by Andrew Langford

Spiral Dynamics – a System of Worldviews

Spiral Dynamics (SD) is one example amongst several of a system that attempts to map our bio-psychological development – although SD is unique (and contentious) in that it goes on to propose that individual bio/psycho development AND social/cultural development proceed on similar lines.

Spiral Dynamics can be thought of as a progressive system of worldviews that proposes that we travel through a knowable/predictable path of developmental phases according to changes in the external environment.

Life Conditions awaken Ways of Thinking

SD proposes that individuals grow and develop through exposure to experiences and circumstances – these, the experiences and circumstances, are known as ‘Life Conditions’ in SD terms and experiencing various Life Conditions awakens characteristic ‘Ways of Thinking.”

Everybody has the capacity to think in all ways, according to SD, but as our exposure to Life Conditions is uneven, so we are all at unique places on the spiral of different Ways of Thinking.

That is, each of us has different Ways of Thinking on the go, caused largely by the different Life Conditions we have been in and are experiencing.

The idea of vMemes

However, SD claims that the Ways of Thinking – which are made up of various contributing memes, cluster together around a core meta-meme. This meta-meme is, in SD terms, called a vMeme (where v stands for Values) and it acts as a kind of attractor that holds a cluster of memes together in something like a coherent whole.

This makes it possible to reduce the variety of individual uniqueness into some ‘categories’ and propose that a person, a group of persons or, even, a whole society, is thinking from a describable, limited number of vMemes or from certain ‘centers of gravity’.

A Summary

The graphic below attempts to summarize the Spiral Dynamics system. Each vMeme (confusingly labelled a ‘meme’ in the graphic) is assigned a color and the vMemes are arranged as a hierarchy according to the level of complexity found in the Life Conditions that generated this Way of Thinking.

Beige is used to signify least complex Life Conditions and, consequently, least complex Ways of Thinking. Turquoise is used to signify most complex Life Conditions and, consequently, most complex Ways of Thinking.

According to the SD analysis, the overall system is never- ending – that is, complexity in Life Conditions will continue to develop and, therefore, Ways of Thinking will also need to develop to keep up.

There is, therefore, no end-point, no ultimate completion, no enlightenment, only a (possibly predictable) progression of Ways of Thinking that emerge in order that we can make sense of and function in increasingly complex futures.

We will be using the Spiral Dynamics colors and concepts to good effect in a later element on Leaderful Communities.

The progression critique of SD

A strong critique of spiral dynamics is that it assumes systems progress, that conditions for humans on the planet are getting ever ‘better’ and that we are becoming more ‘civilized’ by the day. That older vMemes give way to more recent ones because we are developing in a positive way.

Once we ask and answer the question of ‘for whom are conditions getting better?’ where whom includes at least all human beings or, better still, includes all living beings, the idea of universal positive progress looks distinctly contentious.

A more nuanced view is that Spiral Dynamics reflects the path of a world system that manifested with deep distress, emerging first around the time of transition from Purple (gatherer-hunters, tenders of the wild, early agriculturalists) to Red (emperors, their courtiers and military officers living in defended cities supported by serf and slave agriculture – that is, a “patrix” or patriarch matrix based culture). This happened circa 6000 years before present (BP) for cultures in what was the Fertile Crescent and was stimulated by disastrous climate change – from moist/warm to arid/cold – caused, it is thought, by fresh water from melted glaciers upsetting the saline stratification of the Atlantic Ocean and switching off the Gulf Stream.

This patrix based culture expanded, especially to the north, east and west, to eventually become the dominant culture of the Eurasian Continent and later, the American Continent.

Since these times, those of us affected have been attempting to recover (without consciousness and without complete success) from these early and inhumane cultures built on fear, panic and sudden scarcity.

Only now, after thousands of years blundering through an incomplete and non-linear recovery (one step forward, two steps back), those of us with this Red culture in our backgrounds might be getting some glimpse of what a distress-free, ecologically regenerative and socially just culture might look like and may have just reached the place where conscious healing of the patrix is possible.

Cultures with less pressure from climate change (less dense populations with space for movement, more adaptable, more experienced with and less traumatised by variable climate …) may not have been panicked into the pathway described by SD.  If some of them did go this way, their subsequent immersion in wild nature was sufficiently healing to allow them to emerge on quite a different pathway than the one described in Spiral Dynamics.  The Iroquois Nations are one such example of a large, regional, diverse and yet coherent nature-immersed culture that reached patrix escape velocity sometime before the 1400’s.