u Notes from the Underground: Book review: Thomas Sowell's "Race and Culture"

Book review: Thomas Sowell's "Race and Culture"

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thomas Sowell's "Race and Culture" is a mostly compelling and occasionally irritating defense of the anti-cultural-relativist thesis: "The differences between cultures are not inconsequential - on the contrary, they are important for understanding why some groups are rich and some are poor, and some are developed while others are not." In support of his thesis, Sowell frequently cites various examples of ethnic immigrant groups who arrive in a foreign country with little money, but accumulate significant wealth in a few generations. Examples abound: the Gujaratis in East Africa, Lebanese in West Africa, Chinese in Malaysia, Germans in Brazil, and of course, the Jews in various parts of the world at various points in history. Other sociologists, and the natives in such cases themselves, often see such groups as "mere middlemen" who get rich by bleeding the rest of the society around them. (A recent tragic consequence of such attitudes being the expulsion of thousands of South Asian families from Idi Amin's Uganda.) Sowell forcefully argues for the contrary: such immigrant groups often create real value in the native economies, and furthermore, they are able to do so because their cultures are advantageous in certain respects - e.g. they encourage hard work, thrift, a willingness to forego current consumption for future gains and so on.

While Sowell clearly acknowledges the superiority of certain cultures over others (to the extent that they lead to better lives for the people following them), he is also keen to use the historical record to show that cultural superiority is often temporary, and in no way implies racial superiority. Whereas Britishers in the 18th and the 19th centuries gave birth to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, they were considered too ill-disciplined and barbarian to be worthy as slaves during Roman times. While much of Christian Europe was foundering through the Middle Ages, Muslims in the Middle East had a much more progressive, knowledge-seeking culture.

Besides this, the book covers other interesting aspects - how race and ethnicity play out in politics; the relation between race and intelligence - a part I mostly skimmed over because I had had enough of the IQ controversies. A particularly interesting chapter on slavery shows how European cultures are not the only ones guilty of slavery, and that slavery has been a universal phenomenon throughout history. The norm in history until the 19th century has been that the races which happen to be strong at any given point enslave those that are weak and conveniently close by. (The only exception, perhaps, is India - although we Indians made up for it by outcasting a quarter of the population as untouchables.) Although societies differed (in space and time) in how they treated slaves, slavery as a practice itself was considered perfectly normal. The *real* surprising thing is how civilized opinion in Western Europe changed from pro-slavery to anti-slavery in the matter of a few decades. Whereas Britain was the biggest slave-trader in the 18th century, by the 19th century popular opinion had turned so much that they were actively using their imperial and military might to *stop* the slave trade.

The irritating thing about Sowell is that he frequently attacks the sociologists who have defended the wrong theories for reasons of political correctness. While such sociologists may deserve criticism, these attacks also quickly grow repetitive and tiring. Give me the substance and spare me the drama, is what I say.


At 10:41 AM, November 22, 2008, Blogger Chetan said...

The problem with Sowell is that being a conservative columnist and a (Black) poster boy for this country's conservatives his views get inordinately greater attention than a White talking about race and culture, or a Black Democrat making pronouncements on the issue. This makes his views seem political rather than ideological. I am not saying there is anything wrong in one's views being political. But, it does not inspire confidence in a person's viewpoint once you know he is bound to spin matters in order to please or pander to one's political sympathisers.

I don't know if you have read his introductory economics book. He keeps on flogging the dead carcass of central planning and price control so much so that any intelligent reader starts wondering whether he is cherry picking examples rather than presenting an intelligent argument in favour of free markets.

Have you been following his columns? He was, obnoxiously at times, grasping at strawman argument in support of Iraq war, not in 20008 when the surge had been successful, but even in 2006! Read his columns on the current financial crisis. You will find an absolute disconnect between what actually happened and the blame he is apportioning to liberals.

Given this background how is anybody to blame if he/she thinks that the person will use his voice of authority to temper down valid arguments against his point of view.

Having said that, and not having read the book in question. I ask you, who are much more sympathetic to his viewpoint philosphically, whether in your view he managed to convince you of his hypothesis? By that I mean did he conclusively prove, taking into consideration falsifiable theories such as instances where immigrants belonging to trading culture have failed to produce results, that culture is the overriding principle triumphing discrimination in a market set up?

Going by my reading of Jared Diamond's works, it seems to me, reality is way more complicated than the cultural hypothesis that seems pat while explaining dominance of one culture over another. Yes, it has a large part to play. But how much of culture is a consequence of circumstance and how much of circumstance is a consequence of culture is a very complicated question, in my opinion. And, no, giving the example of flourishing immigrants does not answer that question, because, immigrants have had an advantage as lack of social/community ties mean that they can operate a more profitable business venture than a local who due to empathy or traditional social ties will be more than willing or in fact be subtly coerced to curtail profits in order to maintain a good social standing, which the immigrant businessman does not have to bother about.

I know I am digressing and trying to stuff non sequitorial points in this discussion. But it is very rare in the blogosphere to find a person who in spite of being ideological is also empathetic and willing to entertain other points of view.

So, my question to you is, does Sowell's arguments manage to convice you that Brahmins in India are successful because of their culture and Dalits in India are languishing because of their culture. Since, if you talk to a left leaning person he would say that it is a consequence of the power structure and has nothing to do with culture.

It's Friday, and I have drunk almost 7 Harp Lagers so forgive any stupidities. But, given my ideological persuasions, I always believe that the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

At 1:47 PM, November 22, 2008, Blogger Venu said...


I share many of your concerns about Sowell. I used to read his articles two years ago, but gave up soon after because I just got tired of the constant leftie bashing. And as I mention in the post, he does take potshots at his opponents quite often in the book too.

That said, I will try and defend the thesis of the book the way I read it. Sowell does not say that culture is *all-determining*. His point is only that culture is an important factor, which for whatever reasons has been underplayed generally among sociologists. And, heavens no, I would not say culture was the main reason Dalits are languishing in India. Rather, the culture of Dalits is probably adapted to the conditions they have been living in for many years now. If we can get them integrated into the mainstream, then their culture will change in many ways, and they might very well take on the Indian middle class culture of wanting to make their children engineers and doctors (and nothing else! :-)). Heck, the change is already under way.

And in fact, Sowell's explanations do take on a Jared Diamond like character occasionally. For instance, he talks about how the lack of navigable rivers (and other geographic variables) has been a big handicap for Africa, in contrast to Europe which is well endowed with navigable rivers (not to mention plentiful coastline).

You can read the section on middleman minorities on Google books here, and it is quite insightful.

And I get what you say when you talk about immigrants having certain advantages in that they can keep the rest of the population at an emotional distance - a useful attirbute for moneylenders. (I read about this in the recent Gladwell article - and no it's not great compared to his previous articles.) But do you really think *any* cultural group could have worked as moneylenders in Malaysia, as long as they were different from the local Malays? It seems plausible to me that belonging to a different culture can confer an advantage, but it cannot be the sole reason why these groups succeeded. (And btw, maintaining their own cultural identity for the sake of business is a conscious business ploy! It is part of the culture that makes these groups successful!) As Sowell explains, many of these people were also shopkeeepers and small time businessmen - and they were working businesses with thin profit margins. They had to work their asses off, be good accountants, and also be thrifty if they had to have any chance of succeeding. To quote Sowell:

"A study of Korean businessmen in Atlanta showed that they worked an average of nearly four years - sometimes two jobs at a time - before accumulating enough money to open their first business, and then they worked an average of more than 60 hours a week in their stores or shops. In an earlier era, Lebanese businesses in the US were open an average of 16 to 18 hours a day. Similar hours were worked by the overseas Chinese in Philippines, seven days a week."

And besides, do you not think the fact these groups are ethnically different from the natives must have been a disadvantage too? After all, they were not immigrating to enlightened progressive places - the natives would hardly have welcomed them with open arms.

Obviously the question is complex. There is often considerable variation within groups for other reasons (genetic, environmental etc.), and there will be other circumstantial factors in each case which will muddy the picture. But the striking success of such groups, and the similarity in their circumstances demands explanation, and I for one am convinced that cultural attitudes and work ethic must play a part in the explanation. (And I , nor Sowell, claim that it is the whole explanation!)

But I would encourage you to read the book. There is more to Sowell than his demagoguery on Townhall.com, and if you can try and ignore the invective in this book you are surely to encounter many data points that may change your sociological models.


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