Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Cultureby Eric L. Jones
"Economists agree about many things--contrary to popular opinion--but the majority agree about culture only in the sense that they no longer give it much thought." So begins the first chapter of Cultures Merging, in which Eric Jones--one of the world's leading economic historians--takes an eloquent, pointed, and personal look at the question of whether/i>
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"Economists agree about many things--contrary to popular opinion--but the majority agree about culture only in the sense that they no longer give it much thought." So begins the first chapter of Cultures Merging, in which Eric Jones--one of the world's leading economic historians--takes an eloquent, pointed, and personal look at the question of whether culture determines economics or is instead determined by it.
Bringing immense learning and originality to the issue of cultural change over the long-term course of global economic history, Jones questions cultural explanations of much social behavior in Europe, East Asia, the United States, Australia, and the Middle East. He also examines contemporary globalization, arguing that while centuries of economic competition have resulted in the merging of cultures into fewer and larger units, these changes have led to exciting new syntheses.
Culture matters to economic outcomes, Jones argues, but cultures in turn never stop responding to market forces, even if some elements of culture stubbornly persist beyond the time when they can be explained by current economic pressures. In the longer run, however, cultures show a fluidity that will astonish some cultural determinists. Jones concludes that culture's "ghostly transit through history" is much less powerful than noneconomists often claim, yet it has a greater influence than economists usually admit.
The product of a lifetime of reading and thinking on culture and economics, a work of history and an analysis of the contemporary world, Cultures Merging will be essential reading for anyone concerned about the interaction of cultures and markets around the world.
"Jones' book is important because it links our economic past and future with our ideas about culture."Mark Trahant, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"An accessible, illuminating, and inspiring book."Avner Greif, EH.net
"Eric Jones is intelligent, literate, and eclectic. His comments range over many fields besides economic history, and he writes in a sprightly manner. The book is fun to read, and it engages one of the big issues of economic history: the role of culture in economic affairs."Peter Temin, Economic History Review
"Eric L. Jones has written an interesting and well-argued critique of two positions that he believes are well entrenched in the economic history literature. The first, which he terms 'cultural nullity', is widely held by economists and assigns no or at best a trivial role to culture in explaining economic outcomes. Second, Jones criticizes those (often historians) who think of a 'cultural fixity', in which an unchanging culture dominates every other aspect of life. . . . Jones marshals an impressive and at times amusing range of illustrations of the fluidity of cultures."Harold James, International History Review
"Cultures Merging is a remarkable historical tour de force presenting a wealth of argument to indicate the role of economic forces in the modification of culture and vice versa."Arthur Webb, Journal of Cultural Economics
"Jones . . . makes a compelling argument for the special place of literature in understanding these dialectics of poverty."John Marsh, The Minnesota Review
"Jones writes in a vivid, attractive manner, expressing sometimes trenchant arguments on specific topics. . . . His book has a syncretic and eclectic feel, and conveys a sense of its author as someone who, having established his standing in his previous, more focused work, now revels in his ability to survey that of another generation or two of scholars, and to tell his readers which leads to follow and which to consider useless."Gianfranco Poggi, Sociologica
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Cultures MergingA Historical and Economic Critique of Culture
By Eric L. Jones
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE REVIVAL OF CULTURAL EXPLANATION
Economists agree about many things-contrary to popular opinion-but the majority agree about culture only in the sense that they no longer give it much thought. The hope that a strong relationship would be found between economic and cultural change mostly faded during the 1960s and 1970s. Those who still believe that culture is formative, whether they are "real people" or the culturally inclined minority of economists, take culture as primary and the economy as secondary, seldom considering that it could be culture which is secondary. On the other hand, the majority of economists, who are trained to expect substitution among variables, find the notion of culture as fixed for all time an arbitrary idea. They see no reason to believe that culture is primordial and impervious to economic inducements. After reviewing numerous propositions about the influence of values on Indian economic development, Dasgupta remarked that "no theorems follow from such intangible associations."
Thus, no major schools of thought in recent years locate the explanation of economic development in culture, with a couple of exceptions. The first of these consists ofsome institutional economists, exemplified perhaps by Anne Mayhew's presidential address to the Annual Meeting of the Association for Evolutionary Economics in 1986. It was called "Culture: Core Concept under Attack" and opened, "I begin with the proposition that the concepts of culture and instrumental valuation are the concepts from which all the rest of institutional economics flow." Mayhew argued that analysis must start from the position that we are bound by our cultural patterns. All that need be said for the moment about positions of this type is that they have not been generally or even widely adopted within economics.
The second exception consists of economists in the tradition of Max Weber, who are interested in the nexus between East Asian beliefs, business practices, and economic growth. An example from this school is the historical work of Michio Morishima. Although he is a leading technical economist, his explanation of the Japanese Miracle is Weberian. Yet even he eventually temporizes and relies on the reciprocity between culture and economics, saying on the one hand that ideologies given by Japan's history "constrained" (directed?) economic activity but on the other that ideology can be altered by the economy. This throws us back on a historical analysis to trace the actual direction of influence.
Most economists adopt the position I have called elsewhere "cultural nullity." Strictly speaking, this can take more than one form and is often adopted unconsciously. One version is vague about whether cultures really exist but assumes that, even if they do, they are so marginal to economic concerns that they may be safely ignored. Another version accepts that cultures do exist but hypothesizes that they are creatures of the economy, able to adjust so painlessly to changing incentives that in this case, too, they may be ignored. The latter position fails, however, to grapple with one of the main difficulties encountered in completely dismissing culture: the fact that markets are not self-enforcing and depend on customary rules for creating trust.
As Mark Casson has observed, the professional culture of economists prevents most of them from seeing that culture matters at all. The topic has been left to other disciplines, together with journalists, travelers, expatriates, and business commentators, all of whom are prone to note that "in reality," as it were, there are important local or traditional peculiarities of dress, diet, and social habits, plus influential beliefs and values. A type of nonmarket fundamentalism prevails among sociologists and anthropologists, which can be illustrated by an exchange between the philosopher Roger Scruton and the sociologist Brigitte Berger. Speaking of Russia and Eastern Europe, Scruton urged that law should be established before any attempt to introduce the market economy. Berger interjected that for law to be accepted, culture must first be transformed. The sociologist Claudio Veliz lent support to her approach by asserting that the free market is itself a cultural artifact: witness its failure to take hold in Latin America despite prolonged experimentation in the nineteenth century. This is essentially a substantivist opinion.
Those economists who are still aware of the dispute in the 1960s between formalism and substantivism assume that it was decided in favor of formalism, whereas noneconomists believe the opposite. Formalism implies that economic theory has universal scope. A careful economist has made the point that introducing cultural difference is a form of relativism which disrupts the universal character of analysis. The burden of substantivism is that each culture maximizes its own values and therefore cannot be analyzed by the modes of economics. These are portrayed as spuriously universal and crassly Western in their individualism and market orientation. A more reasonable position might be that, since economics is the analysis of an abstract category of behavior-choice-its techniques are culturally neutral and universal by definition. If some economists neglect to allow for the legal, religious, and social impediments to full-blown market behavior outside Western society, that is a weakness on their part, not on the part of the science.
In the substantivist canon a specific type of economy is embedded in each and every culture. The extreme holders of this view stigmatize any attempt to extend market economics beyond the West as disrupting other cultures for profit (they scarcely admit the role of profit in encouraging the taking of socially desirable risk). All cultures embody the inalienable rights of those born into them and deserve protection for that reason. Trying to integrate other cultures with the international economy (globalization) is wrong, and any hint that each culture may not be distinct is "racist," a term which is too often used as mere abuse. This syndrome amounts to cultural relativism in holding that every culture is unique, and desirably unique.
One of the most eloquent voices raised against this position is that of a retired anthropologist, Roger Sandall, who claims that when he was a university teacher he would have been unable to publish what he has since written, so far was it contrary to the culturally relativist mood of the times. Sandall documents how ludicrous was the indiscriminate praise for non-Western cultures, pointing instead to the horrors of corruption and even massacre that occurred in them, the absence of much contribution to world economic or scientific advance, and the ecological destruction readily wrought by primitive agriculture long before European colonists hove onto the scene. Lest Sandall's publication seem the work of an isolated contrarian, a wider shift in opinion is indicated by the fact that indigenous African writers have started to discard the view that the ills of their continent can be sheeted home to colonialism. Some of them may now be found criticizing what they represent as internal defects of apathy, fatalism, convivial excess, conflict avoidance, reliance on superstitious explanations, and lack of a notion of personal merit. This litany would have been unthinkable during the last third of the twentieth century and would probably still be unacceptable had it originated with non-African writers. The new self-critical approach is epitomised by Daniel Etounga-Manguelle, who recommends learning from other civilizations the way East Asia did and not hankering after an "African way."
Cultural relativism takes little account of its own economic implications-the costs that ensue (and fall most heavily on the poor) from insisting on cultural separateness and hence segregated markets. Cultural relativism is thus congruent with what is discussed below as "cultural fixity." No attempt is made to face up to the reality that cultures are artifacts, created and recreated, and that most of them have borrowed from hither and yon. No anxiety is expressed that protecting cultures as they stand favors the current holders of power and suppresses other people's freedom to choose. We can submit this to the test of revealed preference, which means asking what people do rather than what they say. Revealed preference suggests that people from all around the world are happy to adopt elements from alien cultures, especially so-called global or Western culture. Many even strive to migrate to the West, where they can share not only its material success but also other features such as independent law and a free press.
Surprisingly, many historians, who might be expected to emphasize cultural change, likewise write as though cultures are fixed and dominate other aspects of life, including economic life. One reason for this may be that historians tend to be period specialists and seldom write about the long reaches of time during which change becomes most evident. Like other people, historians also witness cultural diversity at the present day, and this may reinforce their supposition that economies are adapted to a particular repertoire of cultural preferences, abilities, and taboos rather than the other way round.
Where academics from fields other than economics are involved, claims that "culture matters" are insistent. Such assertions are not infrequently coupled with attacks on neoclassical economics. These rarely mean what they say, since few commentators distinguish between neoclassical and other branches of economics, just as they fail to distinguish between market liberalism and conservatism. This suggests that "neoclassical" is code for an antipathy toward market competition, aversion to the economist's professional supposition that all actions have costs, and hostility toward businesses and governments supposed to be implicated in maintaining capitalism. Economists have largely responded with a disdainful silence. Faced with all the prejudices of economists and noneconomists, it is tempting to call down a plague on both their houses. But that would be to evade the issue of culture.
Sometimes culture really does seem so routine and invariant with respect to price as to warrant a closer look by economists-though we should be careful: Alfred Marshall thought it was easy to overlook creeping changes and strikingly observed that "short-lived man has little better means of ascertaining whether custom is quietly changing, than the fly, born to-day and dead to-morrow, has of watching the growth of the plant on which it rests." Yet at other times behavior touching on the most intimate human concerns can change almost overnight. What accounts for the periods of stability, and what brings about the transitions?
The instincts of a leading development economist, Peter Bauer, were probably correct ones. During his career he seems largely to have avoided cultural relativism but near its close he moved toward acknowledging the importance of culture by criticizing his fellow economists for virtually failing to consider the subject at all. I take From Subsistence to Exchange and Other Essays to be representative of his mature views. At various points he alludes to culture and moral ideas as deep influences on human affairs. He does so in asides which indicate that however much others may wish to ignore it, he takes the point to be obvious: indeed, he ends one essay with a quotation from George Orwell to the effect that restating the obvious has become our first duty.
Perhaps what Bauer recognized as culture's obviousness explains why he developed no explicit model of cultural change. Nevertheless, though his observations were studiedly casual, they demonstrate a refusal to be diverted from seeing the world whole. If his observations contradict other economists or are politically incorrect, bad cess to his critics, or so he implies: it is simply a fact that ethnic groups differ in their economic performance and that the original idea of material progress was the West's, and the West's alone. The decline of traditional religious belief has eroded a coherent worldview, and into the vacuum created by the consequent diminution of personal responsibility has poured collective guilt. He protests that guilt has malign consequences for policy, spawning aid programs that sap the will and are ready sources of corruption.
Bauer's sentiments were surely right on two counts. On the one hand, it was well to avoid the cultural relativists, because theirs had become an intolerant dogma, convinced a priori that market economics cannot have universal application and destructive of efforts to discern general propositions: every culture is unique. On the other hand, Bauer felt that to follow the bulk of the economics profession in ignoring or even denying the existence of cultural features capable of resisting price incentives-or, alternatively, straining to explain away every apparent anomaly in neoclassical vein-would have been doctrinaire. Defining culture away in the face of the descriptive evidence, he thought, adds nothing to understanding and prima facie subtracts from it. But in practice Bauer does not seem to have traveled far down the middle road that his views indicate, in search of the precise impact that culture may have. We should ourselves take the matter further. As Marc Bloch said, it is by criticizing their work that we keep faith with our intellectual forebears.
Only during the 1990s did cracks appear in the relativist facade. We may mention three of them. The first was the result of tensions over practices engaged in by some Muslim immigrants to Europe, such as the wearing of headscarves, halal modes of killing animals for meat, and female genital mutilation. These practices placed liberals and feminists in a dilemma. They had either to defend them as the cultural rights of immigrants or swing round to condemning them as violations of the rule of the secular state, the autonomy of women, and so forth. The problem was felt most acutely in France, where immigration was large and the secular state particularly cherished. The outcome was a hardening of secularist opinion in line with the long-standing position of French intellectuals.
A second blow to relativism was struck within the non-Western world itself. This was the appearance of spokesmen for so-called Asian Values, who turned relativism back on the West by finding Western culture wanting. What they urged, especially about 1994, was that the economic miracle of East Asia had been built on neo-Confucian cultural values, notably thrift, hard work, education, and concern for the community rather than the individual. The corollary of Asia's value-based economic success was to be the crumbling of Western competitiveness as Westerners abandoned puritanical values in favor of self-indulgence and reliance on the welfare state.
What was not brought out in the Asian Values debate was the historically selective, not to say anachronistic, nature of the argument. The dynamics of the situation were missed. Thrift, hard work, and so forth had characterized the Western world during and long after industrialization. They constituted the Protestant Ethic. Its values had begun to melt in the warmth of high incomes in the West and through the accompanying decline of churchgoing in Europe, though not in the United States. But by sleight of hand, Asian countries were expected to remain immune from a similar value shift, a rosy expectation that was actually being undermined by Asia's prosperity just when the Asian Values School was most loudly touting its wares.
The sheer speed of economic growth in East Asia accordingly meant that its version of cultural relativism was soon seen to be inadequate. Ironically, Singapore, some of whose top people had been most vociferous and gloating about Western decline, was the first to lament the spread of "affluenza" that threatened the work ethic among its own newly prosperous young people. In a double irony, affluenza outlasted the Asian Crisis of 1997, yet the shock of the crisis did curb excessive enthusiasm for Asian Values. At the time of the Enron and other American business scandals, there was a brief revival of gloating, which only discloses the antagonism toward the West behind what had been passed off as serious analysis. The revival does not seem to have lasted.
Excerpted from Cultures Merging by Eric L. Jones Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Eric L. Jones is Professorial Fellow at Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne; Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University; and Visiting Professor at Exeter University. He is the author of The European Miracle and numerous other books and articles on economic history, economic development, international affairs, and environmental history.
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