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CULTURAL THEORY AND DEMOCRATIZING
FUNCTIONAL DOMAINS. THE CASE OF
DANISH HOUSING
LOTTE JENSEN
In the last decade experiments with decentralized democratic governance and citizen involvement have been launched throughout Europe in functional domains as
varied as housing, environmental planning, primary schools and care for the elderly. This article analyses such democratization processes through the lense of cultural theory as formulated by Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky (1990). It argues that
cultural theory provides a framework for understanding why formal democratic
rights and rules are not necessarily matched by democratic images among actors. It
draws on empirical material from the Danish social housing sector, which is widely
recognized for its decentralized governance system and extensive tenant involvement.

INTRODUCTION
This article explores the possible consequences of dismantling hierarchy in
public governance systems through the spectacles of cultural theory. In the
debate on governance of public institutions the break down of hierarchies
is a long-standing theme both analytically and normatively. Analytically
governance systems are now seen as differentiated systems of mutually
dependent networks rather than a hierarchy of linked bodies. Public service
provision is fragmented into a variety of loosely coupled functional
domains involving many actors linked by their resources and strategies
(Rhodes 1997; Kooiman 1994). The historical irrelevance of the Weberian
idea of a hierarchical bureaucracy and the naivite of a notion such as the
parliamentary chain of accountability is a recurring theme in much debate
on how modern politics is defined, decided and implemented (Beck
j0rgensen 1992, p. 46).
Normatively it is argued that hierarchical steering should give way to
alternative models of governance. Two major strands dominate the normative debate. The first strand argues that central state regulation must be
replaced by extended individual choice and exit options on a market basis
(see Hood 1994, p. 2). The second strand argues that democratization of
Lotte Jensen is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the Institute of Political Science, University of Copenhagen.
Public Administration Vol. 76 Spring 1998 (117-139)
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 lJF, UK and 350 Main Street,
Maiden, MA 02148, USA.

118 LOTTE JENSEN
functional domains is a major challenge for public institutions in the future
(Rhodes 1997, ch. 5, 1996, p. 37).
It is important to scrutinize normative preferences through analytical lenses. In his criticism of New Public Management, Hood (1994) examines the
first normative strand and v^^arns against letting normative preferences for
NPM run ahead of analytical conclusions. He criticizes the NPM assumption that by dismantling hierarchy, individualist entrepreneurship will blossom automatically. This argument assumes a dualist idea of social organization: if one way of social organization is dismissed, then logically you end
up in the other. Hood uses cultural theory to provide a more varied
interpretation of the results of breaking down hierarchy. Instead of being
trapped in the idea of a single, global NPM paradigm, we need to explore
the plurality of futures open to public administration (Hood 1994, p. 10).
This paper concentrates on the second normative strand and analyses
critically how hierarchy can be replaced by democratic functional domains.
Often democratic theory assumes congruence between institutional design
and actor identities and capabilities: 'Democratic theory presumes that
capabilities follow obligations, that the distribution of rights and resources
is constructed around, and designed to serve, the structure of identities'
(March and Olsen 1995, p. 121). The hope is, that when adequate channels
for participation are created, citizens' inherent democratic potential will
unfold. This aspiration also governs much legislative thinking about
democracy. Social housing in Denmark exemplifies the objective of enhancing democratic participation and control in a functional domain by legislating for and strengthening formal democratic institutions. However, in
depth qualitative case studies conducted in the Danish social housing sector
(Jensen 1996 and 1997) suggest that the constitutional image of social housing as a participatory democratic governance system presupposes both
identities as well as capabilities among actors which must be constructed
rather than taken for granted.
An increasing proportion of actors in the functional domain have formative life experiences which do not fit the democratic ideals embedded in
the system itself. This mismatch between what March and Olsen call 'democratic hopes' for that specific functional domain and the democratic activity
and understanding among actors is explicable when seen through the spectacles of cultural theory. Cultural theory (Thompson et al. 1990; Douglas
1982) provides a useful framework for understanding why it is difficult
to transform social housing estates into small democratic communities by
breaking down the hierarchical structures in social housing governance
through legislation. The article explores the proposition that the ideal of
democratizing a functional domain is challenged by cultural biases of the
actors who are supposed to inhabit the new structures. It further argues
that cultural theory provides an appropriate lense for analysing actors'
images of democracy. It concludes with an assessment of both the prospect
of democracy in functional domains and the strengths and weaknesses of

© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

DEMOCRATIZING FUNCTIONAL DOMAINS 119
cultural theory for understanding, indeed predicting any shift to democracy.
The empirical evidence is drawn from one specific functional domain:
Danish social housing, which is widely recognized for its extensive tenant
involvement (Power 1993; Harloe 1995). However, the aspiration to democratize functional domains, once the pressure of hierarchical steering is
relieved is much broader than Danish social housing. In Denmark it also
applies, for example, to public schools and day care services for the elderly
or local community councils (See for example S0rensen 1995; Dreyer
Hansen 1996; Smed 1995). In the rest of Europe equivalent democratic
experiments are taking place, for example urban renewal in Vienna (Forster
1996), tenant participation schemes in Scotland (Goodlad 1996) and Sweden
(Liedholm and Lindberg 1996) and housing partnerships in Moscow
(Shomina and Clark 1996).
CULTURAL THEORY
Cultural theory conceptualizes four ways of social organization that serve as
formative contexts for individual experiences with self and environment.
It builds on Mary Douglas's grid-group model (Douglas 1982; Thompson
et al. 1990; Schwartz and Thompson 1990; Hood 1994 and 1996; Dunsire
1995). The model combines two sets of social constraints on human action:
grid and group.
Grid stands for systemic constraints which have no face; for example formal rules or economic constraints. A strong grid means severe constraints
on individual opportunities for voluntary agreements with other individuals: 'At the strong end of grid, individuals do not, as such, freely transact
with one another. An explicit set of institutionalized classifications keep
them apart and regulate their interactions, restricting their options'
(Douglas 1982, p. 192). In the weak end of grid, autonomy, control and
competition are significant (Douglas 1982, p. 202).
Group is incorporation in bounded units of actors. It carries the face of
'the generalized other' (Berger and Luckmann 1966, pp. 157, 196) and provides experiences with such others. Douglas (1982, p. 202) writes: 'The
strongest effects of group, are to be found where it incorporates a person
with the rest by implicating them together in common residence, shared
work, shared resources and recreation, and exerting control over marriage
and kinship.'
Both kinds of constraints can be weaker and stronger. Combined, grid
and group shape four ways of social organization; 'ways of life', as they
are termed by Thompson et al. (1990, p. 8) plus a fifth way of life that
implies deliberate withdrawal from social constraints altogether (the
hermit).
The four ways of life are termed: 'fatalism' (strong grid, weak group),
characterized by strong systemic prescriptions and no group membership;
'hierarchy' (strong grid, strong group), characterized by group membership

© Blackwell Publishers Lid. 1998

120

LOTTE JENSEN

TABLE 1 The basic model of ways of life
GRID+
Fatalism

Hierarchy

GROUP-

Hermit
Individualism

GROUP+
Egalitarianism

GRIDSource: From Thompson, 1990, p. 8.

with strong systemic prescriptions; 'individualism' (weak grid, weak
group), characterized by weak systemic constraints and absence of binding
group membership; and 'egalitarianism' (weak grid, strong group), characterized by a strong group membership and few systemic prescriptions. In
any social system, all ways of life coexist in a dynamic pattern of attraction
and separation. Each way of life presupposes the others, whilst those others
are simultaneously a threat ('the requisite variety condition', Thompson
1996, p. 9).
Thompson et al, (1990, p. 8) as well as Schwarz and Thompson (1990,
pp. 66-7) construct a variety of ideal typical world views and self-interpretations for each way of life, concerning for example the idea of physical and
human nature, the idea of risk and the idea of blame. To turn the discussion
towards political decision making, I have constructed the ideal typical perceptions of decision making of each way of life. Thus table 2 focuses on
who makes significant decisions, on whose behalf.
Ways of life are the social context for subjective experiences of self and
environment and the relationship between the two. A way of life provides
certain patterns of experiences that make sense for inhabitants of their way
of life. The core idea boils down to: 'As people organise, so they will
behave' (Thompson et al 1990, p. 97). Experience is a key point in cultural
theory. Ways of Ufe are sustained by individuals who experience them as
meaningful interpretations of life. Equally, ways of life are challenged by
individuals who fail to make sense of the core views within them
(Thompson 1996, p. 54). Cultural theory treats individuals as 'multiple selTABLE 2 Ideal typical perceptions of political decision-making
Fatalism:

Hierarchy

They decide what / must do

We are entitled to decide what they must do
They are entitled to decide what we must do

Individualism:

Egalitarianism:

/ decide what / want to do

We decide what we want to do

© Blackwell Publishere Ltd. 1998

DEMOCRATIZING EUNCTIONAL DOMAINS 121
ves': no way of life is entirely dominant in an individual's everyday life
and idea of himself or herself and the world. Most people are exposed
to different forms of social organization during their day. However, 'most
individuals find themselves inhabiting one way of life more than the others'
(Thompson et al. 1990, p. 267). Hence most people are inclined to defend
and reproduce the logic of one way of life more than the others. Cultural
theory builds on a functional explanation that links the individual and the
systemic level. Ways of life are sustained and defended by individuals
because it has a function for them of maintaining a meaningful interpretation of everyday life. So, ways of life are inherently stabilized by the friction of an individual actor's defence of stable self-interpretations and ideas
of the world. (Thompson et al. 1990, pp. 86, 153, 265, 266-7; see also Berger
and Luckmann 1966; Schein 1986, p. 182; Giddens 1984, p. 23). In turn, individual preferences for sustaining the ideas they have already has the unintended - latent - function of reinforcing the ways of life, they are already
part of (Thompson et al. 1990, p. 203).
However, this push to stability does not imply a static equilibrium
between ways of life in a social system. Inhabitants of one way of life are
exposed to alternative frameworks of meaning; to surprises from competing
ways of life. Surprises occur when a certain way of life fails to deliver
expected outcome and stops making sense to the individual. This change
can be due to acute changes in life conditions or to active invasion from
holders of competing world views explaining current life conditions differently. The theory states, that:
an event is never surprising in itself; it is potentially surprising only in
relation to a particular set of convictions about how the world is and it
is actually surprising only if it is noticed by the holder of that particular
set of convictions . . . People change their ways of life whenever successive events (that is, surprises) intervene in such a way as to prevent the
preferred pattern of relationships from delivering on the expectations it
has generated (Thompson et al. 1990, pp. 70, 75)
Macro-changes in the system are thus explained in terms of micromigration from one way of life to the others (Thompson et al. 1990, pp. 69,
75, 78).
In sum, cultural theory understands any social system as an interactive
blend of four analytically distinct and empirically experienceable ways of
life produced by ways of social organization. The stability of the social
system is due to the latent functions of actors defending their taken-forgranted world views. System changes are due to the 'cumulative impact of
successive anomalies or surprises . . . that forces individuals to cast around
for alternative ways of life that can provide a more satisfying fit with the
world as it is' (Thompson 1990, p. 69).

© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

122

LOTTE JENSEN

WAYS OF ORGANIZING AS WAYS OF LFARNING

Different ways of life provide different contexts for individual experiences.
Hierarchy, individualism and egalitarianism are active ways of life in which
actors actively make decisions, relate to others, make and break alliances
and in this process achieve appropriate skills to deal with the challenges
of various ways of life (Thompson et al. 1990, pp. 86, 98). Hierarchy and
egalitarianism are ways of collective action, both demanding and providing
skills for dealing with other people to whom individuals are directly
exposed and for whom in different ways they are responsible. The two
ways of life differ in their internal regulatory mechanisms. In the case of
hierarchy the internal positions and roles of members are externally
defined; the group is knit together by rules and regulation. Conflict solving
mechanisms are legion because there are rules for every purpose (Douglas
1982, p. 206). The hierarchist experience is related to entitlement and the
requisite skills are knowledge of rules and positions and appropriate action
in relation to them.
Egalitarianism is characterized by the absence of externally defined mechanisms for conflict mediation. Since there are no externally imposed rules
to justify the preference of one perspective over others, or to define one
role as more authoritative than another, the only road to coherence in a
group is negotiation. As Thompson et al. (1990, p. 157) put it: 'Egalitarian
ways of life, our cultural theory tells us, face two defining organizational
problems: (1) they are unable to command members to contribute to group
purposes, and (2) they require that every group decision be consented to
by each member.' When consensus is unachievable either the group breaks
down into sub-groups or dissent is driven underground. Egalitarianism is
thus a demanding form of social co-ordination. It requires both the development of a group identity that makes sense to all members and the capacity
and motivation of all members to contribute to group purposes and to take
part in the continuing negotiations about those purposes. Being part of a
group in the egalitarian way of life requires the social competence to put
forward one's view and an attitudinal flexibility so one can adjust one's
own view to others. March and Olsen term those two requirements: 'democratic capabilities and identities' (March and Olsen 1995, chs. 3 and 4). The
egalitarian experience is one of shared fate and communal responsibility.
The skills needed are the ability to adopt the attitudes of others and to
negotiate and to grasp and organize information.
Fatalism and individualism are forms of individualized action. Individualism builds on active choice of alliances. Fatalism builds on the absence of
choice as well as the absence of alliances and hence group protection. The
experience of individualism is one of open options and exit opportunities
to alternative bargaining arenas. The skills needed are - apart from being
able to pay the entry fee and being regarded by other players as an individual player - self-reliance and the ability to bear individual risk. In contrast.
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

DEMOCRATIZING FUNCTIONAL DOMAINS 123
fatalism is a passive way of life, an experience of involuntary exclusion.
Thompson et al, (1990, p. 94) write.
Movement out of fatalism is likely to be involuntary because once established there, people lose independent initiative: Masters command, and
slaves learn servility. Slave revolts are few and far between. Fatalists
develop a self-reinforcing cultural bias that rationalizes their resignation.
The likelihood, therefore, is that when fatalists do change, it is because
they have been propelled out by the active ways of life. Unlike the followers of the active ways of life, fatalists rarely contribute to their
own dislodgement.
Consequently, fatalists, in order to change ways of life, need not only the
knowledge, that alternative ways exist: a cognitive surprise, but they also
need to be lifted out of passivity. They need resources and skills to play
the games of the active ways of life. How do these different ways of life
relate to the specific idea of democratization?
CULTURAL THEORY AND DEMOCRATIZATION
The concept of democratization is vague. If we interpret democratization
of a functional domain as politicizing it, then we make it an arena for collective, public rather than individual decision making and the interpretation of
what we are doing will differ between the four ways of life. As Thompson et
al, (1990, pp. 216-17, my emphasis) point out, the idea of what is 'political'
has different meanings for different ways of life:
Egalitarians view the public sphere in which all can actively participate
and give their consent to collective decisions, as the realm in which the
good life can best be realized. Because individualists seek to replace authority with self-regulation, they are continually accusing others of politicizing issues. Their interest is in defining politics as narrowly as possible so as to maximize behaviour that is considered private, and thus
beyond the reach of governmental regulation. If egalitarians see the political sphere as the realm in which human beings most fully realize their
potential, fatalists regard the political with nothing but fear and dread.
Fatalists respond to their plight by trying to get as far out of harms way
as possible. Unlike individualists, fatalists do not distinguish sharply
between the private and public sphere . . . The tasks of fatalists become
personal or at most familial survival and they cope as best they can
without trying to distinguish between the sources of their difficulties . . . .
{Hierarchists) frequently harbor an expansive view of the state functions,
hence their conflicts with individualists, but they insist, contra egalitarians, that politics is not for everyone and every day for the rest of us,
but rather reserved for the qualified and privileged full-timers and for
one day every four or five years.
Hence, if, as a minimum we conceive democratization of a functional

© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

124 LOTTE JENSEN
domain as designing an arena for collective, public decision making, the
four ways of life will respond in four ideal typical ways to it. For fatalists,
democratization will not be seen to make much difference. If there are any
important decisions to be made, the fatalist experience is that they will be
made by 'others', be it stronger individuals in the market, the hierarchical
'system' or a strong egalitarian group, from which they are involuntarily
excluded. From the individualist perspective, democratization means a
diminished personal autonomy. However, if certain things have to be collectively decided, individualists expect democracy to be a free political market, and the political process to be about bargaining among actors with
their various preferences and resources. Democratic decision making does
not imply any communal obligations beyond a commitment to follow the
rules of the game.
From the hierarchical perspective, democracy is about leadership exercised
by the politicians who are entitled to make decisions on behalf of the community as a whole because they are formally elected. The role of the leaders
is to make decisions, the role of citizens is that of ex post control embedded
in their rights to elect a different leadership. From the egalitarian perspective, democracy is a way of shaping common preferences and ideas about
the community by integrating the views of all participants. In sum, the
rules and scope of the game and the different actors' roles will be interpreted differently from each of the four perspectives. Based on Jensen (1997,
chs. 6-8) I have illustrated these images of democracy in table 3.
Cultural theory highlights different possible images of democratic games,
rules and roles. Any democratic constitution formalizes a certain view of
democracy. No matter what image of democracy the constitution builds
on, it will in practice be met by real life actors with their own images. In
any social system all ways of life will be present by definition, so there will
be actors who interpret the scope, game and roles differently because of
their general life experience. The rest of this article explores the relationship
between the constitutional intentions behind the democratization of Danish
social housing and the dynamics of ways of life in social housing estates.
DANISH SOCIAL HOUSING - HISTORY, CONSTITUTION AND
AIMS
This section combines a historical account of the constitutional development
of Danish social housing with an account of the current developments in
tenants' ways of life and organizational strategies. I illustrate how cultural
theory helps to interpret the gap between democratic hopes and democratic
practice. However, the empirical case studies also highlight some problems
with cultural theory which I turn to in the last part of the article.
Social housing in Denmark covers 17 per cent of the total housing market
and provides tenure for about one-fifth of the population. The social housing stock is owned collectively by the tenants of approximately 7,500 local
estate departments, organized in some 650 housing associations. Tenants
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

DEMOCRATIZING FUNCTIONAL DOMAINS 125
TABLE 3 Images of democracy in the four ways of life
FATALISM
Scope of democratic game:
As limited as possible to minimize the
influence of others
Rules of game:
No rules better than others
No rights ensured
Actor role:
Waiting for decision of others
Capabilities required:
Obedience or indifference

HIERARCHY
Scope of democratic game:
As encompassing as possible to ensure
maximum control
Rules of game:
Loyalty towards rules
Rights tied to position
Actor role:
Decide, on basis of rules
Capabilities required:
Formal authority
Knowledge of roles and rules and their
appropriate interpretation

Motto: Keep your head down

Motto: Look it up in the book

INDIVIDUALISM
Scope of democratic game:
As limited as possible to maximize
individual influence
Rules of game:
Equal opportunity to bargain
Rights tied to resources
Actor role:
Make individual decisions, alliances or
exit

EGALITARIANISM
Scope of democratic game:
As encompassing as possible
to minimize the influence of others
Rules of game:
Negotiation until consent
Rights tied to membership
Actor role:
Participate in collective decisions.
Mediate individual ideas and communal
purposes, create a communal spirit
Capabilities required:
Empathy, ability to grasp complex
information, formulate views and negotiate
Motto: Are you for or against us?

Capabilities required:
Entry fee, self-confidence, bargaining skills
Motto: You can get it, if you really want it

in each department exert collective ownership over the properties. No individual tenant can sell off his apartment for individual profit. Each department is economically and politically independent of the other departments.
Though formally subordinate to the governance body of the association,
which is legally and economically responsible, each department is governed
by democratically elected bodies which take care of the day-to-day running
of the estates. The social housing sector is publicly regulated at a general
but not an estate specific level. The sector is subsidized both generally and
at household level. Of the apartments, 25 per cent are used for social purposes through a waiting list system (Ministry of Housing 1988, ch. 4; Ministry of Finance 1995). Danish social housing thus exemplifies a functional
domain on the edge of public control where the state regulates indirectly
through provision of authoritative ground rules about the scope, the rules
and the roles of players, within which others play the game.
Danish social housing developed historically from practically no regu-

© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


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