Slippery Definitions

4 February 2009

Where’s the Culture in Multicultural?

Sliip, by MarkyBon, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Definitions are slippery things, often over-ruled by the shear weight of expectations. In responding to ‘yourfriend’ about multiculturalism in China I have relied on what is by and large an academic definition of ‘multicultural’ rather than what has more recently become a popular description of multiple cultures in the same political space. My multicultural country is one in which the majority culture absorbs, pays deference to and systematically tends to the health of minority cultures – an unrealised and perhaps unrealisable ideal, if the policies and presumptions of multiculturalism are anything to go by. ‘Yourfriend’, in contrast, has defined – a least implicitly – a ‘multicultural’ country as one in which multiple cultures exist: a statement of fact.

This is an interesting divergence not so much because it shows our different viewpoints (although that it does) but because it’ll allow me to consider some of the implications of what we haven’t quite managed to discuss, touching on the points that ‘yourfriend’ has covered and considering some of the things we’ve both missed. And, as ‘yourfriend’ implies in his final comment from last week, both sides are lacking useful definitions of ‘nationality’ and ‘culture’. These, unfortunately, aren’t really evident in the post by Professor Crane that I originally wrote about.

Ethnicity and Nation

I can, however, start by accepting the assertion that minzu, which I put forward as ‘nationality’, is more accurately translated into English as ‘ethnicity’. That doesn’t necessarily rule out xenophobia in China of the sort I described in my last post – as ‘yourfriend’ mentions of America, the creation of “ethnic people” can be debasing by itself. But leaving that particular issue aside as something I can neither prove nor disprove here, I’m interested in how ‘ethnicity’ and ‘nationality’, or at least the concept of the nation, start to merge into one another in discussions about multiculturalism, and how the notion of culture floats on by, curiously abandoned.

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Tread Warily, Fair Traveller

23 July 2008

A Socioeconomic Journey into Vengeance

The world of economics is a curious domain, beset by mathematics, often at odds with the reason of everyday life, but enormously informative should you traverse its difficult terrain. I’m reminded, each time I enter, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s perilous land, the enchanting realm of Faerie wherein lie “pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold”. But I doubt another place could offer the governance of pirate crews and longevity of nuclear deterrence both to illuminate the human condition, still speaking of interest rates and supply matched mostly to demand.

Economics has taught me that much of what we assume is in no way actual, and that logic other people can’t understand is no less logical for it. So now I venture there again, to look around, to shout BEWARE! and to marvel at the concepts that lie in wait within.

The National Bureau of Economic Research in the US recently uploaded Naci Mocan’s working paper on vengeance. Yes, you read that correctly – vengeance. Those of you who, like me, have spent a while in and around academia might be tempted to think first of departmental politics, but not this time.

Mocan’s paper is a very carefully argued study of statistics drawn from the International Crime Victim Survey conducted by the United Nations, covering the responses of 89,000 interviewees from 53 countries. To cut a very long story short, it’s about what is likely to happen if your colour television is stolen that the perpetrator caught. How are you likely to feel?

That doesn’t seem entirely within the realm of economics, but it is given that Mocan finds different attitudes prevalent in different places, and according to different income levels, including per capita levels for the whole country. People from lower socioeconomic groups, and in poorer countries, will want to send that TV-stealing thief to jail for longer, and sometimes even for life.

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Of Culture and Callousness

27 June 2008

An Important Account of Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

la mà de Cromos, by isburlas, with Creative Commons licenceSpeak of culture and others will immediately imagine depth, profundity, an underlying explanation of the way things are. But culture is a notoriously slippery term, often promising more than it delivers. It literally means ‘to grow’, whence comes ‘cultivated’, which we tend to associate with being civilised. That’s hardly a guide to living. But as Clifford Geertz so persuasively argued in his Interpretation of Cultures, the term more properly denotes the way in which meaning is transmitted symbolically through human communication – we speak and act our cultures rather than experience them dumbly. And we do so across time, with cultural change at the epicentre of our lives. So when someone works for 10 years on a doctoral dissertation entitled ‘Culture of Indifference’ and describes the trials and abuse of Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong, it’s more than worth listening to the new, counter-cultural voice.

Estelle Kennelly’s ‘Culture of Indifference: Dilemmas of the Filipina Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong’ is available free for download through a Creative Commons licence. Kennelly completed the dissertation in 2007 while a graduate student of social anthropology at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, having conducted extensive fieldwork in Hong Kong from mid-1999 to early 2001, including at migrant women’s shelters. Released online this week, her findings shout what others only whisper – that engrained into Hong Kong society, at the individual, social and judicial levels, is a culture of indifference towards foreign domestic helpers that fosters abuse.

Indifference, by Tahoe Sunsets, with Creative Commons licenceThat abuse – and there is no other word for it – ranges from exploitation through extraordinarily long working hours to verbal, physical and sexual violence, drawing in underpayment, deliberate isolation and the deprivation of freedom. But the situation remains an elephant in the room of Hong Kong life seven years after Kennelly completed her fieldwork because a climate of fear suppresses the capacity of helpers to adequately defend themselves.

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