Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Clifford Geertz

Thinking of workers as cogs. Or the process is designed as such?

 Human nature is much more created than it is discovered.

Beware of false theories on human nature.

What makes work satisfying? Apart from a paycheck, there are intangible values that, Barry Schwartz suggests, our current way of thinking about work simply ignores. It’s time to stop thinking of workers as cogs on a wheel.

Barry Schwartz. Psychologist. He studies the link between economics and psychology, offering insights into modern life. Lately, working with Ken Sharpe, he’s studying wisdom. Full bio

Today I’m going to talk about work. And the question I want to ask and answer is this: “Why do we work?” Why do we drag ourselves out of bed every morning instead of living our lives just filled with bouncing from one TED-like adventure to another?

0:33 You may be asking yourselves that very question. we have to make a living, but nobody in this room thinks that that’s the answer to the question, “Why do we work?”

For folks in this room, the work we do is challenging, it’s engaging, it’s stimulating, it’s meaningful. And if we’re lucky, it might even be important.

we wouldn’t work if we didn’t get paid, but that’s not why we do what we do.

And in general, I think we think that material rewards are a pretty bad reason for doing the work that we do. When we say of somebody that he’s “in it for the money,” we are not just being descriptive.

I think this is totally obvious, but the very obviousness of it raises what is for me an incredibly profound question. Why, if this is so obvious, why is it that for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, the work they do has none of the characteristics that get us up and out of bed and off to the office every morning?

How is it that we allow the majority of people on the planet to do work that is monotonous, meaningless and soul-deadening?

Why is it that as capitalism developed, it created a mode of production, of goods and services, in which all the nonmaterial satisfactions that might come from work were eliminated?

Workers who do this kind of work, whether they do it in factories, in call centers, or in fulfillment warehouses, do it for pay. There is certainly no other earthly reason to do what they do except for pay.|By Barry Schwartz

the question is, “Why?” And here’s the answer: the answer is technology.

technology, automation screws people, blah blah — that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about the kind of technology that has enveloped our lives, and that people come to TED to hear about. I’m not talking about the technology of things, profound though that is. I’m talking about another technology. I’m talking about the technology of ideas. I call it, “idea technology” — how clever of me.

In addition to creating things, science creates ideas. Science creates ways of understanding. And in the social sciences, the ways of understanding that get created are ways of understanding ourselves. And they have an enormous influence on how we think, what we aspire to, and how we act.

If you think your poverty is God’s will, you pray. If you think your poverty is the result of your own inadequacy, you shrink into despair. And if you think your poverty is the result of oppression and domination, then you rise up in revolt.

Whether your response to poverty is resignation or revolution, depends on how you understand the sources of your poverty. This is the role that ideas play in shaping us as human beings, and this is why idea technology may be the most profoundly important technology that science gives us.

there’s something special about idea technology, that makes it different from the technology of things. With things, if the technology sucks, it just vanishes, right? Bad technology disappears. With ideas — false ideas about human beings will not go away if people believe that they’re true. Because if people believe that they’re true, they create ways of living and institutions that are consistent with these very false ideas.

 that’s how the industrial revolution created a factory system in which there was really nothing you could possibly get out of your day’s work, except for the pay at the end of the day.

Because the father — one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith — was convinced that human beings were by their very natures lazy, and wouldn’t do anything unless you made it worth their while, and the way you made it worth their while was by incentivizing, by giving them rewards.

That was the only reason anyone ever did anything. So we created a factory system consistent with that false view of human nature. But once that system of production was in place, there was really no other way for people to operate, except in a way that was consistent with Adam Smith’s vision.

So the work example is merely an example of how false ideas can create a circumstance that ends up making them true.

It is not true that you “just can’t get good help anymore.”

It is true that you “can’t get good help anymore” when you give people work to do that is demeaning and soulless. And interestingly enough, Adam Smith — the same guy who gave us this incredible invention of mass production, and division of labor — understood this.

Adam Smith also said, of people who worked in assembly lines, of men who worked in assembly lines, he says: He generally becomes as stupid as it is possible for a human being to become.”

notice the word here is “become.” “He generally becomes as stupid as it is possible for a human being to become.” Whether he intended it or not, what Adam Smith was telling us there, is that the very shape of the institution within which people work creates people who are fitted to the demands of that institution and deprives people of the opportunity to derive the kinds of satisfactions from their work that we take for granted.

The thing about science — natural science — is that we can spin fantastic theories about the cosmos, and have complete confidence that the cosmos is completely indifferent to our theories. It’s going to work the same damn way no matter what theories we have about the cosmos.

But we do have to worry about the theories we have of human nature, because human nature will be changed by the theories we have that are designed to explain and help us understand human beings.

The distinguished anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, said, years ago, that human beings are the “unfinished animals.” And what he meant by that was that it is only human nature to have a human nature that is very much the product of the society in which people live.

That human nature is much more created than it is discovered. We design human nature by designing the institutions within which people live and work.

7:36 And so you people — pretty much the closest I ever get to being with masters of the universe — you people should be asking yourself a question, as you go back home to run your organizations.

Just what kind of human nature do you want to help design?




Wheat People vs. Rice People

In America, we say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

In Japan, people say that the nail that stands up gets hammered down

AMERICANS and Europeans stand out from the rest of the world for our sense of ourselves as individuals. We like to think of ourselves as unique, autonomous, self-motivated, self-made.

As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed, this is a peculiar idea.

People in the rest of the world are more likely to understand themselves as interwoven with other people — as interdependent, not independent.

In such social worlds, your goal is to fit in and adjust yourself to others, not to stand out. People imagine themselves as part of a larger whole — threads in a web, not lone horsemen on the frontier.

These are broad brush strokes, but the research demonstrating the differences is remarkably robust and it shows that they have far-reaching consequences.

The social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and his colleagues found that these different orientations toward independence and interdependence affected cognitive processing. For example, Americans are more likely to ignore the context, and Asians to attend to it.

Show an image of a large fish swimming among other fish and seaweed fronds, and the Americans will remember the single central fish first. That’s what sticks in their minds. Japanese viewers will begin their recall with the background. They’ll also remember more about the seaweed and other objects in the scene.

Another social psychologist, Hazel Rose Markus, asked people arriving at San Francisco International Airport to fill out a survey and offered them a handful of pens to use, for example four orange and one green; those of European descent more often chose the one pen that stood out, while the Asians chose the one more like the others.

Dr. Markus and her colleagues found that these differences could affect health.

Negative affect — feeling bad about yourself — has big, persistent consequences for your body if you are a Westerner. Those effects are less powerful if you are Japanese, possibly because the Japanese are more likely to attribute the feelings to their larger situation and not to blame themselves.

There’s some truth to the modernization hypothesis — that as social worlds become wealthier, they also become more individualistic — but it does not explain the persistent interdependent style of Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

In May, the journal Science published a study, led by a young University of Virginia psychologist, Thomas Talhelm, that ascribed these different orientations to the social worlds created by wheat farming and rice farming.

Rice is a finicky crop. Because rice paddies need standing water, they require complex irrigation systems that have to be built and drained each year. One farmer’s water use affects his neighbor’s yield. A community of rice farmers needs to work together in tightly integrated ways.

Not wheat farmers. Wheat needs only rainfall, not irrigation. To plant and harvest it takes half as much work as rice does, and substantially less coordination and cooperation. And historically, Europeans have been wheat farmers and Asians have grown rice.

The authors of the study in Science argue that over thousands of years, rice- and wheat-growing societies developed distinctive cultures: “You do not need to farm rice yourself to inherit rice culture.”

Their test case was China, where the Yangtze River divides northern wheat growers from southern rice growers. The researchers gave Han Chinese from these different regions a series of tasks. They asked, for example, which two of these three belonged together: a bus, a train and train tracks? More analytical, context-insensitive thinkers (the wheat growers) paired the bus and train, because they belong to the same abstract category. More holistic, context-sensitive thinkers (the rice growers) paired the train and train tracks, because they work together.

Asked to draw their social networks, wheat-region subjects drew themselves larger than they drew their friends; subjects from rice-growing regions drew their friends larger than themselves.

Asked to describe how they’d behave if a friend caused them to lose money in a business, subjects from the rice region punished their friends less than subjects from the wheat region did. Those in the wheat provinces held more patents; those in the rice provinces had a lower rate of divorce.

I write this from Silicon Valley, where there is little rice.

The local wisdom is that all you need is a garage, a good idea and energy, and you can found a company that will change the world. The bold visions presented by entrepreneurs are breathtaking in their optimism, but they hold little space for elders, for longstanding institutions, and for the deep roots of community and interconnection.

Nor is there much rice within the Tea Party.

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, declared recently that all a man needed was a horse, a gun and the open land, and he could conquer the world.

Wheat doesn’t grow everywhere. Start-ups won’t solve all our problems. A lone cowboy isn’t much good in the aftermath of a Hurricane Katrina.

As we enter a season in which the values of do-it-yourself individualism are likely to dominate our Congress, it is worth remembering that this way of thinking might just be the product of the way our forefathers grew their food and not a fundamental truth about the way that all humans flourish.




August 2020

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