Risk and Blame

by Mary Tew
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2488

Mary Douglas is a cultural anthropologist whose work, like that of Claude Levi Strauss, has a provocative interdisciplinary appeal. Her scope in this set of collected articles is broad, her chapters vary wildly in subject matter, yet she brings a precise theory to bear in each case, such that it is more than a theme that runs through the book, it is a guiding principle. Furthermore, the structure of the argument is much the same in each case. A subject is chosen, preferably one that has not traditionally been seen as being in the purview of cultural anthropology, such as ecology, epistemology, or economics. A well-known figure in the field is then enjoined in a discussion of the subject, but it soon becomes apparent that he or she is to be a foil for Douglas’ real project, which is to present her grid/group analysis as a more suitable approach to the problem, whatever it is. She musters help from colleagues and friends, many of whom have tried out her theory in areas as diverse as mathematics and organizational crime.

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The grid/group theory is an extension of the idea of personal freedom versus social solidarity put forth by Emile Durkheim and others earlier, and more recently in another form principally by Pierre Bourdieu with his concept of habitus. The original social argument stated that where there existed a high degree of individual freedom, there usually was also a lack of social solidarity, and vice versa. Douglas has mapped this onto a graph which describes not two, but four different cultural patterns, which she presents almost as if they were universal and exhaustive. If she is right, it simplifies ethnographic analysis a great deal.

In the graph, the X-axis describes increasing solidarity while increasing limits on options are plotted along the Y-axis. The resulting chart describes four cultural models, and Douglas argues that cultures tend to cluster in these corners, such that one does not usually get the values and behaviors of the differing patterns mixing together to any great extent. The four models are:

A. Individualist: This is a market economy, an individualist culture where the free and open exchange of goods, ideas, and values is the primary mode of interaction. Personal achievement is rewarded; failure to achieve on a personal level is not well tolerated.

B. Isolates: These people are not connected well to their peers, but feel trapped by rules imposed by others. They are the homeless, the blue-collar worker on the bottom rung without union support, prostitutes and others living at the margins of other cultural models (Usually A or C).

C. Central Community: These are hierarchicalists, whose various and varied attempts to form a more structured society than that of the individualists give them a great deal of social cohesion but rob them of personal freedom.

D. Dissenting Enclave: Also known as sectarians or communards, these are those who love both personal freedom and social solidarity. The only way to achieve the latter without sacrificing the former is through sheer commitment to the group. Douglas considers Isolates (B) and Enclaves(D) by their nature to be less stable, and thus less viable as long-term cultural patterns than the Individualist (A) and Community (C) models. That is because she believes that what she traces out as the “positive diagonal” between A and C describes the older, but still valid observation that individual freedom and social solidarity naturally work as opposing pairs to form the most stable cultures. While B and D can exist, they usually do so in some sort of subordinate relationship to an A or a C culture.

The book is divided into three parts: “Risk and Blame” (chapters 1-6), “Wants and Institutions” (7-1 1), and “Believing and Thinking” (12-16). These can be characterized roughly as the laying out of the argument, its practical application, and its theoretical implications, though there is some overlap as well. Douglas is never an easy read, but she is particularly deep (and impressively well-read) in the last section, where she deals with difficult questions regarding the self and epistemology. In spite of having been written at various times for various audiences, and in spite of dealing with very different subjects, the essays cohere not only by virtue of Douglas’ unrelenting application of her theory but also by means of a clear and thoughtful overall structure. Some small things remain puzzling, however, such as the fact that in spite of the advance billing they receive in the titles, the ideas of risk and blame do not appear with much frequency in the book except in the first section. They are doubtless presupposed at other points in the other articles, but it is here that one misses the unity that comes from a book that is written as such, rather than as a collection of articles.

After an introduction where Douglas argues for an interdisciplinary approach to economics, politics, and anthropology, she lays the foundation for her ideas in her first chapter (“Risk and Blame”) and takes on the issue of blame directly. She makes the cogent point that blaming (for taking risks) is an effective means of social control and ideological domination within most societies and institutions. She mentions some exceptions, and finds them noteworthy (for example, the Sherpas’ “no-fault” culture). It may be cynical to doubt her on this last point, but one certainly would like a fuller investigation.

In Douglas’ second chapter (“Risk and Justice”) she points out that the term “risk” now has come to mean danger (as in medical treatment risk versus benefit). The forensic use of risk (to keep people in line culturally), however, is what Douglas considers important about it for anthropology. What is so often seen as sin or taboo when the individual is considered as an agent is considered as a risk when the individual is seen as a recipient. Dangers are real enough in the world, but Douglas insists that the political use of danger is conventional. Furthermore, ideology is the fundamental grid through which we filter incoming data. It is the nature of cultures to exclude for the purposes of social solidarity. Thus risk, danger, and blaming are an integral part of the process of human intercourse, as unfair as that may sometimes seem. Different types of cultures blame different people, or the same people differently, for their actions, beliefs and values. Using her grid/group structure, Douglas shows how the following cultures blame the corresponding types of individuals for their condition: individualist—weak; hierarchy—deviants; sect—aliens.

Douglas makes a similar point in chapters 3 (“Risk and Danger”) and 4, where she points out that risk-taking as well as blaming is cultural. Individuals transfer their decision-making to the institutions in which they live. Some cultures are risk-averse,

others not. Individualistic societies have turned “risk” into “danger” (with varying degrees of aversion)since the individual is in mind, not the system itself. Danger must be put back into cultural perspective. There are real dangers, but they (as well as imagined ones) are a social resource as well. The people we disagree with always end up having moral faults somehow.

In Douglas’ fifth and sixth chapters she deals on a practical level with historical/ethnographic examples of the social uses of witchcraft and leprosy, as well as a cultural approach to the modern problem of AIDS. She shows how libel (for example, that certain groups are dirty, dangerous) has been used as a tool/strategy of social control among other resources (such as the idea of insidious harm). The groups under attack are finally let off only after social boundaries have shifted. Her four-pole analysis applied on the personal level looks like this:

B-individual outcasts (top left)

C-majority ruling conservative culture (top right)

A-individuals with power (bottom left)

D-minority groups with identity (bottom right)

Chapters 7 through 9 share a common premise: that it is the culture, and not the individual, that defines what such things as goods, wants, and gifts might be in any society. In Douglas’ words, “What counts as public [goods] does not depend on kinds of goods or kinds of transactions, but on kinds of communities.” In her system, wants are not personal but social, a part of patterns of interaction. More precisely, they are part of the overall pattern of “major reciprocal exchanges” upon which all cultures are built. “Wants are collectively generated.” It is the same with gifts. Gifts are not really free, but always part of a reciprocity/exchange system which is at the heart of culture. Douglas brings in Marcel Mauss as her collaborator/foil, and quotes him favorably along with Durkheim. According to Douglas, Mauss’s argument was with utilitarian individualism, trying to understand behavior as a system, and not as a bunch of unanalyzable “black boxes” (that is, individual motives).

Douglas’ tenth chapter compares British and Swedish labor markets. She begins by comparing negative freedom (individual options) with positive freedom (cooperative abilities) using an essay by Isaiah Berlin. Though Douglas does not say it in so

many words, it turns out that Berlin’s definition of freedom works well within a market or sectarian cultural system, but does not account for cooperative constraints which can actually lead to more options in the end, such as are found more often (Douglas would argue) in hierarchical cultures. Thus the Swedish labor market is hierarchical and cooperative, while the British labor market is sectarian (and adversarial).

In chapter 11, Douglas looks back at the idea of individualism dealt with in the first few chapters of the second section of her book, which this chapter closes, and looks forward as well to the more philosophical last section. The chapter (in part) is an examination of the economic theories of Chester Barnard and others following him. For Douglas, Barnard’s ideas were too individualistic, and did not deal with cultural patterns, yet his idea of a “zone of indifference” where individuals will follow a leader largely because they do not care enough about the issues to do otherwise, was a productive one. Douglas of course then makes the point that this zone and its exploitation are culturally determined. Her diagrams of the work of others more directly feeding into (or out of) her own work speak for themselves:

Gerald Mars and organizational cultures:

B-Donkeys—used by others / unorganized labor (top left)

C-Wolves—pack hunters / organized labor/management (top right)

A-Hawks—lone operators / entrepreneurs (bottom left)

D Vultures—solidarity/individuality / sales reps, semi- skilled craftsmen (bottom right)

David Bloor and mathematics departments:

B-tolerance of contradiction / small, non-autonomous institutions (top left)

C-monster—adjustment / large, hierarchical institutions (top right)

A-proofs and refutations / individualistic competitive institutions (bottom left)

D-monster—barring / small, isolated groups (bottom right)

(The “monster” is a new theorem which does not fit into current structure.)

It is in these various repetitive applications of her theory that one begins to truly appreciate the scope of Douglas’ project.

The first two chapters of the last section are the most philosophical in the book. In chapter 12 the idea of the rational autonomous self is presented as a cultural construct, given to members of communities which need these resources for self- preservation. The idea of the unitary self in modern Western culture is made necessary for the proper functioning of modern Western societies’ forensic point of view (the responsible self in a society of individuals) and taken completely for granted. Yet it is debatable on philosophical grounds (Daniel Dennett, David Hume, John Locke, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre are all cited in this regard) and not at all accepted in other ancient and modern cultures. Furthermore, Douglas points out that the forensic model of the self so prevalent in the enterprise system must be alleviated by the therapeutic model-taking away some of the blame and putting it not on witchcraft but on prenatal experiences or parents.

Chapter 13 deals directly with epistemology, by way of Pascal’s wager. Douglas claims that Blaise Pascal’s famous wager was really good probability science, anticipating modern decision theory by several centuries. What is more, radical skepticism (the alternative presented) cannot even articulate a position. It doubts its own existence, much less the existence of others with whom it can communicate. Douglas tries at once to be ruthlessly honest (which favors skepticism) and yet again wants to claim the higher (anthropological) ground. She insists that “Assent to the kinds of building blocks that logic can use emerges from hidden social processes that anthropologists uncover.…” Douglas is here claiming that a sort of cultural semantics is the basis of any given system of logic. “The only and ultimate authority for the way the universe is divided up has to be the community.” We make the meaning we share together, whatever it is.

The last three chapters of the book round out Douglas’ program very nicely. Chapter 14, on ecology, presents us with the following model (building on the work of Michael Thompson):

B-Fatalists: Nature is Capricious (top left)

C-Hierarchists: Nature is Robust within Limits (top right)

A-Entrepreneurial Expansionists: Nature is Robust (bottom left)

D-Communards: Nature is Fragile (bottom right)

In each case, the ball represents the environment, and the line or curve on which it rests represents the attitude toward nature of that cultural type. Thus for example, for those in the A corner, the ball rests at the bottom of a deep curve and can be pushed quite far, since then believe it will roll right back to a point of equilibrium. The fatalists of B, on the other hand (ball rests on straight line), are not sure where the ball will roll, so can make no commitment about the environment whatsoever.

Chapter 15, on the debate over women priests, does an admirable job of stepping back from a heated controversy and analyzing the contexts of the argument. By this time the reader can almost guess what is coming but Douglas is full of new insights. Douglas credits Bourdieu’s idea of habitus with gaining some ground in understanding debates such as these and locating them in a larger social context. But of course she must go beyond him and carry out a grid/group analysis in order to get the big picture.

Douglas’ last chapter, like her introduction, is an appeal for cooperation across disciplines and within subdisciplines of the field of anthropology, and at the same time (as a metaphorical exercise) carries out an examination of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus. Douglas claims that Schweitzer thought Jesus was by nature Other (more accurately, he defended the thesis that the New Testament presents its Jesus in this way). Douglas points out that anthropology does not think the objects of its study represent the Other by nature, and thus should apply ethnographic analysis to all people equally, including the anthropologists themselves. She is not the first to say so, but her methods would certainly yield interesting results.

Source for Further Study

London Review of Books. IX, December 18, 1986, p. 17.

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