I increasingly think that anthropologists may have some of the deepest insights into the commons because they have the courage to pierce the veil of cultural norms. This point was brought home to me by a wonderful essay by anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann of Stanford University in the New York Times.
“Americans and Europeans stand out from the rest of the world for our sense of ourselves as individuals,” she wrote. “We like to think of ourselves as unique, autonomous, self-motivated, self-made. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed, this is a peculiar idea.” By contrast, she noted, Asians tend to perceive things in more holistic, contextual ways.
Social psychology experiments confirm many of these findings about people’s perceptions of interdependence and individualism. Show Americans an image of fish swimming amidst various seaweed plants, and they will more likely to focus on large fish in the foreground. But show the same image to Asians and they are more likely to remember first the sea plants and other objects.
Context or foreground? People who live in market-based cultures seem to have trained themselves to focus on the salient individuals while literally failing to see or remember the background. Why might this occur?
A May 2014 article in the journal Science by psychologist Thomas Talhelm and his colleagues suggests that there may be agroecological reasons. Over long periods of history, farming practices for different crops – say, wheat farming and rice farming – may have trained us to perceive things differently. As Luhrmann summarizes:
Rice is a finicky crop. Because rice paddies need standing water, they require complex irrigation systems that have to be built and drained each year. One farmer’s water use affects his neighbor’s yield. A community of rice farmers needs to work together in tightly integrated ways.
Not wheat farmers. Wheat needs only rainfall, not irrigation. To plant and harvest it takes half as much work as rice does, and substantially less coordination and cooperation. And historically, Europeans have been wheat farmers and Asians have grown rice.
Could these different farming practices have produced different sorts of cultures? Talhelm decided to test for different patterns of perception among Han Chinese farmers who grow wheat north of the Yangtze River with rice farmers who live south of the river. The scientists presented the farmers with images of a bus, train and train tracks, and asked which two images go together. The wheat farmers paired the bus and train as two examples of transportation, but the context-sensitive rice farmers paired the train and train tracks because those two things work together.
“Asked to draw their social networks, wheat-region subjects drew themselves larger than they drew their friends," Luhrmann noted. "Subjects from rice-growing regions drew their friends larger than themselves.” Clearly the different experiences of wheat farmers and rice farmers had a lot to do with how they habitually saw the world and its elements.
While these are scientific experiments, to me they are also parables. They help explain why many people have trouble seeing the commons. Many people have become acculturated to ignore other people and ecological context as a matter of basic perception. They perceive only isolated agents acting on their own, as “self-made” individuals, without meaningful connections to other people, historical experiences, cultural traditions, etc.
Of course none of us can really exist as atomized individuals, the homo economicus fiction that economists say we are. We live in a rich, dense web of connections – and that web is more sustaining of life than many moderns allow themselves to realize.
Luhrman cautions: “It is worth remembering that this way of thinking [individualism] might just be the product of other way our forefathers grew their food and not a fundamental truth about the way that all humans flourish.”