A socio-cultural framework for scenarios


Recently, I have become very enthusiastic about using socio-cultural perspectives as a framework for scenarios. This framework is well suited for complex societal issues and is often used for scenarios in the field of environment, sustainability issues and water management.  It’s point of departure is the idea that individuals, communities, societies and countries can be characterized as having a certain perspective, or worldview. This perspective determines how will be reacted to change; whether economic, political, technological, environmental or other types of change.

Group and Grid

The various perspectives can be divided along two axes, or as Thompson et al explain, are classified by two dimensions of sociality: group and grid. The cultural theory identifies 5 main types of socio-cultural perspectives, although often only three are used for scenarios (fatalist and hermit are often considered too complex or negative).  According to Thompson et al: “Group’ refers to the extent to which an individual is incorporated into bounded units (..) Grid denotes the degree to which an individual’s life is circumscribed by externally imposed prescriptions”. I will give a short description for each perspective, based on Thompson et al.

Cultural theory; framework Source: Thompson et al. (1990)

Cultural theory; framework
Source: Thompson et al. (1990)

Hierarchical perspective

Keywords: structure and stability. Hierarchists believe that human beings are born sinful but can be redeemed by good institutions. This conception of human nature helps sustain a way of life rich in institutional restraints. Hierarchists are not squeamish about setting acceptable risk at high levels, as long as experts make the decision. Hierarchies inculcate respect for authority as long as the right people in the right place make decisions. For the same reason that they approve of putting people and products in their properly ordered place, hierarchists approve of differentiating the public and private spheres.

Egalitarian perspective

Keywords: harmony and solidarity. Egalitarians believe that human beings are born good, but are corrupted by evil institutions (markets and hierarchies). By accentuating the risks of technological development and economic growth, egalitarians are able to shore up their way of life and discomfort rival ways. Any system that would impose hidden, involuntary, and irreversible dangers on people is not to be trusted. Egalitarians predictions of imminent catastrophe-global warming, nuclear meltdowns, deforestation-not only enable them to discredit existing authority for ignoring the welfare of its citizens, but also help convince themselves anew that it is safer inside than outside the egalitarian group, thereby dampening its schismatic tendencies

Individualistic perspective

Keywords: personal freedom, ambition. No matter what the institutional setting, individualist believe, human beings remain essentially the same: self seeking. For the individualist, risk is opportunity. Were there no uncertainty or no danger of loss, there would be no prospect of personal reward and hence no scope for entrepreneurs. The long run will take care of itself; by that time, individualists believe, new combinations and new technologies will arise to mitigate unforeseen consequences.

Fatalistic perspective

Keywords: comfort and pleasure. For fatalists, human nature is unpredictable. Some people may be benevolent, but more are hostile, only shoving the defenceless fatalists further down. Fatalists never know what to expect from others and react by distrusting their fellow human beings. Fatalists do not knowingly take risks. But others may impose unwanted dangers on them. “what you don’t know, can’t harm you’ tends  to be the fatalist’s accommodation to those risks that, willy nilly, cascade down on him. This rationalization serves the fatalist well. It enables them not to worry over things they believe they can do nothing about and it confers on them a sometimes awesome stoic dignity.

The hermit/autonomy

Keywords: autonomy. The hermit deliberately withdraws from the coercive social involvement in which the other four social beings, in their different ways, are caught up. His or her strategy is aimed at autonomy: a relaxed and unbeholden self-sufficiency. The hermit escapes social control by refusing to control others or to be controlled by others. The hermit has eye for the transformational properties of nature (and the world in general), which makes the hermit for many issues a complex perspective to capture. Therefor it is not often used in scenariostudies.

169758466Extreme perspectives make good scenarios

By reading this typology you probably already had some associations with certain countries, society or professions matching the perspective. By using the cultural theory as a starting point, we can create scenarios to imagine what the world/society/a region would look like in the future, if a certain perspective would become dominant in society. This helps us think about how the future might unfold, or to imagine how certain ‘types of people’ would react to policy. In a business-situation this exercise can be used to identify customer groups and come up with specific products and services.

Sources and examples:

About Silke de Wilde

I am a foresight-expert and practitioner. As a freelancer, I help organisations think about the future and how to get there, for example by trendanalysis and scenarioplanning. As a facilitator I give workshops to inspire and help people think out of the box. I'm one of the co-founders of the Dutch Future Society. I also organise training in foresight at the School for Foresight. And in the time that's left I like getting into science fiction and working on my phd-research: Cities constructing futures. Yes, you might say I'm a future-fanatic, and I'm grateful that I'm able to make a living out of doing what I love. Thank you for visiting Futurista and please don't be a stranger!
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