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Grid-group cultural theory


Explanations > Culture > Grid-group cultural theory

Description | Discussion | So what



This model has two dimensions, each a measure of sociality.


The group dimension describes how strongly people are bonded together. At one end there are distinct and separated individuals, perhaps with common reason to be together though with less of a sense of unity and connection.

At the other end, people have a connected sense of identity, relating more deeply and personally to one another. They spend more time together and have stable relationships.

When people group together, then laws are more easily defined and policed. For society to survive when bonds are weaker and central control is less possible, individuals must necessarily display self-restraint.

In management, low group does not manage resources, whilst high group does.


The grid dimension describes how different people are in the group and how they take on different roles. At one end of this spectrum people are relatively homogeneous in their abilities, work and activity and can easily interchange roles. This makes them less dependent on one another.

At the other end, there are distinct roles and positions within the group with specialization and different accountability. There are also different degrees of entitlement, depending on position and there may well be a different balance of exchange between and across individuals. This makes it advantageous to share and organize together.

In management, low group does not manage needs, whilst high grid does.

The model

The model is a two-by-two table, though it must be emphasized that the lines are arbitrary -- the two dimensions are spectra, not binary divisions.


Grid-group cultural model

Weak bonds between people Strong bonds between people


Many and varied interpersonal differences
Significant similarity between people









The fatalist culture has differences between yet limited bonding between people. A result of this is that those who have feel little obligation towards the 'have nots'.

Individuals are left to their own fates, which may be positive or negative for them. They thus may become apathetic, neither helping others nor themselves. Those that succeed, however, feel they have done so on their own merits and effectively need those who are less successful as a contrast that proves this point.

Also known as: Isolate

Style: Apathy, avoidance

Nature as: Capricious, uncertain

Risk view: Danger, no gain

Key: Power imbalance

Cultural hero: none

Leadership: Despotic

Manage needs? : No

Manage resources? : No



In a collectivist culture, people are strongly connected yet are very different. This leads to the development of institutions, hierarchies and laws that both regulate individual action and provide for weaker social members.

Within overall collectivist hierarchies, other sub-cultures may survive, for example where a national collectivist model there may be egalitarian or individualist groups who, whilst generally obeying national laws, will have differing internal rules.

Also known as: Positional, Hierarchical

Style: Hierarchy

Nature as: Robust, to a point

Risk view: Managed

Key: Obedience

Cultural hero: Bureaucrat

Leadership: Positional

Manage needs? : No

Manage resources? : Yes



In an individualistic culture, people are relatively similar yet have little obligation to one another. People enjoy their differences more than their similarities and seek to avoid central authority.

Self-regulation is a critical principle here, as if one person takes advantage of others then power differences arise and a fatalistic culture would develop.

Also known as: Markets

Style: Competition, Lassez faire, pragamatic materialism

Nature as: Benign, robust

Risk view: Opportunity

Key: Self-regulation

Cultural hero: Pioneer

Leadership: Meteoric

Manage needs? : Yes

Manage resources? : Yes



In an egalitarian culture, there is less central rule than in collectivism, but this requires individuals to voluntarily help others. The rule is thus less about law and more about values. External laws may be seen as necessary only when there is weakness of character, which is prized highly.

The fact that people are essentially similar is very helpful to this culture: the similarity leads people to agree and adopt similar values.

This is an ideal utopia and while it may survive in smaller groups, national egalitarian cultures are rare, if any exist. To survive this requires that if one person breaks values, all others turn on this person, correcting or ejecting them.

Also known as: Enclave, Communitarian, Sectarianism

Style: Equality, commune

Nature as: Ephemeral, fragile

Risk view: Delicate balance

Key: Integrity

Cultural hero: Holy person

Leadership: Charismatic

Manage needs? : Yes

Manage resources? : No


A fifth model is where individuals retreat from whatever culture may otherwise exist. They effectively live as hermits, interacting with others only when necessary.

Also known as: Hermit, Autonomous

Style: Retreat



Grid-group cultural theory is a cultural model developed by anthropologists Mary Douglas, Michael Thompson, and Steve Rayner, with contributions by political scientists Aaron Wildavsky and Richard Ellis, and others. One reason it was designed was to show how native rituals and practices were relevant to modern society.

Thompson et al provided several propositions:

  • The compatibility condition: social relations and cultural bias must be mutually supportive. People with different cultural preferences do not get on well.
  • The impossibility theorem: there are only five and only five ways of life, based on combinations of bias and relations.
  • The requisite variety condition: ways of life need each other to be viable. A cultural bias alone has blind spots and will fail. Each way of life also needs the others to define itself. Thus there are always the five ways within a society.
  • The theory of surprise: Change comes only repeated surprising events that force action.

The 'five' ways were originally the four quadrants of the chart, to which the non-chart 'hermit' was later added by Michael Thompson.

Patterns that have been identified include:

  • The diagonal of affirmation: Individualists and Hierarchies
  • The diagonal of withdrawal: Fatalists and Egalitarianists
  • Social democracy: Hierarchists and Egalitarianism.
  • American individualism: Individualists and Egalitarianism.
  • State capitalism: Individualists and Hierarchists.
  • Totalitarianism: Fatalists and Hierarchists.

Max Weber identified three types of rationality: bureaucracy, market, and religious charisma. These align with collective, individualistic and egalitarian cultures, respectively.

Cultures interact, and the facilitation of this interface needs to be politically managed, lest conflict break out, particularly when one or more groups have the power to do harm (as even small groups can do).

Grid-group cultural theory is also known as grid-group analysis, the theory of socio-cultural viability, or just Cultural Theory (which is often abbreviated to CT).

So what?

You can use this model to help understand cultures in countries and companies and hence decide how to influence them. Do understand your own culture, which may be different, as well as the multiple cultures that may come into conflict at times.

See also

Douglas, M., (1978) Cultural Bias, London: Royal Anthropological Institute

Thompson, M., Ellis, R., and Wildavsky, A., (1990) Cultural Theory, Westview Press, Colorado, CO

Weber, M., (1968) Economy and Society, New York: Bedminster Press

Wildavsky, A. (1987). Choosing Preferences by Constructing Institutions: A Cultural Theory of Preference Formation, American Political Science Review 81: 1. 3-21

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