Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Researchers Perpetuate Cultural Stereotypes

The Taipei Times reported today on a research that shows that Asians and Americans process visual data differently. After an interesting finding....

Shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while students from China spent more time studying the background and taking in the whole scene, researchers at the University of Michigan say.

.....comes the idiot cultural explanations that perpetuate shallow stereotypes of Americans and Asians.

"Asians live in a more socially complicated world than we do," he said. "They have to pay more attention to others than we do. We are individualists. We can be bulls in a China shop, they can't afford it."

The key thing in Chinese culture is harmony, Nisbett said, while in the West the key is finding ways to get things done, paying less attention to others.

Earth to Nisbett: social relations in US culture are every bit as complex as those in Asian cultures -- it is a conceit of people who are clueless about the US that its culture is simple -- in fact, a stereotype. This is actually a twofer in stereotypes -- the great thing about American culture is that not only can you think it is simple, you can actually say that out loud and nobody questions its underlying ethnocentricity. To see what I mean, imagine if our good researcher had written that about the Igembe Merus of Kenya. Everyone would have been up in arms about what a colonialist and racist Nisbett was.

US social relations are not simple (just ask any of the students who have to master the exasperating intricacies of politeness in US culture) and the key thing in Chinese culture is not harmony (in any case all too often "harmony" in Chinese culture means "seeming to agree with those in power"). Anyone who wants to see the bull in the China shop can stand on a busy street corner in a large US city, and then on one in any Chinese city....which pedestrians and vehicles behave in a more orderly fashion? Who is the bull in the China shop? Who can afford to be more brusque? In which culture is "harmony" valued, and what does each culture mean by that term?

A second way that the experiment reveals ethnic stereotypes in its construction is the way that used Americans of European descent to stand for "American culture." The underlying ethnic stereotype is of course that American culture is "white." There were no African-Americans. No Asian-Americans. The study might have meant something if, for example, 50 Asians and 50 third generation Asian-Americans had been used, but at the moment one could just as well argue that the researchers have discovered that Asians and Caucasians are wired differently. It also encompasses stereotypes in that it uses Chinese to stand for all Asians, and constructs an idealized and non-existent exotic Other of Asia, where social relations are complicated and harmony rules, against the individualism of the US. Yet anyone who has watched Americans stand in line, play team sports, and nurture their civic culture, has to wonder about how these ideas of "harmony" are defined. Certainly a culture where everyone stops at red lights and waits peacefully in line has a lot more harmony than I encounter in my daily life here. It is high time these ethnocentric categories that orientalize everyone -- Asian, American, Chinese, European-American -- were dumped and researchers refrained from cheap, shallow cultural analysis.

Further, the researchers have not ruled out other cultural explanations -- that the Asians understood the researchers to want information about the whole picture, whereas the Americans understood them to want information about the object in the picture. In other words, the cultural response may well lie in the social interaction with the researcher (one wonders about the translation at this point) and not with the way the two cultures process data.

All in all, I hope the next time the Taipei Times publishes an article of this nature, it knocks out the sensational stereotyped hogwash, and focuses on the interesting if inconclusive results.

UPDATE: I dropped a line to the Taipei Times about this one. Just couldn't help myself.
UPDATE: 8/25 Taiwan News also ran the same story. I am compelled to point out how stupid this explanation is too:

In ancient China farmers developed a system of irrigated agriculture, Nisbett said, in which farmers had to get along with each other to share water and make sure no one cheated. This is especially the case in rice farming, he said.

Western attitudes, on the other hand, developed in ancient Greece where there more smallholders ran individual farms, raising grapes and olives, operating like individual businessmen. Thus, differences in perception go back at least 2000 years, he said.

Hello? Western attitudes have many roots (the barbarians, Rome, the Vikings, the Babylonians...), and selectively choosing among these doth not a coherent explanation make. And further, this comment is just plain ignorant: Mediterranean climates require irrigation and water storage for agriculture, and ancient Greece had plenty of water systems, just as modern Greece does today (see this book). Finally, China had TWO early agricultural regions, and one did not grow rice. It's difficult not to scream when you read such vast ignorance trumpeted on the front pages of major newspapers.

UPDATE: (8/29) Kerim blogs on this at Savage Minds.


Anonymous said...

You are right on, Michael. Many Americans are so clueless about the culture of the US that they actually believe things like, "Relationships in America are simple."

Of course, it doesn't help that virtually the whole world says, "America has no culture." As they read translated (usually) American novels, watch American movies, eat American food, drink American drinks, wear American clothes...

I'm not claiming that US culture is superior, but it definitely exists, and is not inferior to other places' cultures.

Jonathan Benda said...

Great post, Michael. I'm going to have my Intercultural Communication students read this when the semester starts.

Physman_wiu said...

I read this a little earlier today and thought to myself what a load of.... Truly they didn't care to take other cultural intricacies into consideration. I often run into stereotypes here, people just assume that I must not be able to eat Chinese food. They think McDonalds is my food of choice. They assume that I can not cope with the delicacies of a Chinese family's interactions. Hogwash I say.

Red A said...

Excellent analysis...I get exhausted trying to debunk then inscrutable asians who love harmony thesis - must be an offshoot of noble savage.

I especially like your "stand on a street corner" alien would come out with a different perspective for sure on each culture.

Anonymous said...

Yet another lovely work of pseudoscience by social "scientist".

kevin said...

I feel the same way about this line of research, but unfortunately Nisbett is a very well-known and respected scientist and he has a fairly large body of research supporting his conclusions.

And contrary to what you claimed, he has in fact shown that Asian Americans are more "wholistic" than Caucasian Americans. His book gives an overview of the research and addresses many of the issues you've raised (I never made my way all the way through it).

Despite how ridiculous his explanations may sound, someone needs to show that his actual research is flawed, or do some studies that come up with different conclusions. Otherwise it's just like saying, "Both a particle and a wave?! That's ridiculous!" Sometimes science shows us things that are hard to believe.

Michael Turton said...

I must not have been clear. It is NOT his findings I am disputing. It's his monumentally naive, ignorant, and ethnocentric construction of them, full of demonstratable errors. The difference between the two groups in his study may well be due to culture, but his explanation is clearly wrong as it stands.


Anonymous said...

Nisbett is well-known, but his methods are pure pop-psych. Debunking this sort of pseudo-science is a waste of time. If you believe his analysis, you probably did before reading. But for those of a sceptical turn of mind, especially about modern shibboleths like race, it just doesn't hold water.

Jubmele said...

I can agree to several of your points here, but I had to laugh when I came to where you compare Chinese and American street corners... The American traffic may look more orderly to you, but that's only because the kind of order that rules the Chinese traffic is unfamiliar to you.

I live in Italy where you'd think people get killed or hurt in the traffic all the time the way they drive. However, there are just as few accidents here as in Sweden where I come from and where city traffic runs similarly to the American. The Italians just have different ways of doing things. They have the same amount of control as Swedes and American have, but to the untrained eye it looks (and sounds!!!) like absolute chaos.

When in Italy, remember the unwritten rule: The red light is just a suggestion. Slow down, look around and make your own judgements. It's the traffic that decides (the big picture), not the lights (yhe details). Actually, it's stopping for red light like a good American (or Swede) that can get you killed.


Michael Turton said...

The American traffic may look more orderly to you, but that's only because the kind of order that rules the Chinese traffic is unfamiliar to you.

Are you on crack? I've been living here since 1989! The "order" here is quite familiar to me, in my daily drive to work, in the dents and scratches on my vehicle, and in the body bags my students are brought home in periodically. Naive comparisons like yours -- "it's their order and its different from ours" fail to penetrate beneath the surface to ask what the two different types of 'order' mean and how they are experienced by the people who are in them every day (not to mention what they reveal about the structure of power in each culture). The "order" that prevails in Taiwan traffic is not a "harmonious" order, Jub. To give only one example, if the road suddenly narrows due to a car parked without regard for the needs of others -- a common practice here is that if enough room for one car is left, that is OK -- in the US and in Taiwan, in which country do people expect to take turns passing through the bottleneck? What does that reveal about the underlying expectations and definitions of "harmony" in each society?


Stephen C. Carlson said...

Just taking a peek on your other blogs Michael and wanted to say that I loved this post.

(By the way, there are two completely different systems of water rights in effect in the U.S., so the illustration is not only historically bogus as you pointed out but also currently bogus.)