The Institutional Dynamics of Culture – a review

For those with a serious interest in Grid-group cultural theory, an indispensable anthology has recently been published in two volumes extending to 1134 pages.

Part of Ashgate’s International Library of Essays in Anthropology, The Institutional Dynamics of Culture is edited by Perri 6 and Gerald Mars (professors of social policy and anthropology respectively) and includes 52  of the most important essays from the field published between 1980 and 2004.

The first volume groups together essays covering Theory, Methods, Politics and History, while the second volume covers Business, work and organisations, Environment, technology and risk, Crime and, lastly, Consumption.

Some of these are reprints of leading chapters in seminal books or reports (for instance Mary Douglas’s essay ‘Risk and Blame’, from her 1992 monograph of the same name). But on the whole the book is a careful herding together of more or less dispersed papers from a wide variety of scholarly and professional journals – a fact with in itself demonstrates the sheer breadth of dissemination of the theory across disciplinary boundaries and its potential and actual application in a wide variety of settings.

But the entirely laudable breadth of intellectual reach of The Institutional Dynamics of Culture does present a few questions.

First, what exactly is it that links all these ideas together? Does the appellation neo-Durkheimian, favoured by co-editor Perri 6 (see Vol. 1, chs 6 & 9), do full justice to a theory which has suffered somewhat for going under a number of different monickers over several decades (Mamadouh 1999)? That the same could be asked of the term, institutional theory of culture, foregrounded here, demonstrates that the naming issue – and by implication the coherence issue – has not yet gone away.

Second, while the breadth of interests represented in the collection is surely a great strength, there is the age-old danger that a theory of everything ends up explaining nothing (but see Rescher 2000). The collection makes one wonder what grid-group cultural theory can’t explain (c.f. Boudon 1983).

This leads to a question about dissent. The anthology could perhaps have been strengthened by including a section of Critique. There remains no single location where one may consult those cultured despisers of grid-group cultural theory, of whom there are more than a few (Boholm 1996; Sjöberg 1998, for instance).

While the high price of the two volume set is likely to put off all but institutional purchasers, this gathering and sorting of key materials nevertheless represents the most important publication of this type in the field to date. It is likely to prove indispensable to teachers and researchers, as well as to advanced students. That no essays published after 2004 are included in the collection does nothing to detract from this. For making such a diverse and important body of work accessible for the first time in one place, the editors are to be applauded. No doubt this collection will stimulate the further development and application of the grid-group paradigm in social science and beyond.

Perri 6 and Gerald Mars, Eds, (2008 ) The Institutional Dynamics of Culture (2 volumes). London: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-2617-6

A. Boholm (1996) Risk perception and social anthropology: Critique of cultural theory, Ethnos 61 (1-2): 64-84.

Raymond Boudon (1983) Why Theories of Social Change Fail: Some Methodological Thoughts, Public Opinion Quarterly 47:143-160.

Virginie Mamadouh (1999) Grid-Group Cultural Theory: An Introduction, GeoJournal 47(3): 395-409 .

Nicholas Rescher (2000) The Price of an Ultimate Theory, Philosophia Naturalis, 37:1-20.

L. Sjöberg (1998 ) World views, political attitudes, and risk perception. Risk: Health, Safety and Environment, 9: 137-152.

Contents page:

Economics of the Singularity

Crooked Timber has been running a ‘book event‘ on the economic ideas of science fiction writer Charlie Stross.

In case you haven’t come across him, Stross is a prolific (300,000 words a year) writer of extravagant ideas who lives in Scotland. His approach to  pulp sci-fi is reminiscent of  Philip K Dick’s.  Sure it’s commercial, but with Stross as with Dick, it’s also art.

Perhaps the thought of economics puts you off an otherwise good read. Or perhaps the thought of science fiction puts you off some otherwise good economics. But for anyone still left in the room, the discussion, including posts by economists Paul Krugman and John Quiggin, as well as by writer Ken MacLeod, is well worth reading.

Warning: cheap joke ahead.

Of course, some might say all economics is fiction…

So… what should I believe?

Psychologist Dorothy Rowe has a book out about religious belief, entitled What Should I Believe? She says,

it is possible to create set of beliefs, which allow us to live at peace with ourselves and other people, to feel strong in ourselves without having to remain a child forever dependent on some supernatural power, and to face life with courage and optimism.

What I find interesting about this is the acceptance of the idea that belief  as such presents itself as some kind of choice, while the content of belief is in need of construction by each and every would-be believer. It seems that DIY religion is not so much an option – it’s the only real possibility.

But I think there may be at least three alternatives… Continue reading “So… what should I believe?”

New Book on Grid-Group Cultural Theory

Michael Thompson has a new book out on his version of grid-group cultural theory (for reasons to be explored here one day, he has five social solidarities instead of the ‘four cultures’ described on this site). It’s called Organisation and Disorganisation. And thanks to Huw for pointing this out.

From the blurb:

We may believe that our perspective is the right one and that any interaction with opposing views is a messy and unwelcome contradiction. But why should egalitarians engage with individualists, or hierachists with egalitarians?

Using a range of examples and analogies, the author shows how the best outcomes depend upon an essential argumentative process, which encourages subversions that are constructive whilst discouraging those that are not. In this way each approach gets more of what it wants and less of what it doesn’t want.

There’ll be a review here when  a copy arrives, but in the meantime you can hear Michael speaking about it both at the RSA and on the BBC (with philosopher John Gray).

How I learnt to stop worrying and love grid-group cultural theory

old-divinity-school-cambridgeFourcultures received a nice email from Huw asking how I learned about cultural theory. It was  while enrolled on a religious studies course that I first came across the work  of anthropologist Mary Douglas, who had developed a four part typology of cultures in her book Natural Symbols. Admittedly at the time it didn’t seem very clear how to apply this, since education is mostly wasted on the young. Intriguing as it was, I didn’t take it any further. But it must have been bubbling away under the surface because years later, while studying the phenomenon of peak oil, it suddenly struck home that the arguments for and against peak oil seemed to match very well the contours of cultural bias, or social solidarities,  that Douglas had sketched. On further investigation it became clear that the theory had been strongly developed since the 1980s and now has much to say about today’s social, political and religious debates. That’s what this website is about.

A definitive survey of Mary Douglas’s work was written by Richard Fardon: Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography (London: Routledge, 1999).

For those wanting to find out more about grid-group cultural theory and the four cultures it describes you could check out Michael Thompson’s book, Organising and Disorganising, which Huw says is great.

Michael Thompson gave a lecture at the RSA, and an interview which you can download.

[updated 4/2/2016]

What have you ever learned by heart and was it worth it?

I came across a recent blog post lamenting the loss of rote learning of the Catechism in the Episcopalian Church. It seemed a fairly nostalgic piece but It got me thinking: how good was rote learning? What was the point? And so I made a quick mental list of the things I can remember remembering by heart.

  • Book 4 of Xenophon’s Anabasis in Greek
  • Mark’s Gospel in Greek
  • Aristophanes’ The Frogs
  • Various Shakespeare speeches
  • Keats’ Ode to Autumn
  • The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (highlights)
  • Sketches by Monty Python (by mistake)
  • the lyrics of scores of pop songs, but never the second verse
  • various orders of worship, Christian and Buddhist
  • some Psalms

Was it worth it? I’m not sure. Most of these I’ve forgotten (The Frogs, for instance). Some I can’t forget (Python is a kind of brain curse). I won a prize for Keats and passed a Greek exam wih Xenophon. Some I learnt deliberately, others I just memorised without noticing – like plays I performed in , Richard II, Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance and so on.

These days kids learn things by heart because they want to. Last week I asked my daughter’s friends if they could say how many chapters there are in all seven volumes of Harry Potter. I thought that would stump them. Instead they worked it out, then recited the chapter names. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the first sentence of each chapter. You could tell they were winging it a bit, but on the whole it was pretty impressive.

The last chapter of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 has haunted me since I read it. The hero, Montag, whose job has been to burn books, is on the run when he comes across a small group of outlaws who are preserving the culture through this new Dark Age. How do they do it? They have memorised small chunks of literature. Montag is told there are many such people and when they get together a whole book will coalesce in the retelling.

Me, I feel this underestimates the value of a purely oral culture, at the same time as praising a partially oral culture. But all the same, it’s a poignant scene.

So here’s my question:

what have you learnt by heart, and do you feel it has been ‘worthwhile’ (as defined by you)?

Ironies of the Netbook

The book is a relative newcomer in western society. It began its career in the mid-15th century and its future is no longer certain, threatened as it is by new inventions based on different principles.’

These words come from Lucien Fevre’s preface to The Coming of the Book, published in French in 1958.  I’m reading them sixty years later, sitting on a train using a portable computer, with the aid of a repository of electronically scanned volumes, which makes instantly available an unreadable number of published works, not to mention millions of pages of ‘unpublished’ electronic texts.

The irony of this situation is remarkable.

The book endures

The laptop is approx A4 size, the netbook is the size of a paperback.

The first irony is that the computer I am using is called a notebook. That is, conceptually the new invention is not ‘based on different principles’ but explicitly pays homage to the old, even as it radically undermines it. Now that the netbook craze is upon us, we are doing the same thing. The striking thing about the new cut-down mini-notebooks such as the Asus eee PC and now the Dell Inspiron 910 is that they are trying very hard indeed to be the same size and weight as a paperback book (remember that the paperback was the new reading technology of the 1930s). And we seem to be desperate to keep calling them books. As with the last major shift – from scroll to codex – it seems that while the technology may change, the name remains the same. If we call it a book, even though a netbook, does it remain one?

The scribes endure too

The scribal tradition has been reinvented with reCaptcha

The second irony is that mindful of legal considerations the electronic repository in question – Google Books – has artificially hobbled a piece of already existing technology that would effortlessly allow copying of the text. The result is that when I want to reproduce a quotation, as above, I need to copy it out by retyping it manually, letter for letter, word for word, in a manner strongly reminiscent of the working practices of the monastic scribes who dominated the book industry before the coming of the printing press, let alone the coming of the computer. Now, through the use of the reCAPTCHA security process, this activity of scribal rewriting has been massively distributed, so that every time someone spends ten seconds verifying they are human, they contribute to digitally transcribing the equivalent of one hundred and fifty printed books per day. (according to Luis Von Ahn of Carnegie-Mellon University).

Appearing to arrive

Third, it’s easy to overlook the ambiguity of the original French title. Translated as the ‘coming’ of the book, the original French word is ‘l’apparition’, which can equally be translated ‘appearance’ and which has a double meaning in both languages. Does the e-book you hold on your lap actually amount to a real book which has almost magically ‘arrived’ inside your computer, or does it only have the ‘appearance’ of a book?

So who’s imagining whom?

Is the netbook a book just because we say it’s a book? Perhaps, conversely, there is something so compelling about the concept of a book in our culture that it simply refuses to lie down and die, transmuting instead into something very different, but eerily the same. As James Wood says,

‘a good proportion of reality consists of what we freely imagine; and then, less happily perhaps, we discover that that reality has imagined us—that we are the vassals of our imaginings, not their emperors or archdukes.’


Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: 1450-1800. Trans. David Gerard. London: Verso, 1984)

James Wood, ‘The Unforgotten. Aleksandar Hemon’s fictional lives’. The New Yorker 28 July 2008 Accessed at

Would we be better off without religion?

I’m planning to attend a public debate on religion, organised by Intelligence Squared. The motion is ‘We’d be better off without religion’, and the speakers include Victor Stenger, who wrote God, the Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows that God does not Exist. I checked this out recently.

The blurb about Professor Stenger says:

Stenger maintains that plausible natural explanations exist for for all observable phenomena and there is strong scientific evidence against anything mystical or supernatural in the universe.

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 “Would we be better off without religion?”