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Cultural Theory and Grid/Group Analysis

“We are interested in how individuals confer meaning upon situations, events, objects, relationships--in short, their lives. How do people come to believe that physical nature is one way rather than another? How does one view of human nature come to seem more sensible than others? ... [We explore] the different perceptual screens through which people interpret or make sense of their world and the social relations that make particular visions of reality seem more or less plausible.”

the rationale for grid group
The Rationale for Grid/Group
  • The framework is based on the idea (from Durkheim) of constraint. The question is to what extent do different social forms constrain person’s in terms of group membership and patterns of social relations.
  • Group is the extent to which an individual is incorporated into bounded limits; "grid refer to the degree to which an individual's life is circumscribed by externally imposed prescriptions, the less of life that is open to individual negotiation."
  • Furthermore, patterns of constraint, in terms of grid and group, will match the ways that persons construe their world, their ideas about physical nature, human nature, economic resources, blame, scarcity and risk. These constructions constitute cultural biases









The Military, The Corporate World, The Catholic Church, Sports Teams

Politics: Conservative


The Elderly, Peasants, The Poor.

Politics: Non-Voters





Wall Street Traders, Neoliberals, College Students

Politics: Libertarian


Communal Groups, Political Activists

Politics: Liberal/Progressive




The Bureaucrat


The Pioneer(Individualist)

The Holy Man(Egalitarian)


The world is random, capricious, and erratic

The world is bountiful but accountable within limits. The world is forgiving, but extreme events could disrupt it.


Nature is resilient

The world is terribly unforgiving, any jolt could destroy it

The world is wonderfully forgiving and little that humans do could affect it.


Cultural theory-based Interpretation of Climate Change:

  • The Hierarchist’s Story (nature perverse/tolerant): International protocols and national commitments are needed to address the tragedy of the atmospheric commons and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The Egalitarian’s Story (nature ephemeral): The underlying problem is consumption (resource throughput). Precaution, lifestyle simplicity and grass roots action are the most effective responses.
  • The Individualist’s Story (nature benign): To address climate change, rely on laissez-faire markets to spur competition and innovation. The benefits of climate change may even balance out the costs.
  • The Fatalist’s Story (nature capricious): Natural forces are beyond human understanding, much less human influence.
  • The Hermit’s Story (nature resilient): transcends and includes each of the others.

The Social Construction of Human Nature

FatalistHuman nature is unpredictable; some people may be benevolent, but more are hostile

HierarchistsHuman beings are born sinful but can be redeemed by good institutions


Believes in the goodness of human nature, but recognized evil by attributing it to ignorance

IndividualistFor individualists human nature is stable; human beings regardless, are always the same, self-seeking

EgalitariansHuman beings are born good, but are corrupted by evil institutions

the social construction of needs and resources
The Social Construction of Needs and Resources

In terms of needs and resources, there are four possibilities:

  • 1. You can manage neither your needs or your resources.
  • 2. You can manage your needs but not your resources.
  • 3. You can manage your resources but not your needs.
  • 4. You can mange both your resources and your needs.

Management of Resources

FatalistManage neither needs nor resources. The strategy is to cope within an environment within which one has no control

HierarchistNeeds are fixed and resources manageable. If you can't adjust your needs, increase your resources. This requires resource mobilization.

HermitNeeds and resources are manageable

EgalitarianResources are fixed, and so you reduce your needs. Nature is so precarious that inequality in the distribution of resources will bring calamity

IndividualistManages needs and resources. Nature is a cornucopia and is manageable by skill.


These five strategies for making ends meet are the only ones that contain views of economizing congruent with the models of nature that serve to justify the corresponding ways of life.

Should egalitarians seek to expand resources they could not justify sharing out.

Should hierarchists attempt to decrease needs, they could not maintain the differentials required to support graded statuses. And so it goes.

Supporters of each way of life construct their ends to make their cultural biases meet up with their preferred pattern of social relations. Their strategies do what is important to them--uphold their way of life.

(Thompson, Michael, Richard Ellis, and Aaron Wildavsky, 1990. Culture Theory p.48).


The Social Construction of Blame

FatalistsBlame fate

Hierarchists Can't blame the system, that would be self-destructive. Instead, hierarchies are "blame-shedding machines. Investigations are quashed or forbidden; blame is shifted to deviants

HermitLay no blame since they are uninvolved in social struggles.

Individualists Blame bad luck or personal incompetence

EgalitariansThey reject authority; it is the system that is to blame


The Social Construction of Risk

FatalistsDo not knowingly take risks. They would only get hurt and there is little prospect of reward

HierarchistsAccepts risk as long as decisions are made by experts

HermitEager acceptance of myopically perceived risk. They are attached to him and can’t be transferred

EgalitariansBy accentuating the risks of technological development and economic growth, egalitarians are able to shore up their way of life and discomfort rival ways. predictions of imminent catastrophic- helps convince themselves anew that it is safer inside than outside the egalitarian group.

IndividualistsRisk is opportunity. With no risk, there would be no opportunity of personal reward


Each way of life needs each of its rivals either to make up for its deficiencies or to exploit or define itself against. Were egalitarians to eliminate hierarchists and individualists, for instance, their lack of a target to be against would remove justification foor their strong group boundaries and thus undermine their way of life. Or, to take another example, were indiidalists ever to rid the world of hierarchy, there would be no extra-market authority to enforce the laws of contract, thus producing the breakdown of the individualists' way of life.

--Thompson et al 1990: 3-4)


The 12 Possible Changes


Big man to Rubbish Man


Informal group of organization gets formal



Becoming the charismatic leader of a sect, the CEO in retirement becomes prominent in activitst groups


The 12 Possible Changes


Typical rags to riches story


No-hoper who joins the military and “finds himself.”



Recruited by some tight group as someone they are seeking.


The 12 Possible Changes


Fall from grace, debarred or defrocked


The civil servant who sets him/herself up as a consultant



Loyalist to heretic, the whistleblower


The 12 Possible Changes


The person rudely expellled from the group who doesn’t land “on his feet.”.



“routinization of charisma, co-opted rebel


Someone expelled from the group who lands “on his feet.”



  • Write a story or narratives that characterizes each way of life.
  • 2. Match specific forms of music or specific songs to each way of life.
  • 3. What are some of the characteristic metaphors or frames for each way of life?