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.

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.

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.