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Page HeadlineGrid/Group Cultural Theory: A Primer for Policy Scholars

Digging Theories in Environmental Policy and Management Seminar

Hank Jenkins-Smith

Oklahoma University 

As developed in anthropology (Douglas 1966; 1970; 1990) and later introduced into political science (Wildavsky 1987), cultural theory argues that four distinctive worldviews or “cultural biases”—egalitarianism, hierarchism, individualism, and fatalism—serve as the primary combinations of values that guide how individuals formulate both broad social orientations and derive more specific policy perspectives (Wildavsky 1987). CT worldviews are derived from the manner in which individuals (and, by aggregation, groups) respond to two distinctive dimensions that characterize social relations (sometimes referred to as dimensions of sociality). The first is the “group” dimension, which concerns the degree to which individuals understand themselves to be incorporated into and defined by bounded units or social collectivities. Best conceived as a continuum, the group dimension is bounded at the “low-group” end by the perspective that individuals stand outside group boundaries, completely identified (by both self and others) as autonomous actors who (for better or worse) are dependent for survival on their own devices. The “high group” end of the continuum is defined by those who see themselves as fully defined by their group affiliations, through which individual preferences and choices are largely subject to group determination. The second dimension of sociality within CT is “grid,” which refers to the degree to which patterns of interactions in individuals’ lives are circumscribed by externally imposed prescriptions, like rules, norms, laws, and traditions. At the low grid continuum, individuals face few (if any) societally imposed limits (and, by the same token, little guidance) on how relationships are to be transacted. Transactions between and among individuals will require the establishment (negotiation) of terms, which provides leeway but may add to transaction costs, uncertainties and (in some cases) lost opportunities. At the high end, a thicket of externally imposed rules and guidance, constraining and channeling options while reducing uncertainties, binds interactions with others. When the group and grid dimensions are overlaid, they produce four quadrants that combine the relative prescriptions of grid with the relative attachments to group resulting in the four distinctive worldviews defined by CT: hierarchism, individualism, egalitarianism, and fatalism (Dake 1991; Rayner 1992; Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky 1990; Wildavsky and Dake 1990; Mamadouh 1999). As explained by Wildavsky, opting into one or another of the quadrants is a matter of “choosing preferences by constructing institutions” (1987).[2] The pattern of grid/group cultural orientations is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1.1.bmp

Persons or groups disposed to a hierarchical worldview, with meaningful group identities and binding prescriptions (high group, high grid), will place the welfare of the group before their own, and will be keenly aware of whether other individuals are members of the group or outsiders. Hierarchs will prefer that people have defined roles in society, and will tend to place great value on procedures, lines of authority, social stability, and order. By contrast, an individualist (low group, low grid) experiences little if any group identity, and feels bound by few structural prescriptions. Individualists dislike constraints imposed upon them by others, and will tend to expect people by and large to fend for themselves. The kinds of procedural and relational prescriptions preferred by hierarchs will seem to individualists (when applied to them) to be cumbersome impediments to the kinds of transactions that allow one to get ahead in life. In contrast, those disposed to an egalitarian worldview (high group, low grid) seek strong group identities and prefer minimal external prescriptions. They prefer a society based on equality within the group, rather than one variegated by rank and status. Egalitarians tend to exhibit a powerful sense of social solidarity to the group, and vest authority within the community rather than in experts or institutionally defined leaders. Lastly, those disposed to a fatalist worldview (low group, high grid) consider themselves subject to binding external constraints; yet they feel largely excluded from membership in the social groupings that shape larger societal outcomes. Fatalists tend to believe that they have little control over their lives, and that their lot in life is more a matter of chance than choice.

Since their inception and development in the 1980s, the worldviews posited by CT have been used to explain opinion formation in a variety of disparate political domains, ranging from environmental and economic policy to public health and national security issues.[4] Indeed, one of the remarkable achievements of CT scholarship has been its portability to a wide range of public policy issue areas. This is not to say that CT scholarship has not had its detractors.[5] Of particular interest has been the debate among scholars over the relative role of CT worldviews and political ideology (in particular, see Mechaud et al 2009). This debate was initiated by the argument that particular worldviews (in this case, individualism and egalitarianism) were merely a restatement of the left-right ideological continuum.  While this argument hinged on ignoring hierarchs and fatalists and proved difficult to replicate (see Ripberger et al 2012), it did raise the important question of the relationship between particular expressions of political ideology and cultural worldviews. Recent scholarship (Jackson 2011) has explored a promising explanation, in which competing worldviews confront societal problems, but necessarily do so through the institutional arrangements for collective choice in a given society. In the American context, single-member districts and plurality elections militate strongly toward a two-party system (Downs 1957)—familiar as Duverger’s Law. As Downs (1957) explained, the repeated competition between the major parties in a two party system forces multiple dimensions of conflict onto a single dimension of competition and choice. Thus competing worldviews are forced by partisan campaigns into temporary alignments, in which hierarchs have aligned (uneasily) with egalitarians against individualists in the New Deal formulation of “welfare state liberalism”, but later the individualist and hierarchic neo-conservatives and tea-partiers have sided up against an egalitarian-leaning left in which “conservatives” barely contain the stresses that pit fiscal libertarians against social conservatives. Emergence of new problems and events over time lead to splits and reformulations of “left” and “right”, but at each formulation political ideology is recast along the single dimension of dispute imposed by a dominant two-party system. Thus political ideologies in the American case (and other societies with 2-party electoral systems) speak in multiple voices as echoes of prior temporary cultural alignments “processed” through societal institutions of collective choice. If correct, this formulation suggests that at a given point in time measures of political ideology and cultural worldview will partially overlap, and both will “explain” some of the variation in policy positions. This is consistent with the findings of the recent literature on the relationship between mass beliefs and policy positions (Jackson 2011; Ripberger et al 2011).
In sum, the breadth of applications and the explanatory traction gained in numerous policy domains suggests that grid/group worldviews may play a theoretically useful role in understanding policy belief systems more generally. Some of my current work, as described in the May, 2012 presentation for the Workshop on Policy Process Research (WOPPR) and the Environmental Affairs Working Group (EAWG) at the School of Public Affairs (SPA), University of Colorado Denver, attempts to apply grid/group theories to frameworks of the public policy process.


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[1] This primer is abstracted from a paper co-authored with Carol Silva, Joe Ripberger, and Kuhika Gupta. See Jenkins-Smith et al, 2012.
[2] Among CT scholars there has been a vigorous debate over whether cultural orientations are primarily manifested as individual-level dispositions and preferences or better understood as attributes of organizations (see, e.g., Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky [1990] in comparison with Rayner [1986] and [1992]). We see organizational and individual cultural attributes as interactive, and (as indicated by our emphasis on the underlying grid group continua) do not expect to find many “pure type” individuals. However the theory does indicate that the four quadrants exhaust the logically compatible bundles of value orientations (perhaps except for that of  “hermits”), so we expect there to be some cognitive pressure for consistency and hence a tendency, on the part of individuals, to opt for one cultural orientation more than others.
[3] For a more complete description of these worldviews, see Thompson, Ellis, & Wildavsky 1990.
[4] For the application of CT to environmental policy, see Thompson, Ellis, & Wildvsky, 1990; Schwarz & Thompson, 1990; Jenkins-Smith & Smith, 1994; Ellis & Thompson, 1997; Grendstad & Selle, 2000. For a discussion of economic policy and CT, see Malkin & Wildavsky, 1991; and Swaney, 1995. For a look at CT and regulatory policy, see Lodge, Wegrich, & McElroy, 2010. To see how some have applied CT to public health issues, see Kahan et al., 2010; and Jenkins-Smith, Silva, & Song, 2010. Lastly, for an example of the application of CT to national security issues, see Jenkins-Smith & Herron, 2009; and Jenkins-Smith, Herron, & Ripberger, 2010.
[5] For a brief discussion of these challenges, see Boholm, 1996; Marris, Langford, & O’Riordan, 1998; and Verweij & Nowacki, 2010. | Physical Address: 1380 Lawrence St., Ste. 500  Denver, CO  80204 | Mailing Address: University of Colorado Denver, SPA, Campus Box 142, P.O. Box 173364, Denver, CO 80217-3364 | ph: 303.315.2228 | fax: 303.315.2229 | SPA Website Feedback

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