Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Does Culture Matter?

Written by johnleemk on 5:39:55 am Dec 25, 2007.
Categories: ,

It is all too easy to forget how important culture is. "Culture" conjures up in our heads things like Spanish telenovelas, French cuisine, and Shakespeare. But culture is more than that. Culture consists of the often implied and unspoken rules people adhere to. These rules determine the amount of drama that goes into telenovelas, the dishes prepared by a French restaurant, and the content of a Shakespearean tragedy — but they also determine the schools we go to, the things we buy, and the professions we take up.

Is there any other explanation for why the typical American Jewish kid goes to university, while the typical American black kid goes to jail? Is there really another explanation for why the typical Singaporean kid aspires to attend Harvard or Cambridge, while the typical Indonesian kid aspires to just have a real job?

Of course there are other explanations. One such explanation might be genetics — the Jews and East Asians have higher IQs, while the rest of the world languishes behind. But although this disparity does show up in IQ tests, studies show that everyone's IQ is increasing with the passage of time, and that the gap between different ethnic groups has been narrowing. There certainly should not be a genetic predisposition for criminal or antisocial behaviour — at the very least, no study has convincingly shown this to be the case.

Economists generally do not believe in culture — they are more likely to attribute these differences to discrimination of some sort, which would affect the incentives for different people in different ways, causing them to behave differently. But although this explanation has a good deal of merit — a middle-class American black student is liable to do much better than his inner-city, ghetto counterpart — it cannot completely explain these differences. Do we seriously believe that from a thousand American blacks, and a thousand Asian-Americans, each group will contribute the same number of Ivy League scholars, and the same number of jailbirds?

When comparing the different outcomes of implementing the market economy in the West and in the East, I came to the conclusion that culture plays a role in economics. If we view culture as a set of rules which people adhere to, we find that culture actually constitutes an incentive — people are likely to behave in accordance with the rules they have been brought up to follow. If we accept that government regulation has an impact on the economy, we have to accept that implicit self-regulation, in accordance with the norms one has been raised to adhere to, also has an impact on the economy. We may not model them exactly the same way, but the fact remains that they have a role to play in determining economic and societal outcomes.

You might have noticed that I have been subtly emphasising education through my examples — that is because education is perhaps the clearest way to illustrate this phenomenon. I attend what is perhaps the least well-known Ivy League university, Dartmouth College. Many of my white friends comment on how few people know what Dartmouth is — and yet, almost every Asian-American I mention my university to instantly recognises it as an Ivy.

There is no gene which would dictate this — heck, I come from the continent of Asia where most people don't know what the Ivy League is, and a lot of people have no innate yearning to memorise the eight most prestigious or historic universities in any country. Neither is there a strong incentive structure predisposing Asians to this — because of affirmative action, most if not all Ivies subtly discriminate against Asian students in admissions, and all other things being equal, there is no huge payoff from an Ivy education that would not likewise accumulate to a white who attended an Ivy League.

The inexorable conclusion is that there is something about Asian-American culture which fuels this obsession with education. Culture is what gives these people an incentive to learn the names of the Ivy League schools.

So does culture matter? It obviously matters a lot. Culture is of great import to everyone, and not just because of Britney Spears or William Shakespeare. Culture doesn't just change societies — it changes lives.

So why is it all too easy to forget this fact? Because dealing with culture is messy and difficult. Every nation is composed of different cultures, separated by different lines, some ethnic and some class-based, some well-defined and some blurry. Governments can offer simplistic (if not too effective) solutions to purely economic or legal issues, like poverty and the crime rate. But governments cannot offer simplistic solutions which touch on culture without offending some important minority, or causing untold negative ramifications. The few governments that accomplish this, such as Singapore's, do so only because of factors specific to their country (e.g. Singapore's small size), and frankly, creep the rest of the world out.

After all, how are you going to change the environment of the homes of your people? How are you going to change the longstanding traditions and norms of whole families and neighbourhoods? How do you make people in the ghetto slums value education the same way people in Chinatown or Little India do? Heck, how do you make middle-to-upper class whites value education the same way Asian-Americans do?

How would you impart the enterprising spirit of the Asian-Americans to their brethren in Asia, some of whom are scared to death of taking risks? How would you impart the emphasis on understanding and actual learning, part of Western culture for centuries, to an Asian population focused on memorisation and teaching to the test?

I don't pretend to have the complicated answers to these questions. I would not be surprised at all if there aren't any answers — at least not if "you" is the government.

One thing we can be certain of about culture, nevertheless, is that it changes, and it changes because of individuals. There may or may not be ways for government to directly influence culture — but at the same time, culture is what we make of it. Culture matters — and what is your contribution to it? Merry Christmas to all the Christians reading, and a belated Eid ul-Adha to all my Muslim readers.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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