The theory of sociocultural viability (cultural theory, for short) is a tool for institutional analysis built upon a theory of plural rationality connected to social context. It posits that the variety of human social life can be categorised within a fivefold typology (Individualism, Egalitarianism, Hierarchical, Fatalism and Isolate). It envisages a dynamic system where people constantly perform different social relations in an ever-changing socio-material context. Concomitant with each form of social solidarity is a view on reality, from which narratives are generated regarding nature, humanity and the limits of knowledge. Cultural theorists thus argue that the five narratives may be generated around any situation and, furthermore, each articulates a particular piece of knowledge about the world irreducible to that of the other narratives. This short article seeks to illustrate these narratives through popular music. Indeed, if all five solidarities and narratives may be present in any given situation it seems likely that they have appeared on music records in the past 50 years. This article seeks to identify evidence of different solidarities drawn from the author’s own knowledge of music. The intention is pedagogic, to provide an accessible first step into the at times muddy waters of cultural theory analysis. Each solidarity is considered in turn, with a single song in particular selected to represent each.
You Can Get It If You Really Want – Jimmy Cliff
To the individualist, the world is one of opportunity – nature presents a benevolent context that individuals compete to take advantage of. This is epitomised by Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want. The song is an exhortation to the listener to pursue their dreams. It won’t be easy however – they “must try, try and try, try and try”. Furthermore, success will take a ‘battle’ that makes success only the ‘sweeter’. Thus life is a competition of equals with the spoils going to deserving victors. As such, songs that express admiration for the taking of risks (“you can win if you dare”) and the uncomplaining “dignity” of life spent striving honestly for a just reward, tend to articulate the narratives of the individualistic solidarity.
The Digger’s Song – Dick Gaughan
In contrast to individualism, the narratives of the egalitarian social solidarity stress strength in group membership – united we stand, divided we fall. Whereas the individualists believe that those who put most in should get most out, egalitarianism argues for equality of result on social issues. Fairness is thus a concern of egalitarians and it is easy to find songs that call for members of the group to ‘stand up and fight’ together, warning of the dangers of breaking solidarity (including occasionally threats of punishment from within the group). In the case of The Digger’s Song visions of equality, safety nets and collective ownership (“the sin of property, We do disdain”) are articulated, with a 17th century English Protestant radical group idealised as an example of an egalitarian society.
Matty Groves – Fairport Convention
The central concern of the narratives of hierarchy is order – the world is finite, measurable and controllable. This is a narrative often employed in depictions of modern science (although the reality may differ). Within society, wealth should be distributed based on ranked needs. This clear order of business may need to be enforced. This enforcement of order is very much in evidence in Matty Groves – at the beginning of the song the titular Matty Groves is seduced by a married noble lady (known only by her station as “Lord Darnell’s wife”). This breaks societal rules of class and location (the couple sleep in the lord’s own bed). Lord Darnell then appears in the story as the agent of order – he slays Groves and then offers his wife the opportunity to return things to normal. His wife refuses and is thus murdered. In death the dominant order is reasserted “A grave, a grave, Lord Darnell cried, To put these lovers in, But bury my lady at the top, For she was of noble kin”. Under hierarchy, to each according to their rank.
The Poorest Company – Drever, McCusker and Woomble
Cultural theory analyses often focus upon individualism, egalitarianism and hierarchy, because these are the narratives that are usually most prominent in policy discussions. The nature of the fourth narrative, fatalism, is that those articulating it are seldom politically active and they are often effectively silenced. The fatalist is resigned to the inherent iniquity of any given situation, the capriciousness of nature and the untrustworthiness of other people. One can hear echoes of the fatalist in songs of industrial decline or emigration (although there are often hints of individualism or egalitarianism in such lyrics) or in ceasing to strive. The Poorest Company is fairly unusual in its acceptance and perhaps celebration of the iniquities of life – “When the world feels like world, useless spinning all around me … When we steal what we can, I take everything I see, And I’ve found where I belong among the poorest company”.
Born to Be Wild - Steppenwolf
The isolate was perhaps the hardest to identify in music. This is due in part to the isolate’s nature, which is qualitatively different to the other social solidarities. The isolate is often a temporary stopping point on actors’ journeys between different solidarities (indeed, it is ideally the standpoint where the cultural theorist makes their analysis). Thus the organisational narrative of the isolate is rarely articulated clearly. It is present however, for example in the song of the hippy movement Incense and Peppermints with its assertion that one needs to ‘drop out’ to see the world truly. However, Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild has been selected here as it captures the ‘journeying’ aspect of the isolate - the isolate is on an unplanned journey to anywhere, focused on the hear-and-now and no heavy scenes nor responsibilities are going to get in the way. Indeed, the isolate sees humanity and nature as part of one whole – “like a true nature’s child we were born, born to be wild”.
The foregoing suggests that one can find the narratives of each of cultural theory’s social solidarities in variety of popular music. Whilst this should not be confused with performing a cultural theory analysis (which ideally involves thoroughly examining diverse multidisciplinary sources of data), it does make it possible to end on a couple of pieces of advice to help the would-be cultural theorist. Firstly, the social solidarities are seldom found in ideal form – many if not most institutions contain a range of social solidarities. Secondly, one shouldn’t essentialise the social solidarities – people exist in dynamic contexts and move between solidarities all the time. As such, definitively categorising a person or an institution as X solidarity can only be done with regard to temporal, social and environmental contexts. This complexity is also reflected in popular music – the examples above have been argued to embody particular narratives, however it is possible to spot echoes of other solidarities at times. Indeed, many songs do not necessarily articulate a consistent perspective. In sum, social solidarities (and their narratives) are everywhere and in motion – just turn on the radio! Just don’t think it’s too easy.
Cultural theory resources
DOUGLAS, M. & WILDAVSKY, A. 1983. Risk and culture, Berkeley, University of California Press.
NEY, S. & VERWEIJ, M. 2015. Messy institutions for wicked problems: How to generate clumsy solutions? Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 33(6), 1679-1696.
SWEDLOW, B. 2011. Cultural Coproduction of Four States of Knowledge. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 37, 151-179.
THOMPSON, M. 2008a. Clumsiness: why isn't it as easy as falling off a log? Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 21(3), 205-216.
THOMPSON, M. 2008b. Organising and Disorganising, Axminster, Triarchy Press Limited.
VERWEIJ, M. 2011. Clumsy solutions for a wicked world: How to improve global governance, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
Discussion of criticisms of cultural theory
6, P. & MARS, G. 2008. Introduction. In: PERRI & MARS, G. (eds.) The institutional dynamics of culture volume I. Farnham: Ashgate.
Case studies using cultural theory
DOUGLAS, M. & MARS, G. 2003. Terrorism: a positive feedback game. Human Relations, 56(7), 763-786.
SINGLETON, B. E. 2016. Clumsiness and elegance in environmental management: applying cultural theory to the history of whaling. Environmental Politics, 25(3), 414-433.
SINGLETON, B. E. & FIELDING, R. 2017. Inclusive hunting: examining Faroese whaling using the theory of socio-cultural viability. Maritime Studies, 16(6).
SWEDLOW, B. 2007. Using the boundaries of science to do boundary-work among scientists: pollution and purity claims. Science and Public Policy, 34(9), 633-643.
SWEDLOW, B. 2017. Three Cultural Boundaries of Science, Institutions, and Policy: A Cultural Theory of Coproduction, Boundary-Work, and Change. Review of Policy Research.
VERWEIJ, M. & THOMPSON, M. 2011. Clumsy solutions for a complex world. Governance, politics and plural perceptions, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
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