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Archetypes, foolishness and false categorisation

March 21, 2008

Graham is sounding off about the dangers of crude use of archetypes and picking a fight with Patrick Lamb in the process. Now I think he makes some excellent points, but is confusing different approaches. He is also mixing up archetypes with stereotypes. I plan to clear up that confusion later, but I should say now that I share Grapham’s overall concern and many (but not all) of his targets. I worry about a lot of the crude categorisation which goes under the name of archetypes. This can range from uses that (like Earth) are mostly harmless, such as Arthur Shelley’s Organisational Zoo to the downright dangerous.

So, rather than a Ya-Boo Sucks dispute (by the way read the full debate as both Patrick ad Graham move away from this very quickly) lets get a bit more sophisticated in understanding the many and various ways in which the word archetype can be used. I have already written more extensively about what I consider the legitimate use of archetypes with some illustrations here.

As an aspect of traditional (and modern) stories

All cultures produce archetypal story forms. The Greek Gods are archetypes, individually they represent aspects of that society, collectively they provide a cultural representation. Anthropologists study them, looking at differences as once way of understanding culture. For example the coyote occupies the role of Trickster as does Loki, but they are very different and tell us about the cultures that produced them. Some forms occur in many stories, such as the Hero’s Journey which in the modern day we see in Star Wars and Harry Potter to take two examples. This is all good stuff and I have a whole shelf of archetypal stories from many different cultures in my study. You don’t have to buy into Campbell’s Freudian assumptions to appreciate the value of this.

As a crude form of categorisation in Marketing and Human Relationship management

Now things get negative. Here we get consultants (sometimes academics) picking up either on established archetypes from literature or creating their own. They then sell services by which customers or employees will be assigned to an archetype on the baiss of questions, expert study or similar with a view to creating predictive models. There are relationships between this type of approach and some Jungian approaches that assume there are universal archetypes following on from the 19th century obsession with categorisation. The worst excesses of this in HR include the absurdities of Myers Brigg; I look forward to Graham condemning this as well by the way. In effect these approaches treat archetypes as stereotypes, They fail to realise that the essence of a family of archetypes is that they collectively reveal culture. In a society all members will recognise some aspect of themselves in each of the archetypes, but they will not associate with one of them. Putting people into little boxes and thinking that you have accounted for the complexity of a human being is crude, stupid and at times down right evil. Why anyone spends money on this I will never understand.

As an emergent representation of culture

This is the method and approach advocated and illustrated in the above referenced article and (the last time I checked) the method used by Patrick. Here we attempt to replicate the natural process by which archetypes emerge in stories over time. We allow members of the community we are studying to socially construct and represent their archetypes as a means of enabling a conversation about what could otherwise be difficult issues. They are a representation of the whole community, derived from that communities own stories by the community themselves, not an expert or a consultant. Comparative archetypes derived from by different groups (managers and employees) for example allow difficult issues to be faced. There is no categorisation and in full use the method also reveals both the surface stereotypes that can be a construct for racial and other abuses or simple category errors that prevent people seeing subtle differences and possibilities. Any attempt to convert these archetypes into categories, or use them out of context is an abuse.

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