|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 13, Number 2, 1990 (UNU, 1990, 12 pages)|
By Tariq Banuri
Culture, says Tariq Banuri, might be thought of as the "human software" which helps fill the gap between our needs and our physical and mental abilities to fulfil them. Culture is the filter through which we assimilate all our experiences and which enables us to act when confronted with life's varied realities. In the following discussion, he introduces the notion of two "maps" - one personal, one impersonal - within every cultural system.
The excerpt is from his chapter, "Modernization and Its Discontents," in the volume, Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture and Resistance, edited by Frédérique Apffel Marglin and Stephen A. Marglin. The book was published by Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, as part of the Studies in Development Economics conducted by the UNU's World Institute for Economics Research (UNU/WIDER) in Helsinki, Finland. Dr. Banuri, a Pakistani economist, is a former Research Fellow at UNU/WIDER. - Editor
"Personal" and "impersonal" maps are integral elements of every cultural system, whether traditional or modern. The tension between the two provides the principal dynamic of cultural evolution and social change. What distinguishes one culture from others is, in part, the uniqueness of the tension or balance between its component parts. Now, what are these two "maps"? It is easier to begin by describing them separately as two independent "cultures" and then to talk about the blend or the balance between them in an observed cultural system.
The "impersonal" map can be imagined as a culture in which everyone perceives herself or himself to have an impersonal relationship with other people, with the natural environment, and with knowledge. The distinguishing characteristic of such a view would be a perception of an individual as being separable or detached from the social, physical, or intellectual environment. This would be the economists' Robinson Crusoe model of society, where the environment itself is divisible into a finite number of partitions. The "personal" map, in contrast, can be imagined as a culture in which every person sees himself or herself as having only personal relationships. In this case, the sense of identity is created through identification rather than through separation. In such a culture, the social or physical environment cannot be conceived in terms of a certain limited number of attributes. Think, for example, of the difference between a house and a home, between an animal and a pet, between the person in the street and a friend. In each case, the former can be thought of in terms of a finite number of impersonal attributes - perhaps based on our own needs - while the complex nature of our relationship to the latter makes it impossible for us to perceive them only in terms of a few attributes.
Value Differences between Maps
The differences between the two maps are not merely cosmetic. They have implications for our values, orientations and actions:
· Impersonal relations and attitudes are reflected in organization, rationality, linearity and control. They need to be static and rigid, to constantly define terms and freeze them in place, to perceive time as discrete rather than continuous, and to place the world in a conceptual grid. Not surprisingly, therefore, the "hard" social sciences such as economics and political science focus on relationships of exchange and power respectively, both of which belong in the impersonal sphere.
· Personal relations and attitudes are manifested in spontaneity, fluidity and bilateral vulnerability. They must evolve dynamically and they have to be flexible. Concepts and definitions keep changing and evolving, time is seen as continuous, and attention is directed mainly towards those aspects of social reality which elude the conceptual grid of impersonality.
Individualism vs. Holism
The "impersonal" view can be described by what the anthropologist Louis Dumont calls "individualism" - a characteristic, primarily, of Western societies, which values, "in the first place, the individual human being: every man is, in principle, an embodiment of humanity at large, and as such he is equal to every other man, and free."* Dumont contrasts individualism with "holism," a characteristic of those contemporary or ancient societies in which value is placed "in the first place, on order: the conformity of every element to its role in society - in a word, the society as a whole."**
*Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977).
** See Dumont.
Since my emphasis is on the nature of personal identity in different cultures, perhaps a better name than "holism" would be "relationalism" - in which the individual sees herself or himself simply as the nexus of a web of relationships. Carol Gilligan, in her book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, makes a somewhat similar distinction between "masculine" and "feminine" forms of self-definition in Western countries. She sees men as defining the world in terms of moral absolutes, while women define it in terms of relationships.
The Impersonal Map: Everything Is Replaceable
On the impersonal map, everything is seen as being replaceable or substitutable; the personal view sees everything as unique and irreplaceable. The first perspective argues that valid knowledge derives only from the separation of the observer from the object of study; the latter view holds that true knowledge derives only from a personal relation between the observer and the observed.
A little reflection will reveal that the two "maps" are in no sense alternatives. Both exist in every culture; indeed in our everyday lives, we commonly rely on both ways of seeing without consciously distinguishing between them. Every culture provides its occupants with both its impersonal and its personal - or relational - identities.
Cultural Tensions: The Dynamics
All cultures are similar - yet different. Each culture manifests itself like another in the form of tension between the two "maps" - but these tensions represent unique balances in a given specific culture. Cultures differ from one another because of three different factors. First, a culture's specific character derives, in the first instance, from the "personal" map of its inhabitants. Second, cultures differ in the relative weight they give to the two maps in different spheres of human activity - how they balance and blend these two perspectives.
Last, as already noted, the nature and intensity of the tension between the "personal" and "impersonal" maps will vary from culture to culture. Indeed, the tension between the two maps can be seen as the primary source of cultural and social change. In other words, "culture" is not a static phenomenon - it is, rather, something which changes endogenously, responding to its own inner dictates and resolving the tensions between its component elements. All cultures, therefore, can be seen as unique and evolving resolutions of the interaction - the dialectic - between the "impersonal" and the "personal."
It is, in fact, possible to go even further and to argue that the coexistence of the "personal" and "impersonal" is not accidental. The two ways of seeing are necessary as complements to each other; each helps to limit the excesses which can result from an unfettering of the other. No human society can exist without both of these maps as components of its culture.
The advocates of "modernity" - and its potentially positive impacts on development - seem to have taken precisely the opposite task. They look to distinguish between the two maps by asserting a hierarchical relationship between them. They have the confessed task of "rationalizing" the whole global society - by placing the world in a kind of conceptual grid, separating the two halves of human consciousness and strengthening one at the expense of the other.
Yet this view has clearly not yet been completely internalized by people in any society: in the West, East, North or South. Witness the resistance implicit in the refusal, at great personal cost, of people, throughout the world, to give up traditional approaches to knowledge, or in the rejection of such "impersonal" institutions as the state, the market, the school, the media - and even the social experts!
Illustrations in This Issue
Illustrating a topic so all encompassing, abstract and potentially
emotion-laden as "Universal Human Values and Global
Responsibilities" was no easy matter. After much thought, it was decided
that art, with its own universal interpretations of human endeavour, would
provide the best visual images to accompany some of the articles in this issue.
We approached four well-known Japanese modern print artists, whose names are
shown below, and also the wife of a deceased artist, Teppei Ujiyama, who
graciously agreed to let WORK IN PROGRESS reproduce their work. The United
Nations University is honoured to have the collaboration of these artists in
producing this issue and expresses its deep appreciation to them for helping to
present the timely issue covered. Regrettably, it is not possible to do full
justice to their fine works by producing them in