Saturday, June 10, 2023

Explaining customs and culture: Interdisciplinarity the best foot forward


A marriage of economics, philosophy and history is the best way to explain the evolution of social customs and culture.

Culture, according to the 20th-century Welsh socialist writer, Raymond Williams is a group’s way of life as documented in relics, books, movies, music and art. Culture can evolve through the amalgamation of existing products and practices. However, observed cultural malleability is incompletely explained by amalgamation: winds emanating from foreign shores that strike a country in the garb of social or diplomatic contact or even economic relations constitute an important influence on a community’s culture.

It so happens that even the combination of external influence and indigenous amalgamation do not provide us with a complete theory of cultural change. For example, the design and foresight of leaders and opinion-makers play an important role.

This essay takes up the easier task of explaining changes in social customs – practices followed by all in a society to mark a social occasion and interaction – which account for a small part of the culture but with important political and economic implications. The broader discussion of cultural change can use the discourse on the evolution of social custom as a base: here we can draw inspiration from the famous Hungarian mathematician, George Pólya who always said that a secret to success in problem-solving lay in first proposing a solution to an easier but related problem.

The narrower discussion also holds considerable promise in tickling the reader’s interest given that historians, anthropologists, philosophers and recently economists have weighed in on the topic using different approaches.

A few examples illustrate well the much-touted plasticity of social customs. The last 3 decades have seen an erosion of the popularity of the Indian sari, mentioned even in the Rig Veda composed around 3000 B.C and by inference an integral part of our culture for thousands of years. The void, as every Indian can see, has been filled by the salwar kameez and western apparel, arguably more suited to the rough and tumble of life.

A similar evolution took place in male attire but much earlier: a photograph of a Howrah Railway Station platform in the 1930s shows almost all men wearing dhotis in stark contrast to the ‘shirts and trousers’ that became an integral part of life in post-independence India.

Nobody would consider the Indian Yoga Guru, Baba Ramdev to be a western influence; the grip of the trouser of completely western origin on Indian society can be gauged from his recently launching the Patanjali brand of Swadeshi Jeans as a commercial venture in an effort to make the best of the Orient and Occident. This development parallels the rise of the Indian Chicken Tikka Masala to the status of the British national dish, leaving the traditional ‘fish and chips’ far behind.

More major changes are afoot in contemporary urban India: traditional forms of greeting such as the Namaste are giving way to Western forms, a ‘peck on the cheek’ or a ‘hug’, especially among well-heeled youth, an advance which has only been temporarily halted in its tracks by the Covid pandemic.

A social custom is motivated to a large extent by the approval it gets from various members which in turn is a function of history. Consider, for example, the custom of being punctual. In many Occidental societies, individuals are usually punctual to the minute, as in Western culture and philosophy time is conceived as being scarce and linear i.e., one can never make up for lost time.  In Indian culture however time is viewed as cyclical; the ancient books lay more stress on experience than achievement, taking the ‘rat race’ and therefore the scarcity of time out of the equation.

As Salman Rushdie pointed out, though a trifle emphatically, how can a culture that uses the same word for ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’ value time? Korea lies somewhere in between India and the West in regard to punctuality: it is valued but not as an exact concept. A recent article in The Korea Herald points out the Korean tradition of dividing the entire 24-hour day into 96 portions of 15 minutes each. This gave people the room to arrive for an appointment at any time within a 15-minute interval and continues to influence the habits of modern Koreans.

It is obvious now that punctuality and other social customs such as ‘giving and accepting bribes or gifts’ or sometimes even attire have major implications for productivity in society.

Punctuality obviously is important as it facilitates coordination in societies. If tardiness is exact then it is no tardiness at all: consider a society where people arrive exactly 30 minutes after the announced time. Thus, an appointment fixed formally for 9:00 a.m. is understood by all to be a meeting for 9:30 a.m. Everybody arrives at 9:30 a.m. and there is no ‘delay’ at all in the sense that expectation is exactly mirrored by reality.

True tardiness occurs when all people concerned do not have the same and exact time in mind for making it to an appointment. Life is taken easy without regarding the formally announced time to be systematically linked to a deadline. As is still common in India, people filter into a meeting at different points of time; a time of 60 minutes might be taken up by the meeting though the ‘meeting proper’ lasts only 30.

It is obvious now that punctuality and other social customs such as ‘giving and accepting bribes or gifts’ or sometimes even attire have major implications for productivity in society. In fact, the adoption of the western ‘trousers’ or ‘pants’ by various cultures has arisen from the realization that they could not only be the difference between victory and defeat in battle, as elaborated by novelist Shovon Chowdhury but also allow the wearer to undertake diverse activities in everyday life, thereby enhancing productivity. This was also recognized by the RSS, formed in 1925, which sought to promote Indian heritage but adopted khaki shorts and shorts as a uniform, thereby plumping for convenience rather than convention. 

This naturally brings us to the way economists, such as Kaushik Basu and Jörgen W. Weibull, explain customs, as social equilibria: everybody in the society practices the custom because any individual deviation from it leads to losses. Consider a group of friends who are supposed to meet at the entrance to the Lodi Gardens in New Delhi for a walk at an appointed time of 6:00 p.m. in the summer. Being Indian they take that time as a loose guide to when to arrive and go about their earlier activities at a leisurely pace.

A likely outcome is that nobody arrives before 6:15; if one does, it would amount to a somewhat uncomfortable wait without company. Thus, tardiness is a social equilibrium. If a thought experiment is performed to place some of the mentioned friends in London’s Hyde Park and replace others with English acquaintances, tardiness would be discarded as an unsuitable ‘strategy’: if employed by the Indians it will result in chaos with the punctual British walking away much before the Indians arrive, their affections for Indians heading south.

What the above example illustrates is the importance of returns or payoffs, affected by incentive structure, in regard to the determination of social customs. Another example is the experience of Turkey. In the 1920s a middle-aged army Brigadier, Mustafa Kemal founded the independent republic of Turkey among the ruins of the once-powerful Ottoman Empire. By setting up a web of disincentives or punishments, he banished the Islamic way of life in Turkey – almost overnight Islamic headdress and attire gave way to western hats and clothing, and Islamic law to secular law.

However, if this leads us to quickly discount the role of history in shaping present customs we should think again: Kemal died in 1938, still a young man for a head of state, after presiding over 15 years of modernization with an iron hand. After his death, the disincentives that he had set in place got diluted even though till date Kemal is revered as the founder of modern Turkey. His reign was too short to stamp out Islamic influence; the mentioned dilution brought the dormant influence gradually to the surface. The Islamic way of life, manifested in the reemergence of the fez hat and the headscarf, is back in Turkey. 

A marriage of economics, philosophy and history seems to be the best way to explain the evolution of social customs. The same is probably true in regard to culture.

Also Read: Plight of female migrant workers during pandemic: A socio-economic transition

(Siddhartha Mitra is Professor of Economics at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)


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