Friday 21 June 2013

The Geography of Thought

Richard E. Nisbett, 2003
(June 2013)

God, I hate this book so much.

A chapter in one of this year’s 1st Year textbooks is based on this book. The chapter is called ‘How Asians and Westerners Think Differently’. The countries referenced in the chapter are: America, Korea, China, and Japan.

That’s Asians and Westerners. America, Korea, China, Japan.

It’s fair to say I was not predisposed towards giving this book the benefit of the doubt, and I wasn’t disappointed. Or rather I was, because there is a lot to be said for trying to pin-down, understand, and explain how various cultures and societies tend to view the world around them and their place within it. Christ, look at most of the stuff on this blog or in the blogroll and you’ll see I and any number of other people are trying to get to grips with exactly that.

The Geography of Thought explains nothing. Around that kernel of validity is wrapped a slipshod collection of hearsay, anecdotes, and received wisdom, spiked with cherry-picked research examples that are more often than not poorly explained, insufficiently examined, misrepresented, or just plain misunderstood. It is an I Spy… book of logical fallacies and weak rhetorical devices. It panders to both Western American and Oriental notions of their own exceptionalism and so, far from ‘[having] implications for how East and West can get along better through mutual understanding of mental differences’ (p xx), it merely acts to further reinforce harmful and divisive notions about the fundamental incomprehensibility of The Other. This is being used in a high school textbook, remember.

I have neither the time nor the masochistic tendencies to give a blow-by-blow account of all the wrong in this book so I’m going to focus mainly on the opening few chapters, largely because that was when I still cared enough to pay attention.

We start with a rehash of the Socratic vs Confucian traditions. A reasonable enough place to start, but pretty soon we’re wallowing in a mire of speculation, assumption, and non sequitur. Ancient China is presented as a place where the demands of agriculture and Emperor meant that harmony was all, whereas Ancient Greece was seemingly an Elysium of free-speech, open debate, and pederasty. I may have added that last one myself, but in for a penny with the clichés, eh?

              “Greece’s… maritime location made trading a lucrative occupation, which meant that there was a substantial mercantile class who could afford to have their sons educated. That merchants would have wished to have their sons educated requires explanation in itself, of course, especially because, unlike in China, education was not a route to power and wealth. The drive toward education was apparently the result of curiosity and a belief in the value of knowledge for its own sake.” (p31)

Apparent to whom? The source for this claim is what? Too right it ‘requires an explanation’, but this really isn’t one. Merchants and businessmen aren’t exactly famed for their dewy-eyed romanticism regarding ontology and pedagogy. Prestige and social climbing you say? Pah, who needs those? Tell me more about the ‘value of knowledge for its own sake’…

We then move from this to Western American and Oriental (a word I use advisedly) conceptions of the individual and society and the mutability (or not) of context and situation. Again, not without merit but handled here in such a fuzzy and spurious manner as to totally undermine any worth the argument might have had.

              “The curiosity characteristic of the Greeks may in turn be explained in part by the location of the Greeks at the crossroads of the world. They were constantly encountering novel and perplexing people, customs, and beliefs.” (p32)

              “The ecology of Greece, on the other hand, consisting as it does mostly of mountains descending to the sea, favored [sic] hunting, herding, fishing and trade (and – let’s be frank – piracy). These are occupations that require relatively little cooperation with others.” (p34)

              “…Greeks had the luxury of attending to objects… without being overly constrained by their relations with other people. A Greek could plan a harvest, arrange for a relocation of his herd of sheep, or investigate whether it would be profitable to sell some new commodity consulting little or not at all with others.” (p36)

So we have all these unambitious yet wealthy merchants sending their children to school just for the love of learning, but also apparently able to trade without significant contact or cooperation with others. And ‘constantly encountering novel people’ with whom they would also not interact or consult. Somebody is failing to grasp a fairly fundamental aspect of the concept of ‘trade’ here, I think. I would also note that Greece is hardly unique in “consisting mostly of mountains descending to the sea”.

              “Most westerners, or at any rate most Americans…” (p47)

Yeah. Saw that coming, didn’t you?

              “There is Asian expression that reflects a cultural prejudice against individuality: “The peg that stands out is pounded down.”(p48)

This formulation of this metaphor doesn’t even work. How did the peg ‘stand out’? Was it on parade with all the other pegs? Was it wearing a particularly loud shirt? Had it dyed its hair or got an inappropriate facial piercing? Everyone who’s come to Japan will have heard the phrase, ‘The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,’ which at least makes a literal kind of sense and has that nice up/down contrast working for it. The misquote is only a little thing but is symptomatic of the kind of half-baked, badly assimilated assumptions that riddle the book. The hammering/pounding is also not universally accepted as a good thing even by ‘Asians’, and we certainly don’t have an equivalent idiom in The West, eh?

              “It’s revealing that the word for self esteem in Japanese is serufu estiimu. There is no indigenous term that captures the concept of feeling good about oneself.” (p54)

Bollocks. And furthermore: bollocks.

The ‘No word for X’ trope is such horseshit anyway. What are we supposed to make of the fact that there is no ‘indigenous term’ in Japanese for defenestrate? That they are such a peaceful, placid people that such actions are never performed? That they have insufficiently developed arm musculature and are thus incapable of throwing objects with the necessary force? That they find very concept of a ‘window’ invalid as it suggests a permeable barrier between in and out in a way that conflicts directly with their worldview?

              “Japanese children are taught how to practice self-criticism both in order to improve their relations with others and to become more skilled in solving problems.” (p55)

Please stop.

              “Sushi chefs and math [sic] teachers are not regarded as coming into their own until they’ve been at their jobs for a decade. Throughout their careers, in fact, Japanese teachers are observed and helped by their peers to become better at their jobs. Contrast this with the American practice of putting teachers’ college graduates into the classroom after a few months of training and then leaving them alone to succeed or not, to the good or ill fortune of a generation of students.” (ibid)

No, seriously, stop. This is just fucking painful now. I’m completely unqualified to speak to teacher training in America, but it’s clear that Prof. Nesbitt is just as ignorant about the reality of Japanese practice.

              “These very different outlooks regularly produce international misunderstandings. The Japanese-Australian “sugar contract” case in the mid-1970s provides a particularly dramatic example. Japanese sugar refiners contracted with Australian suppliers to provide them with sugar over a period of six years at the price of $160 per ton. But shortly after the contract was signed, the value of sugar on the world market dropped dramatically. The Japanese thereupon asked for a renegotiation of the contract on the grounds that circumstances had changed radically. But to the Australians, the agreement was binding, regardless of circumstances, and they refused to consider any changes.”  (p66)

What the gibbering fuck? Here we are presented, seemingly with a straight face, with the proposition that people don’t like getting screwed in business dealings as evidence of ‘very different outlooks’. Because of course had the roles been reversed the Australians would have just rolled over and happily consented to getting fucked up the arse due to a contractual technicality, famous as they are for their diffidence, reserve, and unwillingness to offend.

              “There is more regularity even than that. Someone has said, “The Idea moves west,”” (p69)

Someone said that, did they? That’s good enough for me. Attribution is for pussies.

From here the passage of the Greek ontological tradition skips a millennium or so and the entirety of continental Europe because reasons, and we begin a number of chapters primarily about college students in Michigan. Sure, they’re presented as being more all-encompassing in scope but they deal largely with experimental data and, as with most experimental data in the social sciences, the most readily available test subjects are college and university students. It’s a tendency that has been noted before and, absent either proper funding or proper motivation, one that’s hardly unique to psychology or whatever branch of the academic tree this work hangs off whilst over-ripening to the point of decay (it’s certainly not geography; on that if nothing else I really am qualified to offer opinion).

In this instance though, it’s a particularly damaging manifestation of selection bias. Given this is a work focusing on prevailing modes of thought and perception it’s hard to think of a single body of subjects who would be more heavily preselected to exhibit – to the greatest possible extreme – precisely the most conditioned and codified modes of thought and inquiry in their respective societies than undergraduate students at elite universities. These are test subjects who will likely have received continuous formal education for the preceding decade or more, have been proven to respond to it significantly better than average, and have little or no meaningful life experience beyond school and academia to act as a diluent.

You wouldn’t use a sample of varsity athletes as a basis for extrapolating to the health level of an entire culture, and surely cognition is even more central to the whole tertiary education experience? Drawing conclusions about the way a wider population thinks about the world from these sample groups is like drawing conclusions on average physical fitness and bravery based purely on a sample of firefighters, or honesty and probity based on a sample of journalists, politicians, and used-car salesmen.

I pretty much stopped paying attention at this point, though I should give a special mention to the chapter on language. Sapir-Whorf gets a tediously predictable run out, and we also have this absolute gem, which I shall close with because it best exemplifies the most fatal flaw of the book–

“English words are relatively distinctive[!] and English speakers in addition are concerned to make sure that words and utterance require as little context as possible[?!]. The linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath has shown that middle-class American parents quite deliberately attempt to decontextualize language as much as possible for their children. (p157, emphasis added)

The gif that keeps on gifing.

That’s it. That’s all the evidence offered to support the claim that English speakers everywhere actively seek to minimize the contextual dependency of their utterances: some parents speak simply to their children.

That kind of overgeneralization is endemic throughout and is the single most glaring weakness of The Geography of Thought. There are interesting ideas here. There are thoughtful and innovative examples of specific research here. There is at no point anything even approaching a sufficiently rigorous or persuasive link between the two at the massively general pan-civilizational level being claimed. One swallow does not a summer make, whether you attend to the bird itself or the clouds above.


  1. "Bollocks. And furthermore: bollocks."

    Why even write this book? Just put "The Chrysanthemum and The Sword" inside a new cover with a chapter tacked on the end comparing that tripe with presumptions based on one American university student body's social media profile.

    Besides my general contempt for psychology as being less rigorous than science, and less profound than philosophy, and all of the flaws you have pointed to in the book, the wrong person has written it. I won't deign to spend time researching him, but he is a 'Westerner' and almost certainly American. Hello, bias? Hello, deep enculturation? The right author would need to be alien, but at least neither 'Asian' nor 'Western' (as a philosophy grad I shake my head at the futility of defining those two terms). I have happily shared, in print and in person, my generalities and anecdotes about the differences between my cultural experiences at home and abroad, but I am aware that even quasi-omniscient I am an 'unreliable narrator'.

    1. Thought this might be of interest to you.

      The bias is almost all the other way, the 'Asian' holistic approach is presented as just so much more meaningful and sophisticated, look at what we overly literal big-noses could learn if we just looked at the larger picture etc etc and so on. He does occasionally give a token nod to how having entirely contextually dependent notions of right and wrong might not always be a good thing, but it's pretty clear where his loyalties lie. I don't want to use the word 'Quisling' but it looks like I just have.

      Only quasi-omniscient then? Come come, we're all friends here, no need for any false modesty ;)

    2. No point in denying arrogance I fail to 'hide under a bushel'.

      Plenty of those yellow-tainted quislings around, and not a little of 'Orientalism' has ever been thus... oriented. Generalizing virtues to an entire population is also insulting in its essentializing way, even when we've been the recipients of its carnal benefits.

  2. Can we all get together and gang-bash the author? Please?

    1. Blimey, Thank god for the letters S and H. That sentence looked to be going in a whole other direction for a minute there...

  3. “Japanese children are taught how to practice self-criticism both in order to improve their relations with others and to become more skilled in solving problems.” (p55)"

    It's amazing what gets published. I'm kinda speechless.

    And I am far from a jack booted Grammar Nazi since I'm a grammatical Jew that is in need of extermination...(that sounds wrong)

    "especially because,"

    I don't like this. I would automatically recommend something different. That pair sounds like it is just sounds not good.

    Weird what things annoy us but that pair would be broken up....before I was gassed and thrown on some pile...I'll stop now ;)

    1. "...(that sounds wrong)"

      Gee, y'think?

      'Especially because' didn't really jump out at me as the most annoying part of this book, as you can no doubt tell. But now you mention it it does sound a little off, not least because of all the commas he sprinkled around it in that sentence. This is really going to bug me now.

      I'm off to practice some self-criticism now in the hopes of figuring out how to solve this problem. I'll let you know how it goes ;)

    2. in itself, of course, especially because, unlike in China,


      **pulls out,sniper rifle,climbs,to,roof,of,building***

  4. I remember during my first year here in Japan as an ALT, a well-read teacher at one of my schools said he really appreciated "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword." He only had a Japanese copy at the time, so I bought a copy at Maruzen and read it that weekend. We talked about it a few times after that and I was glad for the exchange, but now, after nearly a decade here, not only have I lost touch with the way things are back home, I've become quite convinced that ten years can see a dramatic change in culture in any country. All that generalizing that I read in books like that just gives me the shits.
    I did enjoy "Dogs and Demons," though.

    1. Not read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Not sure if I really want to. At least with older stuff like that you can more easily dismiss it as 'of it's time'. Dunno if that's always fair, but there you.

      I read Dogs and Demons about a decade ago and yeah, it was pretty good. It did at least have the advantage of being specific. Mostly about construction, as I recall...

  5. I'm very glad that you read that and not me. I wonder if the author's head would explode if he spent a day in my hybrid house? I'm still reeling about the teacher's bit too. Yeah, here in America we just march straight to the classroom from college and never train or even vaguely consider our roles as teachers ever again. And those Japanese, who would never consider tossing a dewy-faced recent grad into a room full of slavering eighth graders.
    And don't get me started on "Asian," since, you know, those Chinese and Japanese are just peas in a pod.... I may not, however, join with Kathryn and her gang... oh wait, nevermind.

    1. It's just nasty from start to finish. Fortunately I'm not going to have to teach from that textbook. I think I should really try to act as a counterweight, but it'll be hard not to just descend into a rant no-one wants to listen to. Which would sort of miss the point.