Monday, July 06, 2009

Cultural Explanation Gone Nowhere

In 1977, Mochtar Lubis thought that Indonesians are hypocritical, unaccountable, feudalistic, superstitious, artistic (sic!), and some other bad traits.

In 2009, Rhenald Kasali thinks that Indonesians suffer from ten negative "economic culture" (whatever it may mean). He believes that Indonesians love to: bypass (regulations), engage in conflict, be suspicious to each other, insult each other, be photographed (sic!), mobilize mass violent acts, be shameless, be populist, set unnecessary (bureaucratic) procedures, and procrastinate.

My take: I am not convinced at all -if not to say that I don't buy it- for the following reasons.

First, so far I do not see neat working definition for each of those adjectives they used.

Second, I do not see systematic empirical efforts and findings to justify those assertions --let alone considering they take the nation's population as their unit of analysis.

Third, compared to what (nations at what period)?


  1. The problem is indeed the lack of working definition when assigning the culture label. But that doesn't mean the whole idea is moot. It's just that people must use explicit measurable working definition to claim such labeling.

    I like what Hofstede did in conceptualizing "national culture". He did it from the ground up. He basically did a factorial analysis, see what kind of grouping making sense, and try to come out a common explanation for that grouping. That's Ad Hoc yet the resulting explanation is neat and powerful.

    What can be improved is that the 10 cultural behaviors can be explained by simpler terms: collectivism in a too large environment.

    Regulation bypass make sense in smaller society where you know exactly how doing such and such is unnecessary and doesn't have any good effect. Engage in conflict, suspicion, insult, mobilization is natural for collectivism having emphasized in groups. Be photographed, that's probably a function of personality than culture. Shame has been frequently analyzed, it's a matter of who knows the sin and whether the society in which (s)he has greater affinity approve it or not.

    Populist, I don't understand, the meaning is somewhat vague. Unnecessary procedures is complicated even when simplified. It's probably a combination of setting up a system where the members will protect it's existence for whatever reasons (this can be a whole new paper), he thinks it's unnecessary but it's indeed necessary (see bypass regulations :-p), uncertainty avoidance, and others I can't think of yet. Procrastination is just social control that doesn't work because the society in which the persons have greater affinity to doesn't really frown upon it.

    Collectivism itself is just a tendency to put greater importance in group instead of individual. The tendency is a continuous function, not a bipolar function. The resulting behavior is a natural consequences that will arise in order for such culture to survive.

    If people of collectivist culture can no longer survive by having those kind of behavior, collectivism will cease to exist..for that moment.

    That's IMO. But I'm talking to economists here so I'm not sure how will people consider this post..

  2. Amitz, word.

    Macrobehavior is indeed an exciting research object, but many educated observations, sadly, seem to neglect rigorous methodology --and sometimes logic.

  3. looking forward to reading your (behavioural) economic analysis of these "cultural" traits!

  4. It happens many times that there are people trying to use terms explaining something without being backed up with good systematic empirical efforts. Sometimes they do it just to make things easier to understand by a lot of people, but stuff like this is of course bad academically.
    With reynald kasali, I think he likes using unique term of his own to explain things, I read a few in his book, so I'm not surprised.