Mary Douglas delivers the Terry Lectures 2003 in streaming audio

thinking-in-circles

In this series of four public lectures delivered at Yale University in October 2003, anthropologist Mary Douglas explains the thinking behind her work on ‘ring composition’. These are the lectures on which her book Thinking in Circles (Yale University Press) is based.

Writing in Circles: Ring Composition as a Creative Stimulus

When all that unites us is our fear


At New Statesman magazine, Hugh Aldersley-Williams quotes Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky’s Risk and Culture,

“people select their awareness of certain dangers to conform with a specific way of life”. He worries that we may reach a state in which “all we have in common is our fears”.

Actually, it’s very unlikely we’ll reach a consensus on our fears. The question of risk is a vexed one. According to Ulrich Beck, modernity is the process by which progress is overtaken by its negative side effects, so that the side effects, especially pollution of all sorts, become the main event. This is the ‘risk society’ in which we are increasingly defined by our status vis a vis threats to life – we take ‘social risk positions’. In stark contrast, Frank Furedi sees this as shamefully defeatist. For Furedi human ingenuity is the flame that burns eternal and there is no threat that isn’t in the end a wonderful opportunity. He disparages Beck’s thesis as ‘the culture of fear’. So who is correct? My money is on something known as grid-group cultural theory (developed by Douglas, Wildavsky and others) which proposes there are four mutually antagonistic cultural perspectives which institutions and individuals in them can adopt. Beck speaks for ‘Egalitarianism’, Furedi for ‘Individualism’, but there are two others, “Fatalism’ and ‘Hierarchy’. All coalitions of risk (eg the idea that wearing seatbelts in cars has saved lives, see the work of John Adams) are no more than fairly unstable temporary agreements between two or more of these.

Bias, learning to walk at the edge of Chaos

This is a guest post by Meika, for which, many thanks.

Cambridge-based researchers recently published a study providing experimental data which supports the idea that the human brain lives “on the edge of chaos”.
Its press release ends:

According to [co-author] Kitzbichler, this new evidence is only a starting point. “A natural next question we plan to address in future research will be: How do measures of critical dynamics relate to cognitive performance or neuropsychiatric disorders and their treatments?”

Well, taking that ‘cognitive performance’ a bit more specifically to include learning, and learning to walk in particular, the following story leads in an interesting direction for us fourculture fans.
Five years ago… Continue reading “Bias, learning to walk at the edge of Chaos”

The Dark Side of Cultural Theory

Nick Naylor: Right there, looking into Joey’s eyes, it all came back in a rush. Why I do what I do. Defending the defenseless, protecting the disenfranchised corporations that have been abandoned by their very own consumers: the logger, the sweatshop foreman, the oil driller, the land mine developer, the baby seal poacher…
Polly Bailey: Baby seal poacher?
Bobby Jay Bliss:
Even *I* think that’s kind of cruel.

Thank You For Smoking (2005)

Grid-group cultural theory proposes that there’s a constant and endless argument going on about ‘the facts of the matter’. We look at the evidence that suits our cultural biases – moreover we create the evidence to fit our take on the world. Continue reading “The Dark Side of Cultural Theory”