Sunday, March 30, 2014

Stereotypes, policy making and the lack of value research in the Pacific

I have been working on some policy related research work. The first stage of the project is a literature review of available research on values in the Pacific. The review generated is supposed to inform policy making in the Pacific. It is a fascinating project and topic. Yet, I am struck by two very peculiar observations as I am trying to locate relevant material.

Little research and lots of recommendations

The first thing that is really noteworthy is the absence of much high quality empirical work, but the abundance of policy recommendations, guidelines and advise based on a complete lack of information. For example, government departments in NZ provide information to employers about  how to deal with Pacific Island staff, but I was unable to locate any first hand research that supports these recommendations. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but seems to be part of a larger picture of wild guessing, stereotyping and random observations being turned into potentially ill-informed and inappropriate guidelines, policies and interventions. This is outright problematic in my opinion.

Old School Anthropology and lack of insider voices

The second striking fact is that there are quite a few books by American/European/Western anthropologists describing the exotic features of island life and isolated topics of interest to these foreign outsiders, but relatively few ethnographic or anthropological accounts (beyond artists responding to journalists questions) by local people. In some cases, the diverging view points by outsiders (as in the famous Mead vs Freeman exchange) are heavily debated by other anthropologists from overseas, but there is little voice in that debate that came from Samoans (as far as I can tell based on my initial search). Outsiders determine how one of the most diverse regions in the world is portrayed and described.
Island themed performance and stereotypical accounts from age-old ethnographic studies shape our vision of the Pacific

Basically it seems that our understanding of issues in the Pacific are shaped by Western anthropologists doing research with more traditional communities from the 1920s-1970s mainly and there is a relatively lack of research on how modern day general populations in the Pacific feel, think and believe about all sorts of issues of societal relevance. Advise to business, clinicians, and even governmental policies are built on the absence of reliable data.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Pain increases happiness... or why watching other people suffer can be more painful than suffering yourself

Why do people voluntarily engage in pain? We conducted a study a few years ago and the articles and a media release by our university are just out this.

We were interested in individuals who participate in objectively painful religious rituals. Western theories and observers would argue that people engaging in these activities risk infection, experience negative emotions and should feel less happy after the ritual, compared to others who do not engage in these behaviours. There is quite a bit of research in medical areas that talk about the negative effects of large scale religious events, especially if they involve painful activities (just think of jumping into ice cold water, walking over burning hot coals, piercing yourself with unsterilised metal rods, etc.).

We studied a festival on the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of Africa. The festival involves 10 days of fasting and prayers, and culminates in a long procession and fire-walking ritual. What was particularly interesting for us was to study the effects that active participation in the firewalk as the focal element of the ritual had on people, compared to others who participated, but did not do the firewalk or merely watched from the sidelines.

We invited fire-walkers (‘high-ordeal’ participants); people participating in the ritual without engaging in the high-intensity activities (‘low-ordeal’ participants); and spectators to be part of our study. The fire-walkers and ‘low-ordeal’ participants were members of the same families. The support from the local temple and community was actually phenomenal. We had to turn people away, because we did not have enough resources to study everyone. Here, the hard work by Dimitris Xygalatas in setting up the field site and establishing the connections with the local community really paid off!

Participants walked barefoot in the midday sun without eating or drinking while carrying pots of sacrificial offerings. The fire-walkers were pierced with needles or skewers and finished the procession by walking over knives and burning coals.

Our design was super-ambitious though. We asked individuals a few questions before the whole festival started, measuring their initial states of happiness and fatigue and we also strapped them up with mobile heart rate monitors. This allowed us to track their physiological arousal during the festival. We then asked people again after the end of the ceremony.

To examine the effects of participation, we compared the levels of happiness, fatigue and heart rate of low- and high-ordeal participants, and found that fire-walkers had experienced the highest increase in heart rate and reported greater happiness and less fatigue post-ritual.

Even more interesting was the experience of ‘low-ordeal’ participants because of their relationship to the fire-walkers. Fire-walkers experienced the emotional ‘high’ upon finishing the ritual, whereas ‘low-ordeal’ participants did not, while simultaneously worrying about the well-being of their friends and family. These people, even though they did not physically experience the pain, felt more exhausted than the fire-walkers. Sometimes, perceiving other people suffer can be more exhausting than actually experiencing the pain yourself.

The Team of Investigators - after the ritual ordeal is over

In the paper, we provide some speculations about potential biological mechanisms, especially opioid systems and pain-offset mechanisms to guide future research. The study of voluntary pain is highly fascinating and there is so much that we don't yet understand (see also my earlier posts about extreme rituals in this blog).

For those interested, the paper can be found here (it is open access, so no fees) and the media release is here.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Indigenous or not indigenous.... that is the question

Today I listened to a really interesting talk by Peter Smith from Sussex Uni. He was presenting his work on social influence, including some of the new stuff on different indigenous social influence strategies such as the Chinese guanxi, Brazilian jeitinho, Middle Eastern wasta and Russian svasy. These are all local behaviours that individuals may adopt to solve problems in their environment, typically by relying on social relationships or their power (e.g., for a great example from the news this morning - the son of the Iraqi transportation minister forcing a plane to return to Beirut). Peter and his colleagues asked students and managers to come up with good examples of each local cultural strategy in their local culture. They then took the most representative scenarios from each culture, removed any identifying content and gave it to managers in other cultures. What they found was that the supposedly indigenous influence strategies were generally seen as typical even in other cultures. In other words, British 'pulling strings' was often as likely to be seen as applicable and typical in China and Saudi Arabia as in the original British context.
This clearly challenges notions that indigenous influence strategies are unique and distinct to a specific local context. Of course, he immediately got challenged by some people in the audience defending the indigenous approach, claiming that these wimpy scenarios miss the rich context and the social relationships that go with each style.
I think that there are subtle differences in how these influence strategies work and are employed (see for example our qualitative ethnographic work on Brazilian jeitinho here and a set of empirical studies where we also make some theoretical claims about jeitinho vs guanxi here). Yet, there are three major issues that I think the indigenous people are missing.

First, there are limited behavioural options for humans. We are live in social settings with a core family, extended family and a relatively stable set of limited contacts in an extended social network. All these networks are more or less hierarchically structured. We all need to negotiate these networks and there is only a limited set of behavioural strategies for any of us (e.g., ingratiation, calling in favors, returning favors, making compliments, breaking some rules, paying a bribe, giving some gifts... you name it). See work by David Ralston. We can not just come up with something completely different. It is all there. We are humans. Therefore, people in most contexts will be able to recognize and distinguish particular types of behaviours. Hence, people can call a spade a spade... even if it looks a bit funny shaped.

Second, the functions of all these behaviours are to solve problems. It is the functionality of these behaviors, even if not socially approved and even considered illegal (think of corruption or nepotism), it still gets things done. This is why they are so widespread and so similar in form. We made this argument and showed some data supporting this claim here.  Peter Smith and his colleagues also found similar results in their cross-national study. Think behaviours - think functions. And think power corrupts... probably as universal a function of human behaviour as there can be.

Third, many of these behaviours are locally embellished, discussed, criticized, analyzed, debated. By doing this, these behavioural strategies take a life on their own in the minds of concerned members of a community. Go to Brazil and talk to them about jeitinho - you will be listening to complaints for hours - hopefully while having some good cool caipirinhas. Go to Lebanon and ask somebody about wasta - and better have a good shisha or coffee next to you, because you are not going to move for a while. These behaviours are often recognized as problematic, but they are so damn useful and this is why they continue. At the same time, discussing and gossiping about them becomes a reinforcer of the social norm and therefore serves as an identity marker. The behaviour is not just a behaviour anymore, but has taken a cultural life of its own. Therefore, it has to be unique - you can't say that another place has also something that really seems to be jeitinho... or wasta... or guanxi. It is what makes us who we are as people... So dare you say that somebody else may have come up with something similar.

So how does my claim that there are subtle differences fit in with that? I think the first and second point are the answer to that. There are a number of limited behaviours and strategies that people can use to solve problems. The nature and type of problems will differ slightly by context. Therefore, some behaviours will be more common or be expressed with greater force or variety than others. Hence, there is a matrix of behaviours which is latently present in all contexts, but then is expressed to slightly different degrees. Some patterns of the behavioural matrix may be missing or be expressed very weakly in some places. Others may take a particular form due to the different social relations- compare the loose social relations in Brazil which allows more flexibility in social norm bending with the still relatively strong family networks in China that may be less flexible. So what differentiates the various styles is how the matrix is filled with specific behaviours in a specific context. Jeitinho may be a bit more norm breaking, wasta a bit more relying on social hierarchy, guanxi a bit more social relationship harmony focused. But the matrix is there. It is recognizable. It has blends of the same ingredients. It is this matrix that makes us human and helps us to interact with anyone in the world. It is what makes us humans.

A Brazilian will recognize Chinese guanxi and know what it is all about. A Russian will painfully remember some personal experiences when hearing an example of wasta in Lebanon. We all can understand what happened in Beirut this morning - even though we may not want to do or can not do it ourselves (even though I have to admit it would be bloody awesome sometimes to force that damn train or bus to come back when I just missed it... Just saying... :).