A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo Jumbo

That’s how you know you’re within a walled city, the jargon. They’ve cut themselves off from the rest of the world and are speaking a jargon only they can really understand.” –Robert Pirsig

The first anthropology book that didn’t put me to sleep was Takie Sugiyama Lebra’s Japanese Patterns of Behavior. At the time I had been in Japan over four years and had a reasonable grasp of spoken Japanese. But I was still confused about what I perceived as contradictory behavior by my Japanese hosts. To wit:

How could they be so polite in social interactions then turn into maniacs on the train? Why so serious and reserved at work then hammered and goofy at the karaoke bar? How could they be modern and scientific, and yet so beholden to ancient superstitions and rituals? What would make them warm and caring towards some people, but cold and distant toward others? And why so vague in their routine communication style but no qualms about bluntly pointing out you’ve gained a few pounds?

To Dr. Lebra’s credit, her book singlehandedly took four years of accumulated confusion and sorted most of it out in a single reading. Lightbulbs clicked on with every turn of the page, and the antics of my Japanese hosts suddenly started making sense. It was a breakthrough book for sure, and I’m thankful to Dr. Lebra for the burst of enlightenment.

But man did she make me wade through some dry, academic mumbo jumbo to get to the Promised Land. Had I not been in Japan at the time—had I not had a vested interest in figuring out my Japanese hosts’ behavior—it’s doubtful I’d have made it past the first page. But don’t believe me, read this snippet and judge for yourself:

Social interaction or relationships can best be analyzed by singling out the central actor then identifying his social object. I shall call the central actor “Ego” and his social object “Alter,” both terms being capitalized to signify their social emphasis as distinct from their psychological implications… Alter, who is the main object of preoccupation for the Japanese Ego, may be in regular contact with Ego or may be inaccessible except on special occasion and thus only recalled from memory. Alter may be a single person or a group; Alter and Ego may be of equal standing or hierarchically graded; their relationship may be lifelong or only transient, a desirable one Ego wants to maintain or an undesirable one from which Ego wishes to extricate himself. We can think of many other variations, yet they are all identical with respect to social preoccupation.” (Takie Sugiyama Lebra)

My brain hurts reading this even thirty years later. There must be a simpler way to convey the same message in plain English—or plain any language—preferably with a story or anecdote to breathe some life into it.

As cryptic as Lebra’s style is, at least her subject matter had enough juice to keep me going til the end. But as a friend once quipped after reading it, “You sometimes wonder if she’s talking about people or specimens.”

But this is not about Dr. Lebra—it’s about the mumbo jumbo in all the literature of cultural anthropology. Check out this gem from the first anthropology book that actually did put me to sleep, “Culture and Thought: A Psychological Introduction”:

In studies of classification, both in developmental and cross-cultural psychology, a good deal of interest has centered on two aspects of the subject’s performance: (1) the particular attribute the subject uses as the criterion of similarity (this is comparable to interest in the stimulus dimension in perceptual preference studies), and (2) whether or not he uses a single attribute consistently as the basis for groupings. Findings with respect to these questions have provided much of the empirical foundation for theories of cognitive development that stress progression from a kind of thinking that is concrete and context-bound to thinking that is abstract and rule-governed.”

I get the point but need a drink now! Can’t imagine anyone outside the academic walls of cultural anthropology exercising their freewill to read this. And if the average Joes in our global world don’t get this knowledge—if it’s only intended for the eyes and ears of other mumbo-jumbo-speaking academics—then really, what good is it?

Indeed anthropology has worked hard to shroud itself in complexity, aided by the use of a cryptic language developed and spoken only by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and folks who just want to sound smart. And it begs the question, why would that be?

Why All the Anthropo-Mumbo-Jumbo?

I blame Franz Boas, the immortalized “father of American anthropology,” for trying to make cultural anthropology into a Victorian science, when it was, is, and always will be, the subjective study of humans by humans.

Boas’ bias toward science makes perfect sense in light of his background. A product of the 19th century, he was trained in mathematics and received his doctorate in physics in Germany at a time when scientists were flirting with rock star status. (Einstein the most famous of them all.) Boas would go on to teach at Columbia University, and in 1899 establish the very first Anthropology Ph.D. Program in the U.S.

One of Boas’ many claims to fame was that he pioneered a method of anthropological investigation modeled after the hard sciences. Philosopher Robert Pirsig explains the problem with casting anthropology as a science:

The whole field seemed like a highway filled with angry drivers cursing each other and telling each other they didn’t know how to drive when the real trouble was the highway itself. The highway had been laid down as the scientific objective study of man in a manner that paralleled the physical sciences. The trouble was that man isn’t suited to this kind of scientific objective study. Objects of scientific study are supposed to hold still. They’re supposed to follow the laws of cause and effect in such a way that a given cause will always have a given effect, over and over again. Man doesn’t do this. Not even savages. The result has been theoretical chaos.”

Science or no science, the reality is that anthropology aspired—and still aspiresto be a science, which implies there was doubt from the beginning about its scientific legitimacy. After all, physics and biology don’t aspire to be a science, everyone knows they just are. But poor, insecure anthropology, craving the legitimacy of science from its modern inception, created a language of scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo that gave rise to the dry, lifeless, cryptic literature anthropology students are forced to read today. And we all suffer for it.

My issues with the mumbo jumbo aside, Boas deserves his props for the enduring contribution he made to cultural anthropology in very positive ways. His big claim to fame was successfully applying scientific methods to debunking “scientific racism,” the application of what was purportedly science, to classifying people according to race, then ranking them up accordingly. Boas rejected outright the idea of biological predispositions and countered with the theory that social learning was the primary driver of differences amongst the various cultures of the world. His theory stuck, and it’s a cornerstone of modern anthropology today.

We can also thank Boas for groundbreaking research that led to the anthropological principle of “cultural relativism,” the belief that civilization is, in Boas’ own words, “not something absolute, but…relative, and…our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” This implies that cultures cannot be ranked objectively, as each human observer perceives the world through the lens of his or her respective culture and makes subjective judgments accordingly (interestingly a claim in itself that contradicts the notion of anthropology as a science).

So acknowledging that there’s lots to love about Boas and his impact on anthropology, just imagine how much cooler it’d be without the jargon.

In fairness to Boas he had plenty of accomplices in creating and advancing the language of anthropology, namely, his student minions Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, and Alfred Kroeber. Collectively they took their mentor’s staunch commitment to objectivity, science and all its accompanying scientific jargon, and raised it to new heights of inscrutability.

So we’ve identified our key culprits, the creators of the jargon-filled gobblygook language of anthropology that endures today. At its core is a yearning by an insecure field of study for the same legitimacy commanded by the traditional sciences. Those of us inside the walls of anthropology who continue using the language of mumbo-mumbo, are complicit in scaring off the very people who could use the knowledge the most.

Earning Our Keep

If I were king I’d ban all mumbo jumbo, gobblygook and balderdash from anthropology, and require all my subjects to use simple, clear language in all their communications.

Unfortunately the odds of me being king of anything are about the same as the average Joe reading Japanese Patterns of Behavior. Not gonna happen. The writing style is just too intimidating.

It’s tough enough connecting cultures for a living. Folks in the cross-cultural field have the added chore of connecting the cryptic language of insecure academics with clients who need to communicate with living, breathing human beings. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it. And this is where we earn our keep: spinning mumbo-jumbo into productive human connections.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

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5 responses to “A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo Jumbo

  1. Aloha Tim! Insightful. Thank you. Working as a CEO now with the Hawaii College of Oriental Medicine and HICOM Natural Health Clinic in Hilo I find the same challenges…the CAM world in the U.S. (Complementary Alternative Medicine) is insecure, even with 5000 years of proven effectiveness behind it, and as a result uses a vocabulary which folks like me, who are new to the field, find really difficult to understand or maybe relate to. As a marketer at heart, my solution to this challenge is to incorporate Western medical vocabulary into discussions of Eastern medical practices. A simple example is instead of saying “acupuncture” or “massage” we add “medical” to each word. Medical acupuncture. Medical massage. Each specialty has its own vocabulary and one of the cross cultural challenges is finding words to bridge the gap in understanding between the two different cultures. Thought provoking essay…thank you for sharing!

  2. I definitely agree with you here. There is a big distance between the “Academic Cross Culturalists” and people who are trying to make it work on the ground. Do you think we are trying to hard to put something as slippery as culture into a frame? Like trying to build a building on a foundation of jello?

    • Aloha Neil, thanks for commenting. I agree there’s no perfect way to frame any culture, it’s so subjective and we’re dealing in abstract conceptual metaphors anyway. I can’t speak for others in the field, but I’m just trying to be practical and communicate ideas in the easiest, most elegant way possible. My clients are NOT academics and have no interest whatsoever in theory, models and academic jargon. They want results (efficient, harmonious mixed-culture teams), and they want them as quickly as possible. So far, storytelling has been my most effective tool in connecting folks, and it works best with liberal amounts of humor. Clients keep calling me back so my storytelling approach seems to be hitting the mark. :)

      • Tim, do you differentiate between storytelling and case studies? Is it simply a matter of one is formally prepared and the other is more informal?

      • Sure, I think case studies are stories. And spoken anecdotes are mini stories. Some of my “informal” stories have been told many times, so in that sense I guess they’ve been “prepared.” But some of my stories are also off-the-cuff improvisations so I don’t really differentiate.

        For more on stories in general, I highly recommend you check out THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL (linked in the article), very interesting and well written.

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