Monday, December 06, 2010

The weirdest people

By way of the Danish, a pointer to an article by Canadians that concludes with how a lot of American research about human behaviour is wrong. Well, it may conclude that European and Asian research is wrong too, but since they haven't really checked that, who knows.

The important thing with this article is how it talks about generalisation. So much of the research done in the United States is done on first year students. This means it's done on a very narrow group of people, with very specific views and cultural background. An example they give is the relationship to death. Americans have, according to the researchers cited at, a fundamentally different approach to death than Europeans and people in other cultures. The fear of death is much higher, something which influences the entire society.

When I have stayed in the United States I have felt that very clearly: The sense of being in an alien culture. I thought I would find something familiar, due to language and how we all feel we "know" USA, but oh dear, I was so wrong. An English friend who worked out of New York in a highly international firm told me how Americans are more xenophobic than even the Japanese, and how in their line of business they were quite reluctant to hire Americans due to this.

This kind of connects to my thoughts about English as a "lingua franca" for research, something which of course makes it very easy for American research to spread through the world, but put all non-English speaking people at a distinct disadvantage when going in the other direction. It is a mechanisms that helps maintaining the illusion that we are all similar, because we have to learn how to communicate not only in a language Americans can ready, but also through concepts understandable in an English language culture.

An experience which was an eye-opener to me was when I published this article. I had originally used class to describe differences which would create communication problems within a culture, but I was told that I should not use class but ethnicity, because class wasn't really relevant (in the US). I compromised by using gender, which worked, but the experience was quite shocking. I never thought (and still don't think) there can be a culture where class isn't relevant. For instance, I suspect that a lot of ethnic conflict is also a struggle of class, and the strive for acceptance and respect isn't only about skin colour, but also about making a class journey. This is a fundamental paradigm for anybody who have grown up in an academic tradition heavily influenced by marxism, and while I may be wrong, it highlights the differences between Scandinavia and the USA.

On this background "the weirdest people" is a very important contribution to the discussion of western research, and I guess I should go looking to see if there's a library near me with access to Behavioral and Brain Sciences at Cambridge journals.


Klepsacovic said...

America is simultaneously the most and least accepting place in the world. We have plenty of xenophobes, but at the same time, anyone can become an American, since there is no consistent racial component to America beyond a generic "white people".

Class in America exists, but it's not quite as clear and not really given much thought. We don't like the idea of class because of two problems: first off the concept is undemocratic. Second, acknowledging class is a small step towards taking seriously the ideas of Marx, which isn't very popular here.

But more to the point, this reminded me of some reports I heard about how well-meaning American therapists are going abroad to teach and in the process spreading our ideas of what a mental illness is. For example, here we think of anorexia as based on appearance, desire to be thin and inability to accurately perceive one's own body. But in (pardon if I mix up locations) Hong Kong what looked like anorexia was explained by the girls as a problem with the physical act of swallowing, that their throats were too tight or similar explanations. This was all self-reported from girls, not doctors' theories. That is, until Americans explained that no no, it is about thinness, and then before long girls were reporting that they were not eating because they wanted to be thin. said...

Did you really notice, during your time in the US, that Americans are more worried about death than (say) Norwegians?

Perhaps I'm provincial, but my experience has been that I need to know someone awfully well to have any idea at all of whether or not they're frightened of dying. It's just not something that you talk about over lunch. (And, for that matter, it's not something people are always honest about.)

Indeed, reading this passage, I was expecting the opposite polarity -- the generalization that your average American college student assumes that she's gonna live forever (I'm gonna learn how to fly!), where the her counterpart in Paris or Prague might be much more deeply engaged with Big Questions Of Existence.

If I were your editor, I might have steered you away from class in this discussion, too, if your audience included many Americans. First, American education remains very weak when it comes to Marxism, and even educated people who consider themselves Marxist often know very little about it. More important, though, is that class in the US remains enormously convoluted. It's convoluted everywhere now, of course, but in the US the convolution is normal and thoroughly internalized. We've always had rich and powerful people who were working class (Daniel Boone, U. S. Grant, Dick Nixon), elites with no money (Hannah Adams, Thoreau, your average professor), and an awful lot of interstitials. Where do you put Sam Goldwyn, Lauren Bacall, Groucho Marx, or Donald Trump? Where do Booker Washington, Jane Addams, Mary Lyon, or Damon Runyan fit? Fussell's book on _Class_ is lots of fun, though also aging. But it's hard to get this right, and easy to get things wrong in a way that would distract readers, much as this paragraph has distracted me!

Torill said...

Mark, no, I never discussed fear of death with Americans. The researchers who wrote the article I refer to read the research which has been done on it, though. I did however note several other cultural differences. What it is accepted to talk about on the street and what is not. The way city centers are empty of anything but restaurants and liqouer stores. How nobody walks anywhere, and how it marks you as a freak if you do, causing people to stop and investigate. How children are never casually naked, and how the showers in gyms have individuals doors, so women won't see each others' naked bodies, hardly even removing the bathing suits to shower - while the Japanese are meticulous about scrubbing and drying and cleaning their naked bodies, and don't worry the least about being nude with other women.

All of these things are signs of other differences, fears and preferences, traditions and taboos. America isn't Europe, Europe isn't America, and to assume that research done on American first year students is universally valid is a problem.

As for class: don't assume class is simple in Europe, just because it's differently complex in the US. Each nationality has its own tradition and history, and class in Norway isn't class in Britain or in Germany. And I did change the article to suit the editors, I didn't refuse to adjust it just to suit my Scandinavian social democrat heart. But that is exactly the point: These things have different value and different meaning in different societies, and so we are back to the universally valid issue, again.