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?