Culture is Cloudy in Safety, and That’s a Good Thing

imageI read with amusement the book Safety Cultures, Safety Models with so much assertion, assumption, projection, intra-safety confirmation bias and emotive language with little evidence.

One of the favourite metaphors in the book is the use of the language of ‘cloud’. Apparently, confusion is ‘cloudy ‘and everything about culture is a ‘fog’.

Hopkins in Chapter 4 proposes that ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘misuse’ is ‘abuse’, although at no place in his chapter does Hopkins discuss why this is ‘abusive’. This is typical of how Safety makes unsubstantiated assertions without evidence in a cyclic affirmation of safety ‘group think’.

Of course, no author in these texts discussed their own worldview or bias, the filters they use to interpret evidence nor any notion of what ethic they favour or political disposition. Asserting that something is ‘abusive’ is a moral assertion and in this chapter by Hopkins (with no discussion) draws the reader to conclude that ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘misuse is ‘abusive’.

Indeed, the notion of using the conceptual metaphor of a ‘cloud’ as a pejorative semiotic is a subjective choice. The cloud metaphor can equally be used as a positive metaphor.

In this chapter by Hopkins confusion is proposed in a pejorative manner yet in no place is there any sense that culture could be a ‘wicked problem’ and loaded in paradox. In which case the manifestation of confusion need not be negative. Indeed, in the work of Dr Ashhurst on Collective Coherence (Transcoherence – and Wicked Problems, the negative assertions by Hopkins have an opposite understanding! Disorder need not be a bad thing (moral negative), it just depends on one’s articulated ethic. Hopkins offers no discussion of his own bias evident in many of his assertions and even apologises for being ‘overly dogmatic’, a clear confession about the religious nature of this chapter.

Indeed, when we explain culture semiotically in the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) we use the metaphor-semiotic of the cloud as a foundation for understanding culture.

In the chapter by Hopkins the argument is simply a repetition of a particular sociological bias and safety bias without any consideration of a non-safety view. Indeed, all citations and sources bar one, are safety sources, mostly from a behaviourist/engineering bias. There is no reference in the chapter to some of the most critical factors in understanding culture ( ).

In this chapter and throughout the book there are so many glaring silences and gaps eg. safety assertions about ‘mindset’, the claim that culture is a ‘property’ (Cooper is worse and claims culture is a ‘product’), culture as behaviours and of course the crazy assertion that structure can ‘over-ride’ National culture (asserting that such is somehow a good thing). Of course, this is not true. Let’s just consider one example the spirituality of Indigenous Australian nations.

I would certainly be entertained by someone who thinks they could and should ‘over-ride’ a 65,000 religious cultural norm. Sounds like an Imperialist Colonial idea. Oh yes, but when you make safety paramount, it somehow subsumes the integrity of spiritual belief. In reality, any proposal for safety-zero is simply the substitution of one faith-system for another. Hopkins religious language throughout the chapter is evidence of this.

Hopkins discusses both culture and National cultures with no reference to religion or spiritual ritual. These are essential in understanding culture and National culture, but Hopkins makes no mention of these. Indeed, across the safety world whenever the notion of culture is raised the discussion is always silent on religion and associated cultural dynamics.

So, let’s take the ritual of a ‘smoking ceremony’ and apply Hopkins safety assertions to it. The practice of a smoking ceremony involves making a fire, suppressing the fire to make smoke and then intentionally breathing in the smoke to symbolise cleansing by spirits. This ceremony is practiced before the opening of the Australian Parliament and there we see every member of Parliament participate in the practice. Of course, breathing in smoke is a health hazard but you won’t be getting rid of this practice for the next 65,000 years. Just imagine trying to apply the structure of a risk assessment to this or any of the religious beliefs and practices of Indigenous Australians. And trying to do so in the name of ‘safety’ ( ). Good luck.

In the face of religion safety is NOT ‘the over-riding priority’. (Douglas_Mary_Risk_and_Blame_Essays_in_Cultural_Theory_1994.pdf; Douglas_Mary_Purity_and_Danger_An_Analysis_of_Concepts_of_Pollution_and_Taboo_2001.pdf). Safety is NOT first, nor the first priority at best, it competes with many priorities like living and being ( ). It’s only Safety that speaks this nonsense to people ( ).

Another metaphor Hopkins uses frequently is that many ‘souls’ in safety (note the theology) have somehow ‘lost their way’ in a ‘fog’ that ‘clouds our thinking’ (p.39). and, the proposal that follows is that structure creates culture thereby asserting that this is how we find our way??? The cultural semiotician Lotman proposes the opposite, that culture creates culture (

When Safety references itself to itself in discussion of culture (eg. reading Reason, Dekker etc) all this does is keep safety in a blind bubble whilst many other disciplines are relegated to silence ( It is through many silences that Hopkins, Cooper and others in this book maintain the delusion that the first and last source for validity in research on culture is Safety.

There is so much more in this chapter that is simplistic nonsense and all in support of Traditional safety that culture is ‘what we do around here’.

The chapter concludes with the classic assertion that the term ‘safety culture’ should be abandoned (‘banished’ – another religious term) because it is apparently ‘confusing’.

So, should we do that with all ‘wicked problems’ eg. risk? Hey I know, let’s not talk about risk because it’s confusing and unsolvable. The same thesis was also echoed recently by Busch, the supposed ‘Indiana Jones of Safety’.

Such an assertion to silence debate about any ‘wicked problem’ ( is anti-learning and amplifies the problem.

The best way to tackle the challenges of culture is not by banishing discussion but by embracing the cloud (;

In SPoR we don’t fear confusion, misunderstanding, mis-use or disorder, these are often indictors of a wicked problem that needs to be tackled ( ). And the best way to tackle any wicked problem is through Transdisciplinarity, where working across the disciplines (including Religion, Semiotics etc) can enable better understanding and capability to tackle a wicked problem (culture).

The best way to tackle a wicked problem like culture is to step outside of the frame of safety and embrace other views (disciplines) that see the world differently.

If you would like to study a positive, constructive and practical approach to culture there are two modules offered by SPoR that can help:;

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