There’s a fascinating article making the rounds of various blogs this week, which does a nice job of summarizing the interesting findings of a young group of psychologists looking at cross-cultural variation in a series of games and perceptual tests that have long been assumed to measure universal human qualities. Over and over again, they are finding that Western subjects respond in very different ways than most people to these kinds of tests; in fact, Western subjects are outliers, even though the vast majority of our data on human behavior and psychology (96% of psychology studies) is limited to the study of Western populations.
This is not exactly news to most anthropologists (or to anyone; the paper the article is discussing came out a few years ago and was widely discussed then as well), but the article does not let the discipline off the hook, accusing the anthropological stance on cultural diversity of being incoherent in that we want to maintain two incompatible claims. On the one hand, anthropologists extol cultural relativism as a basic principle, emphasizing that cultural differences are real and significant and need to be respected. On the other, undergraduates come away from an anthropology class with the sense that we are also all underlyingly the same.
This strikes me as a fair critique to a limited extent, but the quandary of the anthropologist is less severe than that of those social sciences (psychology, economics) that want to assert the existence of an analytically accessible mind underlying and separable from cultural variables. I think many of these kinds of social scientists will come away from the article shaken, but not despairing; maybe, they will reason, you have to try for cross-cultural representativeness for things like game theory, but surely not for things further along the biological end of the biocultural spectrum. And yet we know from our course readings that this is not true either: we have seen that what seem like very biological processes, from so-called African “precocity” (Gottlieb) to “normal” menstruation patterns (Strassmann), are very different for most of the world than for the Westerners who have long been presumed to be typical.
The always incisive neuroanthropology blog has done a great job of giving an overview of the review article, as well as pointing out some of the problems inherent in the neologism WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), despite its catchiness.