Synthetic Tensions: Kenneth Burke’s Pentad Meets Mary Douglas’s Grid/Group Cosmology

Jefferey H. Taylor

Presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication
San Antonio, March 2004

In “Cultural Bias” Mary Douglas comments on her goal as an anthropologist of discerning meaning:

We also believe that our work is to understand how meanings are generated, caught and transformed. We also assume that meanings are deeply embedded and context-bound. We are also stuck at the same fence that he balked. Like him, we cannot proceed very far without incorporating real live cultures into our analysis. For the cognitive activity of the real live individual is largely devoted to building the culture, patching it here and trimming it there, according to the exigencies of the day. In his very negotiating activity, each is forcing culture down the throats of his fellow-men. When individuals transact their medium of exchange is in units of culture. (189)

Douglas is referring to Aaron Cicourel, but she might as well have been referring to Kenneth Burke, for whom communication is always a part of the perennial social dialogue, demanding an analysis of context and motive. For both Douglas and Burke, context, motive, and purpose are often obscured for the communicator and receiver. Understanding our own social contexts and the implications of our communications is often counterintuitive, a situation that creates great potential for social violence. A synthesis of their common interests, reflected in Douglas’s Grid/Group typology of social cosmology and Burke’s concepts of scene, consubstantiality, and the social implications of discourse, reveals the dangers of our present social-rhetorical situation in which the threat of the violent dissolution of any social stability is all too real.

First, Scene:

We know what Burke means by scene: the context of the act, which may spread out to include the whole present social milieu and the past from which it extends, but what does that mean? The context of culture is ill-defined. Douglas argues that this has led many theorists to give up “the sociological enterprise altogether” and “turn to a literary mode for thinking more profoundly on the human estate,” resulting in a “shift of sociology as a rigorous explanatory discipline into a richly evocative literary mode” (“Passive” 2). Douglas is not minimizing the humanities; she just wishes to remind us that this shift away from a social-sciences model “shirks the initial project of discovering and estimating the power of social pressures upon individual belief” (“Passive” 2). Douglas brilliantly accomplished a return to the original program of the social sciences with the creation of her Grid/Group typology, allowing a rigorous analysis of the “scene” of social cosmology that includes the personal level of individual will.

Scene becomes difficult as we enlarge the potential context. Discussing Burke’s analysis of “Road to Victory,” David Blakesley wonders if Burke was interested in a greater context than he initially reveals.

As is turns out, Burke was especially interested in the mural’s context. In “War and Cultural Life,” an as yet uncollected essay . . . he comments on this mural’s placement in the exhibition. [. . .] Formally, that mural comments dialectically and ironically on the other murals and on the wider social scene. [. . .] (20-21)

That “wider social scene” can be rather complex. The further back we pull our focus to take in more context, the more difficult it becomes to grasp that context in any rigorous way. The program of analysis is potentially overwhelming, and yet, the framework of possibilities is not infinite, since communication comes down to the individual at the moment. Douglas writes:

We will pick from the coral-reef accumulation of past decisions only those which landscape the individual’s new choices: the action is this afternoon, the context was made afresh this morning, but some of its effects are long, slow fibres reaching from years back. With such a view of the social environment we can try to make allowance for the individual’s part in transforming it, minute to minute. (“Cultural”190).

Individuals would not be able to make any sense of the context of their communications without principles that guide behavior “in the sanctioned ways” and are “used for judging others and justifying [themselves] to others. This is a social-accounting approach to culture; it selects out of the total cultural field those beliefs and values which are derivable as justifications for action and which [are] regard[ed] as constituting an implicit cosmology.” (“Cultural”190). Douglas creates, then, a matrix corresponding to the basic boundaries of the social scene of cultural production, adjudication and change.

It starts from plausible assumptions about the sociological effects of arguments going on in social gatherings of all kinds. In families, in churches, in boardrooms, in sports committees, there are discussions of what should be done, and allocations of responsibility. Such argumentation defines social categories. Its outcomes are enforcements or suspensions of rules. The method tried out is devised to trace these arguments to the fundamental assumptions about the universe which they invoke; its objective is to discover how alternative visions of society are selected and sustained. Its first simplifying assumption is that the infinite array of social interactions can be sorted and classified into a few grand classes. (Douglas, “Introduction” 1)

Once basic choices about group and constraint have been made, they naturally produce “a package of intricately related preferences and secondary moral judgments” (“Introduction” 6). Hence, cultural bias can be predicted for the various extremes of the matrix, giving boundaries from which to map and analyze contexts.

Decisions to stiffen the conditions of entry inevitably result in strengthening social compartments, just as the alternative decision to waive admission requirements results in free flows of people and free flows of wealth. Decisions to delegate result in hierarchy; decisions to separate result in fission. . . . Hierarchy once installed develops self-reinforcing moral arguments that enable more unequal steps in status to be tolerated. Fission breeds. If the swirling movements of individual choices were entirely haphazard, all institutions would long ago have become more and more alike. There would be no scope for recognizable typology. Yet one of the claims in favour of this form of analysis is that in any period or place the four extreme types in the corners of the grid/group diagram are recognizable, with their particular rules and justifying cosmologies. (“Introduction” 6-7)

The natural polarizing between individualism and group behavior in social transaction gives rise to the boundaries of local cosmology, analyzable along two interacting dimensions, one labeled Group, the other Grid. The Group line maps one’s dependence on the local group, and the ease of negotiating group membership. In High Group, one is completely dependent on group membership, so much so that exile becomes the greatest fear. In Low Group, one’s resources come from many sources and group membership is highly negotiable, making changes in affiliation easy. The Grid line maps to what extent social transactions are predetermined by social authorities in the form of hierarchies, roles, rules, customs, norms, and so on. High Grid is highly structured; in Low Grid all status is potentially negotiable in any social transaction. (Douglas, “Cultural” 190-2) These are the extreme defining parameters of cultural context, the implications of which are outlined in Douglas’s “Cultural Bias.”

Second, Consubstantiality

When we attempt to communicate, we hope our context is consubstantial enough to the receiver’s that something like our intended communication occurs. My research students often have trouble with understanding the task of looking for assumptions in texts, or what Douglas would call, implicit meaning. Douglas argues that much more of cosmology resides in implication than in what is directly said (Implicit 3-4). All communications have assumptions. The assumptions with which one disagrees are the ones likely to be noticed. Failure of identification is the flag indicating differing cosmological assumptions, potentially mappable as relative points on the Grid/Group matrix.

Social transactions are mediated through symbols; meaning is always suspect, an attempt to represent with which others may or may not identify. In “Introduction to Grid/Group Analysis,” Douglas argues that one way or another, meaning comes down to our functioning typologies:

A famous social psychologist, when I mentioned the word typology, shrank in dismay. He sought to defend methodological purity against my concern to make sense of the larger scene. Typologies, he said, allow anything to be fitted into their boxes; they become an over-powerful interpretative tool. Wondering how one is even to make the smallest progress without developing any typology, I could have quoted from Katrina McLeod the Confucian rebuke to those who shirk their obligations in the name of purity. [. . .] If we eschew explicit typologies which can be criticized and improved, we may stay in a celestial harmony and escape from having to deal with the relation between mind and society, but the cost of our private purity is to expose the whole domain to undeclared, implicit typologies. Either way, behavior is going to be fitted into boxes. (2)

In a similar defense of the uncomfortable but necessary demands of relativism, Clifford Geertz inLocal Knowledge warns:

But a serious effort to define ourselves by locating ourselves among different others . . . involves quite genuine perils, not the least of which are intellectual entropy and moral paralysis. (234)

Nonetheless, he argues, we cannot escape these difficulties:

The double perception that ours is but one voice among many and that, as it is the only one we have, we must needs speak with it, is very difficult to maintain. [. . .] But however that may be, there is, so it seems to me, no choice. (234)

What Geertz says about intercultural perceptions is also applicable to the individual’s messy but unavoidable striving for identification in any social context. Blakesley comments:

The problem we face everyday is that we cannot be consubstantial. We cannot identify with one another in a absolute sense [. . .] since we are distinct bodies animated in our own ways even as we share some common sensations and experiences (Blakesley 16)

The social nature of human life makes the struggle for identification inevitable. We must interact, participating in social exchanges as complicated as buying real-estate or as simple as polite conversation. Herein lies the perennial tension in social cosmology identified by both Burke and Douglas. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke says:

In pure identification there would be no strife. Likewise, there would be no strife in absolute separateness, since opponents can join battle only through a mediatory ground that makes their communication possible, thus providing the first condition necessary for their interchange of blows. Put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric. (25).

Identification and division, in the Burkean sense, can potentially be mapped on the Grid-Group matrix. Burke’s “characteristic invitation to rhetoric” is the perennial tension between competing cosmologies on the Grid/Group matrix. Persuasion entails movement along one or both axes. One’s relative movement in the matrix may be a free act, or it may result from external force or trickery.

Third, Social Implications:

Douglas asserts that down-grid societies, such as our own, are especially prone to contradictions: “The two worst are the dehumanizing (mechanizing) of personal relations and the disparity of status . . .” (“Cultural” 238). The enshrining of competitiveness in Low Grid drives discourse. The powerful hide behind smokescreen appeals to fairness and attempt to push others up-grid toward atomized subordination. Failure in the social market often leads to calls for more down-grid push, exacerbating the very problems that induce failure, driving a down-grid spiral toward the potential disaster of meaning negation and up-group factionalizing by the disenfranchised. Grid/Group reveals the problems associated with various cosmologies and offers strategies either for success in one’s chosen social sphere or methods to change the social contexts. Douglas notes that what “this analysis can do is . . . expose the normally invisible screen through which culture lets options be perceived” (“Introduction” 7). For example:

[D]own-grid rules [. . .] are designed not to segregate, but to give each individual a fair turn. These fair-comparison rules, as distinct from insulations, render their own segregating effects invisible. (“Cultural” 193)

These down-grid dilemmas can more easily understood by looking at the correspondence between the line of stable social cosmology (running diagonally from Low-Grid / Low-Group to High-Grid / High Group) and a parallel epistemological dynamic answering to what extent truth is either circumscribed by established authority or open for negotiation through logic and argumentation. These extremes define a dynamic tension because each approach produces the opposite problem cured by the other approach. High Grid social cosmology ignores social dissent, as High Grid epistemology ignores logical dissent from established authority. But move too far down-grid and epistemology becomes sophistry, either deceptive or ridiculous. Likewise, Low Grid cosmologycan become a sophist ‘smoke screen’ for the powerful, who use its worship of equality and fairness to ignore any responsibility inherent in their stations of power and, further, to justify their abuses of public power for private ends. This appeal to fairness and open competition inevitably must claim that there exist natural superiors and natural inferiors; as a result, those in power often violently impose definitions of inferiority on the powerless, driving them up-grid into the Atomized Subordination of High-Grid / Low Group (Douglas, “Cultural” 225). As Low Grid epistemology hides qualitative semantics in favor of quantitative logic, so Low Grid cosmology hides real social power behind a simplified rhetoric of equality and fairness defined by the powerful for the powerful. However, if one is cosmologically astute, one can refuse to accept these impersonal pronouncements on fairness and push one’s way into the VIPs’ private space (since insulation is not a cosmological right in Low Grid) and force them to face up to their real power and its implied social stewardship, a movement toward group stability in the High Grid / High Group corner of the matrix (Douglas, Cultural198-99). This, however, is counterintuitive and must be understood to be pursued.

Hence the worship of individualism in Low Grid allows secret insulation for power structures rarely challenged by the vast majority of the powerless, who, being pushed up-grid accept powerless insulation without group protection. The powerless who see the contradiction in Low Grid appeals to fairness must either accept groupless insulation or move up-group toward the factionalized small group arenas of Low Grid / High Group. A perfect example is the movement of the powerless into gangs in urban areas or survivalist militias in rural areas. For both, group identification is the only clear social marker, and the result is the perennial paranoia and betrayals of head-hunter culture. Similar failures can be seen in the factionalizing of the former Yugoslavia or in the violence afflicting much of Africa today. In general there is a tendency over time for societies to move counterclockwise on the matrix as High Grid / High Group societies increasingly find excuses for limiting power sharing and group protection for more and more of the population. Those forced into atomized subordination will in time clamor for the individualism and freedom of Low Grid. Low Grid / Low Group societies over time increase invisible segregation resulting in a factionalizing move up-group. We must be careful, then, with our rhetoric. The insistence on individualism, fairness and a level-playing field, so prevalent in modern Western society, is often most pushed by the struggling masses who are most punished by the down-grid spiral it creates (Douglas, Cultural 239). Reversing the spiral is counterintuitive and takes a tremendous amount of rhetorical sparring to educate people to the basic truth that power will be insulated, whether in secret or openly. We must understand the greater scene of discourse more clearly if we are to avoid the temptation of the prevailing down-spiraling cosmology and have any chance of avoiding the disasters of up-group movements toward factionalizing that loom as a perennial threat in Low Grid societies, a threat that is already setting much of the world ablaze and that threatens our own society with violent dissolution in the foreseeable future.

Works Cited

Blakesley, David. The Elements of Dramatism. New York: Longman, 2002.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Douglas, Mary. “Cultural Bias.” Occasional Paper no. 34 of the Royal Anthropological

Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. London, 1978. Rpt. in In the Active Voice.

Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. 183-254.

---. Implicit Meanings; Selected Essays in Anthropology. 2nd ed. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1999.

---. “Introduction to Grid/Group Analysis.” Essays in the Sociology of Perception.

Ed. Mary Douglas. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

---. “Passive Voice Theories in Religious Sociology.” Review of Religious Research 21.1 (1979): 51-61. Rpt. in In the Active Voice. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. 1-15.

Geertz, Clifford. Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books, 1983.