Dimensions of a Spiral

This one was triggered by a Tweet from Shawn Callahan – the grand-master of narrative-knowledge – saying that he on his way to a workshop on Spiral Dynamics. Spiral is an interesting framework, assessing individuals’ and cultures’ responses to their context in terms of value-structures or ‘vMemes’, originating from the work of a guy by the name of Clare Graves (no relation) back in the 1950s or thereabouts. Graves’ work was a bit dry, but very solid – in fact just before his own death Maslow was about to change his well-known ‘Hierarchy of Needs‘ in favour of Graves’ analyses – but Don Beck and Chris Cowan kind of took it to the other extreme, with a California-style gloss that more detracts from its usefulness. (The irony is that, in a disagreement over values, the two now run bitterly-opposed factions – hence the two links above.)

The basic idea in Spiral is that individuals can be categorised in terms of a sequence of distinct layered structures of values, each layer building on the next. (A key component in Graves’ work, which is kind of glossed over in Spiral, is that the same is also true for whole cultures: people experience great difficulty when their own personal value-set is significantly different from the culture’s, as indicated in my own case in the previous post on ‘the natural anarchist‘.) The one-line summary for each colour-coded vMeme value-set is as follows:

  1. Beige: there is no society, everything is focused on the individual need to survive
  2. Purple: we band together as a family to help each other survive – the family/tribe is right (often matriarchal)
  3. Red: there is a Great Leader of the tribe, and the leader alone is right (extreme monarchy, often translated in combat etc as ‘might is right’)
  4. Blue: there is a Law that is greater than any one person, and that Law alone is right (e.g. theocracy)
  5. Orange: there is individual ‘freedom’, individual ‘rights’
  6. Green: specific groupings have collective ‘human rights’, freedom must be constrained for the greater need
  7. Yellow: the individual is responsible – there is no ‘other’, the only choice that works is ‘win/win’
  8. Turquoise: we are collectively responsible for everything
  9. Coral: I live connection with everything

The ‘spiral’ kind-of repeats itself after six layers: Yellow echoes Beige, Turquoise echoes Purple and so on, but with a systemic awareness that’s absent from the ‘lower’ layers. In principle there ‘should be’ another three layers at least, but Graves said that Coral was extremely rare – he only came across a handful of people with that value-set in his entire career – so they remain a theoretical concept only; but the descriptions of the rest are solidly grounded in several decades’-worth of social-science research.

The Spiral crew – aided by by the odious Ken Wilber, whose pompous pronouncements I was supposed to regard as gospel on the Futures Studies course back in Melbourne in 2003 or thereabouts – seem to think that the layers represent a linear progression: “Spiral Dynamics reveals the hidden complexity codes that shape human nature, create global diversities, and drive evolutionary change”, says one gushing proponent. For these folks, Spiral is more like a milliennial religion – which fits well with the ethos of that culture, I guess. But whilst I would agree there’s some parallel with child development and the like, the work I did with Mary Sheridan a third of a century ago (ouch…) suggests strongly that it’d be better to think more in terms of dimensions – like sliders on a mixing-desk – rather than a crude layered hierarchy. Which in turn suggests it’d be interesting to identify those dimensions.

One dimension is obvious even to the Spiral crew: the tension between individual versus collective (represented respectively by the ‘warm colours’ – beige, red, orange, yellow, coral – and the ‘cool colours’ – purple, blue, green, turquoise).

Another dimension, or possibly a pair, is suggested by a cross-map with Cynefin. The transitions from each individual/collective pair – the ‘to’ between each of beige/purple to red/blue to orange/green to yellow/turquoise to coral – map pretty closely to Cynefin’s domains rule-based, analytic, hueristic and principle-based; a cross-map from there – rule-based = ‘inner/truth’, analytic = ‘outer/truth’, heuristic = ‘outer/value, principle-based = ‘inner/value’ – suggest that the inner versus outer and ‘truth’ versus ‘value’ tensions would match well.

Somewhere in there the systems-awareness arrives, because that’s the key difference both in terms of the ‘spiral’ repetition, but also in the transition from Green to Yellow – Orange is always looking for some ‘other’ to ‘win’ from in a win/lose ‘game’, and Green is still looking for some ‘other’ to blame, but Yellow and Turquoise recognise that there is no ‘other’, there’s only ‘us’. So the key tension that is see there is one of ‘rights’ versus responsibilities: everywhere before Yellow there’s an endless assertion of some form of ‘right’ – survival is right, family is right, the ruler is right, the Law is right, individual rights, human rights; from Yellow on there’s an awareness that ‘rights’ are a delusion, only responsibilities are real.

And another, perhaps more subtle dimension – maybe even a pair of them, though I can’t quite grasp it yet – is around the notion of rules/ruler/ruled versus non-rule – literally ‘an-archy’, without rule. Beige is a literal anarchy: there is no possibility of rule, there is only survival. Red and Blue are both about as rule-based as it gets: one individual, the other collective. Then we have the ‘kiddies’ anarchy’ of Orange – ‘rights’ without responsibilities – or Green’s obsession with ‘other-blame, which amounts to much the same thing. Then we loop back to functional anarchy – responsibility-based anarchy, the awareness of the the context-dependent limitations of rules – which is individual at Yellow and collective (e.g. Quaker-style) at Turquoise.

That’s where the ideas have come to at present: not final, by any stretch, yet enough to be clear that Spiral ain’t the simple linear-hierarchy progression that they make it out to be, but more a tension across multiple dimensions

I hope that helps, Shawn?

1 Comment on “Dimensions of a Spiral

  1. Hi, Tom,

    Seeing that you are a somewhat reluctant devotee of the late Dr. Clare W. Graves, I would like to urge you to read my latest book, The Mother of All Minds: Leaping Free of an Outdated Human Nature. This is the sixth book I’ve written or co-authors about the Graves theory. My works are often considered the most readable, consistent and insightful popular interpreter of Dr. Graves’ theory. Here is a review of TMOAM by one reader:

    The Mother of all Minds is a fascinating, intricate and brilliant work, yet as readable as a good novel.
    It is both philosophically challenging and at the same time practically useful to people who are serious about wanting to grow and adapt to the new world we live in. I found it as impactful as as a punch in the face but not without a sense of humour.
    Dudley Lynch may well be doing for Clare Grave’s theory what Daniel Goleman did for Emotional Intelligence.

    Noel Odou
    Author of Magnificently Insignificant (Brolga, 2009)
    Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

    More on TMOAM here: http://www.braintechnologies.com/moam/

    Best regards,

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