August 12, 2008

David Brooks goes to the Olympics opening ceremony and contemplates economics.

David Brooks sorts human societies into individualistic and collectivist. He premises this categorization on some psychological studies that supposedly show that "Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts." I'm extremely skeptical of findings like that, but Brooks assures us that "experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern." For example, asked to describe what they see when looking at a fish tank, Americans talk about "the biggest fish" and Chinese talk about "the context in which the fish swim," whatever that means.

When I read things like that, I feel like the context in which I swim is bullshit. I want to know more about these tests so I can try to pick them apart. And maybe societies can be sorted into ones that where people see the results of purportedly scientific tests and want to check the methodology and ones where people defer to experts and swallow things whole — or am I somehow being American and individualistic?

Brooks wants to talk about economics:
[I]ndividualistic societies have tended to do better economically. We in the West have a narrative that involves the development of individual reason and conscience during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and then the subsequent flourishing of capitalism. According to this narrative, societies get more individualistic as they develop.

But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? What happens if collectivist societies, especially those in Asia, rise economically and come to rival the West? A new sort of global conversation develops.

The opening ceremony in Beijing was a statement in that conversation. It was part of China’s assertion that development doesn’t come only through Western, liberal means, but also through Eastern and collective ones.
Is this a new conversation? I thought this is a conversation we've been having for at least a century. Also, didn't China take its economic theory from the Western tradition?

Brooks is in China, at the Olympics, so he needs to do his column on China and weave in whatever material he's gathering by being over there:
The ceremony drew from China’s long history, but surely the most striking features were the images of thousands of Chinese moving as one — drumming as one, dancing as one, sprinting on precise formations without ever stumbling or colliding.
Eh. Here in Madison, Wisconsin, not traveling at all, I sit at my desk and hear the strains of the University of Wisconsin marching band practicing a few blocks away. They're always playing as one, marching in formation. Are they Chinese? It seems to me, people can get together and put on an orderly display when they want to. Does Brooks really want to say that the Chinese people are just much more likely to want to than Americans?
We’ve seen displays of mass conformity before, but this was collectivism of the present — a high-tech vision of the harmonious society performed in the context of China’s miraculous growth.
There's that word "context" again. Look out, you're soaking in it. What on earth is Brooks saying here? Yes, I know, he got to go to the opening ceremony of the Olympics, and he had to think about what to write in his next column, but he's looking at a synchronous crowd and presuming the human beings in it just naturally act that way all the time — and not because the government enforces it, but because that's the kind of people they are. That's not just ridiculous. It's offensive.

But read on, Brooks is writing toward a punchline, and he expects readers to take his bait for a few more paragraphs.


Peter V. Bella said...

New York Times+David Brooks=Boring.

And here I thought the Olympics was about sports. What some people will do to get a free ticket and lodging to China.

MadisonMan said...

I can't read David Brooks. His shirt and tie hurt my eyes.

And I agree with m.c.guy -- he seems to write just to put words on paper. And that style of writing bores me.

Christy said...

It is a happiness I do not desire.

I thought rats, when forced to live together in great numbers began to turn on each other. I guess that means I'm more a rat than a collectivist.

Richard Fagin said...

Yes, we've had this conversation before, many times. Remember when Japan, Inc. advised Americans to stick to agriculture an forget about manufacturing? Remember when Germany was going to destroy the American automobile business? Oh yeah, Airbus was supposed to kill off Boeing, too as I recall.

"I've seen the future, and it works." The ghost of Walter Duranty lives on at the Times.

Unknown said...

I assume he must have felt a lot of "energy" at the opening ceremonies.

Randy said...

Mr. Brooks obviously did little, if any, research before writing this article. Had he done so, had he even gone walkabout in Beijing, he would have recognized that China has become a world leader in income disparity. Harmonious collectivism had nothing to do with it.

bleeper said...

Where did China go for the CGI expertise they used to spice up the opening ceremonies? Either they went to the West and hired someone or they stole the technology.

Martin Gale said...

"I've seen the future, and it works." The ghost of Walter Duranty lives on at the Times.

I believe this commie simp nugget is attributed to Lincoln Steffens. Correct sentiment, wrong credulous sap.

Unknown said...

If you're going to stereotype - you might as well do it right. The Chinese are not collectivist. They are some of the most capitalist individuals in the world. Just look at the success of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and all of the Chinese who live in the West. Want to see a bunch of entrepreneurs - then go to any Chinatown.

China has now become capitalist. That's why it's doing well.

Now imagine 1.3 billion people with the per capita income of a Hong Kong or a Singapore. That is a force to be reckoned with.

ricpic said...

Yes, all Wisconsin band members are secret Chinese!

Automatic_Wing said...

Formulaic punditry at its hacky worst. Just take a column someone wrote in 1987 or so, substitute "China" for "Japan" and your work for the week is done.

AllenS said...

Conical shaped cheesehead hats for the band members?

Beth said...

I took the bait but all I found is Brooks babbles.

Icepick said...

Brooks' punchline was lame. You should ad "lameness" as one of the tags.

Randy said...

Beth, Babbling Brooks are all the rage this season!

Richard said...

Years ago, David Brooks mistook sociology for philosophy. He still hasn't discovered his error. That's why his columns often are -- as E.B. White said of Hemingway's writing -- like the farting of an old horse. Except that Brooks is beyond mere flatus. He delivers plenty of good solid horse shit.

dpoyesac said...

I can't attest to Brooks use of these ideas, since I have more important things to do than read his columns. But a good place to start on the psychology of the "figure/ground versus the contextual" ways of seeing & thinking is Richard Nisbett's The Geography of Thought. It's a popularizing of work he's been doing for a while now, but the particular test results he discusses have been found to be robustly reproducible. The real controversy (as in everything scientific) is what they imply.

One plausible way of putting things is this: the way particular individuals will interpret information will vary along a spectrum, from an extreme focus on figure/ground at one end to the extremely contextual at the other. Cultures, however, may privilege one way over the other. Nisbett (probably overly simplistically) traces the differences between East and West to the cultural influence of Confucius and Aristotle respectively.

Be careful, Ms. Althouse: ethno-epistemology is one of the most vibrant, interesting and crazy-making areas of philosophy & psychology at the moment. It leads to a deep rabbit hole.

Chip Ahoy said...

pictures of a chicken, a cow and hay and asked the subjects to pick out the two that go together,

Ha ha ha ha ha, oh blast, let's just make this simple, Ha X 30³

Nyaaa tick tick tick tick , what and ul-ta-ruh maroon

They all go together. On a farm. The chicken and cow go together because they're both animals and hay is vegetable matter. The cow eats hay, but the hen lays eggs in a hay nest. All three can be put in a barn. Both animals poop in hay fields fertilizing it. You can eat chicken soup whilst sitting on a hay bail admiring the magnificent cow. You can rotate hay fields, first cows that mow the field then chickens that eat the crickets kicked up by cows for the most amazing free-range chickens ever. You can stack up hay bails to form a chicken coop. You can use hay in the stucco of your farm house near the cow field where chickens hide their eggs. You can make omelets with cheese from the cow and eggs from the hen in your hay-stucco house. You could tip a sleeping cow in a hay field and smash chicken eggs unfortunately laid in the field. The chicken can have fun riding the cow around the hay field. You can have an egg fight across a hay stack. You can have steak and eggs with chicken salad wondering if your hay field is getting enough rain this year. You can use chicken feathers to make Christmas decorations for the cow that's living in the hay barn because it's winter. This farm-related triangulation appears to be endless and Richard Nisbett cited by David Brooks to make his point lacks imagination with his absurdly narrow line of questioning.

Godot said...

Now imagine 1.3 billion people with the per capita income of a Hong Kong or a Singapore. That is a force to be reckoned with.

Now imagine a society of 1.3 billion where only 20% enjoy the per capita income of a Hong Kong, while the remaining 1.1 billion are exploited into a per capita income somewhere between Romania and Zaire.

That is also a force to be reckoned with.

dpoyesac said...

Wow, the power of the click-through, huh? I had no idea that Brooks cited Nisbett explicitly or described some of the experiments. So... my previous comments were... uninformative at best, huh?

The problem Brooks is making isn't just that he's using Nisbett's research to make a political point. It's that he assumes a facile, surface understanding of complex research can directly support his own particular viewpoint.

Nisbett's stuff is undeniably cool, especially if you read his original research. Turns out that the difference between East and West isn't just verbal: in experiments where subjects had to manipulate objects against a moving background, Westerners had a distinctly better ability to differentiate between the object and its background. It's possible to empirically measure the impact of these cultural differences on a person's ability to physically interact with objects. I think that's just crazy-cool.

But it is a huge leap -- a leap of pure, bizarre faith without any ground in real, empirical evidence -- to think that these micro-level differences could lead to macro-level conflict between economic or political systems. Everyone ought to be deeply suspicious of such a leap.

bearbee said...

I thought this is a conversation we've been having for at least a century...

Here is a 1959 good give and take Mike Wallace interview with Ayn Rand who holds without compromise to her individualist philosophy
Part 1

Part 2

bearbee said...

Part 3

Fred said...

So you think Brooks is talking about Obama?

blake said...

I'm reminded of Keith Chandler's Beyond Civilization, where he talks about the four mindsets, and their relationship to order.

In the West, for example, order is considered good and non-order is considered bad.

But he'd say that the Sinic mind thinks that order is good, as is non-order, in balance.

It's the Indic mind that views order as bad and non-order as good.

Which leaves the poor Amerind mind to believe that both order and non-order are bad.

Not saying I agree with him, but I think he was looking at stuff honestly, as opposed to grinding a political axe.

marklewin said...

Ann wrote: I want to know more about these tests so I can try to pick them apart. And maybe societies can be sorted into ones that where people see the results of purportedly scientific tests and want to check the methodology and ones where people defer to experts and swallow things whole — or am I somehow being American and individualistic?

Has anybody ever told you that you've got an incredibly intuitive grasp of psychology? Surely, I cannot be the only one who has encountered you that has been more than just a little bit impressed by your capacity to artfully and intelligently cut through the psychological crap and get to the core (if there is a core). Ann, you can pass me the onion rings and carrots anytime.

Ann Althouse said...

Here, Terrance.

rhhardin said...

According to Vicki Hearne, cultures differ in how quickly they can believe things.

A career in communications is furthered if you can believe things quickly.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Hoh said...

I heard that there are a lot of marching bands in Illinois. Obama is from Illinois. Therefore, Obama has a collectivist vision for America that will destroy our economy. Vote McCain.

ForestGirl said...

I don't think the marching band comparison is a fair one. In a marching band, some people are playing flute, oboe, tuba, Souzaphone, clarinet, snare drums, other drums. Even within the flute section, say, probably two or three parts are being played. Meanwhile, dancers are dancing and twirlers are twirling.

I noticed the same thing as David Brooks during the opening ceremony: the spectacle achieved the power that it did from the enormous numbers of people doing exactly the same thing.

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