Chatting up the Ostrogoths

Amartya Sen vs. Samuel Huntington:

The belief in the allegedly “Western” nature of democracy is often linked to the early practice of voting and elections in Greece, especially in Athens. Democracy involves more than balloting, but even in the history of voting there would be a classificatory arbitrariness in defining civilizations in largely racial terms. In this way of looking at civilizational categories, no great difficulty is seen in considering the descendants of, say, Goths and Visigoths as proper inheritors of the Greek tradition (“they are all Europeans,” we are told). But there is reluctance in taking note of the Greek intellectual links with other civilizations to the east or south of Greece, despite the greater interest that the Greeks themselves showed in talking to Iranians, or Indians, or Egyptians (rather than in chatting up the Ostrogoths).


14 thoughts on “Chatting up the Ostrogoths

  1. That was a fascinating article, Kerim. Thanks for sharing! It’s amazing to think how old and widespread the idea of democracy really is, and how few understand that its roots are not settled solely in ancient Greece, or really in any European country’s history. The part that really hit home was when the author noted that Muslim leaders were more tolerant of cultural differences and the spread of ideas than their European counterparts during the Crusades. We have, as a society, this idea that democracy is some kind of gift that we benevolently bestow upon non-Western cultures. I’ve always thought there was something inherently wrong with that idea, particularly when you look at societies that are far more egalitarian than our own, both in theory and in practice.

    I’ve heard the idea bounced around that democracy just can’t work in Iraq. I think the major problem is that we’re too busy trying to force our idea of democracy on them, as if it’s the best and only way. Democracy isn’t a new idea in the Middle East, though we have a tendancy to treat it like it is. As the author had pointed out, it’s really very insulting to refer to dissidents within any non-Western culture, hoping to bring democracy to their governments (not just Iranian!) as “ambassadors spreading Western ideas.” It gives people the idea that we have some sort of claim upon open discussion…and we don’t.

  2. I haven’t looked at Huntington’s arguments for a couple of years, since graduation.

    Is it really fatal for his position to note that centuries ago, cultures were different, or that the values presently held by one culture weren’t held by it in the past, and didn’t originate in the manner that culture’s myths claim? My understanding was that he deals primarily with how different cultures interact *now*.

  3. What a strange juxtaposition of Sen and Hunington. Sen, the economist, is arguing in this piece _against_ the idea that behavior can be explained by culture and presents (wait for it) economic explanations instead. He does so because he responds to a position which labels nonwestern cultures dysfunctional. I agree with Sen that these particular diagnoses are wrong, but as an anthropologist obviously I’m more convinced of the general potential of cultural explanations than Sen is (he once described culture to a friend of mine as ‘merely a parametric variable’ in his equations).

  4. Well ok, when rereading Sen’s article I have to admit the previous comment is unfair to Sen, whose position is more nuanced then I give him credit for. But still I worry about they way ‘cultural explanations’ such as the ones that Sen very rightly opposes end up leading people to think less of the sort of stuff that we anthropologists do.

  5. Just a thought. Suppose that we stopped the silly business of treating economic and cultural explanations as mutually exclusive alternatives and started, instead, looking at what one adds to the other. It’s a far from perfect example, but this is what I did in my book on Japanese consumers where I noted in the concluding chapter that

    1) Japanese confront the same generic set of problems confronting all of the advanced industrial nations: organization men, women redefining their roles as active consumers and participants in the labor force, the resulting strain on relationships, not only between men and women but also between parents and children, leading to the feeling that the younger generation are alien to members of older generations, prolonged retirements and an aging population…..

    2)How Japanese respond to these problems is affected by material conditions specific to Japan. A good example is the absent father problem. A generic condition resulting from the modern world’s separation of workplace and home, it is exaggerated in Japan (or, more properly, in the Tokyo metropolitan area) by immensely long commutes.

    3)But the ways in which Japanese respond to these problems is also affected by cultural considerations. Here a good example is the breakdown of the traditional household model, which differs in its nuances from the breakup of the traditional household model in China or India, where the models were different to begin with.

    Proceeding in this way has at least the virtue that it stimulates thinking about how economic factors interact with the griitty local detail that ethnography (or well-down marketing research) reveals.

  6. Sen, who has often taught in philosophy departments instead of economics departments is not your usual economist. Moreover, I don’t think any anthropologist worth her salt would disagree with the following:

    This is not to suggest that cultural factors are irrelevant to the process of development, but they do not work in isolation from social, political and economic influences. Nor are they immutable.

  7. The defining characteristic of democracy is not “voting” and “elections” as Sen erroneously claims, but rather rule by the entire body of citizens, rather than a privileged group of citizens (king or tyrant or aristocrats/oligarchs). In ancient democracy, most offices were awarded by lot, and not by election. Also, modern “democracy” should not be confused with democracy, and should rather be called elected oligarchy, or some other more appropriate term.

  8. The defining characteristic of democracy is not “voting” and “elections” as Sen erroneously claims,

    Now that’s not what Sen claims, is it?

  9. Well it has been almost a decade since I wrote my MA on Sen and anthropology and not only was it a disasterous failure but he has been keeping busy in the meantime (winning the Nobel Prize and stuff like that). Still I I do honestly think that most of his thought about ‘culture’ has basically involved demonstrating that it need not stand in the way of a strongly universalist approach to justice and human rights. Most the chapter on ‘Culture and Human Rights’ in Development as Freedom, for instance, seeks to demonstrate that ‘Asian values’ don’t stand in the way of human rights. More generally, I think that a capabilities approach to human flourishing is in particular need of an account of culture, particularly if it is attempting to built its account of the ‘good life’ out from an Aristotelan base, as Nussbaum (and Sen) attempt to do.

    But that’s a longer story. It is true that economists are not anthropologists and it would be a little unrealistic to expect them to treat cultural systems as more than parameters in their work, since culture is not after all what they focus on. In Sen’s case, however, he has produced a body of work whose breadth and ambition requires him to address issues of culture more fully.

    Despite this, throughout his work his account of what culture is and how it functions is really udnertheorized. One gets the impression that all people basically all want the same things, and that ‘culture’ comes perilously close to a sort of food-court multiculturalism where ‘difference’ is marked by regional styles of dress or cuisine.

    In the end it’s the proximity to anthropological thought, rather than the distance from it, that I think requires Sen to make this next step. His writing on culture in the article you cite (as well as in other places) recognizes that different places have internally heterogenous ‘values’ and that ‘cultures’ are not bright and clearly bounded, but feature pervasive interconnections. He knows that ‘tradition’ is flexible and that people have multiple cultural genealogies available to them in the act of their self fashioning.

    But how does this work? How are these cultural structures refigured in practice? Simply because they _could_ be reworked into a form that would be suitable for a functioning liberal democracy doesn’t mean they will be. What _are_ the cultural factors at play in ‘failed states’ today? Despite his careful hedging on this issue (which Kerim quotes above) when push comes to shove I think Sen often ends up treating ‘cultural’ forces with much less rigor than he claims (or thinks) he does.

  10. Sure, and his concept of “freedoms” is also undertheorized – even his concept of “inequality” has some big gaping holes in it, but I’ve always seen Sen as a useful gadfly, an internal critic of ecnomics whose counterfactual arguments force economists to abandon long-cherished assumptions. The same could be said of Jon Elster. Neither of them are willing to abandon economic theory per-se and move into the realm of cultural/normative theorizing that we are used to in Anthropology, but I think they do a good job showing why that step is necessary even if they are unwilling to take it themselves.

    There is an old joke that Newton invented calculus to help the study of physics, while the study of Economics was developed to use calculus. If you really push an economist such as Elster or Sen they will admit the limitations of their own discipline, but will still be unwiling to move to a model that demands abandoning the tools of their trade.

  11. What I saw in the article were two claims that could be useful for problematising the temporal and spatial boundaries of “democratic culture”:

    First, by pointing out that there is no obvious cultural continuity between contemporary “western” nations and classical Greece, the article calls into question the conventional narrative – particularly in popular media – that the west possesses some long-term, continuous cultural affinity with contemporary democratic institutions (and that, by implication, regions without such long-term continuity need a long historical incubation before they are “ready” for democracy).

    By pointing to other potential historical examples that could – taken abstractly – also be hypothetically used to argue for a long historical tradition for “democratic” practices, Sen establishes a basis for questioning the validity of arguments that use this exact form of abstract, hypothetical reasoning when talking about the rise of democratic practices in the west.

    Second, by pointing to the existence of democratic movements that span “cultural” spaces, as those spaces are often conceptualised, the article questions the sometimes proprietary boundaries that are drawn around democratic ideals, and used to define these ideals as somehow intrusions into non-western cultures.

    You can take Sen’s empirical points quite seriously, without abandoning the concept of “culture” as a significant explanatory/interpretative category – but you need to begin to analyse the ways in which contemporary local, regional and national communities exist in a broader global cultural context, and think through the relationships between the global spread of practices and the global spread of ideas that may need to be conceptualised as equally “indigenous” to much of the world at this point in time…

    I’m not making any strong claims about Sen’s intentions – he may well believe that his argument requires the abandonment of cultural explanations. But his article raises some empirical issues that would need to be taken into account, I suspect, for an adequate understanding of the historical rise and spread of democratic ideals, practices and institutions.

  12. I don’t think you could really say “well, there are lots of things undertheorized in Sen’s work, so ‘culture’ is just like ‘freedom’ and ‘inequality’ in this way.” I don’t think this can be sustained — just the title of his volumes indicates that terms like freedom, inequality, quality of life, capability, and development are central to his program. “Culture” occurs only as “Indian Culture” in a more recent book.

    As a point of clarification, I should say that Sen’s early work has been enormously influential and important to me, whereas I see Huntington as someone whose achievement in ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (the article, I’ve not read the book) is to 1) completely ignore the the pacific and all the nations in it and 2) slowly and dimly realize some things about long-term and large-scale sociocultural structures that many historians and anthropologists could have told him years ago. That said, while I don’t think much about Huntington’s amateur Braudelianism (insofar as I understand it) I am afraid that when Sen wanders off from his area of speciality he may not do much better — this is certainly the impression I get from this essay as well as the reviews of the book it’s based on.

    I think it’s a pity that we anthropologists aren’t more active in these sorts of debates. The entire thing makes me want to mandate that everyone read Europe and the People Without History over and over and over again.

  13. I think NP said what I wanted to say better than I said it. Thanks.

    As far as Rex’s claim that “terms like freedom, inequality, quality of life, capability, and development are central to his program” – sure, but I think his work is useful despite these problems, and it seems so do you!

    I’m not convinced that a good critique always has to offer up a suitable and fully internally consistant alternative. I think what you are saying is that Anthropologists could do it better, even though they aren’t (at least not since Eric Wolf). And I would have to agree. But I often find myself in arguments with people who read people like Huntington or journals like the Economist, and I find that Sen’s manner of argumentation goes much further in talking to such people than would an anthropological argument. Or, more precisely, it allows me to open up a space in the converation where there is room to discuss anthropology, since people seem biased against the kinds of culture-based argumetns anthroplogists are prone to make. (As opposed to the Huntington style arguments which appeal to their common-sense understandings.)

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