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A new piece of research enables me to return to a lonely personal crusade….

Over the last eight years, in well over a thousand blogs and as many lectures, I have kept returning to one set of ideas. I think they could be useful to policy makers, to organisational leaders, to anyone else interested in diagnosing social problems and developing solutions but also to all of us as we try to live effective lives.

Yet, however hard I try, I can’t turn the ideas into a meme; something which other people start to discuss and use and which, by entering the cultural bloodstream, takes on a life of its own.

The ideas are my interpretation of what is sometimes called ‘cultural theory’ and is itself a development of a framework which appeared first in the work of the founding father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, and was then developed by one of the 20th century’s most distinguished anthropologists, Mary Douglas.

My account is less rigorous but, I think, more accessible and more easily applied than many of the academic versions that have appeared over the years. For those who haven’t already tired of me talking about it, the theory – which was the basis of my 2013 annual lecture – makes the following key assertions:

There are four foundational ways of analysing the social world and of pursuing change.

These are three active ways; the hierarchical (think authority, state, strategy, bureaucracy), the solidaristic (think belonging, charity, culture), the individualistic (think competition, acquisitiveness, risk and innovation) and one which by its nature is less active, the fatalistic (think resignation, stoicism, passivity, indifference).

Each of the four ways has characteristics we tend to see as benign (respectively, leadership, values, ambition and stoicism) and malign (authoritarianism, tribalism, selfishness and apathy). The story each way of thinking tells about the world – the sources of its legitimacy - is in large part a critique of the other ways of thinking.

Each way – and particularly the three active ways - can also be seen as a way of solving problems, a source of energy. The best solutions to complex problems – of which we have more and more – is to combine the ways. And, as the ways are ubiquitous, if any aren’t part of a solution they are liable to become a barrier or a source of opposition to that solution.

However, as each way represents an implicit critique/attack on the others the solutions that combine the ways (‘clumsy solutions’) are always fragile. Through competing as accounts of change, one or two will become dominant, leading the other/s to become subversive (one of the reasons strong leaders tend, in the end, to fail). Stability is also undermined by changes in the context in which the organisation operates which favour one way over the others (think, for example, of how technology has gone largely from being a tool of hierarchy to an accelerator of individualism and, to a lesser extent, solidarity since the emergence of the social web).

There are several aspects of this theory which make it attractive. First, it is relatively easy to describe, understand and recognise. Second, it suggests progress is possible (through clumsy solutions) but that such success is fragile and contingent. Third, the theory is fractal: within an organisation which tends to be hierarchically oriented there will be pockets of individualism, solidarity and fatalism. And within these pockets there will also be fragments of each other way of thinking and so on down to the conflicted individual. Thus it describes the dynamics of large organisational change but also the dilemmas we face as individuals when deciding how to interpret and act.

But the reason I thought it worthwhile again to wheel out my favourite social theory is new research about the voices in our heads.

The British Psychological Society reports that a Polish academic has developed a taxonomy of the different kinds of inner voices that people experience. In two rounds of research two hundred participants were asked to think of the interlocutor with whom they most often have a dialogue in their own minds.

Dr Puchalska-Wasyl found that the participants' descriptions clustered in four distinct categories. "Faithful Friend" associated with strength and unity and positive emotion; 22 "Ambivalent Parent" associated with strength and love, but also ambivalence or negativity to the participant's irresponsible ideas; 32 matched the "Proud Rival" category, showing pride and self-confidence combined with a lack of closeness to the participant; and finally a category which first fitted the description of "Calm Optimist" – a relaxed interlocutor, characterised by low self-enhancement, little emphasis on contact with others, but in a way that participants perceived positively but on deeper analysis morphed into "Helpless Child", characterised by a low emphasis on self-enhancement, low scores on contact with others, and high negative emotion.

Intriguingly these categories can be mapped in a rough and ready way on to cultural theory’s ways of thinking: ‘faithful friend’ being the solidaristic voice, ‘ambivalent parent’ the heirarchical, and ‘proud rival’ being the individualistic and calm optimist/helpless child reflecting different (contented and despairing) expressions of fatalism.

This week at the RSA we have hosted the Buddhist sage Mattieu Ricard, popularly known as ‘the happiest man in the world’ and also David Brooks, whose new book ‘The road to character’ uses the stories of a number of exceptional people who seem to have developed remarkable levels of self-control, focus and capacity to love. But while I admire those with the character, courage or discipline to enable them to operate on a higher level, I think that most of us have to opt for a more modest success. This is to understand that our natures contain different competing ways of seeing the world and operating on it, and that being effective means recognising these voices and trying as best we can to hear them all enough and none of them too much.

The greatest potential of cultural theory is that it allows us to connect that private endeavour of wellbeing and effectiveness to the public tasks of problem solving and collaboration. And this, ultimately, is why I will keep banging on about it until somebody else takes an interest.


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