Visitors (and observers) of this year’s Labour Party Conference in Manchester learned a new word: UBUNTU.
Some chose to ridicule thishttp://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianpolitics/story/0,,1882387,00.html others welcomed the chance to explainhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1883655,00.html
Whatever your own preference, Ubuntu is an idea which lies at the heart of many african societies: it means essentially “us-ness”. That is, it is a conception of human nature which is essentially mutual rather than individualistic: ubuntu has been used for example by the post-Majority rule RSA government to forge a united nation after the horrors of the Apartheid era. Ubuntu – mutuality – lies behind the Peace and Reconcilation Commission which Desmond Tutu chaired.
It’s very foreigness to us Anglo-Saxons is illuminating. The soup of culture is often invisible to those who swim in it – those outside a particular culture often see it clearer than those inside. Emile Durckheim, one of the fathers of the behavioural sciences, suggested that an idea only really becomes a cultural ideology when it becomes invisible to how we see the world. In other words, when it becomes something we take for granted and use it as a working assumption about the world.
So it is with individualism in the Anglo-Saxon world. “I” seems to be the place that we use to understand human behaviour (both in term of the self-determining agent – “I do what I do, because I chose to do it” – and also in terms of mass-behaviour – which we try to understand by aggregating up individual accounts of individual behaviour to create the “mass” (think opinion polling or focus groups).
The ideology of “I” clearly has it’s roots in the rationalism of Enlightenment thinkers (such as David Hume, Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Paine) but it has undergone quite a transformation over the last couple of centuries as it has moved more and more mainstream in our culture.
In his classic history of social psychologyhttp://www.amazon.co.uk/Roots-Modern-Social-Psychology/dp/0631194479/sr=8-2/qid=1161958117/ref=sr_1_2/202-5287109-5832608?ie=UTF8&s=books, Robert Farr neatly demonstrates how the discipline of Social Psychology was “americanized” by the Allport brothers (FH and GW) in the early years of the 20th Century. Take this from FH’s 1924 textbook, Social Psychology (revised several times over nearly half a century without ever losing it’s core theses):
‘There is no psychology of groups which is not essentially and entirely a psychology of individuals. Social Psychology…is part of the psychology of the individual, whose behaviour it studies in relation to that sector of his environment comprised by his fellows’
It’s only when you step outside contemporary Western culture that the centrality of the idea of “I” to our way of seeing the world becomes clear. For example, Richard Nisbett’s cross-cultural studieshttp://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0743255356/ref=pd_rvi_gw_1/202-5287109-5832608 have shown how Asian and Anglo-Saxon studies see humanity from different perspectives: Asian cultures being much closer to African ones, in this area.
Why is this important?
Well, simply in looking for ways to change mass behaviour – through marketing or other means – we need to be working with the right instruction manual, the right map and the right assumptions. It’s only when you see how strongly “I” shapes our view of human nature that you can question it.
What if we in the Anglo-Saxon world were wrong? (surely, not!!!)
My modesty garments, please Nurse