The unstylized science of human culture

I encountered Joe Henrich’s work about 10 years ago. As a fellow traveler of Robert Boyd, and admired by Dan Sperber, none of this is coincidental. These are the sorts of cultural anthropologists who I can understand in my bones. Benearth the jargon there is no attempt at signalling artifice. For a taste of Henrich’s research, see the anthology Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies. For those who prefer more theoretical heft, The Origin and Evolution of Cultures will satisfy you (Not by Genes Alone is a popularized condensed form of this book).

If you haven’t heard of Henrich & his colleagues, you’ve heard of their work. They’re behind the popularization of W.E.I.R.D., “Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic.” The concept refers to the fact that much of psychology consists of observations and experiments on exactly such populations, and then extrapolation from those results to make general assertions as to the character of human nature. This is a very popular and widely known idea that crops up in everyday conversation. I’ve been patronizingly lectured about it numerous times by individuals who perceive that I’m being too insensitive about some barbarous cultural practice (in my personal communication I don’t make it a secrete that I prefer small-l liberal Western values; there’s no shame in W.E.I.R.D.ness). Speaking of insensitivity it seems Henrich was accused of exactly such early on in his career by the usual suspects:

… When he presented his research to the anthropology department at the University of British Columbia during a job interview a year later, he recalls a hostile reception. Anthropology is the social science most interested in cultural differences, but the young scholar’s methods of using games and statistics to test and compare cultures with the West seemed heavy-handed and invasive to some. “Professors from the anthropology department suggested it was a bad thing that I was doing,” Henrich remembers. “The word ‘unethical’ came up.”

So instead of toeing the line, he switched teams. A few well-placed people at the University of British Columbia saw great promise in Henrich’s work and created a position for him, split between the economics department and the psychology department. It was in the psychology department that he found two kindred spirits in Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan. Together the three set about writing a paper that they hoped would fundamentally challenge the way social scientists thought about human behavior, cognition, and culture.

This illustrates how excessive focus on the normative antecedents of science result in a muddle. There are genuine unethical researchers. But using the word unethical against someone who is introducing the ‘Ultimatum Game’ debases the word, and makes others liable to take you less seroiusly. And ironically, though the initial research which led to W.E.I.R.D. was perceived by anthropologists to be ‘unethical,’ now W.E.I.R.D. is a linchpin in the theoretical support for those who might endorse ‘toleration’ of cultural diversity. Obviously I’m not too concerned about the ought. I’m concerned about what is, which is a hard enough project.

Over at Brown Pundits Nandalal Rasiah (coincidentally, another individual of brown pallor who is unapologetically W.E.I.R.D.) wonders:

…The political aspect of this theory is that the ‘logical’ endpoint of its strategic trajectory is in an academy where theories about human behavior not only become increasingly fine-grained but also seek to elide those newly discovered differences between groups to ignore the fact that they are simply pieces of a larger puzzle and must be put together to make sense of the world….

It seems that Rasiah is correct in that some people see in W.E.I.R.D. license to deny the possibility of any cultural generality. I am rather sure that the scholars who have developed W.E.I.R.D. would deny any such thing. In fact, they’re affiliated with a group which attempts to introduce more precise formalism into cultural anthropology, presumably to sketch out more robustly the general patterns which do occur in human societies. The complexity of reality as it is is no excuse to despair. Hard work can be rewarding work.

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