I’ve been reading to prepare for the climate activist group, and have had no time for writing. Here are some brief descriptions of two of the books, with some online reading material. I intend to post more on them.
Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change addresses a wide variety of challenges to agreement, from differing abilities to see the atmosphere, nature, as something that can be altered, to good people/good economists analyzing costs and benefits very differently, to distinct views of nature and solutions held by different cultures.
Listen to Hulme here.
Hulme’s discussion on cultures, over several chapters, cites several studies from social scientists on Cultural Theory. The idea behind cultural theory, originally developed by Mary Douglas (here is her description of both the theory and its history, pdf), is that which culture we belong can be determined with just two characteristics:
• strong or weak group identity (adherence to group norms)
• strong or weak grid (methods of control, or regimentation)
As described in a Guardian article on Mary Douglas,
The four [cultural] types are plotted on a graph with two axes. The horizontal axis represents the strength of group norms, such as family and local community, while the vertical axis represents the strength of the grid – those less intimate mechanisms of control such as laws, religious authority, economic forces and institutional disciplines.
• Strong group boundaries and minimal prescriptions—egalitarian
• Strong group boundaries and strong prescriptions—hierarchical
• Bound neither group incorporation nor prescribed roles—individualistic
• Excluded from group but strong prescriptions—fatalistic
Some lists include a 5th category, those few who withdraw from what they see as coercive or manipulative social involvement altogether—hermit
You might be in one culture here and another there, but most of us don’t switch wildly from culture to culture as we go through the day. Cultural theory helps us understand the different arguments we present and encounter, but no one person spends her life in a single culture.
Most groups (your workplace, religious group, bicycling group) include people from more than one, or all, cultures, but the group itself has a cultural identity. Google and Department of Energy are examples of two different work cultures, one individualist, one hierarchical. And there can be big differences among cultures that share similarities: compare Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Catholic Church.
People adopt a culture based in part on how they see nature, and in part they see nature in a certain way to justify their way of living. The cultures we join then provide a source, as Douglas says, of “irreconcilable conflict” between members of different cultures; besides seeing the world differently from one another, our differing views are means of expressing moral principles and loyalties to our cultures. “The message for research is never to consider conflict of opinions without looking for the underlying conflict between institutional forms. Cultural attack and persecution are the spice of life for a community.” We like to think that we do better with our time than expressing superiority, but for most of us, the contrast with other cultures helps us define ourselves, orient ourselves, and feel good about ourselves.
Although Douglas’ synopsis (pdf) provides a good starting place, cultural theory is more complicated in its details.
The book Cultural Theory by Michael Thompson, Richard Ellis, and Aaron Wildavsky, provides more detailed analysis. A number of more recent books provide more updated thinking on the subject.
More reading on the web:
• Cultural cognition project
• Cultural Cognition and Public Policy
• Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus Cultural cognition shapes our beliefs about scientific consensus.
• Risk and Culture study
• Second study
Upcoming: how do different cultures see nature? How do we see the solutions to nature’s problems?