On the relationship between behaviour and context in Cultural Theory

In reply to Matthew Taylor’s  question over at his RSA blog:

“how can it be true both that there are some social environments which encourage particular attitudes and behaviours (which could be said broadly to fit an egalitarian outlook) while, at the same time, in relation to any specific problem or decision, a set of conflicting responses (of which egalitarianism is only one) will emerge?”

1) Scale is crucial. Just as there isn’t a single rationality but four, neither is there a single scale. At one scale of operation, one of the four cultures may be dominant, and may seem to be a good fit with the landscape, but at other scales other cultural biases may be a better fit. See the work of ecologist Buzz Holling on this.

2) Similarly, time is also crucial. The social-ecological model of Holling and others in the Resilience Alliance suggests that ecological succession has a social counterpart. What appears optimal at one moment will become less optimal as time changes the environment, so that alternative problems arise, leading to alternative solutions and alternative institutions.

3) The ability to defect is also crucial. I have been quite taken with a cellular automata problem called the density classification problem. In short this seems to suggest that even in simple mechanistic systems, total knowledge is impossible. This means there is always room for the dominant answers to be wrong and for defectors from the main view to get it more nearly correct. Given that a) social-ecological systems are far more complex than cellular automata and b) evolution has fine-tuned human responses to problem solving, it seems possible that human society is an environment which rewards a dominant viewpoint without punishing too severely a minority of dissidents.

A Month of Resilience

This month Four Cultures is going to be considering Resilience and its connection with Grid-group Cultural Theory.

By Resilience I mean the cross-disciplinary scientific approach inspired by the work of Canadian ecologist Buzz Holling, and promoted in a number of places, especially through the Resilience Alliance and through the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

There’s a video of him from his award of the Volvo Environment Prize in November 2008.

Redundancy and Resilience

Redundancy is a marvellous buffer against shocks to the system. When the primary system breaks down, we need only switch to the backup with no great harm done – provided of course there is a backup. In this way, redundancy can be seen as a kind of insurance policy.

The big problem for us is that we’ve just spent more than sixty years systematically destroying the backup systems in the name of efficiency. Just think of the connotations of the very term: in contemporary speech, redundancy sounds by definition to be something you need to get rid of as soon as possible.

Resilience theory (see the Resilience Alliance website) observes that in social-ecological systems the moment of greatest efficiency is also the moment of greatest brittleness. Continue reading