what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Stories we tell

Since we were small children, we have all needed stories – to help us understand and come to terms with the strange world we inhabit. In this post-modern world, “narratives” have become a fashionable adult activity for the same reason.
It’s significant that, when I was looking for a structure with which to classify the different approaches in the (vast) literature about the global crisis, I used the classification - micro-meso-macro. That shows the grip my university training in political economy still has on me. Political sociology actually had more appeal for me – but somehow lacked the apparent legitimacy of economics.
In fact, the anthropological ways of looking at the world have much more power than the economic – in particular the grid-group typology of Mary Douglas (and her Cultural Theory) which first gave us the four schools or lenses (“hierarchical”, “individualistic”, “egalitarian” and “fatalistic”) used to such effect in Chris Hood’s great little book “The Art of the State” (1990). It was indeed his book which introduced me to this typology which allows us to tell distinctive “stories” about the same phenomenon. More interestingly, he then shows the typical policy responses, weaknesses and strengths of each school. A sense of his book's argument can be gained from the review of the book which can be accessed toward the end of the contents sheet of this journal

At University I had been interested in how social systems held together and why people (generally) obeyed - and I had liked Max Weber’s classification of political systems into – “traditional”, “charismatic” and “rational-legal”.
But it was the sociologist Ametai Etzioni who first impressed me in the 1970s with his suggestion that we behaved the way we did for basically three different types of motives – “remunerative”, “coercive” and “normative” – namely that it was made worth our while; we were forced to; or that we thought it right. He then went on to suggest (in his 1975 Social Problems) that our explanations for social problems could be grouped into equivalent political stances - “individualistic”, “hierarchical” or “consensual”. These are effectively “stories” about the world. Unfortunately google search will not give me access to the relevant works of Etzioni or Hood - although substantial chunks of a similar sort of book "Responses to Governance - governing corporations and societies in the world" by John Dixon can be read on google books.

During the 1980s, when I was doing my Masters in Policy Analysis, I was (briefly) interested in the potential of “Frame Analysis” which showed how we could tell different “stories” to make sense of complex social events.
The last decade has seen a revival of interest in such typologies - The case for clumsiness which, again, sets out the various stories which sustain the different positions people take us on various key policy issues – such as the environment. There is a good interview with the author here and a short summary here
Three recent reports give an excellent summary of all this literature - Common Cause; FindingFrames; and Keith Grint’s Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions 

I know this has not been easy reading – but my next post will hopefully show its relevance to the search for a typology to help us navigate the literature on the global crisis!

The photo on my new "masthead" is from Sunday's annual "milk festival" in my village. The weather was superb and the next day the best of the year

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