Everything’s Intentional

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Author Mark Haddonmakes the intriguing observation that we don’t have a word for processes that appear to be intentional but actually aren’t.


Is he right?

If so, I suspect that this is because at some level humans find intentionality in everything. It’s safer to assume there’s a predator behind every bush than it is to assume the opposite.

Witness, for instance, the horror implicit in Jacques Monod’s paean to ‘blind chance’. He surely wanted it to impart the feeling of sublime terror. Almost reads like HP Lovecraft…

“Drawn out of the realm of pure chance, the accident enters into that of necessity, of the most implacable certainties.”

Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity. New York: Vintage Books, 1971

BP Oil Spill – why we care

A beach after an oil spill.
Image via Wikipedia

Behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely’s interesting website has a question about why we seem to care so much about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when we don’t seem to care as much about other big environmental disasters such as the ongoing destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

Some good points are raised, including some fairly obvious ones

  • the Gulf is nearer to the US,
  • there was a definite starting point for the oil spill,
  • there are clearly defined bad guys,
  • etc.

All of these kinds of explanation lend themselves very well to analysis on the basis of bounded rationality – we make use of cognitive biases to organise ourselves and these biases aren’t very rational, or are rational only in a limited way. For example, it is somewhat rational to be concerned about environmental problems close to home, but it would be more rational (if that’s possible) to be concerned also about distant problems since they may still have a local impact. Indeed, even for a resident of Louisiana it’s possible that the destruction of the Amazon could be more significant than the oil spill – not in terms of column inches perhaps but in many other ways.

But here I want to put concern about the oil spill in anthropological context and suggest it’s about pollution. Continue reading “BP Oil Spill – why we care”

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.

Only Discriminate – four versions of justice

“We do not support the notion of discrimination. But you have to distinguish between people.”

These were the words of the Archbishop of Westminster in response to the Pope’s comments on the proposed equality legislation in the UK (reported by the Guardian).

Note the slipperiness of language. In its non-pejorative sense, discrimination does mean distinguishing between people or things, but the more popular usage makes discrimination a thing to be discouraged: distinguishing with the aim of unjustly favouring some over others. I am discriminating in the movies I watch. There is no question of injustice here. The Glenn Miller Story is clearly the greatest movie of all time. But if I discriminate in the people I offer jobs to, it’s reasonable to ask what my criteria are, and whether they are just or unjust.

The problem is that we have four broad versions of justice, not one, and these versions are at odds with one another. In fact they define themselves in relation to the others, so that my version of justice is specifically not yours. Continue reading “Only Discriminate – four versions of justice”

The decline of civilization – sudden or gradual?

Thomas Cole The Course of Empire 1836: Consummation
'empires are complex systems'

Quick, quick, slow – the dance steps of collapse

What kinds of stories are we telling one another these days about the fall of civilizations? The idea that the decline of a civilization is without narrative causality is itself a narrative. This is the unacknowledged ideology of historian Niall Ferguson’s recent piece for Foreign Affairs. Here Ferguson abandons the typical causality of historians and opts for a different account, based on complex systems theory. Continue reading “The decline of civilization – sudden or gradual?”

“People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook”

…according to law professor Don Braman, that is. NPR has an interview with members of the Cultural Cognition Project, who have been demonstrating experimentally that people’s climate change beliefs are strongly linked to their worldview.

It’s intuitively obvious that our views, opinions and beliefs are linked together a bit like constellations in the night sky, but when it comes to working out what exactly it is that connects them, it’s quite hard to come up with a viable answer. Now it seems the pattern is becoming clearer.

The Google Dilemma Part 3

In this short series of posts on the dilemma Google finds itself in with Chinese censorship, I have attempted to question the idea that it’s all about a clash of national cultures.

In particular, the very idea of a national culture has been called to account for itself. I’ve argued that Grid-group cultural theory offers some insights into the kind of lifting work the concept of the nation is supposed to do for us. It also helps explain why some might not like the idea of national cultures.

The Other Gardener took me to task for apparently supporting censorship. My rely can serve as a conclusion:

I support the line of Amnesty International on Chinese censorship of dissidents, but I’m trying to examine my own biases. This isn’t an idle speculation: we all want the world to be a particular way (in my case, freedom of speech), and find it hard to come to terms with justifications of other ways of being. Is it reasonable to argue that different countries just have different cultures and that this extends to different censorship regimes?  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims to be, well, universal. Is any regime exempt? If so, how so? If not, how not? If Google is having trouble with the concept of free speech via Chinese gmail accounts, why is this? How does the ‘universal’ nature of human rights get negotiated with a government that only recognises human rights with a Chinese spin ? Can we even talk like this? Is there anything distinctly and appropriately Chinese in internet censorship, or is that just special pleading?

Conversely, where does the idea of universal human rights gain traction? I’ve argued that this can be seen as an Egalitarian, or Individualist, weak-grid approach to national differences. By understanding this, perhaps the international work of groups like Amnesty can be strengthened in a small way.

To shine the spotlight back on the US, we could ask how this ‘freedom loving’ nation ends up executing so many of its prisoners (and how it comes to have so many prisoners in the first place). Is there something peculiarly and appropriately American that makes the penal regime so distinctive (the US along with China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran carry out more than 90% of all executions)? If we are all expected to be free with our speech, as in the US, are we also supposed to be free with our sentencing to death, as in the US?
Cross-cultural theory seems to assume that we would want to fit in with another nation’s patterns of social activity in order to make our business relationships work better. But what if we really don’t agree with those patterns? I’m concerned that to naturalise national cultures is to concede too much, and that we would be wrong to suggest there’s something Chinese about censorship and something American about lethal injections. But if we don’t make national comparisons, what kinds of comparisons can we make instead? That’s where grid-group cultural theory comes in.

Read Part 1

Part 2

excursus: are the guardians of national boundaries beginning to look pathetic?


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