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Two Types Of Fatalism

Of the four ways of life described in the Cultural Theory of Risk, Fatalism has always been the odd one out. It was hardly mentioned in Douglas and Wildavsky's initial statement of the theory in Risk and Culture. It's the only part of the Cultural Theory typology that doesn't align with one of Alan Fiske's four models of social interaction*. Attempts to empirically validate Cultural Theory rarely turn up any Fatalists (which is perhaps unsurprising, since a Fatalist would be unlikely to see the point in filling out a survey).

The key difference between Fatalism and the other ways of life in Cultural Theory is that the other ways of life are active. Egalitarianism, Hierarchism, and Individualism are all inspiring visions that motivate people to reshape the world in accordance with them. Fatalists, on the other hand, are simply resigned to their viewpoint.

Fatalism is an important concept in any complete theory of culture, but I think Cultural Theory concieves it too narrowly. This is apparent when Cultural Theorists talk about the myths of nature that accompany the ways of life. Fatalists, we are told, see nature as basically random. The reason action is pointless to a Fatalist is because its effects are entirely unpredictable.

I think a distinction should be made between the kind of "chance Fatalism" that Cultural Theory proposes and another form of Fatalism (of which I am increasingly an adherent) that we could call "structural Fatalism." Structural Fatalists do see order in the world -- indeed, they may have a clear view of exactly how nature and society work. But unlike the other three ways of life, structural Fatalists are skeptical about humans' ability to alter this order -- so the content of that order is more or less irrelevant to them. Individualists are optimistic about humans' ability to exploit the world, Egalitarians live in fear of how easily human action can change the world, and Hierarchists are confident that knowledge will allow us to manage the world in detail. Structural Fatalists, on the other hand, see the world as clanking along and pulling humans with it, such that we can neither manage, destroy, nor even exploit, the forces that face us. Structural Fatalists are the despairing determinists of Cultural Theory.

*Fiske's fourth model -- Equality Matching -- was also the oddball in his typology, being the least common in real life, the least often recognized by the other theorists whose work he synthesizes, and the last model he observed in his fieldwork among the Moose people. However, it does bear an interesting resemblance to the "mutualist" way of life that van Heffen and Klok proposed in their attempt at an expanded grid/group typology.


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