"Eight Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are"

May 14, 2013

On this installment of ST, we speak with Dr. Hazel Rose Markus, who is the Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and a pioneer in the field of experimental cultural psychology. She's also the co-author of a new book, "Clash: Eight Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are." As is stated at a useful website that's been created in tandem with this volume: "As the world gets smaller, hotter, and flatter, people from different cultures are colliding like never before...." So, "Clash" takes these ever-increasing collisions as its starting point, and then categorizes them within eight different kinds of disconnect or discord --- that is, the 'eight cultural conflicts' mentioned in the book's subtitle. More interesting, however, is that the book then shows us how each of these conflicts is actually a reflection of the two basic yet contrasting ways in which one can exist, as it were, or the two basic means of selfhood: the independent (or separate and in-control) self and the interdependent (or connected and adjusting) self. Indeed, these two selves --- and the ways in which they overlap and/or clash --- influence everything from how we teach our students and raise our kids to how we run our governments and regard both the rich and the poor. "We show how people can nudge their cultures to call forth their best selves," says Dr. Markus in her book. "By knowing when and how to use our different selves, we may not just survive, but thrive, in the 21st century." And as was noted of this book by a critic for Kirkus Reviews: "Culture --- and anthropologists have counted at least 200 extended definitions of that elusive term --- is the shell surrounding us human eggs, and, as the authors note, it is what allows so many whites to wear blinders that assure them that we live in a post-racial society while people of color know the truth to be very different. Culture, [as the authors of 'Clash'] assert rightly, has as much to do with who people are 'as do the genes, neurons, and brain regions within their bodies.' And as to the clash of the title? The authors do not always have their eyes on this prize, but they address that large question, observing --- and it's always dangerous to generalize --- that people raised under the banner of Socrates prize individualism, whereas people raised under that of Confucius tend to value the polity more than the individual members of it. The authors chew on some slippery but intriguing tidbits: Why are Californians thin and athletic, Midwesterners not so much? (Hint: It has to do with the stability of relationships.) The authors...provide plenty of smart if debatable observations about who we are."