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Cultural theory has changed the way I think about policy dilemmas and organisational problems. It can provide insights to everyone from political commentators to community activists to managers of large organisations. Over the next few days in some – hopefully – short, accessible posts I intend to lay out the key tenets of CT as I understand them by reference to concrete examples and contemporary issues.

I have the good fortune to be in regular correspondence with two of the world’s leading cultural theorists, Marco Verweij and Michael Thompson (who wrote a piece in the last RSA Journal). They are busy guys but I am hoping to persuade them to check in and comment on the blog and any follow up chat.

The first question is what kind of explanation does cultural theory offer? At its most simple it offers a way of understanding how people try to solve problems which is more powerful than many conventional approaches.

Here are some common ways of understanding why people adopt different strategies to solve problems:

• ‘Nowt so queer as folk’: We all see a problem in the same way, but people come to different conclusions about what should be done for reasons that are random or perverse

• ‘It’s who you are in society’: People come to different conclusions depending on their own interests and status; e.g. class, status, race, gender

• ‘It’s what you believe’: People come to different conclusions reflecting their deeply held values and political attitudes

• ‘It’s the type of person you are’: People come to different conclusions because of their personalities.

Cultural theory doesn’t deny that all these factors may be relevant but it argues that social problem solving exhibits the interaction of four basic categories of response: the egalitarian, the hierarchical, the individualistic and the fatalistic.

These responses are more systematic than the ‘nowt so queer’ account allows for; they are more complex and dynamic than fixed social interests imply; they cut through and across systems of belief and political affiliation; and - while people may have personalities that predispose them to certain options - the strategy a person advocates will in practice reflect the dynamics of each different problem solving process.

Tomorrow I want briefly to describe the content of the perspectives and summarise some of the evidence for these responses being fundamental and ubiquitous. But I’ll end today with an historical and a contemporary example of cultural theory in practice.

In ‘Dilemmas of Presidential Leadership’ cultural theorists Richard Ellis and Aaron Wildavsky use CT to explore the ways Presidents from Washington to Lincoln have dealt with the circumstances and dilemmas they faced. You need to read the book, but it is typical of a CT perspective that the authors explain George Washington’s tendency to adopt pomp and ceremony whenever he could, his refusal to back the new French revolutionary Republic in its conflict with the rest of Europe, and his heavy handed crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion as examples of the dilemmas facing a hierarchical President operating in a fiercely anti-hierarchical (individualist and egalitarian) culture.  

Fast forward 220 years and we see another insecure hierarchical leader, coping with what was, until very recently, an anti-hierarchical culture. Here is Rachel Sylvester writing yesterday in The Times about Gordon Brown;

“there is a sense in which the Prime Minister is dealing with the economic downturn so confidently partly because it requires greater state intervention - something with which he is instinctively comfortable”

Brown’s standing has risen because the world has come back to him; at a time of fear and insecurity, when the individualist consensus of the last thirty years has crumbled with the casino capitalism it sanctioned, we crave the certainties offered by hierarchy.

The four strategies of cultural theory are ever present options for those seeking social solutions. At certain times events strongly favour a particular response and those that advocate it. That is why a man who was just about our most unpopular ever Prime Minister six months ago has seen his standing rise and his impact grow (at home and abroad) despite being in the midst of a crisis for which most people hold him at least partially responsible.

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