Although I’ll be the first to admit that it’s an example of confirmation bias because I’ve been saying and writing similar things for years, I just read a lengthy but very interesting article about the ways in which social sciences like anthropology, economics and behaviourism may be even more ethnocentric, subjective and ideological than all but the chippiest post-colonial theorists have portrayed them.
In short, social science and its “truths” have been dominated by people from the USA and their culture. And the citizens of the United States are the weirdest and most subjective people in the world. US dominance means that Weird Japan or Weird Asia are internet genres, while Weird USA is just the internet in general. Hollywood films and US TV shows label Paris as “Paris, France”, implying that most people in the world think of the Paris in Texas first of all. They don’t. Studies of sexual mores in the USA somehow get extrapolated to the behaviour of everyone else. And so on. Note that in the quote below even the article’s author apparently unreflectively uses “we” and “our” to mean US citizens:
“In the end they titled their paper ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ (pdf) By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”
Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.”
Of course WEIRD as an acronym for “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic” is also genius. Those things are weird, and all highly anomalous in the context of human history and evolution.
I’ve not been to South America or Africa, but otherwise I’ve travelled quite a lot. I’ve lived and worked for extended periods in various nations in Europe (north and south, from Norway to Italy) and Asia, particularly China and Japan. Not just urban Asia either, but also places where they’d never seen a flush toilet and I had newspaper in the windows instead of glass. For any Westerner in Asia there’s an undeniable Alice Through the Looking Glass twist to things you might previously have thought you understood, even things as mundane as handkerchiefs, baths or vending machines. Even so I still maintain that the USA is the weirdest, most alienating place I’ve ever visited, with the most bizarre, irrational populace and societal norms I’ve ever encountered, regardless of how decent certain individuals within that culture can be. I found it a genuinely foreign place, with little sign of the “special relationship” our two countries supposedly have. If Japanese people are weird, then I must be weird too because I fit right in. Asia is Through the Looking Glass; the USA is 1984.
I found everyday life in the latter place quite terrifying, stressful and depressing– by which I mean the things that people put up with, the way they tend to treat each other, the gulf that exists between their conception of themselves as the melting pot and land of opportunity versus the reality of a country whose culture seems to deliberately, cynically set each person against their fellow man and woman, and the general underlying buzz of a Puritanism that overtly sanctions all manner of violence and vindictiveness, yet quails at the suggestion of everyday bodily functions or normal affection between consenting adults. Extrapolating universal truths about humans from such a place is absolutely insane. Stuck up Brits, sexy Frenchies, lefty Canadians, crazy Japs, brown fanatics from some vaguely defined whatever part of the world between Europe and Asia: actually we’re all normal in our own way, and more “normal”/normative as a whole than the US-centric lenses we’re usually seen through.
I wouldn’t want to be cut off from American culture or the ideas and products of its people any more than I’d want to be cut off from any other culture or people in the world. Although it may not seem like it a lot of the time, we are living in a fairly utopian period of human history. There’s absolutely no call for complacency or smugness because we all know some parts of the world are totally hellish ongoing human disasters, but more people in the world are more free from hunger, violence, poverty and oppression than they have ever been. It’s important for everyone– especially Americans– to remember that this utopia is a fragile, ever-expanding thing that somehow mostly stays together without any need for us all to be the same. It’s not a melting pot. It could definitely get better, but it could also get much worse. In categorising the rest of us, judging us by their standards and exporting their culture to us it is Americans who are the atypical ones. But then everyone in the world except people in the USA knew that already.
Read the full article:
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Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.
I’m sympathetic to some of the ideas you’ve expressed here, but I felt that some of them deserved a response.
For me, one takeaway of the article is that it does not make sense to impose on one culture the value judgements and moral systems drawn from elsewhere. Coming to the conclusion that American culture — or *any* culture — is “irrational” seems to be precisely what the paper is warning against.
Consider the opening paragraph of the paper:
“In the tropical forests of New Guinea, the Etoro believe that for a boy to achieve manhood he must ingest the semen of his elders. This is accomplished through ritua- lized rites of passage that require young male initiates to fellate a senior member (Herdt 1984/1993; Kelley 1980). In contrast, the nearby Kaluli maintain that male initiation is only properly done by ritually delivering the semen through the initiate’s anus, not his mouth. The Etoro revile these Kaluli practices, finding them disgusting. To become a man in these societies, and eventually take a wife, every boy undergoes these initiations. Such boy-inse- minating practices, which are enmeshed in rich systems of meaning and imbued with local cultural values, were not uncommon among the traditional societies of Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia (Herdt 1984/1993), as well as in Ancient Greece and Tokugawa Japan.”
My interpretation of this passage is that at first, the behavior of both the Etoro and the Kaluli strike us as something which is not only weird, but pedophilic and immoral. But the behavior described here is observed not in just one culture, but in cultures distributed across the world. The point is that our cultural background, our frame of reference — whether Western, Japanese, or Etoro — is often entirely an inadequate basis from which to interpret the behavior of peoples from another culture. We simply are not equipped to draw moral judgements or conclusions on rationality about the actions of people from cultures other than our own, or at least not without extensive, methodical research and analysis.
Thus, while I definitely understand and sympathize with the terror and revulsion one might feel upon entering American culture from the outside, I think the paper calls on us to make a concerted effort to understand people and their culture on THEIR terms and in the context of their environment, rather than on OUR terms.
I will say that whether the hypocritical Puritan sexual mores or the way that individuals are deliberately and cynically set against once another in the United States is related to the “weirdness” that these authors are talking about is, perhaps, an interesting question. But I feel like the answers are far from obvious.
Thanks for such a thoughtful response. I didn’t state conclusions as fully as I might have– but then I’m a blogger, not an anthropologist delivering a paper– but my own visceral responses to certain aspects of US culture demonstrate precisely what the paper’s authors, you and I seem to agree upon; that it’s sometimes very tough for people from differing cultures (even superficially similar ones like the UK and the US) to get over their disgust or incomprehension at certain fundamentals of how other societies choose to operate. I have no personal experience of New Guinea, so my example of the tribal narcissism of small differences had to come from elsewhere. I certainly agree that it might be better if humans as a species were more able to put this aside, but this research shows that scientists are just as prone to cultural prejudice as anybody else… which is troubling to anybody who cares about the scientific method or international harmony because it clearly does not bode well for any rational approach to cultural relations.
I think there is also the issue of power, i.e. majority versus minority cultures. Yes, most people in the world could do better in suspending judgement about other cultures no matter where they’re from, but cultures with massive hegemonic power (e.g. and supremely the US, specifically its white, patrician, Puritan majority culture that effects the whole world through the media and economic/military policy) have a correspondingly greater responsibility to check themselves and be aware of their biases than do the cultures or communities who are frequently the objects of their criticism or who regularly come off worse because of majority norms, whether they be African Americans, the Etoro, or the people a US tourist encounters during their trip to London. The stakes are much higher in relations between, for example, the USA and Europe or the USA and the Middle East than the stakes are in relations between the Etoro and the Kaluli. And it should not be forgotten that cultures don’t really “want” or “decide” anything, either; cultures are made up of individual people who can choose to act in whatever way they see fit. Perhaps this leads back to the notion you mention, of making more effort to see the other side.