Does Cultural Theory predict its own rejection?

Commenter ‘riskviews’ recently suggested:

I would guess that Grid-Group Theory would predict that it would not itself be widely accepted.
In fact, I belive that if it WERE widely accepted, then that would prove it false.

There are a few possible responses to this interesting proposition.

First, riskviews could be right. Cultural theory has been explored in many different academic fields, but not widely accepted in the way some other social science concepts have been. In particular it does seem to suggest a perspective that requires self-critique. This may be difficult.

Second, it may be that one way of achieving this is to somehow rise above the four cultures as described by Cultural Theory and see them as partially complete perspectives. Michael Thompson proposes that there may be a fifth cultural worldview- that of the autonomous ‘hermit’ – which does not enter into the coercive ways of organising and disorganising that the other four take for granted. So far from being widely accepted, Cultural Theory may be only narrowly accepted by a small section of society, which recognises ‘what’s really going on’ and then chooses to reject cultural bias. (For the record, I don’t find this line of thought very helpful).

Third, it may be argued that the four cultural biases only pause to reflect on their own partial nature when their proposed solutions to complex problems fail to have the desired effect. This kind of failure can be seen as a catalyst for better solutions which take account of something like Cultural Theory. This is the approach of Marco Verweij’s latest book, Clumsy Solutions for a Wicked World. The subtitle is optimistic about the possibility of accepting CT’s analysis and using it in policy formulation: ‘How to improve global governance’. Most writers on Cultural Theory seem to take the position that a wider understanding of its analysis might lead to better social outcomes. So, far from predicting its own rejection, Cultural Theory tends to argue for its own increasing adoption as a solution to a variety of problems.

Fourth, and this is my position, Cultural Theory, like many social science theories, can be seen not so much as a set of propositions to be believed, accepted, or verified, but more as a set of tools for thinking with. It’s quite possible to use it without accepting it. The matter then to be verified is not the theory itself but the further insights it gives rise to.

I hope I understand what is meant by the suggestion that if CT were widely accepted, that would prove it false. My take on this is that the theory claims there are four mutually incompatible ways of organising around truth claims. To accept this, would be (perhaps) to recognise the incompleteness of one’s own cultural worldview, and therefore to step outside it in a way that would call into question whether it really existed in the first place. Actually, I don’t agree with this. I think self-reflection is possible to an extent, both for individuals and for organisations. This is helped by that fact that however biased ourselves and our institutions may be, they still rub up against the world as world, not as pure fantasy. As Richard Ellis says, a cultural worldview is  ‘a prism that biases the way one experiences the world, not a prison that shuts one completely off from that world’ (quoted in Verweij 2011:205).

So what do you think? Does cultural theory predict its own rejection?

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.

The meaning of culture

When Glasgow won the honour of hosting the 1990 European City of Culture festival the joke was, Culture? Isn’t that what we’ve got growing on our walls? (from memory,  this was Rab C Nesbitt’s contribution). It wasn’t far off the mark though. I interviewed an amazing woman, Cathy McCormack, who had successfully campaigned for a medical and, yes, cultural recognition that the mould growing in council houses was a contributing factor to Glasgow’s high incidence of heart disease, and that therefore, it shouldn’t be assumed that people with heart disease had brought it upon themselves by eating a poor diet (deep fried mars bars and pizzas notwithstanding).

So culture can mean different things depending on context. I rather like Edgar Schein’s description (1991: 111):

‘Culture can now be defined as a pattern of basic assumptions, invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore is to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems’.

That’s certainly neat, but it’s not necessarily straightforward. I’ve previously mentioned here the meaning of culture, and it should be noted that a well-known study by Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963) identified 164 unique definitions of the term ‘culture’, while van der Post et al. (1997) listed more than 100 dimensions and according to Ott (1989) there were 74 elements of organisational culture. Continue reading

Why do we disagree about Climate Change?

In his foreword to a recent collection on the social construction of climate change, Nicholas Onuf writes:

‘As a social constructon, climate change is no one thing. Instead it is an ensemble of constitutive processes, yielding an ever changing panoply of agents and insitutions, fixed in place only for the moment.’ Mary E Pettenger (ed) 2007:xv

Yet in the arguments about climate change, the subject of the arguments is often taken as a given. We forget that just as the carbon dioxide emissions are of human origin, so is the very concept.

Now Prof Mike Hulme, founder of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has written a book about climate change as a social, cultural, political, religious and ethical phenomenon,rather than a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’. In doing so he has drawn deeply from the well of Cultural Theory. The book refers repeatedly to the writings of Mary Douglas (especially Douglas and Wildavsky 1984), Michael Thompson (particularly Verweij and Thompson 2006) and numerous other cultural theorists, and has a Foreword by Steve Rayner. The book is much too stimulating and multi-faceted to summarise here, but in terms of policy implications the auther promotes Rayner’s idea of the need for ‘silver buckshot’ rather than ‘silver bullets’, and Verweij and Thompson’s idea of ‘clumsy solutions’ rather than elegant failures.

I’ve written from a similar perspective about climate change, and specifically on what we argue about when we argue about global warming.

Why we Disagree about Climate Change is a timely, wide ranging thoughtful and challenging contribution to the climate change debate. I think it will also stand as a highly accessible landmark text of ‘applied Cultural Theory’, much as Christopher Hood’s 1998 book on public management did a decade ago.  A review will follow.