Sunday, August 02, 2009

Diary: Imagining Identity

I am still fascinated by how cultural differences taint communication and continued studying the ways they affect us all the time. I have already been through Geert Hofstede and found his work illuminating. However, while I found his studies fairly straightforward and helpful, I had two problems with how he, and his numerous followers who lead the way how Western businessmen think about other cultures, treat the national cultures. I must admit that both these problems are actually acknowledged in the literature. The first is the etic method of looking at national cultures - the fact that the cultures are classified against an external, largely western, framework. I am conscious that there is an alternative, emic, method to see cultures against their own structure, and some work has happened on the Chinese culture using a predominantly Asian perspective. The obvious outcome is the fifth dimension of the Hofstede model, the short-term versus long-term orientation - something plain when an Asian observer looks at the Western business expectations and models - but also there are other studies which define the core Chinese values and define its culture accordingly.

My second problem, and I have this because I am coming from the Indian subcontinent, is about the classification of national culture. I am aware that various layers of culture is well acknowledged. Hofstede sees a person's behaviour as a layered phenomenon with the universal human nature at the base, national culture at the middle and personality traits at the top. I am also exposed to Tayeb's modelling of these layers in a different way, with global cultural characteristics on the top layer, a national layer, and multiple sub-national layers of regional and local cultures, and finally the personality - affecting a person's behaviour, values and how s/he sees things. In the Indian subcontinent the variations are infinite and a national culture is only now being formed, and in lots of ways, the national culture is being carved out of the ancient Indianness but the new nationness runs counter to the Indianness that existed. The local and regional variations are far more pronounced in India and the languages strong and alive. This is where I found it difficult to connect to Hofstede's national stereotypes, as one can see a number of problems with applying an Indian classification equally to a Punjabi, a Maratha, a Marwari, a Telegu and a Bengalee.

However, the most intriguing part of looking at the international cultural behaviour is to watch how it changes. Hofstede, possibly correctly, concluded that national cultures change very very slowly, unless there is a very extreme circumstance or an external event [like invasion]. He said the cultural traits in a nation which was visible in 1800 was noticeable in 1900 as well as 2000, and there is no apparent reason why the same will not continue till 2100.

The question here is that we see the pace of history quickening, with technological innovations, since the late Twentieth century, and while Hofstede's observation will possibly hold true, with limitations, in the historical context, I wonder how useful this is in the predictive sense. Would the Indian teenagers spending more time flirting with American teenagers online not have a different value system than their parents who saw Americans flirting with Americans on movies like Pretty Woman when they were teenagers? Hofstede should be both wrong and right. He will possibly be right because most Asian societies are developing at the top, but remain unchanged at the base, and hence, while some teenagers may change, the overall societal values may remain the same. But, on the other hand, his studies were primarily limited to a very narrow section of the society - that of IBMers - and this section is expected to become more alike sooner now than the overall societies anyway.

My today's reading is on the subject, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities. I was trying to understand how substantial is the national formations anyway. In our lives, we have obviously taken our national identities for granted, but in any sense, they are a rather recent formulation, and still do not exist in various parts of the world [as in Afghanistan, which must be a meaningless entity to its citizens, as is modern Austria, which is more a theoretical formulation to keep its inhabitants happy but has nothing of its former, national, self].

My one takeaway so far from the reading the book is how the conception of a homogeneous, empty time is key to imagining national communities, and how modern novel and the newspapers, constructing an imagined world around, no, inside, this hollow time allow us to imagine a community of fellow nationals. My question is, whether this homogeneous time forms, and may I say space, as the newspapers and novels are both tied to a territorial existence [is this the reason why our best-loved newspapers are always tied to a city?], are deeply dis-arranged with the advent of internet, which disrelates time from space and creates a global community based on ideas rather than territoriality. I remember a friend in college who used to scoff at friendships saying that they are largely accidental, because these form as we stay in the same locality, play in the same ground or study in the same school, and therefore, these are non-permanent and irrational; I would imagine with the advent of internet, and with non-compulsory friendships based on shared interests, his thirst for genuine, rational and permanent friendships have been satisfied. [I recall now he said this on the last day of our college, the last day we met; may be, he was just sad and wanted to tell me how he felt].

However, the other point to think about how this 'real time' world will change our novels [it has already killed the newspaper] and whether the empty time form that holds the novel, allowing us, the readers, to become observers of simultaneous events without the actors knowing, as they remain confined in their own territoriality. The current disjointedness of life makes the arranged 'meanwhile' narratives as alien to reality as the usual, pre-modern, narratives of pre-ordained destiny must have seemed to the industrial, therefore industrious, age writers.

I shall mention an odd 'meanwhile' movie I have seen recently. Called Vantage Point, it was a story of an assassination and kidnap attempt on an US president, a fairly usual hollywood hero movie. The structure of the movie takes the meanwhile narrative to an extreme. It runs eight parallel narratives one after the other, seen from the point of view of eight different characters, capturing a ten minute period pre- and post- the assassination attempt. Each time the story progresses a bit; but more importantly, each time, the story changes a bit. The movie ends conventionally, with the hero, Denis Quaid, finally prevailing and the US President displaying his grit and character, but this shifting reality bit runs counter to the normal modern narrative, which seeks to integrate every one's reality in a whole story [consider seeing the Hindi film A Wednesday, where the collective reality and same national feeling appear with a dramatic burst]. Here, by the shifting reality, time/space becomes an actor rather than a empty container, perhaps closer to the modern reality and my enquiries into the 'culture' thing in the context of modern life.

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