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Gristmill Notices Cultural Theory

Today's exciting discovery is that Dave Roberts at Gristmill has linked to my Wikipedia article on the Cultural Theory of Risk*. Roberts takes the political upshot of Cultural Theory to be a matter of framing. Just showing the other side our facts isn't enough, because the facts are often not fully conclusive while worldviews are deeply entrenched and good at filtering out information that doesn't fit. (Note, though, that Cultural Theory does include a Kuhnian theory of surprises, in which overwhelming contrary evidence can shift someone into a different bias -- unfortunately most modern environmental issues lack the prospect of that kind of smack-you-in-the face falsification until it's too late.) Roberts argues that to make progress, we need to make environmentalist concerns resonate with Individualist and Hierarchist worldviews**.

Left there, Roberts' use of Cultural Theory seems prone to slip into the sort of marketing approach too often seen in the framing debate -- that we need different terminology to sell our ideas to other people. But Cultural Theory -- in particular the work of Michael Thompson -- offers a more complex political approach. Thompson argues strongly that a society dominated by one bias is doomed to failure. Rather, each bias has its strengths and weaknesses, which can be mixed and balanced over space, time, and issue to produce a more resilient society. Here he draws closer to Alan Fiske's conception of a reportoire of basic models of social interaction, rather than the Douglas and Wildavsky theory of all-encompassing ways of life.

What this means for environmentalists, then, is that reaching out to other sectors of society is not just about speaking their language so that we can form an overlapping consensus on Egalitarian-desired policies. We need to listen to the values of Hierarchists and Individualists and recognize what they have that's of merit. The fact that our current society has too much Hierarchism and Individualism and not enough Egalitarianism can't become an excuse for an Egalitarianism uber alles strategy, even a culturally sophisticated framing-based one.

*I also recently wrote an article on risk perception, which puts Cultural Theory in a broader context.

**As I pointed out in Wikipedia, Cultural Theory's empirical confirmation has been weak. Douglas and Wildavsky's claim that environmentalists are Egalitarian was one of the first components to be challenged, with some people pointing out that most of the major environmental organizations, like the Sierra Club or NRDC, have a very Hierarchist organization (and most anti-environmentalist argument is based on the idea that environmentalists are big-government Hierarchists). Yet of all the claims of Cultural Theory, the claim of a correlation between general Egalitarian attitudes and concern with environmental issues has held up most strongly in empirical tests. This perhaps casts some doubt on Cultural Theory's close link between social structure and worldview, if the Sierra Club bureaucracy can be filled with Egalitarians.


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