January 28th, 2006


American Environics

Remapping the culture debate is a fascinating article in American Prospect magazine. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger set up the US branch of Environics, a Canadian market research firm which studies behaviour, attitudes and lifestyles. American Environics had a bigger ambition than mere market research, though. They wanted to look at mistaken assumptions in progressive political movements, and recommend new clusters of values environmentalists, liberals and Democrats in the US could move towards to improve their chances of connecting with basic attitudes amongst consumers citizens. After conducting extensive research, they came to the conclusion that culture was key; progressive politics should switch its emphasis from economic arguments to cultural ones.

Now, political polling (for instance, around the 2004 US election, which many commentators agreed was determined by cultural values) tends to restrict its interest in cultural values to a few hot-button social issues: abortion, gay marriage, religion. But, using market research methods rather than political pollsters' methods, Nordhaus and Shellenberger widened the net, including as "cultural values" subtler things: attitudes towards “time stress,” “joy of consumption,” and “acceptance of violence”. "They were, in short, trying to elucidate the measurable components of worldviews," says American Prospect.

The prospect of America that emerged was a somewhat grim one, as the magazine reports:

"Looking at the data from 1992 to 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus found a country whose citizens are increasingly authoritarian while at the same time feeling evermore adrift, isolated, and nihilistic. They found a society at once more libertine and more puritanical than in the past, a society where solidarity among citizens was deteriorating, and, most worrisomely to them, a progressive clock that seemed to be unwinding backward on broad questions of social equity. Between 1992 and 2004, for example, the percentage of people who said they agree that “the father of the family must be the master in his own house” increased ten points, from 42 to 52 percent, in the 2,500-person Environics survey. The percentage agreeing that “men are naturally superior to women” increased from 30 percent to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the fraction that said they discussed local problems with people they knew plummeted from 66 percent to 39 percent. Survey respondents were also increasingly accepting of the value that “violence is a normal part of life” -- and that figure had doubled even before the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks."

The researchers devised a quadrant of basic attitudes -- a "values matrix" -- which drew clusters of values together:

"Lumping specific survey statements like these together into related groups, Nordhaus and Shellenberger arrived at what they call “social values trends,” such as “sexism,” “patriotism,” or “acceptance of flexible families.” But the real meaning of those trends was revealed only by plugging them into the “values matrix” -- a four-quadrant plot with plenty of curving arrows to show direction, which is then overlaid onto voting data. The quadrants represent different worldviews. On the top lies authority, an orientation that values traditional family, religiosity, emotional control, and obedience. On the bottom, the individuality orientation encompasses risk-taking, “anomie-aimlessness,” and the acceptance of flexible families and personal choice. On the right side of the scale are values that celebrate fulfillment, such as civic engagement, ecological concern, and empathy. On the left, there’s a cluster of values representing the sense that life is a struggle for survival: acceptance of violence, a conviction that people get what they deserve in life, and civic apathy. These quadrants are not random: Shellenberger and Nordaus developed them based on an assessment of how likely it was that holders of certain values also held other values, or “self-clustered.”

(I personally find this idea of "self-clustering" a very interesting one: it's precisely this which makes cultures or political affiliations visible, gives them a clear identity. There's a kind of magnetic effect, whereby certain values cohere even if they're logically inconsistent, like the right's embrace of freedom of choice and rejection of abortion. The logic is a cultural one: "to believe these contradictory things is our culture".)

In America, the magazine continues, "over the past dozen years, the arrows have started to point away from the fulfillment side of the scale, home to such values as gender parity and personal expression, to the survival quadrant, home to illiberal values such as sexism, fatalism, and a focus on “every man for himself.” Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant."

In my diagram of the American Environics values quadrant, I've added approximately where I think China, Japan and Europe might be plotted on the attitude map. China and Japan's Confucian-collectivist cultures make them resemble the old-fashioned "Jimmy Stewart" conservative values America is currently moving away from (family structure, respect for your elders, emotional control and obedience). But as I see it, while China leans strongly to the "Survival" quadrant, Japan remains a notably tender-minded place where "Fulfillment" values are strongly in evidence. The Sweden of Asia, you might say.