Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cultures Merging

I admire the work of economic historian Eric Jones. So it was with some pleasure I took possession of his latest book, Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture. Particularly as I had been doing some writing and thinking on the public policy implications of cultural diversity (partly as a result of some empirical results from the housing consultancy work I had previously done). I read a considerable slab of the book eating a kangaroo lasagne in a café with a very English name (The Gravy Train) run by an Austrian immigrant in one of the most ethnically diverse areas (Footscray region of Melbourne). Which was very apposite, given the books is very much interested in the ways cultures adjust, interpenetrate and change.

I find Eric Jones’ general analytical approach congenial. History matters, incentives matter, selection pressures are central to understanding what happens. There is no cognitive elite who just know what is right. Such claims are typically self-serving.

Cultures Merging is a serious attempt to grapple with understanding how to analyse the causal significance of culture. There are many difficulties to deal with, starting with how to accurately observe culture in operation. Prof. Jones argues against both cultural nullity (culture as causally irrelevant epiphenomenon) and cultural fixity (cultures as continuing unchanging).
The first part of the book is about analysis of culture. Thus Prof. Jones discusses the revival of cultural explanations among scholars (including some economists), analyses cultures as fluid and sticky, as tending towards mediocrity (due to limited selection pressures), the ways in which they merge and interaction with institutions.

There are lots of striking observations—such as citing an analysis pointing out Christianity encouraged behaviour patterns which made life easier for the urban poor in the Roman Empire (Pp 94-5). Or citing an estimate that, prior to railroads, land transport was typically 15 times dearer than water-borne transport (p.88). Information and travel costs are clearly important to the way cultures evolve. Larger language areas have definite advantages. He notes that the more recently settled regions (the Americas and New Guinea) have about half the surviving languages (p.93). Falling information costs are clearly very important in modern trends in cultures.

Prof. Jones notes that it was the rise of a reading public (already clearly expanding) which gave the printing press’s arrival in Europe such an impact (p.100). Longstanding Chinese advantages in disseminating farming techniques dissipated once significant numbers of European farmers could read for themselves (p.101). He regards the striking thing about American culture being its syncretism which, coupled with powerful means of dissemination, generates fears of cultural contamination by others (Pp 86-7).

Prof. Jones politely disagrees with the “California school” which seeks to downplay European achievement and boost China, noting some conceptual problems and contrary empirical evidence (Pp 112ff). Such as indications of superior European economic performance prior to industrialisation (Pp 113-114). He is particularly impressed by the rise in Europe of the rational search for novelty (Pp 116-117). He is kinder to Hobson than I am, but Prof. Jones concentrates on substantive critique rather than Hobson’s sillier indulgences.

Prof. Jones notes that the West achieved a level of impersonal, decentralised institutions in excess of other civilisations. Which provided major advantages. But the continuing expansion of centralised institutions is resulting in increased resources being applied to compliance and monitoring, including the absorption of talent by bureaucracies. He is concerned that too much law may undermine social order (P. 132).

The second part of the book is concerned with commentary, a survey of the present. Prof. Jones covers cultures of immigration, East Asia’s experience, cultural responses to economic changes plus cultural protectionism.

He notes that the US is more ecologically variant than Europe and regional divergences on attitudes to public policy are generally greater than between European nations, something concealed by a common language (P. 138).

He argues against continuity as default assumption. He sees the American melting pot as continuing, just not an instantaneous process (P.148), an instance of the problem that cultural change can be hard to observe. He regards Australia as clearly an immigration success story, examining in particular the very high rates of intermarriage (P. 155).

Prof. Jones notes Japan’s willingness to put Japanese forms on Western ideas and analyses the relatively recent origins of various aspects of Chinese business culture in terms of adaptations to pathologies of the Chinese state (P. 168ff).

While very much generally in favour of choice and opportunity, he notes that such things are not necessarily costless. For example, seven centuries of decline in the rate of violence in Britain started to reverse from 1950 (Pp 200ff). He notes the evidence that Europe is a secularist oddity (Pp 202ff) rather than falling religious practice being the “natural” social outcome of modernisation. He suggests that the West’s (and particularly the US’s) cultural omnipresence may be a major cause of Muslim-Western tension, noting the lack of Muslim resentment of East Asian success (Pp 208ff). Acknowledgiong the disaster area that is Middle East/Arab government, he is sceptical of explanations in terms of “Islam” (Pp 210ff). While Prof. Jones considers that doctrinal rigidity may have some effect (Pp 212) he notes that the West triumphed in the cultural struggle of the Cold War (P.213) and sees the problems of Arab countries as being amenable to better public policy (P.218).

Prof. Jones cites Hitler and Stalin as experts at the politics of exclusion on grounds of alleged incompatibility (P.242), He displays considerable scepticism about the claims for cultural protectionism and cites evidence that commercial/private provision is perfectly capable of supporting high levels of cultural provision, including high culture (Pp 244ff).

Considering Prof. Jones’ comments on the cultural vibrancy of the West, and the US in particular, the low state of much of contemporary academe seemed a counter-example. But, then, academe is not actually a counterexample, because it is the classic milieu for ideas protected from consequences (i.e. suffering poor, even perverse, selection pressures). A point which, in a more general form about wealthy Western societies, Prof. Jones notes himself, particularly in his conclusion (P.266)—amusing for me since I often point out to students that, being a wealthy society, we can afford almost any level of stupidity.

Prof. Jones concludes by arguing that cultural analysis must proceed on the basis of considering a wide range of examples and keeping a particular eye on dynamic effects, rather than comparing paired cases and working from social snapshots. Look closely, and it is the variety (both within and between) and (at times astonishingly swift) variability of culture which is striking. Prof. Jones concludes that while culture may act as a brake or a filter, it is unlikely to be an active cause of change.

This is not a book offering a high level of theoretical abstraction. Rather is a very informative aid to thinking more precisely and more intelligently about culture.

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