Tag: Individualism

Why do we do what we do? The poverty of individualist explanations

Why do we do what we do?  The poverty of individualist explanations.

 

Photo by Sofiya Levchenko on Unsplash

We all like cake don’t we? Oh, and beer…and yes wine…and…and

 

In common talk around health issues, we hear and read a great deal about ‘taking individual responsibility for health’ or the need for ‘helping people to make better choices’  and we hear explanations for ill health based on people’s choice of unhealthy lifestyles. Papers like the Daily Mail like to focus unhealthy working class ‘chav’ cultures in a bid to promote outrage and to garner support to reduce the Welfare State. Every New Year, gym membership rises, dry January is embarked upon and resolutions to quit smoking are made. Failure often follows. The UK population is getting fatter, it drinks excessively and takes little exercise. We are also a nation consuming antidepressants as if they were smarties. Some individuals of course are ‘paragons of virtue’ in terms of health and the question is asked “if they can do it, why don’t the rest of us?”  Often this is framed within personal success stories as “I did it, so you can too (you fat lazy bastard)”. Celebrities are often promoted as role models for a “leaner, fitter, healthier you”.

Most people probably know that eating better and taking more exercise is better for health. So why do we see continuing patterns of chronic ill health, patterns which show social class differences, i.e. the  ‘social gradient’, and unequal health outcomes. Those in the lower socio economic groups die younger, experience more chronic illness and have fewer disability free years.  Is it really all down to individual moral failure? Why don’t millions of us get up off our fat arses, do something positive and take responsibility for health? Why don’t we as a population exercise our agency to act for better health? After all, we are all free autonomous people able to choose courses of action.

The complete freedom to think and act may be more complicated than adherents of the ‘autonomous sovereign individual’ may have us believe. The model of the ‘free sovereign individual’, so beloved by libertarians, neoliberals and most hues of conservatism in their political stances, is a flawed and incomplete model of human behaviour. It is a model of human behaviour that arose in Enlightenment modernity, and results in the creation of ‘homo economicus’, the free instrumentally rational being, who weighs up the pros and cons of action independently of social or cultural influences or internal psychological drivers,  and is 100% result responsible therefore for the consequences of their action.

Max Weber introduced the word ‘Verstehen’ (German for understanding, perceiving, knowing) to describe the sociologists’ attempt to grasp both the intent and context of human action. While the ‘man of modernity’ was increasingly using instrumental rationality to guide action, Weber described 4 ‘types’ of social action:

 

  1. Zweckrational – means/ends rationality
  2. Wertrational – values based rationality
  3. Affective action – emotion based
  4. Traditional action – based in custom and practice.

 

Today, many ignore or forget all but ‘zweckrational’, assuming that is our only way of thinking. We know from experience however, that we choose courses of action not because they are always meeting a certain goal, but because of a mixture of all 4 types of reasoned action. Many also think about these types (if at all) as existing independently of society. Weber’s insight was to link these types to changing social conditions. He argued that modern societies differed from those of the past because of the shift to zweckrational thinking rooted in the growth of bureaucracy and industrialism. This might explain why today, in bureaucratised, industrialised societies, that instrumental, technical, means ends thinking came to dominate. The error for many is that the ‘is’ of the dominance of zweckrational becomes the ‘ought’, the only way to think and it becomes the assumed method of human thinking. I suggest that those trained in scientific, technical and logical (means-ends) occupations are apt to think using ‘zweckrational’ but assume that is how everybody else does and ought to think. They then become one dimensional in their own thoughts, unable to grasp the complexity of human decision making.

The social theorist Margaret Archer also describes this ‘man of modernity’ as “a being whose fundamental constitution owes nothing to society” (2000 p 51) and (following Weber) who is increasingly driven by instrumental rationality or ‘means-ends’ thinking. This is the ‘ready-made man’ who turns up out of nowhere to impose his own order on the world and applies rational thought to social concerns. It is a view of humanity that believes that our ‘self’, our individuality,  exists totally separate from society, that it is not constituted at all by society or culture. The free acting self is an independent of society and culture free thinking and rational being. We will hear echoes of this man’s voice when we hear such statements as “only the individual should and can take responsibility for health”, “there is no such thing as society, just individuals and families” and “eat less  – move more” injunctions to reduce weight. Any idea of social structure or social forces is completely denied. In this view there are no social mechanisms operating ‘behind our backs’ that might be guiding free choices.

 

This model of the self assumes the primacy of agency devoid of social structure or cultural or language contexts. It not only assumes the primacy of agency, but elevates it into a core aspect of the political project (neoliberalism) to reduce any action on poverty or welfare beyond that of individuals, families and charities. If there is no society, then there is nothing society can or should do.

 

Those who adhere to this model might think that obese and overweight people merely freely choose to eat more than they need, that their inability to lose weight is down only to their weak moral character and lack of will power. The obese should “just say no” to a second pork pie. Against this I suggest that they eat and move within the structures and cultures of the ‘obesogenic environment’ (Foresight 2007) and within cultural practices around food that becomes aspects of who they are, that they build into their self-concept. Veganism for example has been seen as the preserve of a slightly effete (?) minority and for many men especially, just cannot be built into their own notions of self as ‘red meat eating males’. Their self-concept as a man excludes this food choice as viable. They are of course free to act as a vegan but the structural and cultural context militates against men many doing so. Some men will be able to draw upon their material, psychological, biological, social, cultural, spatial and symbolic assets to exercise their agency to become vegan. Many others will not be able to exercise the same degree of freedom to do so.

 

There is not the space to fully explore this idea of the ‘free, pre-existing, independent from society’ view of self, other than to suggest that extricating human agency and the ‘self’ completely out of the effects of language, culture and social structure is erroneous. I emphasise however, the pernicious persistence of this idea in current culture, politics and health policy as it underpins much understanding of, and pronouncements about, human behaviour towards health.

 

I also suggest that those whose knowledge is non-existent, or superficially grounded, in philosophy, the humanities or social sciences cannot exercise their agency to begin to understand this argument. Their ‘ways of knowing’ and sense of self  is in violent opposition to it. They will be so embedded in certain social structures and cultural assumptions and values that the self they experience is unable to grasp the concepts. They will read the words but will feel an instant visceral hatred of the challenge to sovereign individuality because it shakes the very foundations of who they think they are and the basis for success and failure. Current ideal types would be Boris Johnson, Peter Thiel the PayPal billionaire, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, many in Silicon Valley and the alt-right. In fact most of the powerful world leaders would fall into this category including Putin, Erdogan and Modi. They all feature varying degrees of narcissism and the assumptions of what Graham Scambler calls the ‘Greedy Bastards’.

 

Part of the answer to understating why we do what we do,  will be found by exercising our sociological imaginations to gain a fuller understanding of human behaviour. We need to think beyond the action of an individual, to consider the wider actions of society and culture that provides the context for individual choices at this point in history..

Take the choice to eat insects. In the UK we are free to do so. We could exercise our ‘free agency’ as sovereign individuals. There is no biological reason why we don’t. There is no legal barrier to doing so. There is no trade barrier, tariffs or taxes in importing insects as food. What prevents us eating insects is a combination of cultural barriers with a lack of social institutions that values eating insects, no social institutions providing access to insects. Psychologically we might think that the eating of insects is not part of our ‘self-concept’, there is no social learning going on because no one is doing it, the mental short cuts bypass rational appraisal and go straight to the ‘yuk’ factor. We live in an obesogenic environment and not an ‘insectivorous’ environment.

Why do fat people eat pork pies? Why don’t thin people eat insects?

Graham Scambler in wishing to establish a theory of agency in sociology argues:

 

Humans…are simultaneously the products of biological, psychological and social mechanisms while retaining their agency…socially structured without being structurally determined

 

I think this means that if you want to know why some people can resist eating the pork pie and most in the UK resist eating insects, you have to think holistically rather than individualistically. You have to avoid the temptation to be reductionist and instead think ‘systems’.

A biologist would focus on physiological processes and raise the importance of body chemicals such as leptin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins in stimulating behaviour. They might acknowledge the physiological role of sugar and processed carbohydrates in providing very satisfying, but unhealthy, eating habits. This is perhaps the first hurdle that ‘will power’ has to overcome.  ‘Willpower’ is of course the ‘go to’ mechanism for those with individualist understandings.

A psychologist might explain eating patterns from a variety of perspectives: cognitive psychology might outline the role of mental short cuts that bypass rational thinking; behavioural psychology emphasising the conditioned nature of responses; social psychology which asks us to consider the power of social learning upon choices and psychodynamic psychology which would raise deep seated emotions as drivers for behaviour e.g. food playing the ‘comfort’ role. All have explanations that down play the power of rationality.  Key concepts within psychology which could be linked to why we eat as we do include:

  • Self-Efficacy.
  • Body Image.
  • Locus of Control.
  • ‘What the hell’ effects.
  • Future Discounting.
  • Classical/Operant Conditioning.
  • System 1 and System 2 thinking.
  • Self and self-awareness.
  • Adult, Child, Parent Ego States.

 

Both biology and psychology examine the individual body and mind. They seek explanations for human agency within ourselves. For some people, that is enough. Yet both disciplines cast huge doubt on the idea of ‘free thinking sovereign individuals’ who use rational thought, and the exercise of sheer willpower in achieving their aims.

If you have not eaten for three or four hours, and you pass a shop selling freshly baked bread or pasties, or foodstuffs you very much enjoy, your will power to lose weight is severely challenged first by your biology as the body reacts to sight and smell of delicious food and then by your psychology as the ‘what the hell effect’ kicks in supported by ‘future discounting’. Your future self as a slim lean athlete is discounted by your immediate self’s need for food.  As you go through your day you are immersed in social and cultural invitations and opportunities to eat and to eat too much. Against this is will power, unless you can actively design your social and cultural environment every single day to support will power, you may well crack. Do you have the material, psychological, social, cultural, spatial and symbolic assets to do this day after day after day for years? For the rest of your life? Some also have poor biological health assets in this regard as in utero processes may well have pre-set a certain weight for you that your body will always want to get to.

We are not completely free autonomous agents beloved of neoliberal ideology. Our lives are highly structured, but not determined. We are the result of a complex interplay of our biology, our psychology and the social. Underpinning much of the common discourse in our media is the idea of the ‘liberal human self’, and failures to live healthy lifestyles are to be found in the individual. This belief, and it is a belief not a scientific fact, often leads to a ‘Moral Underclass Discourse’ (MUD) to explain health inequalities. The MUD focuses on cultural and behavioural explanations, rather than sociological, for health inequalities. It is a discourse that leads easily to victim blaming.

We need to think a little more critically about this explanation, particularly as it has a great deal of political and social force in terms of policies we design to tackle health. We need to bring the social (structure) into the individual (agency). We need to ask to what degree are we free agents who can take 100% responsibility for our lives, we need to examine what social structures exist in which that agency operates.

Margaret Archer has published a series of books on this central problem of structure and agency, i.e. the relationship between our personal actions as free agents and the societies and social structures we are born into.

We know that smoking is linked to illness and disease, we also know there are patterns to smoking which show prevalence is not spread equally across class or age. If we want to more fully understand smoking behaviour we require not only the sociological imagination but also why people as ‘free agents’ continue to smoke despite knowing the consequences. The answer is of course complex, situated in and mediated by a matrix of the biological, social and psychological. Smoking occurs in a social context in which people are enabled or constrained in their behaviours by the structures of society and mediated by their and others’ ‘reflexive deliberations’ and to a degree, their biology (the ‘substance’ (nicotine) theory of addiction).

Archer’s theory suggests that our individual actions are predated by the existence of social structure of, for example, class relationships. Class structure, and the culture associated with it, are transmitted to individuals. In smoking’s case, the culture of smoking was once widespread across all social classes and therefore to take up the habit was not to be seen as a social pariah. Quite the opposite. George Orwell in both ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ describes vividly the valued place of tobacco in people’s lives. Today however, smoking has a class characteristic to it, the middle classes apparently are more open to health warnings than those lower on the social scale. This ‘predates’ any individual coming into puberty today. The ‘cachet’ associated with smoking, or its status as a rite of passage, has to be factored in to understanding why some people shun the habit while others embrace it.

Archer however does not wish to over emphasise how such social structures affect action, rather there needs to be a focus on how agents respond and act to those circumstances. There is a causal efficacy to agency, we are not automatons responding to class structures or obesogenic environments. We can make choices to act in certain ways to not buy the pork pie.  We do so by having internal conversations which are mediated by our ‘mode of reflexivity’ which at this point in history is particularly salient.

You and I are confronted in our daily lives by social circumstances, and we have a choice of action. We bring to that choice of action our own priorities, our ‘projects and concerns’. What we then do is mediated by the type of internal conversation, or reflexive deliberation,  we have. Archer’s thesis is that in the past social structures were such that little self reflexivity occurred. We ‘knew our place’, we knew what our role was and what status we had.  However, as societies modernised, cultures and structures confronting us are far more open to change and critique, and are so by the actions of the people involved. Women for example, no longer took for granted that their place was to rear children and to engage in domestic labour. They thought about the franchise and employment and some decided to act differently to ‘break the mould’. Why do some act to challenge social structure and why do others conform and thus replicate social structures?

“The subjective powers of reflexivity mediate the role that objective structural or cultural powers play in influencing social action and are thus indispensable to explaining social outcomes’ (Archer, 2007: 5).

In other words, your inner voice is confronted by the facts of the obesogenic environment or of social class or of gender relationships in the work place, but that fact can be acted upon so that action can for example be fatalistic towards that circumstance or instead might confront it in an attempt to overcome any perceived or actual disadvantage.

Agency is necessarily contextualized, it occurs in a context of social structure and culture. That is the objective fact the people confront every day.

Archer’s (1995, 2003, 2007) way of articulating this is in terms of a three-stage model.

  • Structural and cultural properties objectivelyshape the situations that people confront involuntarily; the structural and cultural possess powers of constraint and enablement in relation to
  • People’s own constellations of concerns, as they define them.
  • Courses of action are produced through the reflexive deliberationsof subjects who subjectively determine their practical projects in relation to their objective

 

Think about the social structures that produce, advertise and market and then distribute food  – how that this currently characterised by the industrial production of delicious, tasty and cheap foodstuffs packed with sugar, salt and calories. The objective cultural context might include aversion to walking and cycling as we perceive these as impractical, dangerous or too slow.  Think about the culture of eating food and the sociability that surrounds certain foodstuffs. What currently does wine play in the cultural life of many women and beer for men? These objective conditions provide ‘enablements’ to eating easily too many calories. It is made easy to do so. What constraints do we have in eating too much? Well, against the above we have health injunctions not to do so, we have body images that emphasise thinness with attractiveness. If the various constraints to eating too much are not as strong as the enablements, then the individual has to work hard  on clearly identifying their ‘concerns’ – one of which is to lose weight. This has to be turned into a project, something that they focus on every day to combat the many opportunities to fail at achieving the goal. People will tell themselves if the daily project of losing weight is achievable given the reality of their working and social lives. They will draw upon their health assets to help them do so. If their health assets are very poor across the board success is not impossible (they are after all free agents) but it will be harder.

 

Agency operates within certain social and cultural contexts, so consider how agency operated by an A list actress and a struggling in debt mother. What social ‘forces’ propelled them into two very different circumstances and how much is down to personal achievement, luck or circumstance? Consider they now give birth to daughters. What are the chances of either girl using personal agency to radically alter their circumstances. Yes, it happens (e.g. Oprah Winfrey) but who will have the easier path?

 

The following table are ideal types to illustrate just some of complexity of the interplay between biology, psychology and sociology in understanding health choices and health outcomes. These factors are not be thought of as a simple cause effect relationship, there are feedback loops and emergent properties from the whole. Nothing is predestined, all is possible. The list is not exhaustive either. There may be other confounding variables that will change outcomes. The actress may develop a cocaine habit, Vicky may become an ‘Educated Rita’.

 

Asset A list celebrity Actress Vicky Pollard “yeah but no”
Biological Ectomorph

Non variant FTO gene

No chronic illnesses

Endomorph

Variant FTO gene

Diabetic

Psychological High self-efficacy

High self esteem

High body image (body reality matches body ideal

Internal locus of control

Emotional and sexual support

Depression free

Positive outlook

Low self-efficacy

Low self esteem

Poor body image (body reality far from body ideal)

External locus of control

Emotional and sexual abuse

Bouts of depression

Suicidal ideation

Social Similar looking thin peer group

Network effect positive

Social support for domestic needs

Child care easily affordable

Food prepared by nutritionist

Supportive parents and spouse

Socially popular

Wealthy successful peers

The 0.01% Global elite

Private School and Drama school paid by parents

Similar looking fat peer group

Network effect negative

No social support for domestic needs

Child care expensive

Food prepared by Greggs

Parents both dead, absent partner

Social pariah

Poor just about managing peers

The local Precariat

Left at 16 with no qualifications.

Cultural Ambitious

Health high priority

Non smoker

Gym membership

Non violent

Survivalist

Health discounted

Smoker

Daytime TV

Emotional, verbal and physical violence common/expected

Spatial Beverly Hills, Sunshine, Sea View and palm trees Concrete high rise, Rain, Industrial Units and burned cars
Symbolic ‘A’ list Chav
Material

This asset is paramount as it feeds into the others

High Net worth

 

In debt.

 

 

 

 

 

Graham Scambler, emeritus professor at UCL, has written a series of blogs based on the work of Margaret Archer. His work can be found here: http://www.grahamscambler.com/sociological-theorists-margaret-archer/.

Archer,M (1995) Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (1998)  Realism in the social sciences. In Eds Archer,M, Bhaskar,R, Collier,A, Lawson,T & Norrie,A: Critical realism: Basic Readings. London; Routledge.

Archer,M (2003) Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2007) Making our Way Through the World. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2012) The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2014) The generative mechanism re-configuring late modernity. In Ed Archer,M: Late Modernity: Trajectories Towards Morphogenetic Society. New York; Springer

 

 

 

The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible. Part 1

The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.   Charles Eisenstein (2013) North Atlantic Books. Berkeley.

 

This book should be required reading for all. Student nurses especially interested in health should read and discuss the implications. It will appeal to a wide range of people and is written in a very accessible style. This is not a book that would interest Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or the ‘Masters of the financial Universe.’ It would be too ‘fluffy’ for hard line leftists mired in economic determinism. It draws upon a re-emerging world view: a ‘systems view’, of life central to ecological and sustainability discourse. It has a long history; one crushed by the forces of colonialism, genocide, imperialism, extractive and other form of capitalism, patriarchy, Abrahamic religion and scientism. Its roots are to be found in the three social movements for social justice, indigenous rights and ecology.

A ‘Systems view of Life’ challenges the fragmentary, mechanistic, individualist view of life. Charles Eisenstein thinks, along with writers such as Fritjof Capra (the ‘rising culture’) and Paul Hawken (the ‘blessed unrest’) that we are in transition from one to the other. Stephen Sterling suggests that the sustainability transition cannot be made without adopting a ‘systems view’. Nurse education and practice has not fully caught up with the implications of such thinking.

Much of nurse education is founded on the old view; and thus we learn to reduce the human body to its constitutive parts (reductionism), that the most important knowledge is anatomy, physiology, biology, that health is about disease processes, specific aetiology, cure (biomedicine), that the focus of diagnosis is the individual apart from their social and ecological context, and we can understand illness and health in a cause and effect manner.  There are of course exceptions to this overly simplistic description yet it is probably the case that when in clinical practice the focus is on acquiring skills, knowledge and attitudes to undertake a certain role. This is done with the implicit acceptance of a fragmentary, mechanistic worldview. Up to a point that is as it should be. However, if nurses in their personal as well as their professional lives are to join in creating that transition then they need to be critically reflexive (challenging ourselves, our own thoughts, our own sense of self) and critically reflective:

In ‘An Invitation to Social Construction’ (2009) Kenneth Gergen introduces this concept with the following explanation:

‘Critical reflectivity is the attempt to place one’s premises into question, to suspend the ‘obvious’, to listen to alternative framings of reality and to grapple with the comparative outcomes of multiple standpoints…this means an unrelenting concern with the blinding potential of the ‘taken for granted’…we must be prepared to doubt everything we have accepted as real, true, right, necessary or essential’.

Eisenstein poses some key questions to assist with this process (p4):

  1. Who am I?
  2. Why do things happen?
  3. What is the purpose of life?
  4. What is human nature?
  5. What is sacred?
  6. Who are we as people?
  7. Where did we come from and where are we going?

 

These questions may come across as a bit ‘new agey’ but are of course questions scientists and philosophers have asked. They are not questions often found explicitly in nurse education.

The following answers to those questions have been the dominant discourse leading to our fragmented, reductionist and dualist paradigm. Eisenstein calls this the ‘Story of the World’, while Capra and Luisi (2014) outline its origins in western philosophy, locating it with the giants of science and philosophy: Newton, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke and Mill to name just a few. A passing note: they are all white men. Much of today’s science, including some medical practice, and philosophy has moved on, but has not yet reached into our emerging worldview as practical activity in the social, economic and political worlds dominated still by the neoliberal imaginary in the Anglo-American world view, and by other various forms of materialist capitalism elsewhere (e.g. Russia, China, India).

 

  1. Who are you? The liberal humanist self of the sovereign individual; a separate individual among other separate individuals in a material universe that is separate from you. There are clear boundaries between us and the material world. You are ‘skin encapsulated ego’. You are a ‘flesh robot’ programmed by genes to maximise your reproductive self- interest. Your mind is a separate ‘bubble of psychology’, separate from other minds and materiality. A ‘soul encased in flesh’ or a mass of particles operating according to the laws of physics. A separate biological, anatomical, physiological you.
  2. Why do things happen? The impersonal forces of physics (gravity, light, mass) act upon all particles including you. All phenomena are a result of mathematically determined interactions. There is no purpose, intelligence or design behind it all. There are only impersonal forces and masses. This is life, the sum of the interaction of force and mass.
  3. What is the purpose of life? There is only cause. The universe is blind and dead, inanimate and uncaring about your existence. There is nothing that can ‘care’. Life exists and reproduces itself. Thought is only electromechanical impulses; love is a ’hormonal cascade’. Life is based on the self interest of the reproducing unit, its self interest is in conflict with the self interest of other units, everything that is not self is either indifferent or hostile. Dog eat dog, survival of the fittest.
  4. What is human nature? As we live in a hostile universe of competing individuals and impersonal forces, we have to protect ourselves and this means exercising control. Anything that assists with control: money, power, status, security, information, is valuable and must be acquired. We are at heart ruthless maximisers of self interest. Economically we are utility maximising rational actors, ‘homo economicus’.
  5. What is sacred? As the ruthless pursuit of self interest is anti-social we must aspire to ‘higher things’. This means controlling the desires of the flesh, engaging in self denial and self discipline. We must ‘ascend’ into the spiritual realm if religious, or into the realm of reason, principles and ethics, if secular.
  6. Who are we as people? Anthropocentric: The apex of evolution, the highest form of life, a special kind of animal. We are unique created in the image of God (if religious) or unique in having a rational mind (if scientific). We alone possess consciousness, we alone can design the world.
  7. Where have we come from and where are we going? We started out as naked, ignorant animals barely able to survive in a hostile environment; lives were ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Our brains enabled the transition to be the lords and possessors of nature, having ‘dominion over all we survey’, our destiny is to free ourselves from work, from disease, even from death itself.

 

These answers are the ‘old story’ that are still somehow the, albeit torn, fabric of much of our reality. The answers are changing, the old is emerging into the new but the transition is not complete. The new story has no coherent programme, no powerful political party, no country, no organising principles. It does have a movement however. This movement is not to be found in the mass media, filled as it is with mass culture. The movement is not to be found in the palaces, the parliaments or in presidential residences. The movement does not have a giant multi-national corporation, trade agreement or is backed by a military-industrial complex. It faces the forces of the old story, of capital flows, of religious fundamentalism and of scientism. It is not an ‘it’.

 

As you read this, consider your own world view and answer for yourself the above questions. In addition reflect on what this means for nursing practice. To what degree are we still in the old story in actual practice? Put aside the espoused theory of ‘holistic practice’ and look for what the ‘theory in action’ is. Are there clinical areas which heavily depend on individualising, separating, fragmenting, reducing human experiences to biomedical and scientific processes? Are you able to discern what assumptions and values underpin the daily work?

 

Finally, consider the issue of care and support for older people: what assumptions, values and interests are at play here? Have we separated the old from the rest of us? Do we feel their pain? Have we created a system that integrates and values their existence? What priorities drive the whole system of care? A clue is that in the UK’s parliament, the needs of older people for care and support is seen as a huge ‘commercial opportunity’.

 

 

 

one reason why social change for sustainability may be difficult

Sustainability and Social change.

 

When considering social change we need to think about who are the ‘communities’ who will be involved. The Transition Towns ‘movement’ is an example of a community who are already committed to some differing vision of the future (based on building resilience to issues around peak oil). Whatever ‘community’ we work with, a principle has to be facilitating self-organising systems and not being proscriptive in offering sustainability solutions. Rather we could aim to facilitate social networking whereby the community helps to connect and offer their own solutions. Grid-group culture theory and the locking in of communities to high carbon systems both suggest that top down, education and clearer explanation do not work. Another perspective is that of Baumann’s (2001) idea of ‘liquid modernity’ in which society is characterised by atomism, individualism, fragmented social bonds and consumerism. Community movements such as ‘Transition towns’ are trying to work against this social tide. What follows is a brief discussion around high carbon systems and social lock in (Urry 2011) and grid-group culture theory. We need to understand that human behaviour change around sustainability means accepting that that this is a ‘wicked problem’ (Rittel and Webber 1973) requiring ‘fuzzy’ solutions.

 

Climate Change and Society and Social Change.

I found the following analysis helpful in getting my head around the issues of community behaviour and attitudinal change.

Sociologically, we can make the following observations about our current high carbon ‘economy-society’ (Urry 2011):

The starting point for an analysis of why a society (and hence communities within that society) engages in particular practices and habits is the observation that energy is the base commodity upon which all other commodities exist (Urry 2011). Why start with commodity? Commodity production, distribution and exchange forms the basis for the current ‘economy-society’ which has been dominated by neo-liberal economic theory since about the 1980’s and the processes of economic globalization. It is this economic infrastructure that determines in the last instance culture and behaviours.  I don’t mean to be too marxist-determinist about this but any understanding of why we do what we do has to take this into account. Thus, in the 21st century following on from the industrial revolution our community behaviours are implicitly locked into a series of interlocking clusters of high carbon systems that are taken for granted: 1) coal/gas/electric grid power 2) petrol, steel and cars 3) the carbon military-industrial complex 4) suburban housing and domestic technologies, 5) airlines/foreign tourism and 6) food/supermarkets/agribusiness. These are all high carbon systems with which we have become enchanted, entranced and encapsulated, made manifest in and by our everyday attitudes and behaviours. Some of these have become very fashionable and have become embedded into everyday practice.

 

To date we have to accept that much of social science has been ‘carbon blind’ and has analysed social practices without regard to the resource base and energy production that we now know are crucial in forming particular social practices.

 

Economics as a discipline tries to explain human behaviour, but has limits as it has an overly ‘instrumentally orientated, rational planning, utility maximizing’ model of human behaviour (‘homo economicus’). John Urry critiques modern economics for failing to address the fundamental relationship between people and the material physical world:

 

most of the time people do not behave as individually rational separate economic consumers maximising their individual utility from the basket of goods and services they purchase and use given fixed unchanging preferences…(we are) creatures of social routine and habit…fashion and fad…(we are) locked into and reproduce different social practices and institutions, including families, households, social classes, genders, work groups, schools, ethnicities, generations, nations…. (Urry 2011 p4).

 

This really muddies the waters, it requires understanding that behavior change results from myriad inputs raging from the ideological and analytical to the pragmatic availability of material resources at hand. Therefore any web 2.0 technologies will operate in this ‘economy-society’ space. 

 

So how do new habits form? What is fashion and what are the effects of this? Do we need ‘the fashionable imagination’ – is there a quality of mind that spots and encourages low carbon fashions which are supported by technologies and commodities that use less carbon based energy? The task facing us is assisting in some small way the unlocking of communities from some aspects of these high carbon systems. To do that, we also have to acknowledge, from cultural theory, the actualities of resistance and then plan accordingly. One positive about web 2.0 is that it may bypass the fatalists and allow engagement by those who seek resistance to current practices (Mason 2012).

 

 

Resistance to Change:

 

Despite ‘sustainability’ seeming to be main stream (vis the Climate Change Act 2008 and various initiatives and policies such as those of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit), the continuing existence of and adherence to the high carbon systems are implicated in the lack of progress towards a low carbon future. This will not change until enough individuals and organisations can free themselves. To do this we will need to encourage the development of perceptions that do not encourage social threat. For something (sustainability) to become fashionable is has to be non-threatening. Appealing to rationality, explaining the science, does not work because we are not rational and we have different ways of understanding the world. Social groups form around various orientations to social cohesion and the locations of solutions to social problems (Grid-Group or Cultural theory).

 

‘Grid-Group’ Culture Theory (Douglas 1992) describes individual perceptions of societal dangers and then the response to them. Individuals tend to associate societal harms with conduct that transgresses societal norms. Sustainability practices may seem to many to be just such a transgression of norms. For example, the social norm of, say car ownership, is transgressed by those advocating active transport (walking, cycling) in a rural community. A social harm may be perceived to be lack of communication with needed services in the countryside poorly served by public transport. This tendency to equate social harm, Douglas argued, plays an indispensable role in promoting certain social structures, both by imbuing a society’s members with aversions to subversive behavior (such as ‘Transition Behaviour’) and by focusing resentment and blame on those (e.g. sustainability advocates) who defy such institutions (such as the petrol/steel/car transport system).

The second important feature of Douglas’s work is a particular account of the forms that competing structures of social organization assume. Douglas maintained that cultural ways of life and affiliated outlooks can be characterized (within and across all societies at all times) along two dimensions, which she called “group” and “grid.” A “high group” way of life exhibits a high degree of collective control, whereas a “low group” one exhibits a much lower one and a resulting emphasis on individual self-sufficiency. A “high grid” way of life is characterized by conspicuous and durable forms of stratification in roles and authority, whereas a “low grid” one reflects a more egalitarian ordering.

Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) previously had focused largely on political conflict over air pollution and nuclear power in the United States. Theyattributed political conflict over environmental and technological risks to a struggle between adherents of competing ways of life associated with the group-grid scheme: an egalitarian, collectivist (“low grid,” “high group”) one, which gravitates toward fear of environmental disaster as a justification for restricting commercial behavior productive of inequality; and individualistic (“low group”) and hierarchical (“high grid”) ones, which resist claims of environmental risk in order to shield private orderings from interference, and to defend established commercial and governmental elites from subversive rebuke.

Later works in Cultural Theory systematized this argument (see below). In these accounts, group-grid gives rise to either four or five discrete ways of life, each of which is associated with a view of nature (as robust, as fragile, as capricious, and so forth) that is congenial to its advancement in competition with the others.

 

 

The Collectivist

The Individualist

The Egalitarianist

The Fatalist

 

The Hermit

 

 

The model is a two-by-two table, though it must be emphasized that the lines are arbitrary — the two dimensions are spectra, not binary divisions.

 

 

Grid-group cultural model

Group

Weak bonds between people

Strong bonds between people

Grid

Many and varied interpersonal differences

Significant similarity between people

 

Fatalism

 

Collectivism

 

Individualism

 

Egalitarianism

(source: http://changingminds.org/explanations/culture/grid-group_culture.htm)

 

Let’s be realistic, in communities such as North Prospect in Plymouth where cultural shifts are being forced through on the back of austerity programmes many are locked into clusters of systems that will be almost impossible to break out of. This may lead to feelings of Fatalism. The fatalist culture has differences between yet limited bonding between people. A result of this is that those ‘who have’ feel little obligation towards the ‘have nots’. Individuals are left to their own fates, which may be positive or negative for them. They thus may become apathetic, neither helping others nor themselves. Those that succeed, however, feel they have done so on their own merits and effectively need those who are less successful as a contrast that proves this point.  How many ‘fatalists’ are there in North Prospect?

Neoliberalism encourages low group-high grid cultural forms manifest in the perversity of the unemployed blaming themselves for being out of work during a time of austerity and recession! In an individualistic culture, people are relatively similar yet have little obligation to one another. People enjoy their differences more than their similarities and seek to avoid central authority.Self-regulation is a critical principle here, as if one person takes advantage of others then power differences arise and a fatalistic culture would develop. Individualistic cultures favour market solutions, who accept competition, laissez faire, pragmatic materialism as answers to social and economic issues

 

In developing technologies for cultural change we will have to acknowledge the possibility of individualistic and fatalist culture which will sabotage or fear the changes. What this means for this project is the obvious point that we will not reach everybody, that social networking to address community problems will appeal to ‘high group, low grid individuals’ and that we may need to identify and target this group in the first instance to identify a quick win? Maybe this is a ‘statement of the obvious?’

 

However, as part of argument to explain global political unrest and cultural change, Mason (2011) suggests it is the coming together of ‘the graduate with no future’ and technology, e.g. web 2.0. Guy Standing’s ‘precariat’ are another group, fearful of change and riddled with insecurities (Standing 2011). These are the social realities we have to deal with. I think we just have to be realistic about who we are dealing with when designing interventions for social change.

The attraction of web 2.0 is that it gets ‘out there’, bypassing those who are just not interested and is readily available for those who wish to use it. However we may need social marketing techniques and skills in getting the message out and engagement up.

 

 

 

Refs:

Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge. Polity

Douglas, M., Wildavsky, A.B. (1982) Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. Berkley, University of California Press.

Douglas, M. (1992). Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory. London: New York: Routledge

Mason, P. (2012) Why its kicking off everywhere. The New Global Revolutions. London. Verso.

Urry, J. (2011) Climate Change and Society. Cambridge. Polity Press.

Rittel, H, and Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning  pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135–144

Standing, G. (2012). The Precariat: The new dangerous class. Bloomsbury. London.

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