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30.12.04

Cultural Theory Reinvented

Someone needs to introduce Virginia Postrel to Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky*. It appears that she's reinventing their wheel. Here's Sebastian Holsclaw's nutshell summary of Postrel's book The Future and Its Enemies:

Virginia has a key idea which clarifies some of the difficulties we have in analyzing polticial cleavages along a left-right split. She speaks of dynamists and stasists. In her description, dynamists are willing to embrace the messy nature of unguided social and technological change, while stasists do not. In her terminology stasists come in two major varieties--reactionaries and technocrats. Reactionaries wish to control change by reversing it and returning to a previous (and quite possibly mythical) golden age. Patrick Buchanan is used throughout the book to give examples of reactionary thinking. I think the choice of 'stasist' is revealed to be a bit poor when Virginia goes on to describe technocrats. Technocrats attempt to tightly control change, often with the idea that an elite number of top-down experts can efficiently control and direct the important changes in society.


My own summary of Cultural Theory is here. Comparing the two, it's pretty simple to map them onto each other -- dynamists are individualists, reactionaries are egalitarians, and technocrats are hierarchists. Like the early formulations of Cultural Theory, Postrel's scheme leaves out the fatalists. She also sees something like the "group" dimension -- expressed as an attitude toward change -- as more fundamental, since she groups reactionaries and technocrats as subspecies of stasists. She sees this stasist axis as dominant in modern America, while Cultural Theory at least initially claimed that individualist-hierarchist was the dominant coalition and that egalitarians could only maintain themselves as outsiders.

It's interesting, in a meta-theoretical way, that Postrel and Douglas/Wildavsky would both come up with such similar theories. Postrel is an unabashed dynamist, while Wildavsky was clearly an individualist (Douglas I'm not entirely sure about). So perhaps there's something in the dynamist/individualist outlook that makes this theory appealing. There's also another parallel between Postrel's formulation and the early version of Cultural Theory. Postrel is bent on advocating the dynamist view. Wildavsky started out as a strong partisan for the individualist cause -- he wrote one book making many of the same arguments that Holsclaw quotes from Postrel, and his initial formulation of Cultural Theory was couched as an attack on egalitarianism (which at the time he called by the more disparaging name "sectarianism"). Later on, though, Cultural Theory adopted a more pluralistic outlook arguing that some balance between the four worldviews is necessary. There's a hint of this in Postrel's admission that for a dynamist system to flourish, there needs to be an underlying stasis of basic rules.

*It's possible that she's quite familiar with them and just decided for whatever reason that she wanted to make up new terminology. Bear in mind that the sum of my knowledge of her theory comes from the Sebastian Holsclaw post I'm referring to.

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