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History makes fools of generalisers, stereotype-peddlers and cultural determinists

“Lazy and utterly indifferent to the passage of time.”

That was a description of the Japanese from an American missionary in 1903. And, as the economist Ha-Joon Chang has documented, these character traits were frequently offered at the time as the reason the Japanese were not as rich as Westerners.

China had a cultural problem too in Western eyes. Max Weber, the German scholar, argued in 1915 that Confucianism made the Chinese unable to embrace “rational entrepreneurial capitalism”. And that was why China had failed to industrialise.

Go back to the late 18th century and one can find Thomas Malthus asserting that population growth reflected a lack of moral restraint among the “lower classes”. While the higher ranks limited their family size in order not to dissipate their wealth among larger numbers of heirs, the dissolute poor, apparently, couldn’t manage this. And that was why national populations would inevitably explode until famine and disease brought them under control again.

History makes fools of such generalisers, stereotype-peddlers and cultural determinists. But history keeps manufacturing fools.

A Google engineer has blown up a storm in Silicon Valley by claiming in an internal memo that sexism is overblown as an explanation for the male dominance in the technology giant’s workplace.

“The distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership,” he told colleagues.

Which is reminiscent of what Kevin Myers wrote in his infamous The Sunday Times column last month explaining the gender pay gap among BBC stars: “Men usually work harder, get sick less frequently [and] tend to be more ambitious.”

If you want a fancier-sounding variant of the same prejudice try Lawrence Summers. The former president of Harvard suggested in 2005 that “issues of intrinsic aptitude”, rather than sexual bias, were the real reason for the underrepresentation of women in academic science.

As support for this hypothesis, Summers offered the rigorously scientific anecdote of once giving his toddler daughter two trucks to play and witnessing her name them “daddy truck” and “baby truck”.

These are all, of course, displays of unscientific sexism, if not misogyny. Yet one can also find in them a flawed, but common, approach to analysing economic and social phenomenon: a focus on supposedly fixed cultural or biological group traits as an explanation of outcomes and a neglect of social institutions, or the systems of behaviour and relationship patterns found in a society.

Social institutions and psychological biases can provide an adequate explanation for economic inequalities of gender and ethnicity and a lack of social mobility without requiring any spurious hypothesising about permanent gender or cultural traits.

So, for instance, social expectations create “herding” effects. If a majority of girls tend to go into humanities rather than sciences, other girls will often make choices in line with their peer group. Similarly, experience of discrimination can enhance “risk aversion” among ethnic minorities. Why apply for that particular job if you suspect, based on experience, your foreign-sounding name will inevitably lead to rejection?

In a similar vein, why apply for an elite university if no one else from your state school has ever gone there and it seems to be full of clever posh children from private schools? And what if an organisation is dominated by people from a certain social background? Is it not likely that its managers, faced with a marginal hiring decision, would be more inclined to choose someone similar to them?

None of these dynamics require any conscious discrimination (although such bigoted behaviour has hardly been eradicated either). 

And, of course, these patterns of behaviour and assumptions tend to reinforce each other, creating stubborn equilibriums. Stubborn, but not unmovable.

The irony of that 1903 missionary’s observation about Japan is that the country was already well on the way to industrialisation. No one thinks of the Japanese as lazy today. Quite the opposite.

China is, by some measures, now the world’s largest economy. A Confucian heritage wasn’t quite the economic obstacle it seemed. No sensible person today thinks, as Malthus did, that feckless poor people require famine to keep their numbers in check.

Traits are often the consequence of a situation, rather than a cause of it. And what might appear like a permanent state of affairs, so permanent that it lulls people into believing it must reflect something biological, can shift quicker than people expect.

We may one day look back on today’s bloviating about female traits with the same mix of bafflement and derision as we now look back on those historical complaints about the lazy Japanese.

This article was published in The Independent on 8/8/17


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