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.

Advertisements

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

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

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?”

Puzzling over the economics of academic journals

Oliver Marc Hartwich of the Centre for Independent Studies wrote in the Australian about the academic journal industry. He was just as puzzled about it as Fourcultures has been. Continue reading “Puzzling over the economics of academic journals”

Fortify your group with religious belief! Homing in on the God Gene

NY Times God Gene Graphic“Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.”

An article in the New York Times, In Search of the God Gene, flies a kite for religion as an evolutionary benefit. But it takes a very particular view of what religion amounts to. According to the article the traits regarded as religion are those that promote a [high-group, low-grid]  egalitarian society, but then also those which favour a [high group, high grid] hierarchical society. However, the view that these cultures are the most effective and therefore the most likely to be selected for in evolutionary terms does not stand up to scrutiny. It begs the question of the relationship of nature to culture. Neither does it take account of the possibility raised by Cultural Theory of [low grid,  low group] Individualist, or [high grid, low group] Fatalist religions and religious practices.

No organised religion in the world today is claimed to have lasted more than 40,000-60,000 years. Most are far, far younger than this. Indeed we could characterise religion itself as a very recent phenomenon, far too recent to have affected evolution to any significant extent. Supposedly timeless ‘Religious’ practices such as ritual dancing or induced trance states are so general as to transcend any useful definition of religion, or else not actually necessary for a definition of religion.

The evidence cited in the article itself contradicts the claim that religion helps societies to survive over generations. Note that far from being static, the religious activities identified in the NY Times article change and involve discontinuity. Communal religious dancing floor, ancestor cult shrine, astronomical temple – it is our modern category of religion that links these structures, not the experience of those societies which changed, perhaps drastically, from one to the next. What seems to be selected for, if that is the right term, is the ability of humans to abandon their religious beliefs and practices and adopt different ones, often radically different ones. Apostacy seems to be the intergenerational norm, and even loyalty as the intra-generational norm can take a big hit from time to time. Letters of reply to the article were interesting, with some supporting the alternative view that religion is a byproduct of evolution, not a factor, and others pointing out that many ethically questionable human behaviours can be seen as adaptive.

Do genes drive culture? New developments in culture-gene coevolutionary theory

A recently published  research paper lends support to the idea that genes and culture influence one another mutually, effectively co-evolving. A link has been proposed between the collectivism-individualism scale of national cultures and a gene that affects the supply of seratonin to the body, the seratonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR. A media-friendly summary of the research is available. On the background to biocultural anthropology see Bindon (2007).

The method used for measuring culture is interesting and fairly well documented (Hofstede 2001; Hofstede and McRae 2004). The individualism-collectivism scale is similar to the ‘group’ dimension in Grid-Group Cultural Theory.

This leads to a number of questions:

  1. If 5-HTTLPR can be seen as a ‘group’ gene (i.e. its prevalence is correlated with a communal rather than individual culture), does this mean we should now be looking for a ‘grid’ gene, to confirm or deny the typology of Cultural Theory? To be specific, the individualist-collectivist scale only allows for one type of collectivist culture (ie. collectivist) whereas from a Cultural Theory perspective there is clearly more than one basic type, namely Hierarchical collectivism (high grid) and Egalitarian collectivism (low grid). It is hard to say prima facie that these two types are so similar to one another that no further distinction needs to be made. The same goes for the two types of individualist cultural bias, Fatalist (high grid) and Individualist (low grid).
  2. Or, if the group dimension needs to be augmented with the grid dimension, what does this mean for the results of a study that claims to have described regional cultures in terms of only one dimension? It was anthropologist Mary Douglas’s claim that the group dimension, individualism-collectivism, was not on its own enough to describe cultural biases, and that a fourfold typology was necessary. If this is so, we could hypothesise that in the seratonin study, there will be interference caused by the unexamined ‘grid’ dimension, that needs to be controlled for, or otherwise accounted for.
  3. The argument of the paper is strongly functionalist. That is, culture is seen to have a clear function in relation to the mental health and genetic makeup of individuals, and reciprocally, genetic makeup is seen to have a function in relation to mental health within its cultural context.  This seems to have implications for the ways in which Grid-group cultural theory might develop in engagement with genetic and other biological studies of this kind.
  4. The paper also accepts fairly uncritically the claim of ‘cultural consonance’, that where individuals, in their own beliefs and behaviours, conform to widely shared cultural models, there is a lower incidence of psychological distress (Dressler et al. 2007). I’m concerned about the normative implications of such a claim, that cultural consonance (and possibly cultural conformity) might be seen as desirable because it reduces psychological distress. This contrasts with, for instance, Robert K Merton’s views of deviance, in which besides conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion are alternative was of engaging with cultural norms and goals.

References

Bindon, James R. (2007). “Biocultural linkages — cultural consensus, cultural consonance, and human biological research”. Collegium Antropologicum 31: 3–10.

Joan Y. Chiao and Katherine D. Blizinsky
Culture–gene coevolution of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene Proc. R. Soc. B published online before print October 28, 2009, doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.1650

Dressler, William W., Mauro C. Balieiro, Rosane P. Ribeiro and José Ernesto Dos Santos (2007) Cultural consonance and psychological distress: examining the associations in multiple cultural domains. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Volume 31, Issue 2, 195 – 224.

Hofstede, G (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hofstede, G. & McCrae, R. (2004) Personality and culture revisited: linking traits and dimensions of culture. Cross-Cult. Res. 38, 52–88.

How to be a better tipper: Learning and working the four cultures of tipping

Are you one of those people who are never quite sure whether it’s appropriate to leave a tip, or is it always quite obvious to you? What about when visiting a different country? Do you rely on the tipping section of your guidebook, or do you figure that since you’ll be leaving tomorrow you can freeload and leave nothing? Have you ever insisted on giving a tip and found this insistence offended your hosts, or have you had the opposite experience of offending by walking straight out? Perhaps like Nigel Richardson, trying to get it right leaves you ‘feeling like a chimp at the Ritz’.

Do you understand tipping culture, or is it all just too subtle?

[Image credit: Marcin Wichary]

In the forty-odd years it has been around Grid-group cultural theory has been used to cast light on many kinds of social interaction, and this year it has been applied to the sometimes fraught process of tipping. Continue reading “How to be a better tipper: Learning and working the four cultures of tipping”

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”

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?”