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Cultural theory of risk

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The Cultural Theory of risk, often referred to simply as Cultural Theory (with capital letters), is a theory developed in anthropology and political science to explain risk perception. Cultural Theory aims to understand why different people and social groups fear different risks.

Ways of Life and Cultural BiasesEdit

Cultural Theory arose out of the work of Mary Douglas, an anthropologist studying traditional African religion. She observed that different societies feared different sorts of threats, and that these differences correlated with differences in their social structure. She proposed a functionalist explanation: social structures (which she called "ways of life") generate attitudes toward the world (which she called "cultural biases") that serve to uphold the social structure.

The Grid/Group TypologyEdit

Later, Douglas argued that social structures differ along two principal axes: "grid" and "group." Grid refers to the degree to which individuals' choices are circumscribed by their position in society. Group refers to the degree of solidarity among members of the society. These dimensions were based on the work of the classic sociologist Emile Durkheim.

The grid/group concept was introduced to the risk analysis community in 1982 by a book Douglas wrote with political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture. The scheme was elaborated by Wildavsky, Michael Thompson, and Richard Ellis in their 1990 book Cultural Theory. This typology has been very influential in the field of risk perception research. It proposes four major biases: Individualist, Egalitarian, Hierarchist, and Fatalist, plus a fifth asocial Autonomous perspective.


Individualists experience low grid and low group. That is, their choices are unconstrained by society and they lack close ties to other people. They value individual initiative in the marketplace, and fear threats like war that would hamper free exchange. The individualist view of nature is described as cornucopian or resilient. Like a ball resting at the bottom of a cup, nature will return to its original stable position after any disturbance. Thus, individualists embrace trial-and-error, as they have confidence that the system will fix itself in the end.


Egalitarians experience low grid and high group. They live in voluntary associations where everyone is equal and the good of the group comes before the good of any individual. In order to maintain their solidarity, egalitarians are sensitive to low probability-high consequence risks (such as nuclear power), and use them to paint a picture of impending apocalypse. Risk and Culture was, in part, a polemic against the environmental movement, which Douglas and Wildavsky saw as sharing the worldview and social organization of religious cults. Egalitarians see nature as fragile, like a ball balanced precariously on an overturned cup. Any small disturbance will send it crashing down. Thus egalitarians advocate the precautionary principle and cling to traditional ways of life that have proven to be sustainable, rather than risking disaster by trying new technologies.


Hierarchists experience high grid and high group. A hierarchist society has a well-defined role for each member, like the caste system in India. Hierarchists believe in the need for a well-defined system of rules, and fear social deviance (such as crime) that disrupts those rules. Hierarchists see nature as "perverse/tolerant": it can be exploited within certain limits, but if those limits are exceeded the system will collapse. They thus rely heavily on experts, who can identify those limits and establish rules to keep society within proper bounds.


Fatalists experience high grid and low group. They feel isolated in the face of an external world imposing arbitrary constraints on them. They view nature as a ball on a flat surface, rolling randomly in any direction. Thus, they feel that there is little they can do to control their situation, and resign themselves to riding out whatever fate throws at them. Because of their passive stance, fatalists are often excluded from Cultural Theory analyses.


The hermit who withdraws from social interaction is described as having an autonomous way of life. Because so few people fit this description, and it is by definition not a viable basis for a society, it is often ignored in Cultural Theory analyses.


Cultural Theory has become very popular in part because of its intuitive appeal. However, much debate surrounds attempts to empirically validate Cultural Theory. In some studies (such as those by Karl Dake), correlations between people's attitudes and their rankings of different risks are typically statistically significant and greater in magnitude than the correlations beween risk perceptions and other individual characteristics (such as gender, race, political ideology, and personality type). Other studies (such as those by Lennart Sjöberg) report difficulty in unambiguously categorizing individuals as adherents to a single bias, and find that Cultural Theory still leaves a great deal of people's perceptions of risk unexplained.

Though Wildavsky considered himself an Individualist and Douglas has sympathies for the Hierarchist position, Cultural Theory does not argue for the superiority of any of the biases. Rather, Cultural Theorists cite the parable of the blind men and the elephant to explain how each bias captures some part of the truth about the world. A society entirely dominated by one bias would set itself up for disaster.

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