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Political disagreement in the classroom: testing cultural theory through structured observation

Abstract

The cultural theory pioneered by Dame Mary Douglas has been tested with a range of research methods, but it has not yet been made subject to a ‘structured observation’. This method has been developed in psychology and management studies, and is especially useful for testing cultural theory’s prediction that fatalistic, hierarchical, egalitarian, and individualistic ways of perceiving and justifying tend to emerge in group debates about pressing social and environmental issues. We present the results of a structured observation of this prediction. Groups of high school students (aged 17–19) were asked for their opinions concerning three to five ‘wicked’ (i.e., highly complex) problems, and to discuss how to resolve them. Each utterance was coded according to the rationalities proposed by cultural theory. The results confirm cultural theory’s hypothesis that all four specific ways of defining, perceiving and resolving a wicked problem emerge when a number of people debate such an issue. We also discuss how Douglas’ cultural theory can be further developed and tested. Finally, we use our study to outline how the method of structured observation can contribute to political culture research in general.

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Notes

  1. This study was approved by the Ethics Committee of the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences.

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Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of both editors of this special issue, as well as the useful feedback provided by two anonymous referees.

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Appendix: Observation interview guide

Appendix: Observation interview guide

Dilemma 1

For a long time now, climate change is being discussed in politics. Some scientists and experts are concerned that we are destroying planet earth too much, and it won’t recover. Environmental activist groups are demonstrating again and again for fast and holistic reactions. But the industry and public have so far changed very little. What do you think, how should we handle climate change?

Dilemma 2

In the United States, everybody can carry a gun, and buy them very easily in regular supermarkets. As soon as there is a resistance against that, many claim their constitutional rights for freedom. Here in Germany, only police and security carry guns, hunters can only own them when abiding to many rules. What do you think, who should be allowed to carry guns, who should monitor and enforce the rules, and where should you be able to buy guns?

Dilemma 3

Recently there has been more and more support for extreme right-wing parties and groups. How should we in Germany counter such anti-constitutional forces?

Dilemma 4

Imagine there is an Internet video, in which terrorists directly announce an attack on Germany. How should the country react?

Dilemma 5

In many countries, also in Germany, there is a lot of poverty. For us, the main issue is the relatively high level of child poverty. This means that a child is living off of the social benefits of their parents and is raised with a very limited amount of money. Where does this poverty come from and who should eliminate it?

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Aenne Schoop, M., Verweij, M., Kühnen, U. et al. Political disagreement in the classroom: testing cultural theory through structured observation. Qual Quant 54, 623–643 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11135-019-00903-8

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Keywords

  • Mary Douglas’ cultural theory
  • Wicked problems
  • Structured observation