Risk and culture

Culture is based on the unique human ability to classify experiences, code such classifications and pass such abstractions on. Cultural theory aims to understand why different people and social groups fear different risks. More specifically the theory claims that this is largely determined by social aspects and cultural adherence. The basis of cultural theory is anthropologists Mary Douglas’ and Michael Thompson grid-group typology (1978).

Why is this important? 

Cultural theory draws focus away from concepts such as risk and safety, and towards social institutions. To deal with risk in a reasonable manner you must understand the underlying mechanisms. 
You can use this theory and model to 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.

The grid/group typology 

Grid refers to the degree to which individuals’ choices are circumscribed by their position in society. At one site of the spectrum, people are homogeneous in their abilities, work and activity and can easily interchange roles. This makes them less dependent on one another. At the other site of the spectrum exists 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 be a different balance of exchange between and across individuals. This makes it useful to share and organize together. 

Group refers to the degree of solidarity among members of the society and how strongly people are bonded together. On one hand there are separated individuals, perhaps with common reason to group together, though with less a sense of unity and connection. On the other hand, some people have a connected sense of identity, concerning more personally to one another.  

 The grid/group model
If the dimensions are placed in a two-axis system, from low to high, four outcomes occur. These represent four different kinds of social environments, or biases so to say. These are termed individualistic-, egalitarian-, hierarchical-, and fatalistic worldviews, and they have a self-preserving pattern of risk perceptions. 


Individualist experience low grid and low group. They value individual initiative in the marketplace, and fear threats that might obstruct their individual freedom. In general, individualists see risk is an opportunity as long as it does not limit freedom. 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. 


Egalitarians experience low grid and high group. The good of the group comes before the good of any individual, because everyone is equal. They fear development that may increase the inequalities amongst people. Furthermore, they tend to be skeptical to expert knowledge because they suspect that experts and strong institutions might misuse their authority. 


Hierarchists experience high grid and high group. A hierarchist society has a well-defined role for each member. Hierarchists believe in the need for a well-defined system of rules, and fear social deviance (such as crime) that disrupts those rules. Hierarchists have a great deal of faith in expert knowledge.  


Fatalists experience high grid and low group. Fatalists take little part in social life, though they feel tied and regulated by social groups they do not belong to. This makes the fatalist quite indifferent about risk – what the person fear and not is mostly decided by others. The fatalist would rather be unaware of dangers since it is assumed to be unavoidable to them anyway. 

These four worldviews, or ways of life, make up the central part of the cultural theory. 

Note: In addition to the four worldviews described above, one group does not fit this pattern.  


See also 

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

About the author

Julie Hviid



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