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Populist anthropology

Tom McCarthy’s hilarious recent novel, Satin Island, features an anthropologist who works for a global entrepreneur of ideas. His boss wants him to write The Great Report. “The Book. The First and Last Word on our age … It’s what you anthropologists are for, right?”

McCarthy’s fictional anthropologist is overwhelmed by this commission. The entrepreneur should have turned to Clotaire Rapaille and André Roemer. They are real-life exponents of his programme. For heaven’s sake, as they remind their readers several times, they met in Davos. Rapaille, the blurb tells us, “is a marketing expert – drawing on psychology and anthropology in his research – and the CEO and founder of Archetype Discoveries Worldwide.” Roemer, “a diplomat, entrepreneur, playwright and academic”, is CEO of La Ciudad de las Ideas.

The two men have done fieldwork all over the globe. They discovered that people are not the same everywhere. In France the key word is “think”, in the USA it is “do”.  When Americans want something, they just buy it – “that is their culture: a consumer culture”. Even Europeans are not alike. “It is very interesting to see that, for example, German opera is very different from Italian opera.” “While studying seduction for L’Oréal it became clear that ‘seduction’ in Germany is not the same as ‘seduction’ in Italy. Studying cleanliness for Proctor & Gamble, it became obvious that the Germans are very clean, whereas the Indians and Chinese are not so clean … We studied concepts of sense, sensuality and seduction for Firmenich, L’Oréal and Estée Lauder. We explored sex and sexuality for Trojan and Johnson & Johnson.”

Not only do they know the world, they have big ideas. And they are not content with conventional wisdom. They develop their own understanding of evolution and genetics. “Ever since man first showed off his genitals to women in the middle of the jungle to signal his availability for coitus, we have always been trying to show off, to be better, to move up.” That is human nature. “Our genetic program is not just about survival, it’s about evolving throughout our lifetime, becoming better.”

They also have their own take on neuroscience. They discover that the brain has three levels, the primitive reptilian, the cultural limbic and the civilized cortex – and “the reptilian always wins”. “The reptilian brain is what motivated the surviving Uruguayan rugby players to eat the remains of their fellow team-mates when no other food source was available. It’s what inspires Silvio Berlusconi to engage in extramarital affairs, even with under-age women.” The reptilian brain of males and females are different, a fact that “may be responsible for the many discrepancies evolutionary psychologists have found in how men and women approach the world.”

Then there is culture. “But what precisely do we mean by culture? Culture is how different groups of people systematically process the same information in their own way.”  Culture has a tendency to lose its head in the clouds, but to do its job it has to respect the reptilian brain. “We’ve found that a culture that goes against our biology does not last very long … Some cultures, at a certain time in history, were in harmony with biology. France in the eighteenth century and Moorish Spain in the twelfth century are two good examples.”

The reptile brain knows what it wants, but isn’t smart enough to adapt. It is the limbic brain that finds solutions to local problems. For example, faced with a shortage of men the limbic brain comes to the rescue and invents polyandry. “In Tibetan and Eskimo cultures, if a young girl comes home and tells her mother, ‘Guess what, Mum! I’m in love!’ the first thing her mother will ask her is, ‘With how many men?’” In more advanced cultures, the cortex adds the bonus of civilized living. “Eating and drinking is a basic reptilian necessity, but French culture has learned the art of pleasure surrounding food.”

Rapaille and Roemer mobilise all this experience of the world, all this theory, to take on a very big issue: “why do some people have the opportunity to move in the directions they want to, while others don’t? Why are some societies more mobile than others? … These are not easy questions, and therefore the answers cannot be easy either.”

They are too modest. They do in fact come up with a very, very easy answer. It’s the culture, stupid! Culture must be reptilian. It has to satisfy the animal in us. But every society and every individual wants to move up. That’s what evolution means, right? In order to encourage its citizens to move up a state must also activate the limbic brain, even the cortex. It has to guarantee the four S’s: Survival, Sex, Security and Success. The authors provide convenient league tables that rank modern states on these measures, with some surprising results. “London and Oxford have excellent educational systems and score very high on all the four S’s. This is because they respect archetypal values and the reptilian mind.”

“We truly believe,” the authors conclude, “that humanity’s greatest error has been its failure to comprehend what motivates us to move up.” This is encouraging, even inspiring, but do they speak with authority? Just take a look at the packaging. The treatise comes to us from Allen Lane, once the highly respected hardback arm of Penguin Books. It is introduced by several pages of endorsements from a slew of scientific entrepreneurs. But that is not all. The front cover alerts us to “Unbelievable quotes on back cover …” And yes, there is Richard Dawkins himself. “Not since The Naked Ape have I seen a book that so gleefully revels in tweaking the nose of conventional sensitivities”. And seconding him is none other than Steven Pinker. “An entertaining and important counterweight to the ideology and cynicism that surrounds discussions of world problems today.”

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld are also brought to us courtesy of Penguin Books, and, what do you know, they also explain moving up. The Triple Package tells “How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America”.  Both authors are professors at the Yale Law School, but they are much more than that. Jed Rubenfeld stopped writing law books some time ago, and he now writes mysteries. Amy Chua published a world-wide best-seller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which told how her immigrant parents brought her up to succeed and how, having found success in her own career, she followed the same recipe for her children, nagging and shaming them into practicing music and maths, and not permitting them to waste time going to parties or sleepovers, or acting in school plays or playing sports.  The Triple Package generalizes this formula: if an ethnic group has lots of Tiger Moms, the children will win.

Some immigrants in the USA have enjoyed amazing success – notably, in this telling, Jews, Cubans, Chinese, Indians and Nigerians. The authors throw in the Mormons as well: not, to be sure, immigrants, but a very recent success story. Success means high grades in the most competitive schools, followed by entry to top colleges, which leads to high average incomes, the production of a disproportionate number of CEOs, and, in the Jewish case, to starring roles in the arts and sciences.  Admittedly, not many Asian Americans have made a name in the arts, few Chinese Americans are CEOs, the Mormons don’t turn out a lot of famous scientists, and the Cuban diaspora has not been particularly successful outside politics and real estate. Whatever. These are American success stories. And it is all down to culture. (There is a rare footnote here: “To say there’s no generally accepted definition of culture would be an understatement.” I followed up the endnotes, as directed, but remain somewhat confused.)

What successful cultures have in common is the Triple Package. The first ingredient is a feeling of superiority. They feel superior because … well, each group has its own reasons … but they just do. At the same time they feel insecure. They face discrimination, but this only makes them more determined to succeed. We’ll show them. More important, though surely a rather different matter, they have Tiger Moms. Their parents push them so relentlessly that they never feel that they are good enough, so they work ever harder. Their parents also provide them with the third ingredient: impulse control (not, I would have thought, a stereotypical character trait of American Jews).

In the view of Chua and Rubenfeld, impulse control – the mantra of the Tiger Mom – is the crucial element in the mix, and they cite, repeatedly, the Stanford marshmallow experiment to prove how important impulse control is for future success. In this experiment, which dates back fifty years, children were told that if they didn’t dive into a plate of marshmallows set in front of them they would be given more marshmallows later. Follow-ups seemed to show that the children who didn’t grab turned out to be smarter and more successful in later life. The experiment has been criticized on methodological grounds, and its findings disputed, but Clotaire Rapaille and André Roemer also treat it as gospel.

Chua and Rubenfeld believe that American culture once had a wonderful Triple Package culture of its own. “Protestant success in America was a version of Triple Package success.” They cite de Tocqueville on American values, and Max Weber for the Protestant Ethic, but not Henry Adams, the scion of the greatest Wasp political dynasty in the history of the US. Reflecting on the America of the 1890s, Adams wrote:

Worship of money was an old-world trait … but the American wasted money more recklessly than anyone ever did before; he spent more to less purpose than any extravagant court-aristocracy … and knew not what to do with his money when he got it, except use it to make more, or throw it away.[1]

According to Chua and Rubenfeld, “the indefatigable Ben Franklin epitomized American-style impulse control”, and they cite his Poor Richard’s Almanack, which was written cynically for money, but not his much more amusing “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress”.

In any case, if America ever did have the Triple Package, the authors argue that this was abandoned in the Sixties. It was replaced by a cult of self-esteem that is the enemy of individual success and national well-being. “A false sense of security, no impulse control, and immediate gratification: these forces also played a part in the 2008 financial collapse.”

If the history is unreliable, the case studies are full of holes. Banging on about the Triple Package, Chua and Rubenfeld ignore the effects of chain migration to particular destinations, or the role of local institutions. These factors are commonly related. Recent immigrants from India were often graduates of the subcontinent’s excellent technical universities, and they came to the US as a booming Silicon Valley was trawling the world for programmers. The initial migration of elite Cuban families to Miami included seasoned politicians and entrepreneurs. They made political alliances with local power-brokers, and with the Federal government. This was possible because of the stand-off with Castro’s Cuba. When the highly localised Mormon church began to promote this-worldly success it could mobilise the resources of a wealthy and disciplined organization to help their people along.

At the other end of the scale, African-Americans in the South and Native Americans in the reservations have been systematically handicapped by abysmal educational provision, oppressive policing, and discrimination in employment and in politics. Chua and Rubenfeld argue that these factors are not decisive, since first and second-generation immigrants from the West Indies and Nigeria have often done rather well in America, despite racial discrimination. In their view, African-Americans are locked into their situation because they lack the Triple Package. But do Jamaicans and Nigerians have particularly high scores when it comes to feelings of superiority or impulse control? We are not told. The authors also ignore the fact that African Americans dominate the extremely competitive arenas of popular music and professional team sport, two forms of success that are much appreciated in the United States, but which are left completely out of account by Chua and Rubenfeld.

Still, why bother arguing? The authors of these two books are in the business of myth-making. They cite social science findings here and there, as convenient, but essentially they provide slick versions of the 19th century novels of Horatio Alger Jr., which told how poor boys could rise to the highest levels of American society through honest toil. The message is uplifting. “The real promise of a Triple Package America”, Chua and Rubenfeld write, “is the promise of a day when there are no longer any successful groups in the United States – only successful individuals.” Rapaille and Roemer urge their readers to abandon “cultural practices that are harmful to all or some … and are limiting opportunities for personal growth … Let’s try it, even if they say it’s impossible. It’s UP to you!”

Both books are fine examples of The Great Report that Tom McCarthy’s global entrepreneur of ideas was after. Should anthropologists try to write Great Reports, only better ones?

The anthropologist’s stock in trade is an intimate knowledge of ways of life which may be very unfamiliar, difficult to learn, and when the anthropologist returns home, hard to explain. This knowledge is never entirely secure. The craft of ethnography is old school, artisanal. It is passed on largely by way of case studies and anecdotes. Each anthropologist develops the skill alone in the field, by trial and error. Ethnographic field studies may therefore be methodologically uncertain, hard to check, in part inescapably subjective. This is not laboratory science.

And yet the best ethnographies do make sense of unfamiliar beliefs and practices. They provide compelling insights into how people live in very different circumstances.  They offer points of comparison, fresh perspectives, uncover strange but effective strategies for living.  While ethnographic case studies may often seem exotic, marginal to our own lives, they can put to the test our parochial and ethnocentric theories of society, economy, and personality.

Anthropologists also engage from time to time in the business of very big ideas, from Victorian evolutionism to cultural relativism, from functionalism and structuralism to sociobiology and cognitive science. Alas, the big ideas that anthropology has entertained are incompatible with one another. They may embody some valuable insights, but are all badly flawed. Some of them have also turned out to be more or less dangerous.

And yet anthropologists not only have compelling stories to tell. They can make good arguments too. Anthropology is the only academic study that aims to understand other ways of life in their own terms and at the same time in relation to some common measure, while not making ourselves (or any other people) the standard of comparison.  Anthropologists do not have The First and Last Word, but they can offer perspectives and even lessons that are more modest, more complicated, sometimes more surprising than the big ideas – and surely more reliable and realistic.

  1. [1]Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907 (Privately printed), chapter 21.

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