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The report itself, not peer-reviewed (therefore not scientific???), is clearly labeled as a flour Advisory Bureau report.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 Not for publication in a science journal, perhaps.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”

Why can’t environmentalists just all get along?

Dr Clare Saunders, from Southampton University, was awarded the first British Journal of Sociology prize for her 2008 ethnographic work on environmental organisations in London.

You can hear a podcast of her describing her research, and read the original article (as long as someone you love your institution subscribes to Wiley Interscience).

She argues that: Continue reading “Why can’t environmentalists just all get along?”

#approvalmatrix – fourfold typologies make it to Twitter

Here’s an older post from the Savage Minds anthropology blog about Mary Douglas’s grid-group typology (the basis of the four cultures explored on this site). It’s basically a mashup of that typology and an alternative scheme deriving from Pierre Bourdieu (if he wrote for the New York Magazine, that is): highbrow/lowbrow; brilliant/despicable.

I like it because I’ve been very interested in the proliferation of fourfold schemes in the social sciences – and here’s another one. In particular I’m interested in whether these schemes are each as radically new as the author or creator always seems to think, or whether there’s some kind of underlying structure that makes superficially different formulations somehow connect.

This particular juxtaposition reminds me of Arthur Koestler’s understanding of creativity, which comes about where

‘a single situation or idea is perceived in two self-consistent but mutually incompatible frames of reference’.

If you’re interested, the approval matrix has been re-purposed and applied to Twitter posts at O’Reilly Radar.

Koestler, Arthur (1964) The Act of Creation. London: Pan. Quoted in William Byers (2007) How Mathematicians Think. Using Ambiguity, Contradiction and Paradox to Create Mathematics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 28.

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 “The meaning of culture”

How to deviate from climate change destruction – the case of the Great Barrier Reef

A confession: I visited the Great Barrier Reef a couple of years ago and it was the most stunning experience of my life. The beauty, intricacy, diversity, were amazing. The experience of immersion in this underwater world was and is vivid – literally alive. But I felt profoundly uneasy participating iin the industrial system that got me there – plane flight, chain hotel, large, fast motor boat. In order to appreciate the beauty of what we’re destroying we need to destroy it a little bit more, it seems.
Environmental writer Chris Turner addresses this dilemma head on in a marvellous piece for Canada’s Walrus Magazine, The Age of Breathing Underwater.

Justice cannot be done to the piece here – you need to read it for yourself. He focuses on the work of Australian coral expert Dr Charlie Veron, author of A Reef in Time, who, as Turner tells it, fights to save the Reef, even as he affirms it cannot now be saved. Ocean acidification has gone too far already. What lies in the human heart on the far side of hope is the subject, then, of Turner’s article.
If you’ve read more than one post on this website you’ll be expecting an anaylsis of the social structures that condition such thinking in terms of a model of society called Grid-Group Cultural theory. It’s true there is ample scope for this. For example, when Veron likens ocean acidification to a loaded gun with ‘a hair trigger and devastating firepower’, he’s indulging in classic Egalitarian-speak which ought to call into question his construction of the facts (by etymology if not by modern definition facts are always constructions: facere = to make). This is not at all to deny that acidification is taking place, but to scrutinise the human meanings we assign to it. But this time I want to do something a little different. This time I want to write in terms of deviance Continue reading “How to deviate from climate change destruction – the case of the Great Barrier Reef”

Why Psychology fails to explain the Global Financial Crisis

Listening to Australian historian Robert Mann’s recent lecture at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on whether neo-liberalism has a future, I was struck by the deficiency of the rush to psychological explanation. In seeking to analyse the supposed inadequacies of the free-market ideology, there is an increasing tendency to rely on psychology as the master discipline, the new ‘commmon sense’ that will unlock the secrets of collective human behaviour. Just as the neo-liberals championed the perfectly rational economic actor, homo economicus, who as an individual is unrecognisable from any other perfectly rational individual, so the latest commentators attempt to correct and complete the picture by pointing out that this vision misses out humanity’s essential irrationalism, epitomised by a host of psychological quirks – which set the bounds for Kahneman and Tversky’s bounded rationality. But whether for or against the unfettered free market, these supposedly conflicting approaches share much more than they disagree on: namely a confidence that what goes on in our heads is what it’s all about. Continue reading “Why Psychology fails to explain the Global Financial Crisis”

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.

Accountability is the problem, now what’s the solution?

Individualist social organisation operates on the assumption that accountability structures and measures are the problem, not the solution. They act as a brake on the forward momentum of heroic risk. Who dares wins. The only accountability required is clearly success or failure in the market. Accountability is an obstacle to success that needs to be overcome. On this view, it’s hard to see how accountability structures could be ‘reformed’. The only thing worth doing with accountability is to dismantle it.

Now that the dust of the global financial crisis is beginning to settle, one of the key lessons learned seems to be Continue reading “Accountability is the problem, now what’s the solution?”

Is Grid-Group cultural theory really a theory?

It was a trick of course. Yesterday I used Grid-Group cultural theory to ‘predict’ the Fatalist viewpoint of Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan. But like the magician who successfully predicted the lottery numbers, it’s more about sleight of hand than about actual magic…

Despite the name, cultural theory isn’t really a theory at all. It’s a conceptual scheme – an heuristic we use, it might be argued, because we are cognitive misers and like making short cuts in our thinking. The world is big and hard to understand, so we make biased assumptions about what ‘usually’ happens, what ‘must’ happen, or what ‘really’ happens, what ‘the facts of the matter’ are, and so on. (to give just one example from millions, some more, some less trivial: Nick Cave’s deep-voiced assertion, ‘People they ain’t no good’). Moreover, we don’t just get these ideas out of our own heads somehow. They are embodied in the institutions in which we participate, from the family mealtime to the Copenhagen Climate summit, so that they are accounts of actual reality as we experience it. They really do explain how the world is – at least parts of it – so that our ideas seem like common sense. It is argued that these cultural biases or cultural solidarities coalesce into four basic ‘ideal types’, the four cultures for Grid-Group Cultural theory. But can we actually measure this? And can we really use the result to predict anything? Continue reading “Is Grid-Group cultural theory really a theory?”