Filed under: Politics, Public policy, Social brain, The RSA, Uncategorized
Although I took time out to watch the boats, I am spending much of the Jubilee weekend continuing to think about my forthcoming RSA annual lecture, which aims to add depth to the 21st century enlightenment thesis. If you have a spare ten minutes I would be ever so grateful for views….
In a recent post I offered a rationale for examining social problems first as ‘power to’ problems (broadly assuming policy makers and public want the same outcome) while recognising this approach might disclose ‘power over’ issues (in which one set of interests are in conflict with another).
There is an important consequence of seeing problems as ‘power to’ not ‘power over’. In the latter case the amount of power in society is, broadly speaking, assumed to be fixed. The main questions are who holds that power and to what purposes they put it. But in the former case the power available to address a desired change is a function not primarily of the distribution of a fixed quantum of power, but more of the degree to which factors such as insight, co-ordination, mobilisation and leadership are applied to the problem.
One way of thinking about difficult and complex (‘wicked’) problems – like how affordably to provide care and dignity to older people, to provide children with equal life chances in a liberal market economy, to foster a culture of learning and enterprise among employers and employees, to increase economic prosperity while living within environmental constraints – is through the prism of cultural theory (more descriptively called the theory of plural rationality).
I have written extensively about these ideas before. The framework began with the anthropological findings of Mary Douglas and the development of grid-group theory. Douglas proposed that the characteristics of societies, and groups in societies, could be plotted against a group axis based on the strengths of membership ties and shared values, and a grid axis based on the level and fixedness of social hierarchy. This led to the development of a two by two matrix of low group, low grid (e.g. a trading floor), low group, high grid (e.g. prison), high group, low grid (e.g. a commune) and high group, high grid (e.g. an organised religion). Each type emerged from and reinforced culture and habits thus creating a powerful perspective on social reality.
As a typology this offered an interesting way of thinking about groups and institutions and for understanding why different worldviews can be difficult to reconcile. But the idea became much more powerful when a number of thinkers started to explore how positions in the matrix were reflected in predispositions towards action. As grid group theory became cultural theory, four ways of thinking about change were mapped on to the matrix; the individualistic (low grid, low group), the fatalistic (high grid, high group), the egalitarian (low grid, high group) and the hierarchical (high grid, high group).
To make this more concrete we can describe how these perspectives translate into different views on a challenge, say, climate change: The individualistic perspective is optimistic about the adaptability of humans and nature and expects, given free reign and the right incentives, ingenuity, markets and technology to solve the problem. The fatalistic perspective may be inclined to scepticism about the whole issue but assumes that even if climate change if real and man-made nothing will be done about it until it is too late, or if anything is done it will have other adverse consequences. The egalitarian perspective argues that climate change can only be addressed through a fundamental change involving all citizens committing to more socially responsible and sustainable ways of living. The hierarchical perspective emphasises the need for leadership, an alliance of scientists, policy experts and political leaders committing to a rational global framework to reduce and allocate emissions.
As Michael Thompson has argued, these perspectives apply not only to the response to climate change but also reflect different views of nature itself; individualists tend to see nature as resilient, egalitarians see it is as fragile, the hierarchical views sees it as needing careful risk management while fatalists view nature as inherently unreliable and unpredictable.
Whilst typologies imply fixed and stable states, recent cultural theory has added an insight that introduces change and offers a perspective on complexity. Thompson and others argue that the perspectives gain much of their energy from their opposition to each other. For example, hierarchists are united and inspired by their resistance to the irresponsibility of individualists, the unrealism of egalitarians and the apathy of fatalists.
As Mary Douglas herself put it, praising how cultural theorists had built on her initial observations:
The brilliant stroke was to introduce the idea of competition between cultures. They compete for members, compete for prestige, compete for resources. What had started as a static mapping of cultures upon organisations was thereby transformed into a dynamic theoretical system. It made a double attack on methodological individualism and on philosophical relativism. It put cultural theory into the heart of policy analysis and ethical theory.
It is important to appreciate that the four perspectives are not consistent within individuals. Not only might I be hierarchically minded at work, egalitarian in my politics, individualistic in my personal life and fatalistic when watching West Brom, but when entering a new situation which calls forward a view of power and change my response will be conditioned by the interplay of my personality, current predisposition and the existing configuration of perspectives in that situation.
Here, largely intuitively, I add my own suggestion. The four categories of cultural theory can be seen to have a fractal quality.
Remembering that grid group theory arose from the rich empirical base of multiple observations of a range of ‘primitive’ tribes, it could be suggested that at the base of many behavioural dilemmas lie four possible human responses; do what I am told (hierarchy), do what the group does/is right for the group (egalitarian), do what I want (individualistic), and it doesn’t matter what I do (fatalistic).
Imagine a child’s birthday party: some children will obediently follow the advice of adults and the rules of games, others will pay particular attention to ensuring that everyone is joining in, while some children will compete fiercely to win games even if this involves a little cheating. A final group seems only to be going through the motions, slightly in a world of their own. The adults observing these behaviours might want to reflect on the ways their messages to the children reinforce these behavioural responses, sometimes emphasising obedience to the rules of the party and the games, other times encouraging ‘fairness’ and calling on the children to attend to the needs to their friends while occasionally – particularly on behalf of their own child – geeing them up to win the games and applauding them when they do. Indeed, one research study (can’t lay my hands on the reference right now) has found the four cultural theory responses to be observable in primary school classrooms.
The degree to which these modes are ingrained or learned could be tested by a combination of social psychological experiments and the use of brains scans to see whether it is possible to identify distinct neurological processes aligning with the different responses.
If this basic structure of options holds true it would need some evolutionary explanation: why have these four responses evolved? An hypothesis can be sketched. As a species that has culture, meaning and the ability to make its own decisions, we need hierarchy for order and social organisation, but were we to be uncritical of hierarchy we would be vulnerable to being destroyed by the folly and self-interest of leaders and their Gods. Similarly, while we need bonds of reciprocity and solidarity to function in groups, over weaning egalitarianism would lead to social stasis through resistance to change whether generated internally and through contact with out groups. Individualism is necessary for survival and the competition which drives performance and innovation, but were we only to listen to the voice saying ‘do what you want’ there soon really would be no such thing as society. Finally, fatalism is necessary for us to cope with being the only species carrying the terrible awareness of our own individual mortality, but were humans to have been in thrall to fatalism then our species would surely have long since given up the ghost.
As evolved instincts, this four-mode cognitive switching mechanism is then embedded in cultural and institutional form at every level where different modes of response to change are available, from a household argument to global policy-making.
Given that these categories of response are inherent in human cognition and are culturally ubiquitous, and given that they are bound in a continual process of competition, in which the success of one by empowering the others gives rise to its own overthrow, then strategies which rely on human behaviour for their success need to take account of all four responses. This is why cultural theorists advocate what they call ‘clumsy solutions’ – strategies that take into account each response and seek to turn these into aspects of the strategy rather than for the alternative (if they are excluded) of them emerging as sources of failure/forms of resistance.
Which brings us back to ‘power to’ or the lack of it. Remember that cultural theory has three active modes (hierarchical, egalitarian, individualistic) but also – crucially – one passive mode (fatalism). Clumsy solutions seek to draw on the respective power in each mode (its insights, methods and tools) and to combine them to solve or at least mitigate a problem.
But what if the problematic of developing such solutions lies not only in the need for clumsiness (as against the flawed neatness of solutions which exclude one or more modes), but also in the internal strength of each mode? If we want to construct an arch of clumsy solutions and not fall back on the barren ground of fatalism, we need to do so on three sound pillars of active rationality.
To clarify: not every problem needs a clumsy solution, nor is every situation or institution one that relies equally or substantially on each mode. To refer to today’s news stories; we understand armies in action are overwhelmingly hierarchical, street parties are egalitarian and tennis tournaments are individualistic. The attempts to impose the ‘wrong’ mode in any of these circumstances would be immediately jarring. (Although, remembering the fractal point earlier; within each mode there will be sub-variants of the other modes, for example the bossy guy tending to over-organise the street party or the Private leading a disparaging conversation with his colleagues about the unreasonable leadership by the brigade captain).
But the kinds of problem almost certain to need a clumsy solution are the ‘wicked problems’ with which I began this post. Not only are we finding it difficult to solve these problems but we are losing faith in our ability to do so; in the developed world there has in recent decades been a marked trend toward social pessimism. Could it be that this reflects not just the challenge of developing and negotiating clumsy solutions but also the relative weaknesses/delusions of each mode? The ‘power to’ deficit is not just a problem of combining elements but of the state of those elements themselves.
It is this thesis that will be the subject of subsequent posts. Here are four brief points upon which I hope to elaborate.
1. The argument that hierarchy is in crisis has almost become a cliché, having versions stretching from the legitimation crisis identified by Habermas in the 1970s to the disruptive implications of new technology described by writers like Clay Shirky. Equally, a crisis in egalitarian bonding and solidarity can be linked to changes in the modern world including rising affluence and growing geographical mobility. This may be why the modern condition often feels like a disorienting mixture of individualism and fatalism.
Yet, as cultural theory tells us, these currently dominant modes are subject to their own internal tensions and any society that underplays hierarchy and egalitarianism is lopsided and frail. A fruitful approach to social analysis may therefore be to examine concretely the state of play of each of the active modes at the level of society as a whole. Individualism may be dominant but is it possible that the limited competition from ailing hierarchy and a weak egalitarianism is what has led this impulse to become hubristic, self-defeating and therefore ultimately frail?
2. Moving from analysis to interpretation, cultural theory intriguingly suggests a policy of generous pluralism. In the face of complex issues, at any level from the home to Whitehall, the enlightened individualist (to take one example) understands that workable solutions will benefit the development of a robust egalitarian voice, give fair due to the challenges of hierarchy, whist resisting the temptation merely to disparage the human instinct of fatalism. Imagine the wider benefits of a world where seeking to strengthen the confidence and clarity of an adversary’s case was conventionally seen as good practice.
3. In my 21st century enlightenment lecture I quoted Robert Kegan’s idea of self-authorship as a way of thinking about the kind of consciousness we needed modern citizens to attain. Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or true’ that which is merely familiar; and ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ that which is only strange”.
Applying cultural theory might this ideal be extended from its obvious meaning as openness to other ways of living and believing to the reflexivity, recognition and respect which comes from appreciating that wherever there are difficult decisions to be made these foundational types of response are latent not only in the situation but in every one of us?.
4. At the heart of the 21st century enlightenment thesis was the suggestion that – in light of modern social challenges and new insight into human behaviour – the time has come to re-examine the core values which triumphed in the original enlightenment; autonomy, universalism and humanism. These values plot broadly on to the active modes of cultural theory; autonomy/individualism, universalism/egalitarianism, humanism/hierarchy (in that humanism is the principle that human beings should collectively order their own affairs to maximise their own interests; i.e. the technocratic doctrine of utilitarianism). In the 2010 lecture I examined how these values have become thinned out and distorted (for example, the decline of the notion of autonomy into mere possessive individualism), and the need to reconceptualise them (for example, seeing universalism not simply as an issue of extending rights but also fostering empathy and solidarity). In so doing I was unknowingly sketching a way to renew the modes of rationality that must combine to create clumsy solutions to wicked problems.
In my post yesterday, I made the case for a new public sphere in which the efforts of state, civil society and individuals are more effectively combined so as to narrow the currently growing gap between social aspirations (for both entitlements and values) and the trajectory on which we are now set. I promised today (thanks to those who kindly retweeted my promise) to identify the spaces in which change is required to develop this new public sphere.
* Political leadership: we tend to associate credibility in politicians with their ability to persuade us that they can solve social problems (in my terms, that they can single-handedly close the social aspiration gap). This needs to be reversed. The attribute we should most value in politicians is an ability to help us see that only we, the people, can close the gap and their role is simply to try to provide the most enabling context. This means a style of leadership which is more modest, more discursive, much more willing to recognise and live with uncertainty. It is a style of leadership which feels to be saying more about us and our capabilities than about the politician and his (or hers).
* System reform: big ideas people and practical innovators too often ignore systems. But having the right systems with the right incentives in place is vital to developing a more participative public sphere, and having the wrong systems can be disastrous. Being an enthusiast for the perspective of critical theory, (see for example Michael Thompson and Christopher Hood) I advocate systems which mobilise the power of hierarchy (expertise, strategy, wise regulation and accountability), of egalitarianism (shared mission and values, social solidarity, subsidiarity) and of individualism (competition, invention, ambition) whilst recognising the inevitable prevalence of fatalism (apathy, scepticism).
* Innovation: from time to time there are innovations which are so simple and powerful they have the capacity to be scaled up across whole systems. This social care initiative from Hertfordshire may be a recent example. But most innovations which seem to work do so because of specific people and places, and so are not easily replicated. The innovation challenge is less about how to scale up individual initiatives and more about how to understand and create the conditions for innovation to emerge (a combination of attitudes, skills, institutions and resources). Every city, county and service needs these ‘innovation clusters’.
* Enterprise and investment: as almost everyone involved in social finance seems to agree, the problem they face is not a lack of will or ideas, but the difficulty with turning proposals into viable social or commercial businesses. For example, payment by results contracts – which were supposed to drive innovation and efficiency – are often subsidised by providers (whether this is an appropriate use of charitable income is an interesting question). Whether social financiers and entrepreneurs can help innovators turn their ideas into sustainable businesses is an open but key question right now.
* Civic renewal: some of the change we need has to come up from communities of place, experience and interest. Progressives (those who believe the human race can and should seek to attain a higher level of development) and those who claim to speak for the disadvantaged must make a shift away from the politics of complaint and towards to the politics of mutual self-help. As Tessy Britton and others have argued, once people and organisations have mustered on the unifying, one dimensional basis of articulating grievance (which seems often to be the raison d’etre of community organising) it becomes very difficult to turn this energy towards the messy, difficult process of developing and acting on solutions.
* Re-conceptualising: here is Ivan Illich on education:
‘ Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education – and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries’.
This quote – which feels so contemporary – was written forty-one years ago. Part of re-inventing the public sphere must be about re-conceptualising core public service institutions (school, hospitals, prisons etc) which have in essence remained unchanged for a hundred and fifty years.
The point of describing the different dimensions of change (and or course, there could be other equally valid typographies) is not to provide a template for a single manifesto or strategy; the list is too broad and there are too many imponderables. But reformers should be aware of, and supportive towards, progressive movement in each domain. Innovators should care about politics, community mobilisers should understand the travails of entrepreneurs, policy wonks should get out more often. Progressively minded people should beware the cultural divide between thinking big about new paradigms and thinking in detail about practical inventions. To paraphrase Roberto Unger and Cornell West, ‘to be realists we must first be revolutionaries’.
People often ask me (OK, someone once asked me), ‘do you have any examples of clumsy solutions?’ A clumsy solution, as you will recall, is one which engages the active paradigms (egalitarianism, individualism and hierarchism) of cultural theory (as well as being aware of the ubiquity of the fourth paradigm, fatalism). In his book ‘Organising and Disorganising’ Michael Thompson offers the example of the successful relocation of Arsenal football club, involving as it did an alliance of the hierarchical actor (Islington Council), the egalitarian (the local community) and the individualist (the Club itself).
I will offer a much bigger, and more controversial, example: the NHS. Benefiting as it has done from several years of growing revenue and capital budgets the NHS is in pretty good shape. Long waits – for decades the public‘s greatest complaint – have been abolished, outcomes are improving in key treatment areas such as cancer and heart disease, and patient satisfaction levels are at an all time high. Despite the flu, the weather and the norovirus, another winter is passing without the kind of crisis we used to think inevitable. The test will be when the flow of cash starts to slow down next year but there are reasons to believe the NHS has developed broadly the right balance of change levers.
Of course, there is no shortage of hierarchical levers in the form of targets, regulation and expert frameworks. But the individualist devices of competition and patient choice are also embedded with, for example, more and more patients being aware of, and taking up, choice. The possibility of individual budgets for those with long term chronic conditions could bring another individualist driver into the system. And the recent Darzi review, with its recognition of the need for local discretion in developing health strategies and closer local collaboration between the NHS and local authorities, provides an avenue for benign forms of egalitarianism, focussed, in particular, on addressing public health.
More evidence that the balance of drivers may be broadly right can be found in the modest tone of the Conservative critique; a long way this from the hyperbole of Labour 1997 pledge to save the NHS and its subsequent disastrous dismantling of the internal market (only for it to be rebuilt five years later).
In a huge enterprise like the NHS clumsiness is a framework, not a solution. The inevitable dilemmas of the health service – national accountability versus responsiveness, integration versus competition, public health versus the medical model, and (the most difficult of all in years to come) universalism versus patient empowerment, will continue to create challenges for policy makers, managers and clinicians. These dilemmas will never be resolved but if the NHS continues to be a clumsy system they can be the context for, and not a barrier to, further progress for patients.
I promised yesterday to offer some evidence that the four categories of cultural theory are fundamental and ubiquitous. I will stick to this despite the temptation to respond to the fascinating conversation about CT taking place on my comment pages.
I offer three ways of supporting the claims made by cultural theorists. The first comes from game theory, mathematical modelling and computer simulation. This comprises various ‘proofs’ that cultural theory’s four paradigms are the only types of solution that can emerge from organisational problem solving.
Michael Thompson refers to the modelling of mathematically minded sociologists Manfred Schmutzer and Wylles Bandler which he says identified the four paradigms before cultural theory had even named them. Michael also describes in the book and in his RSA Journal article some modelling he did with Paul Tayler in which 30 firms followed the four strategies:
‘To our delight, this stylised ‘world’ with its few and simple micro level rules, once set in motion gave rise to some remarkable,…life like, whole system behaviour’
Lacking expertise in modelling and maths I don’t know how strong this evidence is. I’ll leave it to Marco and Michael to comment on whether there is more compelling, and more recent, evidence of this kind.
The second kind of evidence lies in real world examples of cultural theory. Here, cultural theorists tend to be better at identifying cases of failure than ‘clumsy’ success. Even in the one example Michael provides – the successful relocation of Arsenal football ground – it turns out that the critical factor was not just the engagement of the different paradigmatic actors but that one – the egalitarians – has enough sympathy with another (the club) to temper its instinctive oppositionalism.
However, there is a cute piece of evidence that the paradigms naturally emerge from human interactions. This comes from research with children undertaken by the philosopher Mark Nowacki. When primary school pupils who had been asked to answer questions were suddenly told that their performance would now result in an allocation of sweets, Nowacki found the same basic patterns of response emerged every time:
Nascent Egalitarian – “We should all get the same. We have to share the candy with those who didn’t get any.”
Nascent Individualist – “The candy is mine. I got it because I answered the questions.” (A fairly typical response to the Egalitarian.)
Nascent Hierarchist – “Teacher, is this right?” (These kids looked to their regular teacher to see if I was playing by the class rules)
Nascent Fatalist – “I never get any candy anyways.”
Nascent Hermit – One student exempted herself from the discussion entirely and went off to play with the toys in the corner. She wanted nothing to do with all the fuss and was perfectly happy without the candy.
Finally, and where I hope the RSA can make its own contribution, there is the idea that the paradigms are associated with hard wired neural pathways. If the five are reduced to elemental psychological responses to a problem they are:
Hierarchical – I’ll do what I’m told
Egalitarian – I’ll do what the group says
Individualist – I’ll do what I want
Fatalist – it doesn’t matter what I do
Hermit (not sure about this one) – I’m not part of this problem
I was told that Alan Fiske at UCLA had done some research that showed different activity in different parts of the brain when subjects were confronted by stories/images that reinforced different paradigms, but I can’t locate this in Fiske’s web references.
My big and highly speculative question is whether the experience we have of free will (nb ‘experience’ – I am not here asserting the existence of free will) is structured by these five basic options (although the content of any actual decision will be much richer as well as context dependent).
We hope to test these ideas in a collaboration on cultural theory and neuro-science we are developing with colleagues at UCL.
Sorry, this has been so long. Next week I want to explore the ways things go wrong when we ignore clumsiness and some idea about how managers and other social problem solvers might use CT to develop creative and inclusive organisations.
PS There is one part of the conversation on my comment pages I can’t resist mentioning. Marco Verweij admits that the term cultural theory is confusing, he prefers the clearer but more cumbersome ‘theory of plural rationality’. That’s not the only terminological problem. Trying unsuccessfully yesterday to persuade the great Steven Lukes of the value of CT I couldn’t get past his objections to the word ‘egalitarian’ especially when I suggested egalitarian impulses could sometimes be seen in right of centre political movements, for example against the European Union or opposing immigration. He offered ‘solidaristic’ as an alternative which does strike me as a more accurate term. However, Michael Thompson calls the four/five paradigms ‘solidarities’, so that may not work. One thing is clear – if social theories can’t be easily explained in clear language they are unlikely to gain purchase. Is that why CT keeps popping up in interesting places but never quite makes it to the mainstream?
Cultural theory has changed the way I think about policy dilemmas and organisational problems. It can provide insights to everyone from political commentators to community activists to managers of large organisations. Over the next few days in some – hopefully – short, accessible posts I intend to lay out the key tenets of CT as I understand them by reference to concrete examples and contemporary issues.
I have the good fortune to be in regular correspondence with two of the world’s leading cultural theorists, Marco Verweij and Michael Thompson (who wrote a piece in the last RSA Journal). They are busy guys but I am hoping to persuade them to check in and comment on the blog and any follow up chat.
The first question is what kind of explanation does cultural theory offer? At its most simple it offers a way of understanding how people try to solve problems which is more powerful than many conventional approaches.
Here are some common ways of understanding why people adopt different strategies to solve problems:
• ‘Nowt so queer as folk’: We all see a problem in the same way, but people come to different conclusions about what should be done for reasons that are random or perverse
• ‘It’s who you are in society’: People come to different conclusions depending on their own interests and status; e.g. class, status, race, gender
• ‘It’s what you believe’: People come to different conclusions reflecting their deeply held values and political attitudes
• ‘It’s the type of person you are’: People come to different conclusions because of their personalities.
Cultural theory doesn’t deny that all these factors may be relevant but it argues that social problem solving exhibits the interaction of four basic categories of response: the egalitarian, the hierarchical, the individualistic and the fatalistic.
These responses are more systematic than the ‘nowt so queer’ account allows for; they are more complex and dynamic than fixed social interests imply; they cut through and across systems of belief and political affiliation; and – while people may have personalities that predispose them to certain options – the strategy a person advocates will in practice reflect the dynamics of each different problem solving process.
Tomorrow I want briefly to describe the content of the perspectives and summarise some of the evidence for these responses being fundamental and ubiquitous. But I’ll end today with an historical and a contemporary example of cultural theory in practice.
In ‘Dilemmas of Presidential Leadership’ cultural theorists Richard Ellis and Aaron Wildavsky use CT to explore the ways Presidents from Washington to Lincoln have dealt with the circumstances and dilemmas they faced. You need to read the book, but it is typical of a CT perspective that the authors explain George Washington’s tendency to adopt pomp and ceremony whenever he could, his refusal to back the new French revolutionary Republic in its conflict with the rest of Europe, and his heavy handed crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion as examples of the dilemmas facing a hierarchical President operating in a fiercely anti-hierarchical (individualist and egalitarian) culture.
Fast forward 220 years and we see another insecure hierarchical leader, coping with what was, until very recently, an anti-hierarchical culture. Here is Rachel Sylvester writing yesterday in The Times about Gordon Brown;
“there is a sense in which the Prime Minister is dealing with the economic downturn so confidently partly because it requires greater state intervention – something with which he is instinctively comfortable”
Brown’s standing has risen because the world has come back to him; at a time of fear and insecurity, when the individualist consensus of the last thirty years has crumbled with the casino capitalism it sanctioned, we crave the certainties offered by hierarchy.
The four strategies of cultural theory are ever present options for those seeking social solutions. At certain times events strongly favour a particular response and those that advocate it. That is why a man who was just about our most unpopular ever Prime Minister six months ago has seen his standing rise and his impact grow (at home and abroad) despite being in the midst of a crisis for which most people hold him at least partially responsible.