Understanding How Cultures Change

Excerpt of book by Geoff Mulgan on Social Innovation: How Societies Find the Power to Change: “…There are very few thinkers who have changed how we see the world, and even fewer who have changed how we think about how we see the world. Mary Douglas was one of the very rare exceptions. Her field was culture, but she was as unlike the stereotypical cultural academic as one could imagine. A devout Catholic whose late husband was head of research at Conservative Central Office, she used the decades after she passed retirement age in an extraordinary flowering of enquiry that provided striking insights in fields as diverse as the study of the Old Testament and the politics of climate change.

She was a rare example of a public intellectual whose theoretical apparatus allowed her to think in original ways about almost any topic—for example, in her ideas on enclaves, the small groups which at their most extreme become terrorist cells. Where others emphasize their strengths, she emphasized their weaknesses: how prone they are to splits and sectarianism, and how hard it is for their founders to impose and enforce rules. To survive, they create around themselves what she called a ‘wall of virtue’—the sense that they alone uphold justice, while all around them are suspect. Yet the very thing that binds them together encourages individuals to compete to demonstrate their own virtue and the failings of their peers. The only thing that can override this fragility is fear of the outside world—and so sects, whether political or religious, peaceful or violent, feed off the fear and hostility of states and societies, using it to reinforce their own solidarity and their own sense of virtue. The implication is clear, and challenging, for Western governments: in the long term, defeating terrorism depends on ratcheting fear down, not up, and on dismantling the “walls of virtue” rather than attacking them head on with declarations of war….

In each of these fields Douglas’s work set in motion new schools of thought. Perhaps the most fertile of all of these is now being used to make sense of why so many well-intentioned policies fail, and why some others succeed even though they appear to work less well on paper. Her starting point is a deceptively simple framework which she repeatedly used to make sense of organizations and societies. It is a framework which should be part of the mental furniture of any educated person, as basic as the laws of supply and demand in economics, or the laws of thermodynamics.

Any culture, she argues, can be mapped on two dimensions. On one axis is what she calls the “grid”—the extent to which behaviors and rules are defined and differentiated, for example by public rules deciding who can do what according to their age, race, gender or qualifications. Examples of a high grid would be a traditional corporation, a traditional agrarian society or families with clear demarcations of roles and times (when to eat, when to go to bed). On the other axis is what she calls “group”—the extent to which people bond with each other and divide the world into insiders and outsiders. The more people do with a group of other people, the more they experience testing trials, or the more difficult the group is to get into, the higher the sense of group belonging will be.

These two dimensions come together to provide a simple two-by-two matrix: high grid and high group mean hierarchy; low grid and low group mean individualism; high group and low grid lead to egalitarianism; and low group and high grid result in fatalism. This very simple model has turned 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 Émile Durkheim and others, suggests that it’s 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….(More)”.