by Mary Douglas et al.

A Course on Cultural Theory: The Group / Grid Model


This is an anthropology course, but not all the leading experts on CT are anthropologists. CT is a subject in itself. A recent count of publications on the topic came up to over 700 items. Essentially it started as a practice developed for understanding the comparisons we make. Why do some people decide to take a big risk? And why do others decide it is too dangerous? Before CT entered the field the usual explanations were psychological. The answer would depend on whether you are a bold and risk-taking person, or prudent and risk-averse. The psychological answer doesn’t take us very far because most of us are risk-averse on some things and risk-taking on others. The CT range of answers depends on how what the other people in the community judge right and wrong, and what influence they exert on us.

To fill in the background of big decisions, we need to start studying the pressures people are putting on each other. CT is a method for assessing the different social environments which affect individual beliefs and influence individual choice. Two dimensions are enough to bring a fine focus to bear on social constraints. One concerns rules and regulations, that is the grid dimension. In some communities, nothing is regulated, no body minds what you do, or eat, or how you dress. They would be ranked at the bottom end of the grid dimension. At the other end you can think of a community (say a convent, or military unit) where everything is done by rule.

The group dimension concerns whether you live in a bounded community, how much of your behaviour is under pressure to conform to group pressures, (often not rules but moral pressures). The central underlying question is about the relation between ideas and values on the one hand, and the form of the society on the other. Ideas and values are institutionalized in rules, (engaged and made ‘concrete’, as it were). But at the same time, institutions depend heavily on the life in the ideas they capture. If no one in the community believes in them any more, the institution that is upheld by the ideas will fade out. Grid/group theory focuses on this interaction.


A dozen topics from which experts will be asked to choose, and give a four-line abstract from which list the course will be constructed.

1. Cultural Bias and Global Climate Change
2. Risk and Uncertainty
3. Group Management : The Household Level: effects of diaspora, effects of immigration
4.Management of the Firm: effects of staff turnover; recruitment and training; perceived injustice.
5, 6 and 7. The Withdrawn Enclave (strong group boundary, weak grid regulation)
Problems of Authority;
internal government; and of external relations
8. Grid and group applied to decision-making in Financial Institutions
9. Terrorism
10. City Planning and the Problem of Traffic
11. Problems of Tyranny in the Community under one Dominant Culture
12. The challenge of Multi-Cultural Society
13. Hierarchies, Ancient and Modern
14. Equality as an Ideal that is bound to deceive


  1. A history of Grid and Group Cultural Theory (PDF)Introduction: What is Grid and Group Cultural Theory? How Useful can it be in the Modern World?
  2. Seeing everything in black and white (PDF)In the first lecture I explained the grid-and-group method of making comparisons and how to use it for studying culture. This time I want to tell you about recent developments. It is taught in seminaries and in business schools, some major industrial firms have been reorganized in conformity with its principles. It has been the framework for writing on risk, town planning, economic history, art, market research, Bible studies, contemporary politics and more.
  3. Towards a Corporate Cultural Theory (PDF)Cultures and Corporations
    Despite the significance and impact of corporate culture upon organisational performance, rigorous ethnographic techniques are relatively absent in the management literature. This won’t do – culture is too important to be left undefined and unrefined, and analysts need a deeper awareness of the anthropological and sociological frameworks that can clarify cultural analysis.
  4. Cultural Theory, Climate Change and Clumsiness (PDF)Cultural Theory offers an approach for understanding and resolving the disputes that characterise environmental policy. Its four-fold typology of forms of social solidarity is able to make explicit the different social constructions of nature, physical and human, on which environmental debate is premised. This paper applies Cultural Theory to the ‘policy stories’ around climate change and makes the case for ‘clumsy’ institutional arrangements that forego elegance to accommodate the diversity of social solidarities, harnessing contestation to constructive, if noisy, argumentation.
  5. Understanding Globalization Through Cultural Theory – effects on community, work and household (PDF)In this lecture I explore the effects of globalization through the use of Cultural Theory. The aim is to understand its effects on relatonships with especial reference to the developing world –with all the risks of over generalisation this involves.

Mary Douglas et al. | Biography

Born in Italy in 1921, educated at Oxford, I finished with a Ph.D. in Anthropology  in 1951.
My major research was in the (then, 1949-53)) Belgian Congo, later Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first book on this work was published in 1963, The Lele of the Kasai. Most of my teaching life was in the Anthropology Department of University College London (1951-77). After four years in New York, four years in Northwestern University, and three years in Princeton, I retired  to England  and have been living in London ever since 1988.

She died on 16 May 2007 in London.