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.

But…

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.

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Climate, Cultural Theory and the Myths of Nature

A nice article by Howard Silverman of People & Place on the links between climate change, cultural theory and the myths of nature identified by the Resilience Alliance.

http://bit.ly/959Dmp

Fresh Thinking on Systemic Risk

Tyrol danger signFresh thinking on systemic risk:

Levin and Sugihara on the ecology of finance

George Sugihara at the Resilience Alliance

complex systems: ecology for bankers

New dimensions for understanding systemic risk

extending non-linear analysis to short ecological time series

Image credit: Flickr/Katz2110

Culture and the Science of Climate Change

George Monbiot at the Guardian has finally begun to take account of Cultural Theory as a possible explanation for why people either believe or ‘refuse’ to believe in climate change. He cites an article in Nature by Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project.

Prof Kahan says:

‘we need a theory of risk communication that takes full account of the effects of culture on our decision-making.’

However, Monbiot claims the cultural biases in CT don’t fit his particular case, since he sees himself as an Egalitarian who has unwillingly been put in the invidious situation of defending scientists against their detractors, many of whom are themselves Egalitarians.

But a closer look at Monbiot’s article reveals that he has in mind an ‘ideal type’ of scientist, who precisely fits the Egalitarian conception of how scientists should behave. There are three key characteristics.

  • First, Egalitarian scientists should do no evil. Weaponising anthrax is out, as is the development of terminator genes in food crops. A non-Egalitarian argument can be made for both these activities, but Monbiot isn’t interested in that.
  • Second, Egalitarian scientists should produce freely accessible knowledge. Locking it away in pay-to-access journals isn’t on, and all well-meaning scientists should act together to end the monopolisation of knowledge the journal publishers have created for themselves (actually I think it’s a cartel, but we’ll let that pass).
  • Third, and most importantly, the kind of scientific knowledge Monbiot as an Egalitarian is especially interested in is what he thinks scientists should be producing impartially: hard evidence of major threats to civilization. A fact, on this view, is something that has the power to bring the group closer together and promote group behaviour. What self-evidently guarantees the veracity of such facts is the classic Egalitarian resort to ‘consensus’.

Taken together, these features of ideal science make it clear that the Egalitarian worldview describes Monbiot’s position to a tee.

He asks how it is possible to persuade people who just don’t want to be persuaded – and has no answer. The answer, from a cultural Theory perspective, is fairly straightforward.

People and institutions with different cultural biases create, fund, support and pay attention to four very different types of evidence. What matters then is to produce and shape a variety of evidence, not only the Egalitarian evidence that Monbiot privileges as the only kind of truth.

Here are some suggestions: Continue reading “Culture and the Science of Climate Change”

“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.

New uses for classic theories – Mary Douglas in 2010

There have been some fascinating and diverse applications of the social theories of Mary Douglas in the media lately. Douglas was an anthropologist, best known for her work on risk, on purity and on the grid-group typology which this website explores.

This month alone Mary Douglas has been quoted in relation to the following:

Particularly interesting was the idea that food intolerance might be seen as socially constructed. There was a discussion of this at the Savage Minds anthropology blog. My contribution:

This seems to be a near perfect example of a quite different kind of Mary Douglas’s ‘boundary maintenance’ – that between expert and non-expert. The claim there are too many self-diagnosed food intolerances derives credibility by coming from university-based academics, but is then questioned by connections with the flour industry. Are these experts or not? Is this science or not? Mary Douglas took Durkheim’s ideas of sacred and profane and re-interpreted them in terms of purity and pollution. Is the science here flowing from the ‘pure’ source of academia, or is it ‘polluted’ by association with the Flour Advisory Bureau? Note that the Telegraph reported this as coming from Portsmouth University only, whereas the Portsmouth University media release noted who actually commisioned the research.
The report itself, not peer-reviewed (therefore not scientific???), is clearly labeled as a flour Advisory Bureau report. It mixes medical information from the Lancet journal (pure?) with consumer survey data (polluted?).
Is it scientific enough? Not for publication in a science journal, perhaps. But certainly scientific enough to be ‘distributed to health professionals’ and reported in a leading English newspaper just in time for national allergy week. Mission accomplished?

For more on boundary work among scientists see Brendan Swedlow 2007.
http://www.niu.edu/polisci/faculty/swedlow/Pollution&Purity.pdf

Putting an End to Endianism: the feud you probably never noticed but take part in every day

“This is an attempt to stop a war. I hope it is not too late and that somehow, magically perhaps, peace will prevail again.” (Cohen 1980)

Let’s begin this tale of the conflict you’ve probably never heard about with a quotation from Gulliver’s Travels:

It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefuscu did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’

For Jonathan Swift, the wars of religion and generations-long rivalries between Britain and France were precisely as arbitrary as a decision about which end of a boiled egg to crack. Since it really doesn’t matter, everyone should do as they see fit, and ‘break their eggs at the convenient end’. The question remained: which end would that be?

For modern day computer engineers considering which byte order to set their hardware and software to, the decision is still fairly arbitrary, but it matters at least a little which end is adopted. Rather like driving on the left or right, no one really cares which is which as long as everyone agrees on a convention, but also like driving on the left or the right, no one is prepared to shift their preference, and when pressed will provide justifications for the status quo. Unlike driving on the left or right, however, those justifications do have some reasoning behind them. It actually is possible to come up with a list of why a particular byte order is useful for particular purposes, and therefore to prefer one order or the other on somewhat rational grounds.

Danny Cohen’s article, the one that announced the war in the first place, lent its central metaphor of big endians and little endians to the concept of byte order:

“Endianness describes how multi-byte data is represented by a computer system and is dictated by the CPU architecture of the system. Unfortunately not all computer systems are designed with the same Endian-architecture. The difference in Endian-architecture is an issue when software or data is shared between computer systems. An analysis of the computer system and its interfaces will determine the requirements of the Endian implementation of the software. ” (Intel white paper, quoted in Blanc and Maaraoui 2005:2)

For instance, Intel x86 architecture is little-ended (see LaPlante and Mazor 2006 for a history), while Motorola architecture is mostly big-ended. ARM architecture and some others, meanwhile, have switchable endedness, which tends to be set one way or the other by default. The distinction between Intel chips used in most IBM compatible PCs and Motorola chips used in most Apple computers meant that the byte order issue was, to say the least, overshadowed by intense marketing competition and rivalry during the 1980s and into the 1990s. Behind the embryonic “I’m a Mac – I’m a PC” rivalry lay another much less glossy rivalry, between big-endian and little-endian architecture.

In seeking a resolution to these fairly arcane distinctions in computer architecture, Danny Cohen identified a number of alternatives, which, as it turns out and though he probably didn’t know it, relate quite well to the four cultural biases or worldviews identified by the anthropologist Mary Douglas in her Grid-Group Cultural Theory . The first was continued ‘holy war’. This is what Lilliput was pursuing against Blefuscu and, according to Cohen an appropriate metaphor for the standoff between big-enders and little-enders in computer communications architecture. It seemed likely to continue because:

“Each camp tries to convert the other. Like all the religious wars of the past, logic is not the decisive tool. Power is. This holy war is not the first one, and probably will not be the last one either. The “Be reasonable, do it my way” approach does not work. Neither does the Esperanto approach of “let’s all switch to yet a new language”.”

An alternative was to somehow supply a big man like Gulliver to come and sort out the problem from on high. Here we see the strong Grid – strong Group approach of the Hierarchical cultural bias:

“We would like to see some Gulliver standing up between the two islands, forcing a unified communication regime on all of us.”

Yet another alternative offered by Cohen was to trust to chance and abide by the dictates of fate:

“How about tossing a coin ???”

This is a nod to the strong Grid – weak Group cultural bias of Fatalism.

Lettle Endian / Big EndianCohen, like Swift before him, was not terribly optimistic that conflicts over arbitrary decisions would be resolved amicably. He forecast:

“Our communication world may split according to the language used. A certain book (which is NOT mentioned in the references list) has an interesting story about a similar phenomenon, the Tower of Babel. Little-Endians are Little-Endians and Big-Endians are Big-Endians and never the twain shall meet.”

Cohen was writing in 1980. Computer engineers have now had thirty years to resolve the war of the byte order. So how have they fared?

What happened next? How did things pan out? Which end of the egg triumphed?

Continue reading “Putting an End to Endianism: the feud you probably never noticed but take part in every day”

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?

References

Abbott, T (1990) ‘The real issue is the changing face our society’, The Australian, 31 May , quoted in Adam Jamrozik (2002) From Lucky Country to Penal Colony: How Politics of Fear Have Changed Australia . Keynote Address to ‘Refugees and the Lucky Country’ Forum, RMIT, Melbourne 28-30 November 2002 , accessed at http://www.tasa.org.au/docs/public/2002/281102%20From%20Lucky%20Country%20to%20Penal%20Colony.pdf

Ailon, Galit (2008). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Culture’s Consequences in a value test of its own design. The Academy of Management Review, 33(4):885-904. Accessed at http://aom.metapress.com/openurl.asp?genre=article&eissn=1930-3807&volume=33&issue=4&spage=885

Delaney, Rob and Ari Levy (2010) China Bosses Davos as Nobody Discusses What Happened to Google. Bloomberg Online. Accessed at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=aUvrtIRc80JA

Foner, Eric (1999) The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W.Norton

Hofstede, Geert (1997) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hofstede, Geert (2005). Cultures and organizations: software of the mind (Revised and expanded 2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hofstede, Geert (2009) AMR Dialogue: Who Is The Fairest Of Them All? Galit Ailon’s Mirror. The Academy of Management Review, Volume 34, Number 3 (July)

Marcus, Aaron and Emilie West Gould (2002) Cultural Dimensions and Global Web User-Interface Design: What? So What? Now What? AIGA Archives [October 11]. Accessed at http://www.amanda.com/resources/hfweb2000/hfweb00.marcus.html

McSweeney, Brendan (2002) Hofstede’s Model Of National Cultural Differences And Their Consequences: A Triumph Of Faith – A Failure Of Analysis Human Relations, Vol. 55, No. 1, [January], pp. 89-118. Accessed at http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/~sudweeks/b329/readings/mcsweeney.doc

Mill, John Stuart (1869) The Subjection of Women. Fourth Edition. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Prasad, S. Benjamin, Michael J. Pisanib and Rose M. Prasad (2008) New criticisms of international management: An analytical review International Business Review Volume 17, Issue 6, December 2008, Pages 617-629.

Thompson, M and A. Wildavsky (1986) A cultural theory of information bias in organisations. Management Studies 23 (3), 273-286.

Woodrow, Alan (1998) The Church and Human Rights. The Tablet (January 3). Accessed at http://www.thetablet.co.uk/article/6569

The Google Dilemma, Part 2

What kinds of organisations require there to be nations, complete with identifiable and distinctive national characteristics? In the past we knew we’d traveled because the people around us spoke a different language, or wore different clothes and ate different food. But these differences were often more regional than national.  For many purposes, that’s not enough. Isn’t there something about a nation’s respect for authority, or its approach to gender differences, or view of time – the long-term and the short term? What kinds of circumstance would lead to a need for greater categorization of national differences?

Hierarchical, Individualist and Egalitarian: contested views of nationhood

The very concept of the unified territory is strongly Hierarchical in origin (specifically, it is ‘strong grid’) – it is the king who unites the nation, under God. And it is the king whose task it is to demonstrate by conquest that in the divinely ordained hierarchy of nations, his nation ranks first. The early nation state is really an extension of the power of the monarchy. The modern version of this, that political legitimacy derives from a people, underpins the modern bureaucratic nation state, characterised by a cascade of checks and balances and a distinctly poor track record at making binding international agreements that don’t merely reinforce the established league-table of nations. Such institutions as monarchies and parliaments will be likely to attempt to naturalise national identity by identifying ‘innate’ national characteristics and establishing institutions that are ‘national’. [A national football team is a construction from the late 19th Century; supporting it is supposed to come naturally]. Every international gathering or institution is an opportunity to assert national supremacy.

The idea that national characteristics are to be ignored, or don’t exist, or are constructed, and not natural, is an anti-hierarchical one (specifically, ‘weak grid’). A non-hierarchical approach will regard evidence of national cultures not as information to be acted on but as noise to be filtered out and ignored.

There are two distinct versions of this filtering out of national difference. Continue reading “The Google Dilemma, Part 2”

Are the guardians of national boundaries beginning to look pathetic?

Golden Genie by Phototacular/Flickr

Commenting on the post about the Google Dilemma, The Other Gardener said:

“There is very little that can be said to be “essential about national boundaries” now that the genie is out of the lamp. I think the guardians of these boundaries, including the academics, will always lag behind. They are already beginning to look pathetic. The nation, as they used to say, ain’t got a chance.”

Well, that’s my suspicion too, but I’m not sure what Genie has escaped. Do we really look less divided-by-nation than we did, say in the colonial period, when there were far fewer nation states? Interesting that in the last 60 years nation states have proliferated, while some other markers of nationality, particularly languages, have collapsed and died. The concept of the nation is certainly shifting, but seemingly not going away. In many respects the concept of national boundaries has become firmer, more worried over,  than at any time since WWII.

In defence of those lagging academics, they’ve been talking about ‘globalization’ for decades. Also: world risk society (Beck), world-society (Luhmann), world systems theory (Wallerstein), world polity (Meyer), the Cosmopolitan Condition (Beck again, who mentions all these) and on and on.  Academics keep announcing the transformation of the nation concept, and the nation just keeps reinventing itself.

One way of conceptualising the rift between Google and the Chinese Government might be to look at it in relation to terms used by John Urry (and Manuel Castells’):  regions, networks, scapes and flows. Here a regional configuration (China) is renegotiating its influence when engaged with a network configuration (Google/ the Internet). Or perhaps, it is rather that one region/network (the US/Google) is being disrupted by another region/network (China/security attacks) in terms of disrupting flows (censorship, spying, denial of service attacks etc). To use Urry’s terms, internal Chinese dissent might be seen as a kind of fluid that the scape of the Internet, with Google as a significant node attempting to be a hub, makes global. Either way, it seems the traditional nation-based regional version of power politics (in this case between the US and China) is being disrupted and re-configured by the emergence of new networks, with new nodes and new kinds of fluids with new kinds of flows.

Like that genie escaping from the lamp, these flows are unexpected and exceedingly hard to contain.

Thanks for the comment. Look out for the next installment, in which we’ll consider which kinds of cultural bias might favour nations and nationhood –  and which might not.

Image: Golden Genie by Phototacular/Flickr