Actually the following just refers to one element of Cultural Theory as originated by Mary Douglas and as elaborated by Michael Thompson and others, but its the one most often referred to in any discussion of organisational theory and management.
Cultural theory begins with analysis of how we understand and assess risk and how we make decisions predicated on that understanding and assessment. In short, we can think about human behaviour in terms of three types of mental process:
"Cultural theory offers one way of thinking about change in organisations (broadly defined as any group of people trying to do something together) at the level of norms and values. It is one of a number of theories of plural rationality which argue that social strategies are reducible neither to a single motivation (as in homo economicus), nor an infinite range, but a finite array.
Cultural theory suggests there are four different ways of thinking about, choosing and pursuing change in organisations.
These ways of viewing the world will be expressed differently and the ways in which they interact is inherently unpredictable but there does seem to be some evidence that in some form or another they will emerge whenever groups of people try to make social decision. There is even some emerging evidence the four ways have some neurological basis, involving distinct bits of mental wiring. The ways are:
Michael Thompson has added a fifth (the autonomous or hermit) which is vital, but not important here!
"These paradigms emerge as organisations face problems and develop solutions. They are not personality types, although some people may have a predisposition towards one or other way of viewing issues. But as the perspectives emerge they are not just a way of describing the world but a lens through which it is seen. They are theories of change in themselves but, in situations of conflict, more often expressed as critiques of the other ways of doing things. As each offers only a partial view, all four views have an Achilles' heel – a flaw or paradox which threatens to undermine its case.
The egalitarian paradigm
This sees successful change as being driven bottom up through collective action by those who are united in their shared values and status. The idealism of egalitarians (emphasising the possibility of equality and the power of shared values) leads them to feel that (human) nature has been corrupted, and this is linked to a view of nature as being highly vulnerable to exploitation and destruction. Egalitarians tend to see individualists as selfish and irresponsible and hierarchists as out of touch and overbearing. The paradox of egalitarianism is that while it espouses shared values, it gains its strength by being exclusive (only those with the right values or status are seen as valid or can join). An example of this is the uneasy alliance sometimes seen between environmentalists and anti-immigration movements. The adherents of these different views may have contrasting ideological and class interests, but they share a view that the natural order of things is being corrupted and threatened in the name of progress.
The hierarchist paradigm
This sees successful change relying on leadership, expertise, rules and regulation. If these things are in place then the potentially dangerous cycles and vagaries of nature (including human nature) can be managed. Hierarchists see the other paradigms as naïve and unbalanced, but feel that each has its place as long as hierarchy allots and regulates those places. The paradox of hierarchy is that while the top levels of organisations try to present a face of order and authority to the outside world, they contain within themselves the four paradigms. People may be members of hierarchies, and in that role adopt a hierarchical world view, but when it comes to conflicts within the hierarchy they may adopt an egalitarian, individualist or fatalistic stance. Hierarchists fear this guilty secret being exposed and the consequent loss of the legitimacy (the key source of hierarchical power in democratic societies).
The individualist paradigm
This sees successful change as the result of individual initiative and competition. Individualists don't need to worry about pursuing their own interests as the sum of individual actions is collective good and, anyway, the world is resilient to change. While individualists recognise the need for some hierarchy, they see the other paradigms as self-serving – hierarchists and egalitarians are hiding their own interests behind their paternalism and collectivism, while fatalists are simply excusing their laziness or lack of talent. The paradox of individualism is that it espouses meritocracy while tending, over time, to foster unmerited inequality and exclusion.
The fatalist paradigm
This sees successful change as unlikely and, in as much as it is possible, random in its causes and consequences. The world is unpredictable and unmanageable. Fatalists view the other paradigms with indifference or scepticism, although they will often tolerate them for the sake of a quiet life, or in order to help justify their own inaction. The paradox of fatalism is that fatalists know (even if they don't admit it) that they rely on non-fatalists to keep the world turning." Matthew Taylor: The Guardian
This analysis, of course, has considerable bearing on anyone trying to structure, work in or lead an organisation, motivate staff, build teams, and so on. There's much more on the implications of all this in Organising and Disorganising - Michael Thompson's latest book. [See also an article on the application of Cultural Theory to the financial crisis of 2009.]
Dame Mary Douglas