Understanding Just Culture

Understanding Just Culture

The idea of Just Culture is not a neutral concept. Within the mechanistic worldview of safety and positivism Just Culture often is defined to mean ‘fair systems’ or ‘low-blame’ systems. This is evident in many presentations on Just Culture including the following presentations:

· Just Culture as an algorithm for accountability


· Just Culture as Safe Choices or shared accountability


· An atmosphere of trust and questioning attitude


· An ideal culture


· Managing behaviours and learning


· An economy of accountability


· An organization defined by how it handles blame and punishment


· An atmosphere of reporting safety information

Reason: Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents p. 195

Interestingly, the books and presentations on Just Culture neither define Justice or Culture in an open, socio-political, semiotic or ecological manner. The agenda is most often about the brutalism of Safety and what to do about it. The discussion on Just Culture by Safety always shifts from humans to unjust systems.

Most discussions of Just Culture are heavily laden with behaviourist assumptions and a preoccupation with measurement. Interestingly, many commentaries are offered by safety people who have no legal expertise or legal education and so don’t come to the issue from a perspective of jurisprudence (the philosophy of law). This is not to say that such commentaries have no value but to simply highlight the bias of the literature on Just Culture in the safety industry. However, this is why Greg Smith and I produced the video series and book Risky Conversations as a dialectic between the law and social psychology. (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/risky-conversations/ and https://vimeo.com/album/3938199.

There are other views on Just Culture that stand outside the unquestioned acceptance of what defines Just Culture in the safety industry.

Perhaps I will discuss the semiotic, social-psychological or theological views of Just Culture at another time. For the moment, I just want to bring into view the deconstructionist view (not destruction) principally by Derrida in Acts of Religion Chapter 5 Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority’.


Derrida suggests that an understanding of Justice requires aporia, that is, Justice would is the experience of what we are unable to experience. Aporia denotes an unresolveable internal contradiction, a wicked problem. For Derrida, Justice is an experience of the impossible because Justice is beyond the law and can only be experienced through ‘vision’. He argues that Justice and law are heterogeneous (incongruent because they exists in different dimensions). Law is calculable but Justice is incalculable. Whilst laws are calculated with reference to Justice, Justice can only be considered in the absolute. Justice must not be confused with rights, regulation or legislation, these are evidence of the imperfections of law and in themselves demonstrate the politics and ethic of law.

For Derrida, the purpose of Justice is to reveal and make aware the vulnerability and fallibility of the human and the social-political order (hegemony). The purpose of the law and systems serve to prove to fallible humans they can’t keep them. Often the call for Justice is like the call for ‘commonsense’, it is a demonstration that it doesn’t exist. Justice implies an ethic of freedom that must be accepted within the confines of fallibility. The rejection of fallibility by the safety industry embodied in the ideology of zero is the rejection of Justice. Rather than enter into a dialectic between law and justice (Derrida) safety pits the absolute of zero against the absolute of Justice.

I had a friend recently tell me that a zero harm CEO came on to site for a visit and inspection. He wandered around site finding critical issues like power leads, bent poles and handrails that needed fixing. The inspection was all about the tyranny of zero and preventing every little possibility of an accident. Funny, when the CEO was leaving the site he reversed into a fire hydrant causing severe damage. For this all was to be kept quite and he sought forgiveness. Then carried on with the masquerade of zero citing his insurance policy, so he doesn’t believe in zero anyway.

The practices of law denote an economy of exchange embedded in the idea of ‘tit for tat’. This is a reciprocal arrangement of payback and vengeance where the ‘punishment fits the crime’. Within this mathematical and economic worldview one understands the notion of sacrifice as an economic exchange for the fallible order of law. In this way the injustices and contradictions of the law are accepted as ‘the best we have’, also accepting the violences of the law to maintain order. In this way the calls for a Just Culture fulfilled in better systems can never achieve Justice indeed, can only ever bring Injustice.

For Derrida, one cannot discuss or envision Justice without acknowledging the foundation of ‘gift’. The idea of ‘gift’ runs counter to the mathematical and economic interpretation of justice-as-law. For Derrida, Gift and Justice are the same entity. Justice exceeds the limitations of law and reciprocity. Reciprocity and the mechanics of exchange destroy the idea of Gift. (you can read more about Derrida’s idea of Gift here: https://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/#SH7a)

When we step outside the worldview of reciprocity, mathematics, exchange, systems and economy, we can move someway in understanding Derrida’s view of Justice. One can be sure of one thing, that the language and ideology of zero will always create a barrier for understanding Justice. Zero is the psychological language of brutalism where there can be no Justice.

The purpose of Justice is to envision Gift. There is no language or discourse on Gift in any of the literature on Just Culture in safety. Until the safety worldview learns to reject zero and accommodate Justice as Gift it will have no vision, ethic or politic for safety.

Derrida ties ‘the Gift’ to Forgiveness, and so Justice becomes the opposite of giving people what the interpreted law deems they deserve. The Gift is about giving fallible people what they don’t deserve. Now, that would be a challenge to the popular notions of Just Culture.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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