An Outline of Cultural Theory
This stems from over 40 years' work by Professor Mary Douglas', joined by many other workers in recent decades. The existing publications are on the whole written from a somewhat dry, academic perspective. Also, we may need to adapt the broad categories somewhat, if we want them to bring light into the places where we are actually struggling in the day-to-day. Our initial task will be to delineate our own cultural biases, on the basis of the conflicts which emerge spontaneously amongst us. This will also help to break the deadlocks, and careful patterns of non-communication, which make us ineffective and often docile participants in the prevailing cultural apathy. I believe that Mary Douglas' grid and her four "cultural types" will prove to be indispensable tools for the project of cultural revolution.
Culture, thinking within us
The central argument is that there are basic cultural outlooks which can be found scattered across a wide variety of cultural contexts, aligning specific sets of issues in surprisingly stereotyped ways. EXAMPLES( - but they will come up later, anyway) This amounts to a limited set of "thought-worlds" which all of us inhabit, and which make our individual self-expression far more stereotyped than most of us would like to think. In some respects this boils down to a simple set of four cultural types; however, because these combine and interact in their own characteristic ways, it makes for a complex spectrum with highly individual flavours for every distinct sub-culture that we encounter. Nevertheless, once pointed out, these cultural types are intrusive and obvious enough for those who are able to recognize them. EXAMPLES
Thinking that borrows our body, in order to express itself.
From inside the particular thought-world we are inhabiting, many things seem completely obvious and we naturally take them for granted; yet from the perspective of a potential friend who is outside this thought-world the connections we are making will seem arbitrary or simply mistaken. There are patterns of thinking which spontaneously cluster together in very particular ways: to a great extent they seem to "think themselves" using we humans as their vehicles. EXAMPLES
They are in effect self-assembling thought worlds: appearing self-evident but actually maintained through a mixture of social reinforcement, habit, and a kind of innate plausibility. As I have said, they only seem to follow logically while you are inside them; and they are not at all self-evident to the many people who live under quite different assumptions.
This is not to discount our personal contribution to the process of thinking - but we have to recognize that our individual contributions are merely elaborations out of basic mind- sets which we ourselves never adopted on a conscious or personal basis.
Four Cultural Streams
Mary Douglas first discovered these patterns in her anthropological work in indigenous cultures. It was only later that she recognized their striking parallels in a range of cultures and culture clashes found throughout the modern world. She and her co-workers have named the four cultural styles: "hierarchical" (a.k.a. traditionalist), "egalitarian" (a.k.a.enclavist), "individualist" (a.k.a.enterprise culture) and "isolate" (a.k.a. excluded, or outcast). Douglas' number and the characterisation is not arbitrary, but is generated out of the two parameters of biological obligation, and the sense of group affiliation which all of us feel in varying degrees in different contexts. (For more details of this you will need to consult the sources.)
The individualist cultural style is in many parts of the world the most prominent; it has been the rising style in the "free enterprise" culture of the past 200 years and this makes it easy to recognize . (Most of us relate to this in the mode of feeling either an affinity, or a revulsion, towards it.) Individualism downplays biological obligations and group affiliations; it is largely anti-traditionalist, and encourages free competition, free thinking and fluid power bases which wax and wane on the basis of political manoeuvring and strategic alliance.
There is a typical attitude to nature: that she is bountiful, resilient, and available for unlimited human exploitation. The individualist cultural type can also be thought of as a "gang" ethos in contrast to the "commune" ethos of the egalitarian type. In the modern and post-modern worlds Individualism has found itself in competition both with traditional authority and with the egalitarian cultural style. (Egalitarianism is the other style which claims exclusive rights to being the way of the future.)
This corresponds to a traditional, pious, and hierarchical culture in which nature is trusted as a nurturing container for society on condition she be treated with an appropriate reverence. The highly complex and social and cultural rules which everyone is expected to obey without question, are often not perceived as rules but instead will tend to be felt as the natural order of things. To a certain extent most of us are secret traditionalists, insofar as we have our own set of habits, values and outlooks which we follow without question. We may not recognize how this covertly situates us within hierarchical forms of organisation.
Here the role positions tend to be very fluid - because fixed rules are felt to be a violation of the spontaneous natural order. There is a fierce sense of justice, which is meant to apply to every person without regard to their position or role in society. This cultural world often entails a sense of nature as being dangerously fragile. Life is readily beset by innumerable taboos, such that we easily become unworthy or unclean through the infraction.
Mary Douglas, from the time of her earliest research found a correlation between the egalitarian type of culture and a strong sense of the boundary between the "inside" of the tribal world and the "outside". The forces outside the tribal nexus are often perceived as hostile, invasive or impure. Because of the fluid social roles there is often uncertainty about how one is supposed to behave; this leads to a high level of misunderstanding and cross-purpose, which can extend to a ready suspicion of others as possible carriers of malign influences from "the outside". Sharpness of the boundary is also a feature of the Hierarchical mode, but in this latter case the boundary is maintained in a more spontaneous and habitual way and therefore does not give rise to problems in the same way.
There are primitive tribes who correspond to the "Isolate" cultural type; they live in an uncertain world dominated by environmental instability and often pressure or abuse from neighbouring cultural groups. Fate and luck (often bad luck) can be dominating features of the world as it is perceived here. Unsurprisingly, Nature often appears to be capricious and unfriendly. This broad cultural outlook is also characteristic of the "underclass" of many modern and traditional societies - people who are excluded, but are nevertheless subjected to the pressures, the rules and the laws exerted by other social groups.
The "isolate" type includes a wealth of variation
As a result of my extensive study of Charlotte Bach's theories of cultural evolution, I am inclined to include within the "isolate" type a whole spectrum of paradoxical individuals: criminals, addicts, lunatics, artistic geniuses, shamans and religious visionaries. Many of these people are disguised as relatively normal members of another, host culture. Or as artists or leaders they may be granted a fragile honorary status by the majority. This high status is as easily snatched away as it is granted; it can also be conferred posthumously.
Gods of Management
In a remarkable corroboration of Mary Douglas' theory, Charles Handy (in The Gods of Management) has distinguished four strongly contrasted management styles. Their different personalities are of such archetypal clarity that he was moved to name them after Greek Gods: Zeus, Athena, Appolo and Dionysus. It is possible that Handy had some prior acquaintance with Mary Douglas' work (I shall have to find out from him), but his account is so powerfully infused with his own experience of the business and management worlds it makes me think he must have developed his concepts largely (perhaps completely) independently of Douglas.
Zeus is the organisational culture centred on the strong authority of one man, but often in a relaxed "club" environment where everyone knows their role and how to function - and is allowed maximum autonomy within the limits of "how the boss would like things to be". Recruitment is often through the extended family network, or the Old School Tie - informal and based on whether or not the boss feels you would "fit in".
Athena is the flexible, egalitarian work group which typically thrives on limited, small assignments where adaptability to new conditions is at a premium; the group thrives on the willingness of each individual to use their talents in committed and flexible ways to meet the constantly shifting contour of the task at hand.
- The Appolonian organisation is perfectly regulated, highly differentiated and hierarchical. It is perfectly adapted to a demanding but stable environment where standard procedures can be evolved and tailored to the prevailing circumstances. In such an environment a large-scale highly organised operation has an irresistible competitive advantage. This is how IBM and General Motors used to be in their heyday. It is a world that appeals to people who like plenty of order in their lives, a well defined place with predictable pathways to self-advancement and a task profile which remains constant through time.
Dionysus is the maverick genius, the talent who is irreplaceable and can therefore force the organisation to accept his/her contribution on his/her own terms. Dionysus makes his own rules, and is free to break even these whenever he feels like it. He does not fit into the team, and - appearing a bit strange and untrustworthy - would be excluded from the organisation altogether if they thought they could do without him.
They are probably all inter-dependent really
Handy's work also emphasises that none of these styles succeeds in maintaining a perfect equilibrium within a modern, pluralistic environment. Each organisational style has its own particular strengths and weaknesses - and in the long term each helps to create an environment which contains hospitable niches for the advance and empowerment of one or more of the others. A similar kind of cycling process has also been described by Mary Douglas and her co-workers in the evolution of cultures in a complex environment.
I have noticed that individual thinkers often break the predominant cultural mode, and may in fact be initiating major shifts in outlook by introducing - to take one example - an egalitarian strand of thought within a predominantly hierarchical world-view (I am thinking here of the philosopher Immanuel Kant). I also think that scientific innovations have caused major fractures in our cultural outlook over the past several centuries; it may be that the free speculation and testing of scientific hypotheses is a major cultural force in its own right - not corresponding very clearly to any one of the four main types. (The archetypal "mad scientist" is clearly a Dionysan kind of character, however.)
My interest here, in any case, is to initiate a new cultural practice in the form of action research which we can practice in small groups. We will aim to forge a different bond of loyalty through a more open expression of our cultural identities whilst encouraging the disjunctions and discontinuities between us to emerge and come into focus. This is more fully discussed elsewhere on this site.
Mary Douglas first published book Purity and Danger(1966) explores the subtle aspects of the lifestyle of a traditional society, the Lele people of what was then called the Belgian Congo. Only many years later did she come to see this as one "type" in a relatively simple pattern of differentiation between four main cultural types or styles. In her introduction to How Institutions Think(Syracuse UP, 1986) Professor Douglas suggests that this book should logically precede her previous four. This is because, read in the reverse order from which she wrote them, they represent a natural unfolding and detailing of the essential concept of cultural styles.
Other useful references:-
Risk and Culture
Michael Thompson, Richard Ellis, and Aaron Wildavsky: Cultural Theory 1990
S.H.Heap & A.Ross (eds.) Understanding the Enterprise Culture
© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004