More on Questions about Grid-Group Theory

So Y asked three interesting questions regarding Grid-Group Cultural Theory. This is a line of thought, a method of inquiry, developed by the British social anthropologist Mary Douglas, along with numerous collaboraters, and more recently numerous younger adopters who never actually worked with Douglas. Its early presentation was in the influential book Natural Symbols.

DMK has already given a response to this in the original comments (many thanks!), and here’s my additions.

1. is the theory considered to be a post modern one?

Quick answer: no. Slightly longer answer: The theory was developed on the cusp of the rise of the postmodern as a dominant category of analysis. Neither Mary Douglas nor Aaron Wildavsky were involved with anything that would be recognisable as explicitly ‘postmodern’. Like Derrida, Douglas was strongly influenced by the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. But whereas Derrida subverted structuralism, Douglas extended it. In particular they each took quite different approaches to Levi-Strauss’s methodological use of the distinction between nature and culture. In many ways Cultural theory might appear to advocates of the postmodern as hopelessly compromised by the ‘grand narrative’ that there are four and only four cultural worldviews. That’s what I like about it. On the other hand, there are many, I think, who see the ‘constrained relativism’ (Marco Verweij) of Cultural Theory as being too relativist for comfort. I like that too.

For more context, Richard Fardon’s book is invaluable: Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography.

2. does it have prestige in the academic world or is considered niche theory?

I think it has some prestige, but precisely as a niche theory. For example, in the study of risk, CT is one of three main approaches to the subject, but only one. In social anthropology it would probably be seen as obsolete.  Fardon’s book has a section entitled ‘Theoretical Marginality”. However, it’s quite possible to make an academic career out of Cultural Theory (or a re-branding of it) and a number of highly respected academics have adopted or adapted a CT approach for at least some of their work. But there is no large movement or institution that has adopted it as a significant approach. CT’s strength/weakness lies in that fact that it has been applied piecemeal in a large number of different disciplines. It appears to have an explanatory power as yet not fully realised.  I think the conceptual strengths of Cultural Theory have not really been matched by its methodological capacity. There is potential to further develop rigorous methodologies that develop some of the concerns of Cultural Theory.

3. do you think that online/virtual communities on the internet can also be classified according to the grid group (like wikipedia, linkedin etc)?

Yes. Prof Sun-Ki Chai, at the University of Hawaii is a very rare individual in that he has both published on Cultural Theory (he edited a book of essays by Aaron Wildavsky, I believe) and patented a web crawler that can analyse web data according to several social science approaches. His work shows a way to do what you suggest, from a predictive social science angle.

Moving beyond a failure in the marketplace of ideas

The following is a guest post from Prof Dan Kahan in response to a previous post here, on Margaret Heffernan’s book, Willful Blindness.

4culture’s insightful post put me in mind of something important that in fact he has said explicitly before: Understanding the contribution that cultural influences have on our perceptions of risk (and like facts) cannot only explain but also improve our situation. If we know we have cultural “blind spots” & where they are, then we should be able to do something to reduce their dimensions even if we are constrained (not so unhappily!) always to be who we are and thus see what we see.

In that spirit:

Imagine a “cultural theory” response to the “marketplace of ideas” view of free speech. This view holds that “truth” can be expected to emerge naturally & rapidly take hold in society through the competition of ideas in a “free speech” market (associated with J.S. Mill; Justice O.W. HolmesJr., US S Ct; and others).

Cultural Theory helps to show why this laissez faire attitude toward transmission of knowledge is naive. Through biased search and weighting of evidence, people conform their assessments of information to their cultural values. Accordingly, even if the market of ideas furnishes them with an ample supply of information that it would be very much in their interest to accept and act on (because, say, they are more likely to die if they don’t), culturally diverse people won’t come to see it as true (or at least not nearly so quickly) if it denigrates the worldviews of some portion of them. This “cultural market failure,” Cultural Theory tells us, warrants some sort of corrective intervention. Some possibilities:

1. Affirmation framing

A cognitive rendering of Cultural Theory would say we are unconsciously motivated to resist information that threatens our cultural worldview. One way to mitigate the potential for bias inherent in this dynamic, then, is to try to strive to frame information in ways that affirm a plurality of worldviews simultaneously. Thus, when presenting information about climate change, it might make a lot of sense to give prominent billing to greater use of nuclear power or to the development of geoengineering, steps that are identity-affirming for individualists, rather than focus predominantly on carbon-emission limits, a policy that threatens individualists,

2. “Subsidize” hierarchy

Wildavsky believed that signature blind spots of each worldview meant that societies are most likely to prosper when they have a rich inventory of all worldview types. He was worried that in contemporary America, at least, hierarchy was being driven out by “the rise of radical egalitarianism” and so he proposed that hierarchists should be treated with respect and not vilified so that the value society gets from having hierarchical insight remains available. (Mary Douglas too was very anxious about the decline of hierarchy.) Actually, I think conspicuous efforts by egalitarians and individualists to find ways for hierarchical meanings to co-exist with theirs through adroit framing (point 1) is a way to subsidize; it puts a brake on the instinct to attack and also furnishes evidence to persons of hierarchical sensibilities that they are not under attack and thus promotes their full participation in public debate.

3. Puncturing culture-pluralistic ignorance

It turns out that people tend to overestimate how uniform & how strongly held positions on risk are within their cultural group & within opposing ones. This perception feeds on itself: because individuals sense that they will likely be put at odds with their peers if they take a dissenting view, they are less likely to form one and less likely to express it; such reticence amplifies the signal that views are uniform and strongly held, which increases the pressure to conform, etc. Well, one way around this is to promote (particularly in formal deliberative settings) a deliberative norm of acknowledging the “strongest counterargument” to one’s position. Such a norm gives people an “immunity” from sanction within their own group so they voice equivocation and dissent more freely. The voicing of equivocation and dissent mitigates the impression that views are uniform and strongly held; as that impression recedes, so does the pressure to conform . . . voilà!

I’m sure others can think of more ideas. But the point — as the post makes clear — is that Cultural Theory is not just a theory of bias but also a guide to possible debiasing as well. After all, wasn’t that what Douglas & Wildavsky were trying to provide us?

Related articles

Kahan, D. Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature 463, 296-297 (2010).

Sherman, D.K., Nelson, L.D. & Ross, L.D. Naïve Realism and Affirmative Action: Adversaries are More Similar Than They Think. Basic & Applied Social Psychology 25, 275-289 (2003).

Willful Blindness (

Image credit: http2007/flickr

‘I think we won’: Mary Douglas Interview

Mary Douglas, anthropologist and originator of what became grid-group cultural theory, was interviewed in 2006 by Cambridge anthropologist Alan MacFarlane. An annotated video is part of a large series of fascinating interviews he has conducted over many years. Exerpts are posted at Youtube (see below),  The long version is worth watching to find out what illness Mary Douglas had when she wrote Purity and Danger. At the start of Part 2 she describes the influence of Basil Bernstein on the ideas behind Natural Symbols. She suggests that, following Bernstein, hierarchical social arrangements should perhaps be termed ‘positional’. Of her work with Aaron Wildavsky on risk  she says, “I think we won”.

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.