A cultural matrix

I found the idea expressed in this review somewhat intriging. An extract;

These two dimensions come together to provide a simple 2×2 matrix: high grid and high group is hierarchy; low grid and low group is individualism; high group and low grid is egalitarianism; low group and high grid is fatalism. This simple model turns out to be a powerful tool for understanding social relations, and for making sense of how people see the world. We may like to believe that we choose and shape our own beliefs—but Douglas, drawing on the work of Emile Durkheim and others—suggested that it is much easier to understand societies by turning that assumption on its head: societies and institutions think through us much more than the other way around.

Within a hierarchical culture, the world is seen as controllable so long as the right structures are in place. Most governments tend towards hierarchy. It is the natural worldview of civil servants, political leaders and of most of the consultants working in and around big business and governments. To every problem there is a solution—so long as it is firmly enough implemented by a sufficiently powerful leader or elite.

In an egalitarian worldview, problems usually arise from too much hierarchy and inequality, and not enough bonding and solidarity. More discussion with more people is an unmitigated good, and any measures which widen inequalities are to be resisted. In an individualistic worldview, the answer to problems is more freedom—let people determine their own choices and things will come right. Dissent is to be celebrated; rebels are heroes, and the world is made, and remade, by the imagination and energy of individuals. The fatalistic worldview is most common among people with little power or experience of power.


7 thoughts on “A cultural matrix

  1. Inteersting. Who ever came up with that idea must have been a management consultant – they can explain anything in terms of a 2×2 matrix.

    Though I prefer the political compass as a better continuum of political worldwiews.

    A couple of issues I have with the cultural matrix:

    – If it is 2×2 what do the dimensional axes signify (e.g. on the political compass one axis is your approach to economic management, the other your attitute to stae control vs invididual liberty)

    – the diagonal opposites don’t seem to line up. According to the model, hierarchy is the diametric opposite of individualism (libertarianism?), and fatalism is the diametric opposite of egalitariansim. It doesn’t seen to fit as a grid, rather a list of four possible world views. Who’s to say there aren’t others?

    – “fatalism” is really a bit of a nothing worldview. It should be in the middle rather on one extremity.

  2. One axis is your cultural affinity towards collective sharing of problems and benefits. The other axis is your affinity towards rules and power structures as a means to solving problems. Culturally I think I’d regard myself as something of an egalitarian even whilst politically being libertarian. Like the egalitarian sterotype in the article I think people should talk to eachother more.

  3. I agree with Papa about fatalism… the way I see it, it isn’t a 2×2 matrix, but a triangle.

    At the top point of the triangle, you’d have Authoritarianism; at the bottom left, Egalitarianism; and bottom right, Individualism. Fatalism, essentially being the absence of the others, would be the centre of the triangle.

    Reminds me of the ethical system of the musical Into the Woods, where we have the ethics of Good, Nice and Right. This story picks up where all the other fairy tales left off (you didn’t really think they lived happily ever after, did you?) After Jack’s brutal murder of the giant, the giant’s wife comes for revenge. She threatens to destroy the village unless the people hand over Jack, which they refuse to do. The village witch makes the observation of the villagers, “You’re not Good, you’re just Nice!” – and attempts to hand Jack over to the giant, saying “I’m not Good or Nice, I’m just Right”.

    “Nice” people don’t make hard moral choices, but do look out for the tribe – as long as it’s their tribe. In the above story, they ultimately band together and slay the giantess, even though they recognise Jack’s guilt.

    “Good” people follow a moral system from an outside authority. If they existed in the above story, they might want to set up an agreement where the parties recognise each others right to exist, and set in place a procedure of due process to determine Jack’s guilt and any punishment involved.

    “Right” people will try to make tough decisions – in the above case to minimise suffering – but aren’t as “personable” in dealing with other people as the Nice.

  4. Ah but Terje – a socialist would argue that you can’t be libertarian and egalitarian, as libertarians are inherently individualist (selfish). They would say you have to be socialist to be egalitarian.

    Socialists like to maintain the moral high ground of equality for themselves.

    My counter to that is that libertarians are egalitarian in that they support the notion of equal opportunity for all (via free markets for e.g.), but accept that we weren’t born equal, and there will be unequal outcomes as a result of people’s abilities.

    Socialists, on the other hand beleive in equality by force, regardless of people’s nautural abilities.

  5. I’d just like to re-focus the discussion here. I like the work of Mary Douglas not because it quarters us, just like any other 2×2 matrix, but because it uses a Cultural Theory of Risk to explain why four (and not 3 or 5 or 2) are about right in explaining social/cultural artefacts, and why some social practices (celibacy, ascetisism, iconoclasm at one extreme) become associated as a style reflecting/expressing ideals dear to some political movement at a certain time.

    The theory explains the social engine of cultural and political change which are not directly dependent on economic factors. It is dependant on an individual’s perception of risk, and how we, as such individuals seek to co-operate together in groups.

    It is something quite sophisticated, and something a direct mapping onto other 2×2 matrices completely misses. especially if one fail to notices that that mapping may shift over time as some values become re-aligned with regard their power in expressing/representing a perception of risk (to nature/morality).

    In it one can identify one’s own preference, and so, perhaps, realise that other people’s preferences make some sort of sense, and that there is no need to fear them, no requirement to just tolerate them, but appreciate that their preferences are just as necessary as mine.

    If only to maintain a pool of responses as situations changes.

    I do not fear the madman, only their extremism, their singular desire to wipe out the other perceptions of risk as ever being valid. Fundamentalism is at root based in fear that there is difference at all.

    Generally, political 2×2 matrices can act as a map, and allow teams to eye each other off, but these maps do not try to explain how they come about, nor how they change, nor, perhaps, how they require each other to even exist.

  6. Well the link to Cultural Theory of Risk spends a fair bit of time quartering us. Not that I mind the process. I think we learn a lot about ourselves when we see clear patterns that explain differences between people. If anything such quartering processes, that allow me to better understand people, will generally make me more tolerant not less.

  7. well, the key point is that the biases are not ‘egalitarian’, ‘individualist’ etc but that the perception of risk is biased, and those quarterings are the result of a process …

    I preferr to think of them fractally anyway, each quarter is itself quartered and so ad infinitum, or at least until a phase change

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