The language of ‘culture’ is perhaps the most used and abused in the safety industry. Everyone seems to have a view of culture, the poorly educated and miseducated seem to make the most noise. One certainly gains little expertise in culture from studying engineering, safety or behaviourism.
So, what does Safety do? It falls back to its old binary simplistic favourites: behaviours (what we do around here), systems, organising or leadership. None these are culture and a distraction from addressing culture, such is the love of Safety for culture myths (https://safetyrisk.net/category/safety-myths/ ).
Believing culture myths ensures that organisations in safety make noise about culture but just tinker about the edges. No wonder nothing improves. One thing is for sure if anyone is presenting the propaganda of zero or BBS in safety, they have little idea of culture.
Of course, when mono-disciplinary Safety wants expertise in culture it never fails to seek yet another safety/engineering source for expertise. Without a Transdisciplinary approach, the wickedity of culture is not likely to be understood. Yes, culture is a wicked problem, and acknowledging thus is critical in moving forward.
Safety doesn’t know much about wickedity but what it knows for certain, is that if it deems culture incomprehensible, then it is so.
Hence in safety, we now have authors like Busch arguing that the best thing to do about culture is to not talk about it!
‘Head in the sand’ safety educates no-one.
The first step in seeking to understand culture is NOT to consult Safety, engineering or behaviourism.
Yet, you can find endless texts in safety about ‘safety culture’ from engineers and behaviourists (https://risk-engineering.org/concept/safety-culture). Just read this engineering blog on how Safety takes as truth the concoction of James Reason’s ideas on culture. Throw in a little bit of Org Psych from Schein and the job is done. Just read this goop, it’s just all code for more systems, behaviourism and engineering. More of the same.
Safety loves this stuff because it gives a simplistic concept as if to quantify and name the problem. Once culture is deemed incomprehensible, throw one’s hands up in the air and retreat back to behaviourism. Once named as behaviours, the next step is more controls. And for god sake, don’t talk about uncertainty or wickedity.
When it comes to talk about culture in safety, the fraudulence is astounding in lots of this stuff paraded about as if it is some form of expertise in culture.
The culture silences in culture (https://safetyrisk.net/category/safety-culture-silences/) across the industry demonstrate that most of what is on the safety market in so called ‘safety culture’ is little more than the pooling of cultural ignorance.
A simple test is to see if any of the texts on culture in safety consult work on cultural semiotics. You won’t find it. Yet this school of thought has been about for 50 years (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322212847_Semiotics_of_cultural_history)! It’s no different than the AIHS BoK Chapter on Ethics that mentions nothing of Care Ethics, Power or personhood. Yet, no one questions this fraudulence. Such is the uncritical nature of an industry that lacks discernment in critical thinking.
The starting point for understanding cultural semiotics is the work of Juri Lotman. Yes, such work is academic but offers much for people and organisations in safety practice, by giving a completely new understanding of culture. The implications of Lotman’s work for safety practice is immense and something that SPoR offers in positive, constructive and doable methods (https://safetyrisk.net/spor-and-disposing-of-bad-myths/).
Not so, ‘head in the sand’ safety! Such is the distain of Safety for anything academic, which serves as a cultural trait.
You can read Lotman’s work here:
Of course, if you are in love with the myths of prediction in safety and the mechanistic propositions of behaviourism, you won’t be interested in Lotman. No wonder Safety is confused about culture when it consistently looks inside of itself for sources of learning.
As is often the case with blogs on this site, arguments are not presented in full but rather referral is made to extensive research in what is discussed. It’s up to Safety to work out whether it wants the comfort of its incomprehensible status quo or whether it wants to learn.
Lotman proposed that culture cannot be understood without an understanding of semiotics, semiosis (the creation of meaning) and the world as a Semiosphere.
Indeed, Lotman proposed that the Semiopshere (through semiosis) creates culture (https://kobra.uni-kassel.de/bitstream/handle/123456789/2014122246987/sem_2006_065.pdf).
Lotman proposed that the Semiosphere is a self-referencing ecology and much more than just a synonym for culture.
All cultural code consists of semiotic spaces, the semiosphere refers to the larger framework that creates these spaces.
So, at risk of losing some readers, let’s explore a bit of Lotman assuming that most will not follow up the research.
Lotman took his idea of spheres from Vernadsky, who used the metaphor of spheres to understand semiotic space. See Figure One. Types of Spheres.
Figure One. Types of Spheres.
Indeed, without a solid understanding of the semiotics of metaphor (eg. read Lakoff and Johnson https://www.textosenlinea.com.ar/libros/Lakoff%20y%20Johnson%20-%20Metaphors%20We%20Live%20By%20-%201980.pdf) it is not likely that either the concepts of spheres or semiotics would make much sense to Safety in consideration of culture. Such is its burden in safety to the constraints of behaviourism and scientism.
Similarly, an aversion to Transdisciplinarity assures that Safety shows little interest in learning outside of its own small sphere.
Indeed, when an industry confuses training and information for learning and, data for knowledge, the prospect of seeking expertise outside of one’s small bubble is not likely. The result in safety is the generation of much cultural recycling.
This is particularly concerning for a culture characterised by: compliance, behaviourism, regulation, fear, binary simplicity, cultural arrogance and religious mythology (anchored in zero).
To understand cultural semiotics, one has to think semiotically. This means one has to step away from the mechanistic, behaviouristic and individualist assumptions that characterise safety. It also means privileging visual, verbal, symbolic and non-material ways of knowing, taking seriously the human and collective unconscious.
So where does Safety go with these kinds of challenges to its identity? It declares criticism ‘toxic’ and keep its head in the safety sand. Nothing to learn beyond what we already know.
For those interested in learning beyond the safety sphere there are other worldviews.
So, in the tradition of semiotic thinking I offer the following semiotic to think about where culture sits as a sphere. See Figure 1. Culture Within the Semiosphere.
Figure 1. Culture Within the Semiosphere.
We see in this model that the universe comprised of mystery, paradox and the ‘collective unconscious’. It is doubtful any in safety have attempted to understand any of Jung’s ideas or consider its relevance to culture. Much better to keep to the known knows: Heinrich, DuPont, Reason and the many myths of behaviourism.
Of course, all models are imperfect but useful and why this model attempts to show is that there is another worldview of culture than that proposed by Safety. This is a model that shows causality, relationship, origin and perspective beyond the simplistic goop Safety parades as research.
If culture is situated semiotically in such a map it poses a challenge for Safety to give value to semiotics, cultural semiotics and the visual, verbal, symbolic and ecological dynamics it so readily ignores.
Could it be that the disciplines Safety rejects offer value in learning about culture?
Perhaps there is some hope and promise in things Safety shows no interest.
Perhaps something can be learned about culture through disciplines outside of Safety’s comfort zone.
Perhaps the safetyosphere only wants its own noosphere.
You can’t learn what you don’t know without a leap of faith into what you don’t know.