Western and Eastern thought

7 September 2004

I subscribe to a number of email lists, which is probably passé in this era of RSS, but anyway, one of the lists I regular read is MG-ED-DV, the “management education and development list of the Academy of Management. Last week, one of the postings was by Fred Nickols and pointed me to a review of the book:

Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently … and why. New York: The Free Press.

Having read the review, I really wanted to read the book, and so– having navigated the vagaries of Voyager saying the book was missing, I finally managed to get (and read) a copy. It was well worth it.

There are few books that really change the way in which one views the world, but, for me, this is one of those books. I am already trying to change a number of things based on the insights this book presents. But what are these insights?

I won’t try and summarise the book here; instead, I’ll just highlight some parts that stood out for me.

The history of the Greeks on one hand, and the ancient Chinese on the other; the way in which language is structured in most Indo-European languages compared to the context driven approach of East Asian languages feeds into two different ways of seeking the world–and not just metaphorically seeing but literally seeing. For example, show two similar pictures, Westerners will typically see more changes in characteristics of the distinct objects that make up the pictures e.g. they will see that an aeroplane has its landing gear down in one picture but not in the other. East Asians, are more likely to notice the change in relationship between things, e.g one aeroplane is close to another than in the other picture. East Asians are more likely to notice, and attend to, the difference in contexts of situations; Westerners are less likely to do so.

This plays out in other ways too. Westerners have a history and a culture of debate such that:

Western rhetoric, which provides the underlying structure for everything from scientific reports to policy position papers, usually have some variation of the following form:

  • background;
  • problem;
  • hypothesis or proposed position;
  • means of testing;
  • evidence;
  • arguments as to what the evidence means;
  • refutation of possible counter arguments; and
  • conclusion and recommendations

[This is also the structure of much of University work and of academic journal articles–students doing Business policy & strategy and those who know the Minto Method, will be familiar with such structures.]

I feel that it will probably come a surprise to most Westerners that such a “linear rhetoric form” is not well know or practised in East Asia. Rather, there is a quest for the Middle way which seeks to find a path through conflicting/paradoxical positions.

This lack of understanding and practice of rhetoric plays it self out in the class room during exercises requiring participation. The demand lectures make (such as myself) is for students to play out the rhetoric–to expose their stepwise thinking–and yet such analytic thought is the antithesis of East Asian holistic thought that seeks to encompass the whole (rather than by dissection). Thus, material is often understood by East Asians in a non-verbal manner which makes class discussion and debate almost impossible. For example, one researcher:

had people speak out loud as they solved various types of problems. This had no effect on the performance of European Americans. But the requirement to speak out loud had a very deleterious effects on the performance of Asians and Asian Americans. … its practical implications are very important. How should one educate Asians and Asian Americans in American classrooms? Is it a form of “colonisation” to demand that they perform verbally and share their thoughts with their classmates? Would it have the effect of undermining the skills that go with a holistic approach to the world? Or is it merely common sense to prepare them for a world in which verbal presentation skills, even if it might be difficult to achieve them, will come in handy? … the cognitive aspects of holistic, dialectic approaches to reason .. are so embedded in perception, philosophy, and even temperament that is seems doubtful that much in the way of change could be achieved. But I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

If I believe this, then I must necessarily try and change my teaching practice. Thus my initial response to this, is to restructure some of Business policy & strategy and I’m still considering what might be helpful in Management theory & practice.

Other interesting effects of the differences between Westerners and East Asians is the fact that many “culture-fair” I tests may not be so culture neutral. If East Asians are more sensitive to the relationship between things and their context, as opposed to the Western approach of categorising everything, then some I test are just plain unfair (e.g. those tests that are based on picking things that are the same as a previous sequence).

One early example in the book illustrates why this is a problem. Students were given a pyramid made from cork and told that it was a ‘Dax’. They were then asked to select from a range of other objects which were also Dax. Most Westerners picked objects that were also shaped like a pyramid. But, most East Asians picked objects that were made from cork.

Anyway, enough said for now. I’m sure I’ll return to this book as I continue to reflect on-it.