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Spiral Dynamics is a theory of human development introduced in the 1996 book Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Chris Cowan. The book was based on the theory of psychology professor Clare W. Graves, and targeted at a business management audience. The American author Ken Wilber has popularized these ideas in a series of books. "Spiral Dynamics" is a registered trademark of the National Values Center, Inc.
Spiral Dynamics argues that human nature is not fixed: humans are able, when forced by circumstances, to adapt to their environment by constructing new, more complex, conceptual models of the world that allow them to handle the new problems. Each new model includes and transcends all previous models. According to Beck and Cowan, these conceptual models are organized around so-called vMeme: systems of core values or collective intelligences, applicable to both individuals and entire cultures.
In Spiral Dynamics, the term "vMeme" refers to a core value system, acting as an organizing principle, which expresses itself through memes (self-propagating ideas, habits, or cultural practices). The prepended and superscripted letter v indicates these are not basic memes but value systems which include them.
Applications of this model allow the experienced user to analyze both micro- and macro- systems of human and cultural behavior. The color scheme is rooted partially in Dr. Don E. Beck's extended experience in South Africa, during which he committed several years of his life to applying the theory of Spiral Dynamics in an effort to bring an end to Apartheid. The racial tension was so severe that in order to avoid a simplification of the deep-rooted cultural tensions into merely 'black and white' issues, Dr. Beck developed a respective color scheme to aid in his communication of the theory. The colors carry no literal meaning with respect to the patterns they represent.
Individuals and cultures do not fall clearly in any single category (or color). Each person/culture embodies a mixture of the value patterns, with varying degrees of intensity in each. Multidisciplinary philosopher Ken Wilber used the term 'Holon' to describe the state of not only representing the highest level of emergence obtained, but simultaneously inhabiting each of the previous levels as well. Wilber references the notion of 'transcend but include' when speaking of the process of advancing to higher levels of development.
The Spiral Dynamics model is not linear or hierarchical. It posits infinite stages of progress and regression over time dependent upon the life circumstances of the person/culture, which are constantly in-flux. Similarly, attaining higher stages of development is not synonymous with attaining a 'better' or 'more correct' values system, although second-tier achievement is desirable. Each stage can (co)-exist in both healthy and unhealthy states, whereby any stage of development can lead to undesirable outcomes with respect to the health of the human and social environment.
- I am not saying in this conception of adult behavior that one style of being, one form of human existence is inevitably and in all circumstances superior to or better than another form of human existence, another style of being. What I am saying is that when one form of being is more congruent with the realities of existence, then it is the better form of living for those realities. And what I am saying is that when one form of existence ceases to be functional for the realities of existence then some other form, either higher or lower in the hierarchy, is the better form of living. I do suggest, however, and this I deeply believe is so, that for the overall welfare of total man's existence in this world, over the long run of time, higher levels are better than lower levels and that the prime good of any society's governing figures should be to promote human movement up the levels of human existence.
- — Dr. Clare W. Graves
First tier vMemes
These vMeme levels are focused on different themes for existence, and include almost all of the worldviews, cultures, and mental attitudes up to today. New systems build on adaptations of previous levels and seek to solve problems created by living in those earlier ways. (Attaching concrete examples to these levels of psychological existence is difficult and often misleading because (a) there can be multiple reasons for the same behavior and (b) centralization in a single level regarding all aspects of living is rare. These are ways of thinking about things, not types of people.)
- From 100,000 BC on
- "Express self to meet imperative physiological needs through instincts of Homo sapiens."
- From 50,000 BC on
- "Sacrifice to the ways of the elders and customs as one subsumed in group."
Egocentric-exploitive power gods/dominionist
- From 7000 BC on
- "Express self (impulsively) for what self desires without guilt and to avoid shame."
- From 3000 BC on
- "Sacrifice self for reward to come through obedience to rightful authority in purposeful Way."
- From 1000 AD on (as early as 600 AD according to Graves and Calhoun)
- "Express self (calculatedly) to reach goals and objectives without rousing the ire of important others."
- From 1850 AD on (surged in early 20th century)
- "Sacrifice self interest now in order to gain acceptance and group harmony."
Second tier vMemes
These are just emerging levels that gradually move away from concentration on subsistence level concerns of the First Tier toward being level existence.
- From 1950s on
- "Express self for what self desires, but to avoid harm to others so that all life, not just own life, will benefit."
- From 1970s on
- A sacrifice self-interest system which is still forming
- The open-ended theory suggests many more systems to come
Some theorists, among them Don Beck and Ken Wilber characterize each vMeme has having both healthy and unhealthy versions. The pathologies are sometimes referred to as being "mean" as in Mean Green vMeme (MGM) or Mean Orange vMeme"(MOM). MOM, for example, includes extremes of capitalism such as like exploitation, environmental devastation and a general lack of ethics and sensitivity, while the MGM would incocporate performative contradictions like anti-hierarchy, anti-competition, etc.
One of the co-authors of Spiral Dynamics, Chris Cowan, denies any credible evidence exists for the existence of the Mean Green vMeme and has called it a misrepresentation of the theory. While he recognizes the problems mentioned above, Cowan argues that they exist in other value systems as well and that attaching them only to the Green vMeme is too simplistic. He considers the term "mean" to be inappropriate and a theoretical distortion when questions of adaptation or maladaptation, congruence or ineffectiveness are more to the point. Psychopathology, potentially, exists at all levels and is a different dimension.
Other theoretical elements
Clare Graves' original theory on which Spiral Dynamics is based was known as the Emergent Cyclic Double-Helix Model of Adult Biopsychosocial Systems Development or, more simply, the Levels of Existence Theory (ECLET). The colour system, closely corresponding in seemingly non-coincidental ways with colors on the "queen color scale" of hermetic kabalism, was added in the 1970's as a graphic element to decorate training materials used by Cowan and Beck. The term vMeme was introduced by Beck and Cowan in Spiral Dynamics where the color language replaced original Graves terminology. Graves had used letter pairs to refer to each level and had not considered any connection with memetics. Beck and Cowan emphasized 'change states' which are part of the Graves theory. They identify landmarks on the transformational path between the levels. Graves' original theory uses a double helix model to show the interrelatedness of an individual's perception of life conditions with their inner neuronal systems, producing a level of psychological existence. This double helix of two interacting forces is referred to as a spiral in 'Spiral Dynamics.
Further theoretical development
Following the release of their book, Beck and Cowan taught this theory in two courses, SDI and SDII. They ceased their formal working relationship in 1999.
Beck became interested in Ken Wilber's integral theory and developed a branch of spiral dynamics that he calls Spiral Dynamics Integral. This version of the theory uses integral concepts such as the four quadrants. Beck is also associated with the spiritual teacher, Andrew Cohen.
Cowan does not subscribe to these developments and promotes a version of the theory which he describes as remaining more faithful to the original research of Clare Graves and extending from it. He continues to use the term 'Spiral Dynamics' to describe his work since he co-created it. With his partner, Natasha Todorovic, he has undertaken work in integrating Spiral Dynamics with NLP and other models, and in developing corporate strategy and practical applications.
Each of the external websites listed below promotes the organization of one of the two co-authors.
- Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, 1996, ISBN 1-55786-940-5
- The Spiral Dynamics homepage
- Clare W. Graves homepage
- Chris Cowan and Natasha Todorovic National Values Center Consulting
- Don Beck, Spiral Dynamics Integral
- The Center for Human Emergence lead by Beck, Wilber and others uses Spiral Dynamics, among other technologies.
- A Flash introduction, audio, and articles on Spiral Dynamics
- Stratified Democracy: The Cultural Dynamics of Nation Building in Afghanistan. A Video with Don Beck on the World Bank website.
- The Humergence Weblog
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