A strong media push by the Sage Foundation has put Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou’s book The Asian American Achievement Paradox into the public sphere in the past couple of days, garnering an op-ed on CNN.com and an interview on Inside Higher Ed. The book — at least what I’ve been able to read of it so far — is excellent. Even better, it pushes back against the embarrassing, amateurish work of Amy Chua, which claims, in essence, that ‘Asians’ are successful because they are morally virtuous. Or rather, since the weird, deeply-seated Anglo-Protestant cultural currents that run the US are often disguised, because of their ‘cultural values’. Lee and Zhou are adamant that cultural values do not cause Asian American success, and should be commended for boiling down their research findings into headline — and then getting people to run it. But their alternate explanation of Asian American success will look to most people, and especially most anthropologists, essentially cultural. The book deserves discussion because of the way it frames the culture concept, studies ‘culture of success’ (and, lurking in the background, ‘culture of poverty’ ) arguments, and attempts to intervene in the public sphere. It is an excellent model for how anthropologists should approach a topic they often shy away from. But it’s an argument for culture not against it. Or rather, for a good understanding of culture rather than an essentialized and inadequate ethnoracial understanding of culture.
Zhou and Lee are not opposed to cultural explanations for Asian American success. Rather, they are opposed to poor science. In this case, they are opposed to uses of ‘culture’ that are so vague as to lose explanatory power. They’re also opposed to the idea there is a single ‘Asian’ culture which instills unchanging and homogenous values in All Asian People. And finally, they’re skeptical of the idea that the innate qualities of individuals are the only factors that lead to success, since there is always more than one causal factor at play in everything. And in this clearly more is at play than just individual character.
Although Lee and Zhou attach the term ‘culture’ to the position they oppose, it is so essentialized and tied to ethnic identity that it’s tempting to simply call it a racial argument by another name. In the cultural versus biology frame that is so endemic to our discipline, it is really Zhou and Lee who make a culturalist argument, rather than the likes of Amy Chua and David Brooks. At least to a first approximation.
Indeed, Lee and Zhou argue that there are several factors promoting Asian American success which could be called ‘cultural’ (that is, based on arbitrary and conventional patterns of meaning): U.S. immigration policy, itself a fabulous cultural concoction, admitted highly educated Asian immigrants to the US, who then went on to raise highly educated children.
The culture of families and communities also helps, but here Lee and Zhou are quick to break down ‘culture’ into a much more serviceable suite of ideas such as institutions, ideas, framings, and cultural capital. Lee and Zhou also emphasize that this not so much a set of ethnoracial cultural values so much as class ones — it is not their Chineseness, but their middleclassness, that leads to immigrant success. At times I wondered whether replacing the supposedly slippery concept of ‘culture’ with ‘class’ really did that much to demystify things. Aren’t they both enduringly slippery concepts in social science? But I do think the important point that ‘culture’ in the sense of ‘shared values and meanings of a particular ethnoracial group — that is, a poor definition of culture — is not adequate. And as Anette Lareau and others have demonstrated, there are enduring class similarities which cross ethnoracial boundaries.
And, most interestingly, positive bias on the part of non-Asian teachers also has a significant role on Asian success. To an extent, then, ethnoracial values do lead to Asian American success — but they are the values and prejudices of Anglo-Protestants, not Asians!
It’s clear that Zhou and Lee are talking about the same phenomena that Chua does: High expectations that parents set for their children, and so forth. In fact, reading Zhou and Lee I sometimes felt like I was getting a slightly warmer and fuzzier rebranding of a process of expectation setting which Zhou and Lee admit can be painful for those who don’t make the cut. The difference between the two books is that Zhou and Lee have done a tremendous amount of science and have a clear body of evidence and a compelling analysis of it.
As a result, Zhou and Lee’s public sociology has a problem: They’re not really saying “you thought it was culture, but really it’s X”. They’re saying “You thought it was culture, but it’s really a very complicated and detailed account of culture. Plus a bunch of other factors.” The problem, in other words, is the old anthropological refrain “it’s complicated.” That’s hard to telegraph in a CNN op-ed, especially since “it’s not culture. It’s expectations, values, and norms as broken down into the following ten concepts” will just leave a lot of people saying “So… you’re saying it’s culture, right?” I think the messaging got a little tangled for this reason.
As Lee and Zhou state in their book, there is a ghost haunting debates about Asian American success, the ‘culture of poverty’ argument put forth by the anthropologist Oscar Lewis. In essence, Lewis argued incorrectly that the culture of poor people made them poor. Other anthropologists were highly critical of Lewis, as they should have. But what many anthropologists took away from the experience was not that bad anthropology was bad, but that culture could not cause poverty — especially if the people making the claim were not political progressives. It was a strange stance for members of a discipline whose central goal is to explore the power of the sociocultural to shape the world.
To this day, many anthropologists denounce “culture of…” arguments before they even get to the third word of the phrase. Zhou and Lee should be commended for taking the bull by the horns and deciding to explore what we mean by ‘culture’ ‘success’ ’cause’ and ‘Asian Americans’. of course, studying Asian American success is much less fraught than studying, you know, institutionalized racism against African Americans. Still, the study has taken on a controversial topic and has done a fine job with it. Anthropologists who want to engage the deep theoretical questions about culture, agency, and inequality that come from studying a politically-charged topic like racial inequality in the US would do well to keep this book and its findings on their radar.