel has been reading Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques and noting his link between the invention of writing and improved social control.

Dan’s ‘wish that someone would present a cogent argument against reading’ rang a bell and I remembered Douglas Rushkoff’s argument that ‘text leads to a society of hearers read to by priests’; that by the time the masses have acquired the ability to read, the priests have already become writers, controlling what the masses read. The latest iteration is that anyone can publish (online), an ability until very recently reserved for elites. But now the publishing masses meekly accept the tools they are given to publish with. Every time a literacy skill becomes ubiquitous, the elite moves one step ahead once more. If the latest elite is the coders, it’s incumbent upon all of us, says Rushkoff, to learn a little coding – to program or be programmed. I read at the header to the little box I typed in to leave a comment: ‘you may use HTML tags for style’. This is often seen in comments pages on blogs. It raises the question of the way permission is embedded into the process, almost inconspicuously, mechanically. Who gives or witholds this kind of permission? It also raises a question about how many people can actually use HTML tags, or do any other kind of simple coding. Let’s call it the a href= test.

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.

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.

The Google Dilemma, Part 2

What kinds of organisations require there to be nations, complete with identifiable and distinctive national characteristics? In the past we knew we’d traveled because the people around us spoke a different language, or wore different clothes and ate different food. But these differences were often more regional than national.  For many purposes, that’s not enough. Isn’t there something about a nation’s respect for authority, or its approach to gender differences, or view of time – the long-term and the short term? What kinds of circumstance would lead to a need for greater categorization of national differences?

Hierarchical, Individualist and Egalitarian: contested views of nationhood

The very concept of the unified territory is strongly Hierarchical in origin (specifically, it is ‘strong grid’) – it is the king who unites the nation, under God. And it is the king whose task it is to demonstrate by conquest that in the divinely ordained hierarchy of nations, his nation ranks first. The early nation state is really an extension of the power of the monarchy. The modern version of this, that political legitimacy derives from a people, underpins the modern bureaucratic nation state, characterised by a cascade of checks and balances and a distinctly poor track record at making binding international agreements that don’t merely reinforce the established league-table of nations. Such institutions as monarchies and parliaments will be likely to attempt to naturalise national identity by identifying ‘innate’ national characteristics and establishing institutions that are ‘national’. [A national football team is a construction from the late 19th Century; supporting it is supposed to come naturally]. Every international gathering or institution is an opportunity to assert national supremacy.

The idea that national characteristics are to be ignored, or don’t exist, or are constructed, and not natural, is an anti-hierarchical one (specifically, ‘weak grid’). A non-hierarchical approach will regard evidence of national cultures not as information to be acted on but as noise to be filtered out and ignored.

There are two distinct versions of this filtering out of national difference. Continue reading “The Google Dilemma, Part 2”

The Google Dilemma. National Differences and Cross-Cultural Theory

“Good enough for our transatlantic friends … but unworthy of the attentions of practical or scientific men.”

Good enough for our transatlantic friends?

This was the verdict of a British Parliamentary Committee , on the implications of Thomas Edison’s new electric lamp, which had been patented in the US in 1879.

In the gloom of the gas-light they couldn’t see the significance of Edison’s invention. But equally they misunderstood national differences. If the lamp was ‘good enough’ for American use, why would that change just by crossing an ocean? And if it really had no ‘practical or scientific’ worth, why wouldn’t practical or scientific Americans be able to spot that flaw just as well as their British counterparts?

I’m exploring differences across national boundaries, specifically with reference to Geert Hofstede’s Cross-Cultural Theory, which is explored most fully in his book, Cultures and Organizations. Software of the Mind. I’m doing so to try to discover whether the recent argument between Google and the Chinese Government on censorship comes down to cultural misunderstanding, or something else.

Continue reading “The Google Dilemma. National Differences and Cross-Cultural Theory”

“God is a Brazilian” – risk perception in Brazil

Brasilia by night: Flickr - babasteve

John Adams of Imperial College London produced  a new preface for the Brazilian translation of his important  book Risk. His very interesting analysis of the social construction of risk is strongly informed by Grid-group cultural theory:

“I have been increasingly impressed by the ability of cultural theory to bring a modicum of order and civility to debates about risk. It is not a typology for pigeonholing participants in debates about risk. Occasionally one encounters a pure type, but most of us are too complex and multi faceted to be captured by a simple label. It does however provide a useful framework and vocabulary for describing the attitudes encountered in discussions about the best way to approach an uncertain future. It helps people to introspect about their own biases and prejudices.”

You can read the whole preface at John Adams’ web site.


On the science and politics of climate change

photo of Mike HulmeMike Hulme, author of the splendid Why We Disagree about Climate Change, has written a very measured op-ed about the theft of his emails from the University of East Anglia and the relationship between science and politics in the climate change debate.

Fourcultures has previously written about:

  • Mike Hulme’s book, Why we Disagree about Climate Change
  • a critique of the idea that climate change deniers are necessarily acting in bad faith
  • the climate change debate as an exercise in four types of deviance
  • and quite a lot more on the social aspects of climate change.

Is it necessary for God to be doing anything different from the laws of physics?

Victor Stenger, is the author of  God, the Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows that God does not Exist.

The book claims:

Not only does the universe show no evidence for God, it looks exactly as it would be expected to look if there is no God.

I would frame this slightly differently and suggest that

the evidence in favour of the existence of God is exactly the same as the evidence against the existence of God.

It may seem like a small difference but I think it’s important. Here’s why. Continue reading “Is it necessary for God to be doing anything different from the laws of physics?”