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January 15th, 2006
Sun, Jan. 15th, 2006 02:20 pm

Today's thought: Cultural difference is culturally constructed, but that doesn't mean it's not real. Out of an enormous mass of differences between people, some differences are "differences that make a difference". That is, these differences (and whether they're objectively measurable or not is irrelevant) play out in a specific culture in such a way as to make a real difference to the lived experiences of people in that culture, sometimes an overwhelming and determinant difference.

Today I just want to paste stuff related to this thought, pro and contra.

"My central concern is to try to show that cultural difference is itself a cultural construct. This may seem to be jejune and question begging. But the point is that to perceive there being a cultural difference between two social entities presupposes that there is a criterion by means of which the perceiver judges that, according to the criterion, there is or is not a cultural difference. This criterion varies according to the purposes, contexts, situations, desires, histories, or in other words to the factors that do not lie within those entities whose differences are being examined. It is not the case that cultural difference is objective in the sense of differences in height or weight among individuals are objective. The factors that turn normal or physical differences into cultural ones are themselves cultural... That cultural difference is a cultural construct, nonetheless, does not mean that it is not real."

Soraj Hongladarom, Cultural Difference As A Cultural Construct (Department of Philosophy, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok)

"Asians and North Americans really do see the world differently. Shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while students from China spent more time studying the background and taking in the whole scene, according to University of Michigan researchers."

In Asia, the Eyes Have It (Associated Press report on this project.)

"There is rather more in our interpretation of faces that is hard-wired than we generally like to think. It seems to be part of the received wisdom of aspects of cultural studies that beauty is a cultural artefact. Indeed, that must almost inevitably be an article of faith of some currents of cultural studies, since it implies that our perception of physical beauty and the importance we attach to it is open to change and can therefore be contested. If we wish to free women in particular from the tyranny of the fashion industries, then we have a greater chance of doing so if our preference for the images projected by those industries is culturally constructed than if it is hard-wired. However, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists are presenting evidence which they claim supports their contention that our cultural preferences are not as culturally determined as they appear to be.

"Judith Langlois of the University of Texas in Austin conducted experiments in which she first had adults rate photographs of faces for their attractiveness. She then showed the same photographs to six-month-old infants and discovered that they spent more time looking at those faces rated as attractive by the adults. Similar results were obtained with two-month-old babies. Interestingly, it seems that the more 'average' a face is, the more attractive it will be assessed as. Computer software can be used to average a large number of photographs and the resultant composite is very frequently judged to be highly attractive. Langlois suggests that human beings are born 'cognitive averagers' and that this innate tendency accounts for our notions of physical beauty. Certainly, cultural influences do have a role to play, as is evident from reports of early cross-racial encounters, the Japanese for example reporting that they found the dog-eyes of Western women disturbing and Westerners reporting that the Orientals' slit-eyes were unattractive. Indeed, Langlois's research does not undermine the notion of cultural influences, since the infants are in most cases likely to be performing their cognitive averaging across a single racial type."

Mick Underwood, Non-Verbal Communication; Facial Expressions

"The Implicit Association Test is designed to examine which words and concepts are strongly paired in people's minds. For example, "lightning" is associated with "thunder," rather than with "horses," just as "salt" is associated with "pepper," "day" with "night." The reason Banaji and Greenwald still find it difficult to associate black faces with pleasant words, they believe, is the same reason it is harder to associate lightning with horses than with thunder. Connecting concepts that the mind perceives as incompatible simply takes extra time. The time difference can be quantified and, the creators of the test argue, is an objective measure of people's implicit attitudes. For years, Banaji had told students that ugly prejudices were not just in other people but inside themselves. As Banaji stared at her results, the cliche felt viscerally true."

The Washington Post on the Implicit Associations Test.

When it comes to our immediate and subliminal reactions, anyway, culture and language seem to think us. The fact that language's divisions of reality are arbitrary does not make them any less obligatory:

"We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees."

B.L. Whorf, "Language, Thought and Reality" Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press (1956)

The difference that makes a difference is arbitrary, a construct... and real.

Related links:

The Specular Self

Ebony and Ivory

Introduction to Cultural Psychology by Hazel Markus of Stanford (WGBH/Annenberg "Discovering Psychology" series video)

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