16 Jun
2011

A Constructive Critique of the Common Cause Handbook

The Common Cause Handbook is a timely, accessible and important contribution to its field. We’re not quite sure what that field is: it could be called “values theory”, “values campaigning” and it is part of a larger field that is – at least in the States – called “cognitive policy”.

But in short, it’s a new and extremely exciting way to understand the communication of politics, campaigning and public engagement. The handbook’s sub-title is “A Guide to Values and Frames for Campaigners, Community Organisers, Civil Servants, Fundraisers, Educators, Social Entrepreneurs, Activists, Funders, Politicians, and everyone in between”. If you’re any of those people, you should definitely read it.

The handbook is only very short, not much more than twenty pages, so you could read it in an afternoon. After a lightning explanation of “frames” the handbook lays out its main claim: a statistical analysis of values in 68 countries, and, deriving from that, “Schwartz’s values circumplex”.

schwartzYou read the diagrams like this: values next to each-other are most similar and are most likely to be activated or “engaged” by the activation of neighbouring values.  Opposite values have the opposite effect: to actively inhibit thinking about their opposing values. Everybody has these values in their heads; it is mainly a matter of which are inhibited or activated at any one time, schwartz2over the long and short term.

The handbook’s main lesson for me is about activation – which they call “engagement” – that is, “don’t activate opposing values in your audience”. The importance of this is made clear, including introducing the term “collateral damage” which the handbook explains like this: “Environmental behaviour change may be sold via ‘eco-chic’ for status-conscious people, or opportunities to save cash for the frugal… This approach may sometimes be successful in achieving limited, short-term goals, but it is also likely to have brought about significant ‘collateral damage’. Because values seem to become stronger with repeated ‘engagement’, such appeals are actually likely to reinforce precisely those values that impede lasting change”.

Powerfully, also, the handbook includes organisations in its scope, urging a depth of change, for us to examine how we organise ourselves, “rethinking our organisations so that the overall experience of them – for employees, leaders, and those we work with – embodies the values we want to promote”. This, if it happened, would be genuinely transformational and radical stuff.

The report is not crystal clear about the application of intrinsic/extrinsic goals, which were mentioned briefly in last September’s original Common Cause report. It’s not clear precisely how they correlate with the four different categories of values of Openness to Change, Self-Transcendence, Conservation and Self-Enhancement.

The biggest problem I find with these values is this: Money is a thing, Success is a thing. Authority is a thing. Power is a thing. All of these are identified as values, but they are also real-world things, which can be pointed to, even quantified. Indeed the bottom left region of Schwartz’s values circumplex contains “extrinsic” things which can exist in the real world: Money, Power, Authority, Success, Capable, Influential, Intelligent, Social recognition, Pleasure, Healthy, Clean, Social order, National security, Politeness, Obedience. By contrast it is much more difficult to point to or quantify the opposite values on the circumplex: Humble, Honesty, True friendship, Forgiving, Social justice, Wisdom, Equality, Inner harmony, Freedom, Curious, Self-respect, Choosing own goals.

Wisdom or inner harmony are not things that show up in a bank account or can be demonstrated in a test. They exist within people in an abstract way that has no pin-pointable essence. And these two opposites of values map perfectly onto what appear to be the Extrinsic/Intrinsic goals definitions. This gives me faith that the definitions mean something; but it makes me think they are not necessarily values or goals at all but simply extrinsic “things” that people desire versus intrinsic “things” that people desire.

However when you realise this the usefulness of their definition as values starts to break down: clearly an intrinsically-focussed nurturing person could legitimately desire money as a thing, and power too, indeed authority and material goods, all for the sake of nurturing, and in a way that is complementary, not contradictory or inhibiting. Indeed it would be foolish for intrinsic/nurturing-focussed people to reject money, success or influence entirely. So for me I’m not sure these really are what I would call values. This doubt doesn’t devalue the exhaustive international work that has been done to identify them; I just think there is something slightly different going on here. I agree that the arrangement of the circumplex signifies something generally true. But I don’t feel this arrangement of values is an explanation in its own right. It’s extremely useful, yes, and consistent, and the patterns are the right shape, but I can’t help feeling it’s still at the level of symptoms/observations, rather than causes. Which makes sense, because its genesis has been in empirically-discovered concepts: the theory/explanation comes later. For the moment, I believe a deeper and more useful explanation of the cause of these values is George Lakoff’s “Strict Father” (Conservative) versus “Nurturant Parent” (Progressive) morality systems.

schwartz-values-with-lakoffAnd Lakoff is not incompatible with Schwartz’s circumplex, by any means. In fact, Lakoff’s two models of morality map over the top perfectly, with the value groups of Tradition, Conformity, Security, Power and Achievement flowing naturally from “Strict Father” Conservative Authoritarian thinking and the Benevolence, Universalism, Self-direction, Stimulation and Hedonism groups flowing naturally from “Nurturant Parent” Progressive thinking. This observation to my mind gives greater credence to both Schwartz and Lakoff.

You should read the Common Cause Handbook. And for a fuller theory on how “values” work, in this new and ever-developing field, read George Lakoff too, and keep up with us and our forthcoming book, here at the Green Words Workshop