Choosenick. Notes and observations on service design, as well as other interesting things/thinking. By Nick Marsh.

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Cultural Theory as a tool to help frame problems of public service design

Matthew Taylor has been writing some terrific posts over the past few days focused around introducing the idea of Cultural Theory, and applying it to real world situations. Cultural Theory is a simple and transformational idea that throws up some remarkable new ways of looking at big, complex (or wicked) problems.

Geoff Mulgan describes it as "a deceptively simple framework ... used to make sense of organisations and societies. It should be part of the mental furniture of any educated person, like the laws of supply and demand in economics, or the laws of thermodynamics."

So what is Cultural Theory? Geoff again: "Any culture ... can be mapped on two dimensions. On one axis is "grid," the extent to which behaviours and rules are defined and differentiated, for example by public rules deciding who can do what according to their age, race, gender or qualifications. Examples of "high grid" would include a large corporation, or a traditional agrarian society, or families with clear demarcations of roles and times (when to eat, go to bed). On the other axis is "group"—the extent to which people bond with each other, and divide the world into insiders and outsiders. The more people do with a group of other people, the more they experience testing trials, or the more difficult the group is to get into, the stronger this sense of group will be."

This creates a simple business school 101 style grid:


On the grid we can then start to map various types of worldview that help us think about how different types of cultures, and in turn organisations and individuals, look at the world. Broadly speaking there are four paradigms that emerge:


As Matthew Taylor explains, "The four paradigms can be understood as theories of change in themselves and as critiques of the other ways of doing things. Indeed, cultural theory argues that each paradigm gains its strength primarily from its critique of the others." So, to elaborate a bit on the foundational principles of each paradigm (apologies to Matthew for so slavishly re-printing his points, but he writes so well there's no point reworking the material):


Within each paradigm lies a self contained argument for why the other paradigms are fundamentally wrong.


And within each lies a paradoxical, tragic flaw that undermines the paradigm.


The really interesting thing about this way of looking at culture is that it provides us with an off balance, high tension way of thinking about competing agendas and arguments in situations where there is no 'right' solution, only better or worse outcomes for different groups (sometimes referred to as Wicked Problems within the design community.)

As Geoff explains "How should [we] use these insights? They cannot be translated into one precise method to be applied to any situation. Indeed, these insights are warnings against relying on any one set of tools to deal with such complex things as human society. But they are very useful when thinking about any given strategy to change the world. Bluntly, if it doesn’t contain some room for all of the cultural frames, then it will likely fail. For example, public service reforms based only on incentives are as doomed to failure as strategies to cut anti-social behaviour that rely only on coercion."

Cultural Theory is thus a tool to be used when tackling problems, more than a theory to explain a situation, and this is the appeal for me as a service designer - I'm always looking for ways to frame the often complex and contradictory problems I come across during my work, and Cultural Theory is an inspiring, thought provoking method of viewing these issues. I'm looking forward to reading more about it...
January 15th, 2009 / Tags: publicservicedesign, cultural theory / Trackback / Comments