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robertogreco : tmluhrmann   2

Why Are Some Cultures More Individualistic Than Others? -
"AMERICANS and Europeans stand out from the rest of the world for our sense of ourselves as individuals. We like to think of ourselves as unique, autonomous, self-motivated, self-made. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed, this is a peculiar idea.

People in the rest of the world are more likely to understand themselves as interwoven with other people — as interdependent, not independent. In such social worlds, your goal is to fit in and adjust yourself to others, not to stand out. People imagine themselves as part of a larger whole — threads in a web, not lone horsemen on the frontier. In America, we say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In Japan, people say that the nail that stands up gets hammered down.

These are broad brush strokes, but the research demonstrating the differences is remarkably robust and it shows that they have far-reaching consequences. The social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and his colleagues found that these different orientations toward independence and interdependence affected cognitive processing. For example, Americans are more likely to ignore the context, and Asians to attend to it. Show an image of a large fish swimming among other fish and seaweed fronds, and the Americans will remember the single central fish first. That’s what sticks in their minds. Japanese viewers will begin their recall with the background. They’ll also remember more about the seaweed and other objects in the scene.

Another social psychologist, Hazel Rose Markus, asked people arriving at San Francisco International Airport to fill out a survey and offered them a handful of pens to use, for example four orange and one green; those of European descent more often chose the one pen that stood out, while the Asians chose the one more like the others.

Dr. Markus and her colleagues found that these differences could affect health. Negative affect — feeling bad about yourself — has big, persistent consequences for your body if you are a Westerner. Those effects are less powerful if you are Japanese, possibly because the Japanese are more likely to attribute the feelings to their larger situation and not to blame themselves.

There’s some truth to the modernization hypothesis — that as social worlds become wealthier, they also become more individualistic — but it does not explain the persistent interdependent style of Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

In May, the journal Science published a study, led by a young University of Virginia psychologist, Thomas Talhelm, that ascribed these different orientations to the social worlds created by wheat farming and rice farming. Rice is a finicky crop. Because rice paddies need standing water, they require complex irrigation systems that have to be built and drained each year. One farmer’s water use affects his neighbor’s yield. A community of rice farmers needs to work together in tightly integrated ways.

Not wheat farmers. Wheat needs only rainfall, not irrigation. To plant and harvest it takes half as much work as rice does, and substantially less coordination and cooperation. And historically, Europeans have been wheat farmers and Asians have grown rice.

The authors of the study in Science argue that over thousands of years, rice- and wheat-growing societies developed distinctive cultures: “You do not need to farm rice yourself to inherit rice culture.”

Their test case was China, where the Yangtze River divides northern wheat growers from southern rice growers. The researchers gave Han Chinese from these different regions a series of tasks. They asked, for example, which two of these three belonged together: a bus, a train and train tracks? More analytical, context-insensitive thinkers (the wheat growers) paired the bus and train, because they belong to the same abstract category. More holistic, context-sensitive thinkers (the rice growers) paired the train and train tracks, because they work together.

Asked to draw their social networks, wheat-region subjects drew themselves larger than they drew their friends; subjects from rice-growing regions drew their friends larger than themselves. Asked to describe how they’d behave if a friend caused them to lose money in a business, subjects from the rice region punished their friends less than subjects from the wheat region did. Those in the wheat provinces held more patents; those in the rice provinces had a lower rate of divorce.

I write this from Silicon Valley, where there is little rice. The local wisdom is that all you need is a garage, a good idea and energy, and you can found a company that will change the world. The bold visions presented by entrepreneurs are breathtaking in their optimism, but they hold little space for elders, for longstanding institutions, and for the deep roots of community and interconnection.

Nor is there much rice within the Tea Party. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, declared recently that all a man needed was a horse, a gun and the open land, and he could conquer the world.

Wheat doesn’t grow everywhere. Start-ups won’t solve all our problems. A lone cowboy isn’t much good in the aftermath of a Hurricane Katrina. As we enter a season in which the values of do-it-yourself individualism are likely to dominate our Congress, it is worth remembering that this way of thinking might just be the product of the way our forefathers grew their food and not a fundamental truth about the way that all humans flourish."
culture  2014  individualism  interdependence  society  history  agriculture  rice  wheat  tmluhrmann  siliconvalley  europe  us  asia  africa  japan  gliffordgeertz  hongkong  southkorea  korea  community  china 
december 2014 by robertogreco
How Culture Shapes Our Senses -
"FLORENCE, Italy — WE think of our senses as hard-wired gateways to the world. Many years ago the social psychologist Daryl J. Bem described the knowledge we gain from our senses as “zero-order beliefs,” so taken for granted that we do not even notice them as beliefs. The sky is blue. The fan hums. Ice is cold. That’s the nature of reality, and it seems peculiar that different people with their senses intact would experience it subjectively.

Yet they do. In recent years anthropologists have begun to point out that sensory perception is culturally specific. “Sensory perception,” Constance Classen, the author of “The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch,” says, “is a cultural as well as physical act.” It’s a controversial claim made famous by Marshall McLuhan’s insistence that nonliterate societies were governed by spoken words and sound, while literate societies experienced words visually and so were dominated by sight. Few anthropologists would accept that straightforwardly today. But more and more are willing to argue that sensory perception is as much about the cultural training of attention as it is about biological capacity.

Now they have some quantitative evidence to support the point. Recently, a team of anthropologists and psychologists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University, both in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, set out to discover how language and culture affected sensory awareness. Under the leadership of Asifa Majid and Stephen C. Levinson, they made up a kit of systematic stimuli for the traditional five senses: for sight, color chips and geometric forms; for hearing, pitch, amplitude and rhythm variations; for smell, a set of scratch-and-sniff cards; and so forth. They took these kits to over 20 cultural groups around the world. Their results upend some of our basic assumptions.

For example, it’s fairly common, in scientific literature, to find the view that “humans are astonishingly bad at odor identification and naming,” as a recent review of 30 years of experiments concluded. When ordinary people are presented with the smell of ordinary substances (coffee, peanut butter, chocolate), they correctly identify about half of them. That’s why we think of scent as a trigger for personal memory — leading to the recall of something specific, particular, uniquely our own.

It turns out that the subjects of those 30 years of experiments were mostly English-speaking. Indeed, English speakers find it easy to identify the common color in milk and jasmine flowers (“white”) but not the common scent in, say, bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. When the research team presented what should have been familiar scents to Americans — cinnamon, turpentine, lemon, rose and so forth — they were terrible at naming them. Americans, they wrote, said things like this when presented with the cinnamon scratch-and-sniff card: “I don’t know how to say that, sweet, yeah; I have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes like, what do I want to say? I can’t get the word. Jesus it’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red. Can I say that? O.K. Big Red, Big Red gum.”

When the research team visited the Jahai, rain-forest foragers on the Malay Peninsula, they found that the Jahai were succinct and more accurate with the scratch-and-sniff cards. In fact, they were about as good at naming what they smelled as what they saw. They do, in fact, have an abstract term for the shared odor in bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. Abstract odor terms are common among people on the Malay Peninsula.

The team also found that several communities — speakers of Persian, Turkish and Zapotec — used different metaphors than English and Dutch speakers to describe pitch, or frequency: Sounds were thin or thick rather than high or low. In later work, they demonstrated that the metaphors were powerful enough to disrupt perception. When Dutch speakers heard a tone while being shown a mismatched height bar (e.g., a high tone and a low bar) and were asked to sing the tone, they sang a lower tone. But the perception wasn’t influenced when they were shown a thin or thick bar. When Persian speakers heard a tone and were shown a bar of mismatched thickness, however, they misremembered the tone — but not when they were shown a bar mismatched for height.

The team also found that some of these differences could change over time. They taught the Dutch speakers to think about pitch as thin or thick, and soon these participants, too, found that their memory of a tone was affected by being shown a bar that was too thick or too thin. They found that younger Cantonese speakers had fewer words for tastes and smells than older ones, a shift attributed to rapid socioeconomic development and Western-style schooling.

I wrote this in Florence, Italy, a city famous as a feast for the senses. People say that Florence teaches you to see differently — that as the soft light moves across the ocher buildings, you see colors you never noticed before.

It taught Kevin Systrom, a co-founder of Instagram, to see differently. He attributes his inspiration to a photography class he took in Florence while at a Stanford study-abroad program about a decade ago. His teacher took away his state-of-the-art camera and insisted he use an old plastic one instead, to change the way he saw. He loved those photos, the vintage feel of them, and the way the buildings looked in the light. He set out to recreate that look in the app he built. And that has changed the way many of us now see as well."
senses  taste  smell  olfaction  touch  sight  seeing  noticing  language  languages  culture  darylbem  tmluhrmann  constanceclassen  wcydwt  glvo  slow  marshallmcluhan  anthropology  psychology  perception  sense  asifamajid  stephenlevinson  sound  hearing  tone  pitch  rhythm  color  comparison  schooling  unschooling  deschooling  literacies  literacy  identification  naming  kevinsystrom 
september 2014 by robertogreco

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