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In the age of unprecedented global integration, free trade has become a buzzword. However, before going any further into the topic, it’s essential to acknowledge the fact that there’s no such thing as free trade. There have always been legal barriers to trade from every country. Free trade, therefore, actually refers to trade with minimum degrees of protectionism as well as efforts to mitigate these barriers.

In our modern time, free trade is often hailed as the source of prosperity and integration, but at the very same time, is condemned as the culprit of many of the world’s problems. Free trade has never failed to become the bone of contention in the global scale. Arguments for and against free trade are numerous and take the stand based on various fields including economics, morality, socio-politics. To get a better understand of the issue, it’s necessary to first understand the reasons behind every supporting or proposing opinion. Based on the knowledge of the conflicting forces, a prospect of resolution may have a better chance to emerge.

In this essay, the free trade debate will be unfolded from the eyes of the developed world who has always been the drivers and determinants of international trade. Here, the tool of analysis is the Cultural Theory (Douglas 1987). According to The Cultural Theory, public opinions in every issue can be organized into four distinct categories: individualism, egalitarianism, hierarchy and fatalism. These four ways of life has mutually contradicting rationalities, which explains the widespread disagreement in public debates. Therefore, a clumsy solution that manages to combine certain elements of the four views is decisive in creating a sustainable solution.

The essay starts with a brief introduction of the Cultural Theory. Afterwards, based on the insights of the Cultural Theory, different viewpoints in the trade debate will be analyzed. Finally, the essay will propose a clumsy solution to solve the debate.

Cultural Theory

Cultural Theory (Douglas 1987, Thompson et al. 1990) seeks to develop a typology of social construction of life so as to explain the complexity and diversity of ideas and opinions in public debates. The framework is established based on two dimensions of sociality, grid and group. Grid refers to the degree of structural constraints that people are willing to tolerate, while group presents the incorporation of people’s lives into the community they belong. For each dimension, high and low values are assigned. The higher the grid score, the greater social control people deem acceptable. The higher the group score, the greater collective pressure exerting on people’s thoughts and behaviors. The interaction between grid and group gives rise to a fourfold typology justifying the way people view nature, humans, and social relations, namely hierarchy, egalitarianism, individualism and fatalism (Figure 1) (Douglas 1987).

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Figure 1: Cultural Theory Typology

Granted with a low grid and weak group position, individualism takes internal guidance as the primary influence. The individualists trust no one but themselves and their own rationality. In their eyes, national and social environments are bountiful and destined to support human being to achieve their ends. Human beings are self-interested entities. They are born with roughly equal basic capacities to make use of plentiful opportunities that life has to offer. The individualists favor markets and any shifting voluntarily constructed networks, believing such structures can give humans freedom to develop and pursue own interests (Thompson et al. 1990).

Quite differently, with a high group and low grid position egalitarianism expresses strong affiliation with bonded groups and a tendency to break free from structure constraints. The egalitarians view nature as highly flimsy and ephemeral, while humans as essentially equal, naturally flawless, and highly vulnerable. Social institutions such as markets or hierarchies are clearly the evil that does nothing but exploit and taint the beauty of nature and human being. For them, everything is so fragile that immediate actions need to be taken in order to preserve the delicate balance of life. To do this, the egalitarians create small close-knitted groups and adopt bottom-up approaches, hoping to change society from the roots (Thompson et al. 1990).

Presenting a high grid and strong group position, hierarchy has its belief in vertical and organized social structures. Group commitments, therefore, are particularly important. The hierarchical regard rankings and stratification as the foundation of society. For them, nature is bountiful, however, within certain limits. Once these limits are violated, costly consequences come as an inevitable result. It’s the role of specialized personnel to at best conserve these limits, and at worst fix any untoward consequences. Humans are intrinsically flawed and unequal, but luckily, improvable as long as they live in institutions devised and run by experts (Thompson et al. 1990).

Characterized by a high grid and weak group position, fatalism is considered the most silent way of life in the Cultural Theory. The fatalists do not necessarily have a clear idea towards any issue. There is not much sense or use in developing such an opinion. For them, nature is immensely arbitrary and out of control. Humans are capricious, untrustworthy, and so powerless that all they can do is simply react to confronting circumstances. Life is similar to a round of gambling, unpredictable and all based on luck (Thompson et al. 1990).


ISBN (Buch)
862 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH
2012 (Dezember)
free trade debate



Titel: Free Trade Debate