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The Economics Of ‘Western Culture’, And The ‘Problems’ With Bikinis, Pubs, Homosexuality And More

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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.

influence of western culture

But what is ‘Western Culture’? 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‘?

My argument

What we refer to as ‘Western Culture’ 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.

 

Sources:

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

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  1. Ra’s al Ghul

    Ra’s al Ghul personally congratulates you on an article well written.

  2. Vishwas

    Hey friends!
    The Humsafar Trust, Mumbai started this online petition so that it can be submitted to our PM Narendra Modi to amend Section 377.
    SIGN this petition and share it in your timeline please.
    http://chn.ge/1o5Xl22
    You can appeal people to read this small article that how even straights get affected by non-acceptance of gays.
    http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2014/07/non-acceptance-gays-affects-straight-people/

  3. D Gill

    I’m really curious about this notion of teen pregnancy somehow being a western thing. Why does anyone in a country where rates of child marriage are so high care about so called “teen pregnancy” in the west when it is already happening in India due to high rate of child marriage? Child marriage= pregnant teen does it not? A western teen that gets pregnant is a western freak but a kid that gets married off and has a child at 14 isn’t?

    1. A.Sen

      I think the difference between the two scenario presented in the argument is the inclusion of marriage. The Indian side of so called teen pregnancy , that too as a product of early child marriage somehow alludes to a sense of security( both financial and institutional). However, I would assume that the practices are a major part of the uneducated and marginalized society in India , which requires an exchange of personal freedom and individuality for the mere benefit of survival. This is surely not the case in the West, where teen pregnancy is inevitably a product of emotional neglect and sometimes abhorrent consequences of dysfunctional and abberated family structures. Although the comparison mentioned above draw superfluous parallels to the extent to which sexual activity is rampant in both contexts, the issue of awareness as a precursor and an understanding of the consequences have been looked over.

  4. Gaurav

    This is a very interesting topic, the younger generation feels very strongly about the battle between western and eastern culture. but I am yet to come across a proper definition of either indian culture or western culture.

  5. Kamya

    Brilliant job!!! you have basically summed up everything that people like you and us wanted to let people know! Great job!

  6. vaibhav

    I couldn’t ask for more..a complete summary of issues raised on yka..everyone else just talked about things bit never gave a reason of logic behind it… Like umpteen feminists who wrote or commented, just talked and talked but no one provided with a reason.. Talk logic and everyone is with you..great great job.. These type of articles can give approve the need for change in the mindsets which many are struggling to do..

  7. nitin

    great article. great article. Keep them coming.

  8. preethi

    We Indians are a confused soles. We neither want to completely adopt western culture nor do we want to let go our great Indian traditions.

  9. Manish

    Hi Archeeta,

    While I agree largely with the article that as an economy becomes “developed” (which by the current frame of reference implies reduction of labor force in agriculture and higher participation in the service sector and the rise of small entrepreneurs), the cultural attitudes of society towards women changes.

    However, I would like to point out that this so called “western culture” is ambivalent.
    If by “western culture” you mean the “pop culture” that is projected by western (aka American) TV shows and western (aka Hollywood) cinema, it is not the norm of society across western societies or in the US as well. In certain parts of the US, like the east cost or the west cost, where a lot of young people have moved away from their families in order to make their own fortunes, such a culture (consensual, pre-marital sex, higher divorce rates, etc.) might prevail or might be socially acceptable (sometimes much to the chagrin of the locals).

    However, large portions of the US is deeply conservative (think of the Bible Belt), and the cultural attitudes in such places are strongly rooted in the Judeo-Christian faith, which emphasizes the importance of family and family values. Hence a sweeping generalization of “western culture” is incorrect.

    Alcohol consumption (pubs) is a separate theme and lets not mix it up with others. It is religiously and culturally acceptable in western societies, where as in Asian societies, it may not be religiously sanctioned, but culturally acceptable depending upon the place.

    1. Archeeta Pujari

      I am talking about the ‘Western Culture’ that politicians, policemen and other figures in the media talk about when they are trying to shift the blame for things like increased incidence of rape, and I am trying to convey this very idea that it is a very ill defined, if not inaccurate phrase.

      I agree, its an absurd notion.

    2. Manish

      Very true indeed. The least our politicians and media could do was to stop the psychoanalysis of such horrendous crimes. The police, well, the less said the better. Thanks for the thought provoking piece. Please keep ’em coming.

  10. Rahul Kumar

    Exactly i am soo tired of everyone labeling anything and everything as western or foreign for a mere sake of stigmatizing the concept… any progress, implemented even with the most noblest of intentions is abhorred by some narrow minded pompous baffoons as an alien conspiracy to save their regressive, despotic and preposterous religious or other practices….. our culture, country and the most important of all our constitution is a result of an adaptation of various concepts and rules from these so called “western countries” and some others… the very foundation of our constitution PART III THE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS we hold so dear is consequent upon the bill of rights from the US constitution… i wonder when did progress became some form of heresy…… Moral vitiation of society sure is a profoundly sad concept that has insidiously encroached in our society… we definitely aren’t paragons of virtue today and whats truly mortifying and vile is that morality and righteousness aren’t even the goals we aspire to anymore… but to reject and oppose any development with a view to save or moral conscience is not the solution, it just can’t be… for progress and development are pervasive and inevitable….. as written in the very gist (saar) of bhagvat gita…. (parivartan sansar ka niyam hai)

  11. Shezza

    Great article.

  12. Anitha Choudhary

    Good read!!! Especially the part about alcohol consumption, homosexuality and teen pregnancy…. they are highly prevalent in India particularly in the rural India just that we aren’t aware of it because its all hidden as we consider all this as wrong and the taboo around it does not give us the courage to face or accept it… Attributing your choices as an enforcement of change of culture is not correct… If you choose to overcome the traditional ways of the society and make your own choices and then also have the courage to accept it… And Teen pregnancy, I am not quite sure of the statistics but I am very sure India must be top in the list and why not, Legal child marriages are still largely a part of our rural India… A girl who chooses to be teen parent is a slut but if you force a girl to get married when she is child and if she gives birth to a child when she is a teen then thats perfectly alright… Culture is just a way of life that has evolved over time by people’s choices and it has nothing to be blamed…

  13. Mrigyank

    Great Article…!!! After reading this I recalled an old memory of mine. I used to live with my aunt and uncle during my initial college days. Now he was all spiritual person. I still remember he used to condemn me for listening music over my walkman (even though I used to listen ghazals), and he tagged me as a westernised kid and to make the matters even worse he used to tell everyone how westernised I was for wearing a Jean and t-shirt and listening to music on my walkman. I still think to myself was I really a westernised kid?

    Any ways over the course of my life, I have lived in more than 6 states of India, from rural regions to the urban estates. Met plenty of people with varied perspectives towards our culture. I infact read our sacred text books, and tried further understand what is culture all about. The more I read the more I realised one thing that what we have been taught and have been forced to believe which made a significant impact on our lives is not exactly what the teachings of our books are. Seriously women in our culture were considered far superior to men and they had all the rights which men had. Eg. Swayamvar – a right to choose the best man as a husband and now its boys who generally visit a girl’s house to check whether she is fir or not .

    Another example, we condemn sex as if it is the biggest mistake a man can commit in his life. Even though we are the ones who wrote Kamasutra – The Bible of Sex. See the carvings at Khajuraho, aren’t they beautiful? Still we consider sex as a Taboo. So can’t we say that the kings and queens of those time were more open minded that what we their descendants are today? Prostitution was prevalent in those days as well and it is wrong to say that it is the impact of the Western culture. However over the period of time the teachings of these epics were modified for one’s own benefits. Then the invasion by Mughals and the Brits further created a chaos in an already chaotic society of India. Use of contraceptives, sperm donation, delayed marriages have been prevalent in our society from a long time.

    Now I feel that major reforms are needed as the very basic levels of our constitution as well as our education system. Children should be made to understand the deeper meaning over the period of time. Amendments should be made within the constitution in accordance to the changes occurring in the society but with caution so that it doesn’t produce more confusion in our already more confused and chaotic society. Western Culture is just another made up word to hide the ills which are now embedded in us. We have become so selfish that we prefer to condemn someone else rather than taking a peek what is inside of us.

  14. Cees Tompot

    The menstruation example is a good one because it shows that people can influence the habits of the group. It would be interesting to see how this happened. It seems logic and humane to not ask women to do heavy work when they have cramps and feel miserable. But what is the mechanism that is responsible for the step from “protection” to humiliation? Being in the temple or the kitchen is no heavy work. And not all women are exempted from heavy work. Not all have these heavy cramps and not all had understanding people surrounding them. But in some areas without exeption menstruating women were and are forbidden to enter temples and kitches. This simple analysis makes me fear that some powerful woman hater invented a trick and created this uncleanliness fairy tale. And that was swallowed by the majority..
    But even more sad it is that till now too many people follow this discriminating act, many of them probably without even realizing that it is discriminating. People don’t think independently and critically. They never were taught tohave an opinion of their own.

    The question was asked why some countries do develop and others don’t develop as much with the same input. This issue is dealt with very deeply in the book “A farewell to alms,” that is written by the American scientist Gregory Clark.
    According to him the answer to this crucial question has to be found in the cultural character of a population. The invisible map of rules, norms, values and moral understandings that are practised in a society.
    The scientist Jane Jacobs describes two societies. The first is a protective cultural surrounding (PCS) and the second a, what she calls, commercial open atmosphere (COA). In the PCS values like contempt for trade; manifestation of power; showing of wealth; and the importance of obedience and discipline, dominate. People follow traditions and are very loyal to their groups.
    To a great extent, India is such a society. Power is a dominant factor and obedience and discipline are very much valued. Inequality seems to be the norm for an outsider.
    The other society , I prefer to call it the Thinking and open atmosphere society (TOA) is the kind of society that started to develop itself here in the West. at the end of the 19th century. The increasing disgust of arbitrary power (historic, not based on any merit) replaces the disliking of trade. In negotiations it becomes more and more important to reach agreements on a voluntary and equal base. Honesty and frankness ( transparency) replace blind obedience and discipline.
    Respect for hierarchy is replaced by respect for reasoning and agreements. “Because I say so,” is no longer accepted as the base to settle a dispute. Reasoning became the foundation instead. The more powerful don’t even want to use this “because I say so” anymore. Because they want to be considered as reasonable people. People got eye for their individual interests and are allowed to protect these. At the same time they developed an eye for the interests of others. Equality grows not only because people demand, but also because people start to understand that equality pays off.
    Society grew because people became curious and wanted to learn. And the more they learned, the more they became aware of the gaps in their knowledge which they try cover by reading, but much more by interaction with others. By asking questions and showing interest in subject, but more in other people.
    It is quite clear that societies that more or less embraced the TOA culture have known the fastest development. I write more or less because no society is 100% TOA or 100% PCS. Some societies are closer to 100 than others, that’s all.
    A similar mechanism I once described in the story on the airline crash. Some years ago an airliner from Turkish airlines crashed here in The Netherlands. A main reason was that the second in command did not dare to warn his captain for a mistake he was making. Hierarchy wan from reasoning and taking one’s own responsibility with fatal consequences.
    I’m convinced that next generations need to be able to reason and to think critically. Their interest in people and subjects needs to be stimulated. Taking initiatives should be encouraged. We need to help children to develop their own conscience. We need to stimulate them to think and express themselves. Of course in this process they need to be aware of the society around them. But blindly following traditions won’t work. Blindly following so called cultural patterns and blind discipline even will work less.

  15. Mysterious

    Awesome article and awesome analysis.
    I’m so tired of it.
    Number of rapes REGISTERED in India is far more than that of “Western countries” yet we blame Western dresses when someone gets raped. Makes me laugh at the level of dumbassery some people have here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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