Re: Westernization and its effects on culture

Thomas L. Billings (
29 Nov 1995 10:20:47 GMT

Shannon Goins <> wrote:

"Thomas L. Billings" <> wrote:
> > > Shannon Goins <> wrote:
> > >
> > >I am writing a paper on the effects of westernization on
> >traditionally non-western cultures. I would be interested to hear
> > >opinions about the decrease in cultural diversity...
> > >How serious is this? ...the risk of imposing western cultural
> > >values?
> > >
> > >Any other thoughts related to this issue?
> >
> >My first thought is that much of what is being spread about is
> >less "westernization" than industrialization. Industrial
> >environments make different demands on people in the U.S. than our > > > >old european peasant cultures did. Why should we be=
surprised or > > > >dismayed when that happens to someone else who starts building > > > >their way out of peasant povert=

> *** I'd just like a little clarification here, please. What
> exactly are you getting at when you refer to a 'peasant culture'? It
> seems to me that you are indicating two opposites: industrialized
> cultures and those that are non-industrialized, in your opinion
> 'peasant cultures'.

> ***If this is correct, then could you please tell me what makes
> them 'peasants'? I have lived in such 'peasant
> cultures'(non-industrialized areas) in Kenya and South Africa. If you are > referring directly to monetary wealth on an overall =
scale, then, yes, they are poor monetarily. But, I think that it might be a bit inappropriate > to call them 'peasants'

I'm simply referring to cultures that developed in a stagnant technology (compared to industrial rates of advance), inhibited commun=
ication, agrarian, rural environment as peasant cultures. That includes almost everybody's ancestors at some time, including mine. =
I do not use the term in any perjorative sense. It is a convenient single word description that contains, for me, the above descr=
iption of many of these cultures.

Most of the people in areas that aren't far along in industrialization do have cultures that fit that description for long periods o=
f time, more or less well. Pastoralists and the remaining hunter-gatherer groups would be an exception, but are few in absolute num=
bers. Please note we are by no means quit of many parts of this type of culture in the relatively industrialized areas. Culture se=
ems to change slower than things like technology, etc. Calling peasant cultures an "opposite" to industrial cultures is IMHO inacc=
urate, because industrial cultures are still emerging. They are nowhere nearly as well defined and settled as the old cultures from=
the old environment.

> > The growing industrial cultures can have as much diversity as
> > peasant cultures.

> ***Are you certain? Think here about things like Coca-Cola,
> or American pop music, or blue jeans, etc. When was the last
> time that you drank a traditional drink of non-western origin, or
> listened to music of artists outside of the US, Great Britian, Ireland or
> Australia; and tell me when the last time was that you wore any
> kind of traditional clothing of non-western origin?

Yes, this is one thing I'm certain about, perhaps becuase I use a different idea of diversity than you do. The diversity of product=
s actually available to most of the people in industrialized societies is enormous compared to a pre-industrial society. The uses t=
hat different people in different places put them to are even more diverse.

As to the diversity between groups of people, well, I was taught to judge people and their actions on an individual basis. I've fou=
nd that very useful and will continue to do so. I'm not really interested in keeping big batches of people different from one anoth=
er, or in pushing them together more than they themselves wish to be. "Imposing" western values won't be successful, anymore than i=
mposing confucian values will be here(some are trying in our schools). A market doesn't force anybody, though people who find their=
old customers headed off to a new supplier may speak in that fashion, and even come to believe it.

> ***Let me assure you that around the world, in traditional
> non-western countries such as Japan, Argentina, Korea, Kenya, South > Africa, etc.they drink Coca Cola, they listen to American p=
op music, and > they wearblue jeans. Kind-of one-sided, don't ya' think?

I'm sure they do all of that, just as Americans listen to Reggae, eat Kiwi fruit, pizza, and sushi, watch anime and look at asian TV=
sets(none made in U.S. now). We got many of our cultural artifacts from somewhere else. The fact that we then spread them around =
has little significance for them having passed through the U.S. except in so far as many exclaim about how much comes from the U.S.,=
even if it only passed through.

> > The extreme valuation placed on existing cultures in much of
> > academia is a rather self-serving phenomenon visa-vi those
> > departments that study existing cultures. Cultural tools
> > should be as valuable as any other of equal use in gaining survival > and fullfillment. Why set them higher just to please =
one academic
> > group or another?

> ***Who says? We have people who study cultural anthropology out
> of pure interest in the subject just like we have people who study
> biology or chemistry for the same reason. I guess that someone
> who studies foreign cultures might be more likely to point out the
> importance of preserving them than a biology major, but isn't
> the biology major just as likely to point out the importance of
> biological research, and the need to keep it alive? I don't think that
> academia is trying to put any particular culture on a level higher than
> another, it's just that their field of study dictates that they
> bring out the issue of the necessity of preserving that which they
> study. What do you study? What if in 15 years it didn't exist anymore? > Obviously, you'd be out of a job, but more importantly=
, that
> which you had spent your whole life learning about is gone. Would that
> make any difference to you?

I would never doubt that cultural anthropology is potentially valuable, especially in adapting our own culture to the changing circu=
mstances of the continuing industrial revolution. I simply believe that trying to keep any human cultures from changing to industr=
ial ones is like a biologist preparing a sample of bacteria for the electron microscope. He gets to see some exquisite and exciting=
detail. The bug is less excited. It's been killed by the preparation that freezes cellular motion to allow study. These are not=
microbes we're talking about, they're people. ( Oops!, a nice person looking over my shoulder claims they can now prepare samples f=
or an STM without killing them, but you get the idea.)

What do I study? The sig. should explain that. Teleoperated Space Development. If they kill off robotics, then we'll just have to=
do the work by hand, which could be a real pain in a space suit! Since I'm interested in making changes happen, if they stop us he=
re I'll go somewhere else and work another angle on getting us into Space.
> > If a group of Alaskan North Slope Inuits were moved by some
> > catastrophe to the jungles of Cambodia, then few would demand
> > they be encouraged to keep parkas, muckluks, and other cultural
> > items. In contrast when as large a change happens to them , and to
> > many others, with regard to industrialization there is an outcry in
> > the last 25 years about how horrible this is.

> *** First of all, I would like a more probable example to
> debate. This hypothetical move of the Alaskan North Slope Inuits is
> absurd. Industrialization is an actual occurrence. I actually agree
> with you that industrialization goes hand in hand with westernization.
> At this point and time, the two can be used almost interchangably. As
> far as what concerns me about what happens when a culture loses its
> traditional ways of life to industrialization/westernization, is
> that the change happens so quickly. What we refer to as 'traditional
> cultural values' are most notably those things which developed
> over a long period of time. They are characteristic of the environment
> (I use this word in the largest sense) in which that culture
> survived. Therein can be found countless unique methods and expertise > in the areas of education, communication, government, med=
icine, art,
> industry, farming, philosophy, religion, problemsolving, etc. The
> diversity of methods which I have just mentioned is precisely
> that which has given humankind the ability to develop thus far, and
> it is that diversity which will give us the capability to endure in to
> the future.

Actually such a move isn't that absurd a possibility at all(Cruel, I'll grant you). In the 17th century the English Parliament once=
debated whether to move all the Irish to Jamaica, during Cromwell's time. It failed by a few votes. That would have been nearly a=
s bad as my example. What the Inuit are actually going through now is an industrial environment shifting to the North Slope, with t=
he oil industry.

Industrialization is indeed an actual network of occurrences that is spreading around the world. Where we disagree is in this term =
"westernization". I think it's a figment of people's imaginations, usually connected with imputing to "the West" all the credit, or=
blame, for industrialization. "The West" did an awful lot of it, and continues to support, if fitfully at times, the freedoms necc=
essary to maintain the advance of the continuing industrial revolution. Still, much technology alone came from elsewhere. Needham'=
s work on Chinese technology is exemplary in this regard.

You are correct that the change in environment is coming quickly, but you may not see that the extent of the change is so great as t=
o produce a massive discontinuity. You are correct that cultures are characteristic of their environment. The discontinuity we are=
only beginning to experience is so great that the cultures that grew up in and of peasant environments will have far less support f=
or us than the Inuit would have had in their shift to Cambodia.

> >
> > I remain skeptical about the real "risk".

> ***Then imagine a world where there is only one method of doing
> everything - it might change your mind.

Only one method of doing everything? In a communications intensive, technological, industrial environment? With the networks of su=
ch an environment moving ideas and fertilizing new ones ever faster? With costs for many new product developments beginning to drop=
like a stone?

In a hierarchical environment characteristic of the old socialist reactionary states, that one method might be imposed. We saw what=
happened to them as a result of that. Industrialization is starting to dissolve hierarchies, not engross their ability to control =
and exclude new possibilities.

***Shannon Goins


Tom Billings