Grid-Group Theory

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= there are four primary ways of organizing, perceiving, and justifying social relations (usually called ‘ways of life,’ or ‘social solidarities’): egalitarianism, hierarchy, individualism and fatalism.


Michael Thompson:

"It is possible – at least in principle – to distinguish simultaneously between a limited number of social and cultural forms, and still recognize wide social and cultural variety. Physics has maintained that all the material objects that we can observe on earth and beyond consist of endlessly varying combinations of only six basic particles (or, in more recent formulations, a small number of strings). Analogously, it might be possible to discern a limited number of fundamental forms of social organization from which a large variety of ultimate forms of social and cultural life can be derived. This is the starting point of what we have come to call cultural theory.[1]

The original aim of this theory was to devise a typology of social forms that fit – to the extent possible – the classificatory schemes developed by the grand old social theorists (Durkheim, Tönnies, Maine, Weber, etc.), as well as the evidence collected in subsequent ethnographic studies.[2] According to our cultural theory, there are four primary ways of organizing, perceiving, and justifying social relations (usually called ‘ways of life,’ or ‘social solidarities’): egalitarianism, hierarchy, individualism and fatalism.

We postulate that these four ways of life are in conflict in every conceivable domain of social life. Most such domains (say the way in which a school operates, or the way in which an international regime functions) will consist of some dynamic combination of these pure forms. As many social domains can be distinguished within and between societies (and as many societies can be distinguished around the world), the theory allows one to perceive a wide and ever-changing cultural and social variety – while still enabling one to formulate general propositions about social and political life. These propositions include possible ways in which people perceive and attempt to stave off a threat such as climate change. In order to explain and illustrate this, we will have to set out our cultural theory in some detail.

Each of the four ways of life consists of a specific way of structuring social relations and a supporting cast of particular beliefs, values, emotions, perceptions, and interests.[3] Our fourfold typology is strictly derived from two dimensions of sociality: what we will call ‘grid’ and ‘group’.[4] Grid measures the extent to which role differentiation constrains the behavior of individuals: where roles are primarily ascribed, grid constraints are high; where roles are primarily a matter of choice, grid constraints are low. Group, by contrast, measures the extent to which an overriding commitment to a social unit constrains the thought and action of individuals.

High-group strength results when people devote a lot of their available time to interacting with other members of their unit. In general, the more things they do together, and the longer they spend doing them, the higher the group strength. Where admission to the social unit is hard to obtain, making the unit more exclusive and conscious of its boundary, the group strength also tends to be high. An extreme case of high group strength is the monastic community whose members renounce their private property upon entering and depend on the corporate body for all their material and social needs. High-group strength of this sort requires a long-term commitment and a tight identification of members with one another as a corporate identity. Individuals are expected to act on behalf of the collective whole, and the corporate body is expected to act in the normative interests of its members.

Group strength is low when people negotiate their way through life on their own behalves as individuals, neither constrained by, nor reliant upon, a single group of others. Instead, low-group people interact as individuals with other individuals, picking and choosing with whom they will associate, as their present preoccupations and perceived interests demand. The low-group experience is a competitive, entrepreneurial way of life where the individual is not strongly constrained by duty to other persons. Attractive though this freedom from constraint might first appear to some, there is a serious disadvantage: in a low group context, you cannot count on the support of your fellows should your personal fortune wane. In the high-group context, the safety net of social support compensates for the loss of personal autonomy.

Grid stands for the complementary bundle of constraints on social interaction. Grid is high whenever roles are distributed on the basis of explicit public social classifications, such as gender, color, position in a hierarchy, holding a bureaucratic office, descent in a senior clan or lineage, or point of progression through an age-grade system. It is low when classificatory distinctions only weakly limit the range of social choices and activities open to people. A low-grid social environment is one in which access to roles depends on personal abilities to compete or negotiate for them, or even on formal regulations that ensure equal access and opportunity to compete. In either case, access to roles is not dependent on any ascribed characteristics of rank or birth.

Assigning two values (high and low)[5] to the grid and group dimensions gives the four ways of organizing, perceiving and justifying social relations. Egalitarianism is associated with a low-grid score and a high-group score. The combination of a high score on the grid dimension (many rules prescribing people’s roles) with a high score on the group dimension (strong group boundaries) gives the hierarchical way. The third way of organizing and justifying social relations, individualism, is associated with low scores on both the grid and group scales. Last, fatalism is characterized by a high-grid and a low-group score.

We are now in a position to describe how these four different forms of association tend to produce different ways of perceiving nature (including human nature), and the policy prescriptions that follow from that. In an egalitarian social setting, actors see nature as fragile, intricately interconnected and ephemeral, and man as essentially caring (until corrupted by coercive institutions such as markets and hierarchies). We must all tread lightly on the earth, and it is not enough that people start off equal; they must end up equal as well – equality of result. Trust and leveling go hand-in-hand, and institutions that distribute unequally are distrusted. Voluntary simplicity is the only solution to our environmental problems, with the Precautionary Principle being strictly enforced on those who are tempted not to share the simple life.

In a hierarchical social setting, actors see the world as controllable. Nature is stable until pushed beyond discoverable limits, and man is malleable: deeply flawed but redeemable by firm, long-lasting, and trustworthy institutions. Fair distribution is by rank and station or, in the modern context, by need (with the level of need being determined by expert and dispassionate authority). Environmental management requires certified experts to determine the precise locations of nature’s limits, and statutory regulation to ensure that all economic activity is kept within those limits.

In an individualistic social setting, actors view nature as benign and resilient – able to recover from any exploitation – and man as inherently self-seeking and atomistic. Trial and error, in self-organizing ego-focused networks (unfettered markets), is the way to go, with Adam Smith’s invisible hand ensuring that people only do well when others also benefit. The upholders of individualistic solidarity, in consequence, trust others until they give them reason not to and then retaliate in kind (the winning ‘tit for tat’ strategy in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma game), and see it as only fair that (as in the joint stock company) those who put the most in get the most out. They think institutions that work with the grain of the market (that get rid of environmentally harmful subsidies, for instance) are what are needed.

In a fatalistic social setting, finally, actors find neither rhyme nor reason in nature, and suppose that man is fickle and untrustworthy. Fairness is not to be found in this life, and there is no possibility of effecting change for the better. ‘Defect first’ –the winning strategy in the one-off prisoner’s dilemma– makes sense here, given the unreliability of communication and the permanent absence of prior acts of good faith. Without the possibility of ever getting in sync with nature, or of building trust with others, the fatalistic world unlike the three others is one in which learning is impossible. ‘Why bother?’ therefore is the rational management response.

Since it was first formulated, this classification of four different ways of organizing and perceiving social relations has helped illuminate the paradoxical and sometimes contradictory ways in which people approach contemporary public policy issues."


  1. Mary Douglas, ed., Essays in the Sociology of Perception (London: Routledge, 1982); Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (London: Routledge, 1987); Michael Thompson, Richard Ellis, and Aaron Wildavsky, Cultural Theory (Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 1990); Michael Thompson, Gunnar Grendstad and Per Selle (eds), Cultural Theory as Political Science (London: Routledge, 1999). This approach has also sailed under the flags of ‘theory of sociocultural viability,’ ‘grid-group analysis,’ and ‘theory of plural rationality.’
  2. Mary Douglas, “Cultural Bias,” in Occasional Paper No. 35 (London: Royal Anthropological Institute, 1978); Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky, op. cit., part 2. Manfred E.A. Schmutzer, Ingenium und Individuum (Berlin: Springer, 1994). Cf., Alan Page Fiske, Structures of Social Life: The Four Elementary Forms of Human Relations (New York: The Free Press, 1991).
  3. In his classic The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Basic Books, 1917/1985), Émile Durkheim argued that differences in the ways in which groups of people organize interpersonal relations form the basis for the manners in which these groups differently perceive such fundamental notions, as time, space, causality and morality. In present-day biology and linguistics, a similar idea has emerged, namely that the growth of cognitive skills among primates, as well as the emergence of human language, is explained by the evolution of more elaborate and flexible forms of social organization. See: Frans de Waal and Peter L. Tack (eds),Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence, Culture, and Individualized Societies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003). In any case, we buy into the view that diversity in social organization is at least one basis for the variety of human perception.
  4. Jonathan L. Gross and Steve Rayner, Measuring Culture: A Paradigm for the Analysis of Social Organization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
  5. We have been following a time-honored way of explaining cultural theory. However, this opens us up to a familiar, and quite reasonable, charge. Dimensions, properly speaking, do not serve to distinguish differences of kind – merely differences of degree. One cannot, for instance, get from a reef knot to a grannie knot by moving along some dimensions. Hence, the critique goes, how is it possible to distinguish four alternative ways of organizing on the basis of two dimensions? Put slightly differently, what justifiesusing the indicators ‘high’ and ‘low’ to generate four ways of organizing from the two dimensions? How high is ‘high’, how low ‘low’? Why not select a ‘middle’ as well? Thebest (though unfortunately least easily understood) solution is set out in Manfred E.A. Schmutzer and Wyllis Bandler, “High and Low, In and Out: Approaches to Social Status”, Journal of Cybernetics (Vol. 10, 1980), pp. 283-99. This rigorous re-framing, in terms of cybernetics, distinguishes between ‘openness’ and ‘closedness’ (cf., low versus high grid), and between ‘weak’ and ‘strong connectedness’ (cf., high versus low group). Possible ways of organizing are then expressed in terms of a ‘transaction matrix’, which, it turns out, has only four solutions. These solutions match cultural theory’s four ways of organizing, and are ‘truly distinct types that cannot be transformed into each other unless the principal conditions are altered’ (Manfred Schmutzer, personal communication). The grid and group dimensions, it appears, have been nicely chosen to pick up this fourfold set of discontinuities.

(The Case for Clumsiness by Michael Thompson and Marco Verweij, June 2004)


Michael Thompson:

"Each way of organizing and perceiving provides a clear expression of the way in which a significant portion of the populace feels we should live with one another and with nature. And each one needs all the others in order to be sustainable.

It is useful to set out this latter point in some detail. Under pure egalitarianism there are no peaceful mechanisms, other than an endless search for consensus, for deciding between alternative opinions. There is no official leadership that can settle issues, nor a voting mechanism that can be invoked. This lack of procedures for settling conflicts can easily paralyze egalitarian social settings. It can also give rise to the violent expulsion of dissenters. In addition, pure egalitarianism creates social ills by ruling out any activities that would give rise to inequality of condition. This limits economic production to a bare minimum, as many forms of economic life contain a competitive element. Hence, undiluted egalitarianism will have to be mixed with at least minimal doses of the other ways of organizing and perceiving, if it is not to evaporate. Hierarchy has a whole ‘armory of different solutions to internal conflicts, upgrading, shifting sideways, downgrading, re-segregating and re-defining’ (Douglas 1978: 20). Individualism preaches the right of each individual to live according to his or her own needs and wants, without group interference. Such enthusiasm for individuality serves to dampen the disrespect in which dissenters are held. Together, hierarchy and individualism provide many ways in which to increase the resource base of a group of people, thus preventing impoverishment. Fatalism is useful for egalitarian organizations, as it continuously replenishes the moral outrage that keeps such organizations together.

Hierarchy, too, needs the others. Without the distrust of central control and insistence on transparency that are prevalent within both individualism and egalitarianism, hierarchy would be apt to be prey to the classical problems of bureaucracy: corruption, arbitrary use of power, tunnel vision, lack of innovativeness, and moral fragmentation. And without the unquestioning acceptance and resignation that fatalism implies hierarchical control would become impossible.

Unfettered individualism undermines itself, as it does not include the means to enforce contracts and check accumulating inequalities. To keep its playing fields level, an individualistic social system needs egalitarian-minded organizations to notice, and protest, mounting inequalities. It needs the regulatory capacities of hierarchy in order to enforce contracts, as well as to organize the continuous redistribution of resources that will keep playing fields level. And what would become of individualistic competition, if not a (fatalistic) sucker were born every minute?

Barry Schwartz has nicely summed up these inter-dependencies:

- Each way of life undermines itself. Individualism would mean chaos without hierarchical authority to enforce contracts and repel enemies. To get work done and settle disputes the egalitarian order needs hierarchy, too. Hierarchies, in turn, would be stagnant without the creative energy of individualism, uncohesive without the binding force of equality, unstable without the passivity and acquiescence of fatalism. Dominant and subordinate ways of life thus exist in alliance yet this relationship is fragile, constantly shifting, constantly generating a societal environment conducive to change.

It is therefore important that all the ways of life be taken some sort of account of in the policy process. And that, for all its simplicity, is the essence of clumsiness: all the ‘voices’ heard, and responded to by the others." (


  • Article: The Case for Clumsiness. Michael Thompson, Marco Verweij, June 2004.
Essentially corresponds to chapter one of the book by Michael Thompson with Marco Verweij, eds: Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World: Governance, Politics and Plural Perceptions. Palgrave.