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When policy solutions are proposed in response to a crisis, disagreements often degenerate into accusations of bad faith. Here, Ruth Dixon and Christopher Hood argue that such disagreements are inevitable given the variation in attitudes to risk. They argue that we need to accept the reality of this variety of world-views in order to reach acceptable – if “clumsy” – solutions. 

In his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, Mike Hulme wrote:

“One of the reasons we disagree about climate change is that we evaluate risks differently.”

At its simplest, the risk of an event can be described as the probability of the event’s occurrence multiplied by the magnitude of the event’s impact. In principle, these two elements can be quantified. But, Hulme notes that for complex and evolving situations such as climate change, “neither of these numerical quantities are uncomplicated to determine.” Moreover, this apparently simple formula is overlaid by people’s perception of risk– we don’t all draw the same conclusion about how we – and the wider society – should act when faced with a risk. 

So far, perhaps so obvious … but Mike Hulme argues that there are four contrasting attitudes to risk that policymakers must take into account.  Hulme derived the four world-views from the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s “Cultural Theory of Risk” – though other ways of defining social relationships lead to similar distinctions. According to Douglas, people self-organise along two dimensions; “grid” (the rigidity of rules and regulations); and “group” (the degree of social solidarity).  And the resulting quadrants, as shown in Hulme’s figure, shape our views about the resilience of nature and hence our responses to external risks. None of the view-points permanently “wins out” as each has its own blind-spots and internal contradictions.

Figure from Hulme (2009) Why We Disagree About Climate Change, p.186.

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Figure 1 - The four 'ways of life' derived from Douglas and Wildavsky's original (1982) Cultural Theory. Source: adapted from O'Riordan and Jordan (1999) 

Cultural theory and covid-19

So, what does cultural theory have to do with our responses to Covid-19?   What it says is that our perceptions of risk are bound up so intimately with our fundamental world-views that they will not be easily altered.  Are we vulnerable or resilient – is infection lurking everywhere or can we stay healthy by taking reasonable precautions?  Is the best response a lock-down enforced by the state or can we rely on individual responsibility and self-interest? What is the communitarian response to segregation and “social distancing”?  Should we take the fatalist view that as no-one can predict the effects of policies in advance, all we can do is hope to muddle through?

The variety of proposed responses to Covid-19 reflects these world-views. The UK government began by asking for individualist responses such as voluntary self-isolation and social distancing, relying on “nudges” rather than enforcement. But influential voices within the UK and internationally considered that response to be wholly inadequate, risking hundreds of thousands of deaths. These criticisms, and the fact that voluntary measures appeared ineffective, led to a much more hierarchical lockdown. Nevertheless, questions continue to be asked in the face of uncertainty about infection and fatality rates. Would a lower-key response – as Swedenappears to be adopting – have allowed more of the economy to continue functioning? What are the countervailing risks of home-isolating for those with mental health or addiction problems or at risk of domestic violence? And what will be the medium- and long- term effects of shutting down much of the global economy?

We can already see the crisis being used to support existing world-views.  Some people point to the value of maintaining a strong state capability and hope that government will continue to play a much greater role after the crisis. Others look forward to the restoration of individual liberties and hope that the state’s emergency powers will be rolled back. The government is blamed as callous for acting too little and genocidal for acting too much. Egalitarians on both right and left blame their respective “out-groups” for the spread of the infection, though altruistic voluntary responses also abound. And did the UK government act fatalistically by apparently ignoring the shortcomings identified in a pandemic readiness exercise in 2016

Given these fundamentally different world-views, one does not have to invoke conspiracy theories to explain why no policy option will meet everyone’s approval. Hierarchists, libertarians, egalitarians and even fatalists are all acting in good faith when they recommend incompatible policies. Each can say that they are relying on “the science”… but who decides which scientific voice is the most authoritative?

The lesson from cultural theory 

The lesson from cultural theory is to recognise that others are not being illogical or perverse, but may have a fundamentally different world-view. Rather than ignoring or denigrating others’ views, we should find in them creative challenges to our own biases and preconceptions. Can we generate policies which incorporate hierarchists’ ability to get things done, individualists’ entrepreneurial skills, egalitarians’ focus on participation and consensus, and the fatalists’ humble recognition that any particular policy decision has unpredictable effects?  

Can we find what Verweij and coauthors call “clumsy solutions,” namely, “policies that creatively combine all opposing perspectives” (Verweij et al. 2006)?  For example, these authors argued that the hierarchical approach of the Kyoto Protocol was ineffective and divisive as a response to climate change. They recommended instead approaches such as the expansion of renewable energy that “mix creative market forces with governmental planning; [and] also open up many possibilities for local and civic action.” Indeed, as Thomas Hale points out, the subsequent Paris agreement emphasised a much more cooperative and bottom-up approach. In a rapidly developing emergency, however, it may not be possible to find a single policy that represents such cosy integration. In that case, policymakers need to develop a set of policies which collectively do not exclude any world-view. Indeed they may need to pivot from one emphasis to another to avoid overlooking potentially valuable policy solutions and losing public trust. 

About the authors 

Ruth Dixon is a Research Fellow with the Government Outcomes Lab at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. 

Christopher Hood is a Visiting Professor at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. 

Christopher Hood and Ruth Dixon wrote A Government That Worked Better and Cost Less? Evaluating Three Decades of Reform and Change in UK Central Government, OUP 2015.  In The Art of the State(Hood 1998) and The Government of Risk (Hood, Rothstein and Baldwin 2001), Christopher Hood discusses how attitudes to risk shape regulatory regimes.