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Dont buy the Sun.
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Saturday, 2 March 2013

Crossing cultures

As anyone reading this blog is aware, I am a lapsed atheist. That is, I dont believe that there is a Higher Power but also, and unlike those like Dawkins who think it is terribly important, I dont really think that this belief (for that is what my atheism is) or more accurately  lack of faith, is really that important or significant. Sure, there have been huge benefits to religion: most of Western science that has not been purloined from the ancient  Greek, Arab world or China,  was facilitated by  religion if only in the sense of  it (religion)being kind enough to not execute or imprison  every  pioneer of science (with a few notable unlucky exceptions such as Galileo).

I should, as is the wont of this blog, to digress here. The tendency of Western Culture  to ' borrow' mentioned in the previous  paragraph, is well established  and is not a feature of an illustrious past that features a cultural pattern where we once borrowed but have moved on since then. Indeed the cultural meme that claims that 'this pattern (of stealing/borrowing original ideas form elsewhere and passing them off as your own) did exist but does no longer and is justified because it unequivocably led to greater things' (such as using Arab and Chinese pilots to sail us round Africa in the days of sail,  then taking that knowledge and 'improving' it so that 'we' got to the Americas first) is a vital part of the West's self image that eventually arrives at the justification for the West's self-perception that it   "leads' the World.

Perhaps the central notion of this meme is that such stealing/borrowing is "in the past". A quick glance at the twentieth century tells you that "in the past" (related to borrowing ideas from elsewhere) as a pillar of faith is wildly inaccurate. Think of the space programmes (Soviet and German technology), surfboards, katamarans (Polynesia), the concept (but not the practice) of 'democracy' (Greece), the notion of 'social cohesion' (Kaldun/Africa), riot police (Rome/Zulu), the worship of cats (Egypt), ideas about holisticism ('Eastern Mysticism), industrial organisation (Japan), the Scout Movement (Maasai), Vygotsky and 'scaffolding' (never his term), underfloor heating (everywhere), Universities (Greece again). And prior to the 20th century the list is much, much longer : guns and gunpowder, steam power, navigation, three masted ship construction, mining, bronze work, iron work, solar power..........

I should make it every clear that this is not a criticism of the fact that the West has stolen - I am sitting, relatively happily, in a comfortable house partly because of this tendency.  And there is no claim that other cultures do not beg, steal or borrow because  they quite clearly do  -  think of Meiji Japan and, perhaps,  contemporary  China and India. No, the issue in focus here is the idea that "we in the West" are particularly innovative, somehow - genetically or maybe structurally or politically - "we" are inevitably innovators. And I would argue that concept is ridiculous and not supported by historical fact. However, I will not dismiss this false notion of Western-innovation-as-an-exclusive-property without providing a replacement hypothesis. This replacement hypothesis/half baked notion is fully consistent with "Civilisation -Why?" and can simply be illustrated by directing you - if you are a Western reader - to your own email. I would bet a considerable sum that you have a calendar associated with your email and that you regularly update it, consult it, amend it, get reminders from it. You probably re-format it every year in the post New Year doldrums. Prior to a computerised calendar/diary you probably had a paper journal, assidously recording everything, making appointments and lists of things to do. A person I know even makes 'to -do" lists for social evenings out, reminding herself of conversational items she wants to 'achieve'.

It is this cultural feature, planning rather than innovation (which is a universal human condition), which is specific to Western Culture. Planning  is rationalisation taken to the nth degree, a belief system that has eradicated religion (which was only useful for as long as it gave a reliable framework for planning) and a style of thinking that says "We can achieve anything as long as we write a long enough "to do" list" or that we have a good enough computer programme that allows us to 'project manage' efficiently enough. And when our plans are destabilised, we tend to act erratically - our God has deserted us.

I have recently found myself in this very predicament. I am currently engaged in 'fieldwork' (I dont really know what else to call it although I am not in any fields) associated with my PhD. This fieldwork is complex and multi-faceted. If I may blow my own trumpet for a moment, I would say it is real mixed methods (ie I actually use sciency stuff with real statistics, descriptivey stuff with proper observations sheets and a technique for impromptu observation, interpretatitive stuff with a series of in depth interviews that have arisen from relationships that it has taken me about eighteen months to forge and the critical stuff of in-depth discourse analysis which is a bit sciencey and a bit critical) rather than ad-hoc and it is very exciting. In fact the diagrams I have drawn up to explain the work, and how it has all been planned to dovetail together have elicted gasps of admiration (from me) and nods of understanding from really clever people  in research seminars and conferences  where I have presented my approach. As a plan it is beautiful and is exactly what everyone wants to see.

Of course, as an intact construct, said plan lasted about a week in the field when a regular informant withdrew from the research. Then a class time in a college changed. Then funding was withdrawn for another programme and finally, after revisiting the pilot studies, I found that one idea which was central to my working hypothesis was a load of old codswallop. Grief stricken, I returned to my office, fondly gazing on my plan  (which occupies one wall like those cop shows where there are loads of lines connecting pictures of dead bodies, shop fronts and mug shots) for one last time. Then I photographed it (why ?) took it down placing deceased elements and unsolved loose ends into cardboard shoe boxes and drank a bottle of tequila. The next day, and in a night of passion and urgency, I made another plan - using much of the same materials and all of the same ribbon to connect things. I had realised I could not live without a plan, even if that plan is only to have a plan. 

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