The Hidden Cultures within Communities: An Introduction to Spiral Dynamics – Bruce Sanguin

For now I know only in part; then I will know fully…
1 Corinthians 13:12

What I am proposing is that the psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process, marked by progressive subordination of old, lower-order behavior systems to new, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change.
Dr. Clare Graves

Having served three congregations over the past 27 years, I am acutely aware that a congregation can be deeply challenged by what can only be called culture clashes. Cultures are essentially perspectives on reality. They are worldviews that define values, beliefs, and core assumptions about what is important and true.

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says that worldviews are like the foundation of a house – critically important, but invisible. Worldviews are not something that you look at, but rather look through. They are like a set of glasses that determine what you can actually see. Over the course of history, in response to shifting life conditions and challenges, new worldviews emerge that transcend, yet include, earlier worldviews. The newly emergent worldviews are not better than the earlier ones. In fact, unless the intelligences of previous worldviews are carried forward, our species loses precious wisdom. For example, when modernism emerged starting almost 500 years ago, society was impoverished by the loss of a pre-modern, indigenous wisdom. The ideal is to include all the intelligences from all the worldviews.

I once had a dream in which I was travelling on a bus with other passengers. I saw a tornado approaching and realized we were directly in its path. Indeed, the tornado picked the bus up and rolled it two or three times. Miraculously, nobody was hurt. I climbed out of a window and was met by a man who told me that I had been chosen to name a new species of tree. I knew absolutely nothing about trees and told him so, but to no avail. This was the task I had been given.

Interpreting the dream later, I realized that the spiral shape of the tornado was a sign that I was in the midst of a transformative process. I was being shaken-up, challenged to make room for the emergent reality that was coming into my life. This is the way evolution happens, at both the personal and cultural levels.

The spiral is a fractal form, a natural structure that repeats itself at a micro level and at a macro level. The double helix spiral of the DNA molecule is a micro expression, while the spiral structures of some galaxies reflect the macro phase of the fractal. You see a fractal forms in nature because it works so well. Through natural processes, Spirit very efficiently carries forward what works. For the purposes of evolution, this means that the spiral is a fractal structure associated with emergence, the creative dynamic by which new forms transcend yet include previous forms.

The late Dr. Clare W. Graves, a pioneer in the field of developmental psychology, noticed that worldviews and value systems evolved in a developmental fashion. As new challenges and life conditions confront a culture, new worldviews and value systems emerge in order to help the culture adapt and evolve. It turns out that it’s not only biological life that evolves. Consciousness, culture, and human societies, also “escape to a higher order” (a process discussed in The Emerging Church Revised & Expanded: A Model for Change & a Map for Renewal, which this post is based on). This doesn’t happen so much in a linear fashion, Graves theorized, but rather like a spiral staircase that circles back on itself. With each revolution of the metaphorical spiral, these new value systems or worldviews ascend, reaching a higher level in an effort to resolve the challenges created by the previous stage.

Graves called his model Spiral Dynamics. Don Beck color-coded these levels for the layperson’s benefit, since Grave’s original typology is a bit awkward. Below is a brief description of the colors, the associated value systems, and the life conditions that give rise to them. I am indebted to the brilliant work of Dr. Don Beck, a student of Clare Graves, who has dedicated his life to teaching this system.

Stages of Spiral Dynamics: Part One 

BEIGE: Archaic/Survivalist Value System (emerged 100,000 years ago)

When the two-legged ones stood up and ventured out into the Savannahs of Africa, it was a case of eat or be eaten. Life for humans, along with the rest of the animals, boiled down to a search for water, food, and shelter. They travelled in bands because it was safer than travelling alone as an individual. Yet each individual within the band looked out for his or her own interests. You can see the survival instinct up close and personal in infants at the first sign of hunger or discomfort.

Congregations have been known to regress to this level under financial duress! When we find ourselves hunkering down and focusing exclusively on survival, we are operating from a survivalist value system.

PURPLE: Tribal Value System (emerged 50,000 years ago)

Clans bump into each other and begin to form more complex tribal systems. Out of the primarily individualistic instinct for survival, loyalty to the tribe and to the ancestors issues in a more communitarian value system. At this stage, the whole cosmos is felt to be animated with spirits and the key to the good life is to live in right relationship with your ancestors so that they will provide assistance to your tribe. Sacred rituals reflect a direct participation in the cycles and rhythms of nature. There is a felt sense that your rituals, thoughts, words, and songs, have a direct impact on the course of the universe, causing the sun to rise and the rains to fall.

There is much about the ritual life of congregations that is tribal, with our various rituals that order our lives and our feeling of connectedness with, and loyalty to, the community

RED: Warrior Value System (emerged 10,000 years ago)

Out of the collective honouring of the ancestors and the spirits, the need for individual self-expression and the allurement of freedom re-emerges. Think terrible twos. Or in adults, think Rambo and the bevy of films depicting the strong man heroically emerging from the pack. There is no guilt associated with taking exactly what you want. The world is your oyster. Tribal warlords in Iraq, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, urban street gangs, and prison systems function from this red centre of gravity. Power is exercised as domination. The positive evolutionary contribution of the warrior stage is found in its fierce commitment to individual empowerment and its action orientation.

BLUE: Traditional Value System (emerged 5,000 years ago)

Coming out of the aggression and impulsivity of red, the warrior stage, the life challenge is now for order and purpose. The perceived need is for salvation, law and order. Here the individualist thrust gives way to the needs of the collective. The individual is willing to sacrifice personal pleasure in order to participate in a life of meaning and purpose, delivered by a shared belief in a “transcendent cause.” The many tribal gods are united under one all-powerful God. This is the emergence of the age of axial religions. The promise that the next life will be better allows us to make sacrifices in this one. The needs of the self are held in balance with the needs of the other. A shift has taken place from the egocentric focus of the warrior (Red) to an ethnocentric outlook – a capacity to take the perspective of the other. But the “other” extends no further than my family, my tribe, and my God. The world is easily polarized into right and wrong, and good and evil.

Seventy percent of the world’s religions function out of this value system today. The belief that salvation can happen only through my belief system is a telltale sign of this stage. The contribution of this stage to the spiral is its sense of civic duty, preservation of tradition, respect for authority, loyalty to the group, and deep faith.

ORANGE: Modernist Value System (emerged 300 years ago)

While offering good order and purpose, the collective orientation of the traditionalist value system (Blue) stifled creativity and the innate drive to improve one’s lot in life. Adherence to external authority – the priests and the church, for example – and absolute laws gave way to the so-called modern period.

In the modernist system, rationalists of the Enlightenment wanted to discover the full potential of the human species when it was liberated from myth, superstition, and the power of the church. Because we can use our God-given reason, our future is not wholly determined by our past experiences or by our station in life. Humanity begins to feel liberated through the discovery that we can shuffle off the chains of a predetermined future to shape one of our own choosing. Democracy is born as four great world revolutions awaken to the inherent rights of individuals to determine their own future. The rationalist cry of the Enlightenment is “no more myths and no more ascent.” “No more myths” conveys frustration with the myths and belief systems of the traditionalist (Blue) worldview, which limited human potential. “No more ascent” means that there is no more room for Spirit. The scientific worldview, when expressed as metaphysical materialism (reality is merely physical) dismisses the myths, creation stories, and legends of the tribal (Purple) and warrior (Red) and the traditionalist (Blue) value systems as superstitious tales told by those who did not have all physical data. Humans are declared to be unique in their capacity to shape their own future.

The human being as an achiever emerges. We can get what we want through our own strategic thinking and genius. Competition is healthy. The strongest survive. Corporate culture is born. Ambition and ingenuity focused on self paradoxically serves the whole. A rising tide lifts all boats.

The modernist (Orange) value system is the dominant value system in our society today, but you won’t find many people functioning out of a purely modernist value system in your congregation because there’s little or no room for Spirit at this level. The positive contribution of this stage is its embrace of reason, its optimism about human potential, and its empowerment of the individual.

GREEN: Postmodernist Value System (emerged 150 years ago, but in full force 50 years ago)

Out of the modernist’s (Orange’s ) fascination with self and the causa sui project – to be the cause of oneself – comes a recognition that it can’t just be about me, and it can’t just be about us, understood as my family, my country, and my business. It must be about all of us, if we’re going to survive as a species, and if the earth is going to survive our plundering. The postmodern (Green) value system is world-centric. A shift back to the collective needs of the whole occurs. From the cold rationality and objectivity of scientific materialism, a warmer, kinder self emerges, with the capacity for empathy and sensitivity. Multiple cultures – not just ours – are recognized and validated. Justice, peace, and ecological concerns take precedence in this code. It’s the beginning of the postmodern mindset, where everything depends on perspective and context. Truth itself is a relative affair, an arbitrary construction of the observer. The philosophical hallmark of postmodernism is constructivism (reality is not given, it is constructed) and perspectivism (there is no Truth, only perspective). Even science itself is regarded as but one perspective on many about the nature of “truth.” No single worldview is the correct one – with the exception, we shall see, of the Green worldview itself. Decision-making is ideally consensual. The problem in the world is understood to be the tendency of the powerful elite to dominate the marginalized. Success and material pleasure take one only so far.

The positive contribution of this stage is its egalitarian and pluralistic sensibility. Most congregations in liberal mainline churches of North America have their centre of gravity at this postmodern (Green) centre of gravity.

Coming Next Week: Games Tier 1 Stages play – and what lays beyond. 

Bruce Sanguin bioBruce Sanguin is the author of five books, including The Advance of Love: Reading the Bible with an Evolutionary HeartIf Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics and The Emerging Church Revised & Expanded: A Model for Change & a Map for Renewal, which this post is based on. He served as an ordained minister for 28 years in the United Church of Canada. He now writes and teaches at his unique online community, Home for Evolving Mystics.


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12 thoughts on “The Hidden Cultures within Communities: An Introduction to Spiral Dynamics – Bruce Sanguin

  1. Obviously you are a modernist! You make this neat framework. Life in fact is not nearly so neat. Different paradigms I think have pretty much always existed. Their relative strength in the culture (and in this essay you seem to deal only with Western culture) does vary, but schemas like this indicate why skepticism of scholasticism is well taken. The schemas are almost never accurate.

    1. Bill you’re right, life is messy. The schema referenced here is used by Ken Wilbur in his “Theory of Everything”. It is Integral. It was developed in application by Donald E. Beck, PhD and created by Clare W. Graves. It has been used to resolve issues in South Africa starting in 1981 and informed Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in their “bloodless” transition from Apartheid government. Although still little known by world standards, it helps create understanding when trained for that purpose and therefore reduces reactive, defensive, past-clinging behaviors in groups and individuals which slow or block emergence of human consciousness.

      At this time more than 100,000 evaluations using this model have helped business, government, church and community organizations around the world.

      As with the human mind, it works best when open.

      1. Jack, to the best of my knowledge there is little if any solid research underlying Ken Wilber’s or Don Beck’s version of Graves’ work. In the entire field of developmental psychology, there are very few who accept anything resembling Piaget’s stages of development; most have adopted an information processing theory.

        The grave (pun intended) defect of all contemporary developmental theories is the lack of a clear sense of who or what it is that is developing. Wilber’s model – even up to AQAL – is, one could almost say, rooted in this lack of understanding, due in large part to his deep lack of understanding of Vedanta and Buddhist models from which he derived so much of his template.

        He has attempted to reconfigure this over the years – the “authentic self’ is one such attempt – but has never gained much clarity with regard to the relationship of the Individual and the Divine.

        Michael Murphy’s “Evolutionary Panentheism” is not a bad place to start to look for a deeper view of development in a cosmic context.

    2. Bill, I share your suspicion of taking big schemas too literally. Call this a helpful tool in understanding how are world views keep us separate and disconnected. Really important to realize that these waves of development are enfolded within each other, not linear steps. Also important to realize that modernism, for example, started to emerge, but couldn’t stabilize, within Greek culture. Postmodernism appeared in rudimentary and fleeting form centuries ago. One of the criticisms of Spiral Dynamics is that it doesn’t take into account enough specifics of history. All that aside, it seems undeniable to me that new world views emerges to solve the challenges of changing life conditions. In my personal experience these world views are in evidence in congregational life.

  2. This is a beautifully articulated guide to cultural evolution….without promoting that we are better than them or what we were. An Integral perspective sees the beauty (and limitation) in all levels of the spiral. We can now choose what we understand will help humanity to either avoid, advocate, survive or surrender…yes? I think this may also be associated with apperception.

  3. Spiral Dynamics is an interesting idea – but one that I’ve found ultimately more problematic than helpful.

    You mention that Graves “noticed that worldviews and value systems evolved in a developmental fashion”. But what research has actually demonstrated its validity beyond that of a thought experiment? How is Spiral Dynamics anything more than repackaged, modernist, eurocentric triumphalism? Where’s the actual science or evidence there?

    1. Tom, Clare W. Graves was a contemporary and friend of Maslow. The concept is developed out of observed behavior and research interviews, studies and has gone onto make a huge difference as a lens to support healthy understanding of where cultures are regarding their values systems. The science is now coming from Spiral Dynamic’s application.

      Invictus, the film by Clint Eastwood, depicts the results of a decade of Donald E. Beck’s training, consulting, writing and connection with leaders in business–banking, mining, manufacture–and academics, communities and large government. To implement it has many facets and complexities before people get the deep layering. Yet, at the same time, the simple thumbnail view can create awareness, empathy and compassion that can be applied to understanding and learning. It presumes and requires respect.

      The successes and the short falls in South Africa are examples not of modernist or post-modernist success, but the capacity for human beings to overcome fear and reactionism when given a respect based, compassionate lens to perceive the complexities of the world.

      Spiral Dynamics was created to make sense out of seemingly contradictory and irrational behavior. It shows the deep values basis for thought and action without claiming superiority or a particular world view. It offers an EEG and an MRI of human individual and group behavior to identify what’s going and why yet not to recommend surgery or fixing, instead to lead to encouragement, guidance and facilitation of a healthy emergent system.

      1. To what peer-reviewed studies are you referring, exactly? There are a lot of fanciful ideas out there (including Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which has [similarly?] not been verified by actual science).

        It’s also nice that a fictional film was made that depicted positive impacts from Spiral Dynamics – but are there any unbiased, non-fictional accounts that you can refer the reader to?

        1. Tom, I think perhaps what was being referred to metaphorically as EEG and MRI scans is the “culture scan” developed by Don Beck. He is currently working in the Middle East with Palestinians and Israelis. He is quite a master when you witness him in action, and it’s primarily in the political sphere where his genius shines. He’s worked with the state of Texas on an environmental initiative as well just to name a couple.

      2. Further, you seem to be claiming that the validity Spiral Dynamics has been verified by the use of EEG and MRI machines. Without clearly stating what exactly was being tested and how it was being measured, there’s no way of determining if what exactly was learned through such testing.

    1. Dan, I suspect that Mike will cover what I wrote which goes into second tier. Even second tier is hard to verify empirically, let alone third tier, but certainly subjectively, humans like Sri Aurobindo, have tasted into it. It’s beyond me, however! 🙂

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