By Archeeta Pujari:
Western culture, that flighty temptress. We hold her singularly responsible for everything that displeases us with our society, from the increase in number of rapes to the proliferation of homosexuality, from love marriages to teen pregnancy, from divorce to the breakdown of joint families.
But what is ‘Western Culture’?Â Why is our youth so ready to adopt it and why are our elders so keen to blame it for all that’s wrong with the world? How do we define ‘Western Culture’? Why is it fine to adopt western technology (electricity, cars, trains, aeroplanes, computers, mobile phones), speak a western language (hello!), wear western clothes (is that a shirt you’re wearing Mr Manohar Parrikar and Dr Harsha Vardhana?) and eat western food (hungry kya?), but not to behave like our ‘Western’ counterparts? At which ill defined point do all things ‘Western’ stop being a great convenience and start being the cause of degradation of society? And once this culture continues to become more and more prevalent in India, at what point it will stop being ‘foreign’ and just become the new ‘Indian Culture‘?
What we refer to as ‘Western Culture’Â has nothing to do with western influence per se. It is in fact the ability and right to exercise personal freedoms, and the freedom to make our own choices, including the wrong choices: be it pre-marital consensual sex, live-in relationships, wearing short skirts or dyeing ones hair pink. It is the freedom to make one’s own choices, within the confines of the law, rather than having arbitrary moral codes of conduct imposed upon us. In this article, I attempt to take a look at some of the academic theories regarding ‘culture’ and it’s influence on the economic, social and human development of a society. I will argue that the greater exercise of personal freedoms that we see today compared to the past (i.e. what some people refer to as ‘Western Culture’) is in fact not a result of influence of western values, but a manifestation and direct consequence of India’s economic development, and it is a sign of a developed and modern society, rather than a depraved and morally corrupt one. In addition, I will try to demonstrate that the effect is a virtuous cycle, developed societies that protect and celebrate individual rights and freedoms in this way pave the path for establishment of progressive and inclusive institutions which benefit the society as a whole.
I should mention here that I will not be discussing my opinion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ culture. I am only exploring the meaning of ‘culture’ from an academic point of view and the relationship between economic development and cultural attitudes.
What is ‘culture’?
Harvard economist Nathan Nunn, in his 2012 article, defines culture as a decision making mechanism, standardized ‘rules of thumb’ developed by societies over time to enable decisions to be made in ‘complex and uncertain environments’. These decision making rules are largely driven by emotions or gut feelings about the ‘‘right’’or ‘‘wrong’’ reaction to a particular situation. These emotions may take the form of deeply-held beliefs about anything, from whether dishonesty should be punished, to whether women should work outside the home.
Why does culture matter?
‘Gut-feelings’ and emotions often serve us as a short-cut for making decisions. Using reasoning and logic alone for making every decision involves a huge amount of time and intellectual effort, from gathering all relevant information, controlling for different states of the world and assessing every possible outcome against the others. So instead, societies develop a set of ‘cultural norms’ over time, to use as a yardstick to measure behaviour and greatly ease the decision making process.
The origins of cultural attitudes
So, where do cultural attitudes come from? They are often a direct consequence of historical events which affect the decision-making process of a society and are subsequently passed on through generations. However, while the human situation is constantly changing, cultural attitudes tend to be persistent, and continue to be adhered to strictly even though their historical bases may no longer be relevant.
One such example is the impact of historical farming practices on participation of women in the labor force today. Allesina et al. (2011) show that in societies which traditionally relied on the use of the plough for agriculture, which requires significant upper body strength relative to other farming implements, there resulted a male specialisation in agriculture and female specialisation in domestic activities. What began as gender-based division of labour then evolved into a deeply-held and persisting belief that the natural role of women was to work within the home while men worked outside. Examining contemporary data shows that even today, societies with ancestors who traditionally engaged in plough agriculture, such as in Northern India, are more likely to hold the belief that men and women are less equal, and they tend to have lower participation rates of women in the workplace, in management positions, and in politics.
One example of how the original purpose of cultural norms can be corrupted over time is the belief that women are considered ‘impure’ or ‘untouchable’ during menstrual periods, and often barred from entering the kitchen or places of worship. The origin of this is that women who suffered from severe cramps and other symptoms of menstruation could not participate in farming and domestic tasks, and were granted days of rest. Over time, the medical significance of the ‘rule of thumb’ that women should be given rest during cycles was forgotten and instead replaced by the ‘cultural norm’ that women should be avoided during this time due to their impurity.
The ‘culture’ of a developed society
Rostow defines 5 stages of economic growth for an economy, starting from traditional agrarian societies in the first stage to the final stage of mass consumerism, characterised by advanced economies such as USA, Western Europe and Japan. As the income per capita rises and economies become more advanced, they begin to show certain common characteristics. I give 4 examples below, which are sometimes misinterpreted as signs of ‘bad western culture’ rather than inevitable and universal characteristics of a modern and well functioning society.
The status of women: One of the most dramatic and widely documented effects of economic development on society is the equal status given to women. As societies develop, they rely less on agriculture and manual labour, women are at less of a disadvantage compared to men in the workforce and can participate at an equal level. As the burden of breadwinning is shifted away from men and shared more equitably between genders, traditional culture of patriarchy begins to break down as both men and women are afforded equal status.
Use of contraceptives and delayed marriage: As a direct result of women being able to participate in the workforce, the value of a woman’s time increases. While previously, all of her time was dedicated to child-rearing and domestic tasks, she now has the option of selecting between many children and a poorer quality of life and fewer children balanced with paid-employment outside the family home to ensure a much higher standard of living for each child. As more and more women move into the workplace, population growth declines while the use of contraceptives rise. As women are educated more, to enable higher future earning power, they also begin to delay the age of marriage and starting a family to ensure the optimal balance of employment and familial responsibility. This cultural trend of smaller families and delayed marriage has been well documented in Europe and North America, but has also begun to develop in urban India.
Higher divorce rates: Greater financial independence of women means less pressure to remain in an unhappy marriage due to financial reasons. Across economies, higher divorce rates have been seen to coincide with greater female participation in the labour force. As this becomes more established in India, the stigma around divorce will begin to crumble.
Nuclear families: Agrarian society relying on the ownership of family land also gives rise to the culture of joint families. In addition, the lack of a reliable financial system and products such as savings accounts, health insurance and pensions means that people have no means of saving for the future and instead rely on their children as means of support in old age, which is another factor leading to the prevalence of joint families. The decline of agriculture based economies and development of financial markets means that joint families are no longer a necessitiy, and in many case, less feasible than nuclear families.
A culture of freedom leads to better outcomes ?
An economically and socially developed society places greater value on personal freedoms and choices rather than restrictive social and cultural norms. In turn, this leads to development of better institutions and a socially progressive society.
A classic example is Fisher’s (1989) examination of early migration to North America. Among others, he examines two groups of migrants: Cavaliers (1642-1675) from South England who settled in Chesapeake Bay and the Quakers (1675-1725) from England’s North Midlands and settled in Delaware Valley. The Cavaliers believed that inequality was natural. For them the ideal society was less about equality, but about maintaining existing order and norms. These values resulted in limited education, lower taxes, less government spending, and an informal system of justice based on hierarchical violence. The Quakers believed more in personal freedom, including freedom of choice rather than limiting individual freedom to maintain social order. As a result, the institutions that were established in the Delaware Valley granted all citizens equal access and rights to courts, emphasised personal rights and limited government intervention in personal and religious affairs. Thus, not only does development have an impact on culture, but culture also impacts institutions which have an impact on development.
OK. So what about the BIG problems: bikinis, pubs, homosexuality and teen pregnancy ?
Alcohol consumption, homosexuality and teen pregnancy have always existed in all societies, including India. They are by no means a ‘Western’ notion. The difference is that in India, there is still a culture of shame and taboo surrounding these things, and we are taught to suppress rather than accept and seek solutions. The culture of rigid moral values only serves to compound negative stereotypes surrounding those who fail to adhere to these while doing nothing to alleviate the problem. In contrast, a culture of freedom provides all individuals the information and ability to make the right choices, and help and rehabilitation to those who don’t. Sex education, freedom of religion, clothing and choice of sexual partner are not a sign of degrading moral values, but a sign that we have evolved as a society, culturally, economically and socially.
The bottom line
Over the course of this article, I have explored the meaning of culture as a decision-making tool, or a yardstick for socially preferred behaviour, discussed the historical roots of certain aspects of our culture and how they may not be relevant in a modern context and demonstrated the interaction between culture and economic growth and vice versa. While culture is something to be embraced, as it reminds us of our identity and history, we also need to remember that it is something that is constantly evolving, and shaped by our experiences as a society, rather than something which is static and rigidly enforced irrespective of context or historical relevance.
Nunn, Nathan. 2012. On culture and the historical process. Online: Harvard University.
Alesina, Alberto, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn. 2011. On the origins of gender roles: women and the plough. Online: Harvard University.
Fischer, David Hackett. 1989. Albion’s seed: four British folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press