A Story in Two Parts, With An Ending Yet To Be Written

Nota bene: All characters in the following story—regardless of any real or imagined resemblance to an actual human person—are thoroughly fictionalized. The issues under discussion, however, are very real.

The Fairytale

Once upon a time, there was a smart young boy named Kitayama who lived in the land of Interdependence. The people of Interdependence were very attentive to one another’s needs and desires; they sought to engage in behavior that would minimize conflict while maximizing empathy, filial piety, and mutual understanding. [i] Young Kitayama was a happy child, but as he matured, he conceived a desire to understand the motivations and behaviors of the people around him. He had heard of a magical school called Michigan, in the far-off land of Independence, where young scholars could go to receive training in the art of understanding people. After securing his parents’ blessing, he undertook the long journey that led to the storied halls of Michigan.

Kitayama’s training at Michigan was very difficult. He was lonely, at first, and his classmates seemed rude and self-centered. His teachers made him read arcane sacred texts, go without sleep to memorize the names of ancient scribes, jump through hoops for their express amusement, and prove his fortitude by doing endless statistical regressions. But he persevered, and things got better after he met a young woman named Markus who, after he helped her analyze a data set, became his true friend. “Remember that you’ve got a friend, Kitayama,” said Markus, “If you need me, all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there.”

At long last Kitayama’s training came to an end, and on a beautiful spring day in May he donned a yellow robe with a blue velvet hood, and was given the coveted sheepskin and a bag full of “theories” that his teachers promised would help him when set out to analyze his data. Pleased with his accomplishment, Kitayama returned home to study the people he had grown up with.

All was well until Kitayama started analyzing his data. The theories he pulled out of his bag were not helping him the way his teachers said they would. He thought maybe his teachers had cheated him by giving him a defective set. To make things worse, whenever he sent a report to his supervisor, Journal, the evil doorkeepers who guarded Journal’s office, Basic and Processes, sent it sent back with instructions to rewrite it or study the matter again. Kitayama was discouraged, because he really wanted to impress Journal, in part because Journal had a very pretty daughter named Recognition (Connie, for short [ii]) who Kitayama really wanted to get to know. Three times he sent in his report, and three times Basic and Processes sent it back. Filled with despair, Kitayama remembered Markus. He called her and explained his dilemma.

“Maybe,” said Markus, “it’s not the theories. Maybe, it’s the people. I mean, maybe the theories were made for the people of Independence, and they don’t work for the people of Interdependence.”

“I was just thinking the same thing!” cried Kitayama. “Will you help me do some comparative studies to test the theories and see if they work equally well for both kinds of people?”

“Of course!” said Markus. And so they did. After finding that the theories they had been given did not work equally well for the people in both lands, they decided to make a new theory. They worked very hard on the new theory — which posited that psychological processes are linked to aspects of the socio-cultural context in ways that can account for cross-cultural variation [iii] — sending it back and forth between them via FedEx three times before they finally liked what they had made.

Using their theory of the mutual constitution of cultures and selves, Kitayama and Markus sent so many water-tight and path-breaking articles to Journal that the evil doorkeepers, Basic and Processes, collapsed under the barrage and could no longer exclude them from Journal’s attention. Journal introduced Kitayama to Connie; the two set up house, and were very happy together for a long time. In fact, things were going so well that Kitayama was invited back to the land of Independence to teach at Michigan! What an opportunity — the student turned teacher! So Kitayama and Connie moved to Michigan, where he cheerfully settled down to the task of setting up hoops for his graduate students, Park and Na, to jump through.

All was going well, that is, until one day Kitayama came home in the middle of the afternoon and found Connie in the bedroom, looking flushed and breathing heavily as she shoved a book under the pillow. “What are you doing?” demanded Kitayama. “Since when do you hide your reading material from me?” Connie avoided his gaze as she handed him the book she’d been reading. Kitayama felt an arrow pierce his heart as he gazed at the title: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. “How could you?” he cried, “Don’t you know that Pinker believes that human behavior is generated by the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that may be universal and innate? [iv] He claims that culture is epiphenomenal to more basic psychological processes! It’s everything I’ve worked so hard to overturn!”

“I’m sorry, dear,” replied Connie, looking genuinely apologetic. “It’s just so scientific,” she offered. “There’s something so wonderfully hard about cognitive neuroscience,” she added with an appreciative shiver.

Kitayama was upset with Connie for being so fickle, but he was more determined than ever to prove that culture is a significant shaper of human cognition, emotion, and motivation. He called his friend Markus to complain about the attention being lavished on cognitive neuroscience in the discipline of psychology. Markus was sympathetic, and suggested he think about moving in that direction. But before she hung up, Markus asked Kitayama if he would contribute an essay to the book on race and ethnicity she was putting together. “Thank you, but no,” Kitayama demurred, “I don’t work on race. My work is strictly about culture.”

Kitayama called Park and Na into his office and told them, “We’re going to start our own cultural neuroscience project! We’ll use measures such as fMRI and ERP to give us information we can’t get from behavioral measures alone about how culture might get into the brain. We’ll consider genetic and epigenetic processes that are likely to be closely tied to both brain and culture, and we’ll prove that culture and the brain make each other up. I’m excited; we’re moving into the future!” [v]

Kitayama went to work. He read up on cognitive neuroscience and developed relationships with people who could operate the fancy new machines. He wrote an essay envisioning the future of cultural neuroscience [vi], worked with a colleague to develop a neuro-culture interaction model [vii], and theorized the effect on brain processes of active and sustained engagement in cultural tasks [viii]. He recruited as test subjects some Asian Americans (who are generally socialized to be more interdependent) and some European Americans (who are more often socialized to be independent) in order to increase his likelihood of finding cultural differences. Lastly, he designed a study that would show — using both behavioral and neuroscience measures — that test subjects who had been socialized in an interdependent culture were less likely than those who had been socialized in an independent culture to attribute personality traits to someone on the basis of that person’s exhibited behavior. He reasoned that those who had internalized an interdependent way of being in the world would be more likely to assume that the exhibited behavior was externally motivated. Consequently, they would show less surprise, as measured by the ERP, when they later found out that the person’s exhibited behavior contradicted his or her personality.

“We’ve done it!” he said to Park and Na, when the ERP test results confirmed his hypothesis. “We’ve replicated the results of my previous research, and even advanced it by providing evidence from neuroscience that cultural values and practices help shape the brain.” He and Na wrote up the results, and sent the report on to Journal.

Well pleased with what he had accomplished, Kitayama went home to cuddle with Connie and to live happily ever after.

And so ends the Fairytale.  But, alas, the story continues . . .

The Dream

That night, Kitayama fell asleep and entered what seemed to be a very life-like dream. He found himself in a place he’d never been before, standing on the sidewalk outside a patio restaurant where a man and a woman were finishing lunch. As Kitayama was looking around, patting his pockets for his iPhone and trying to get his bearings, he overheard their conversation.

“So, did you meet your deadline on the Kitayama piece?” asked the woman as she signed the credit card slip and tucked her copy into her purse.

Kitayama stopped patting his pockets and looked up.

“Yes, of course,” answered her companion, as he fingered the strap of a well-worn satchel with a ScienceDaily sticker pasted on the front. “It wasn’t hard. All I had to do was slap a headline on the press release provided by the Association for Psychological Science (APS) via EurekAlert!. [ix] Here’s my headline: ‘Cultural Differences are Evident Deep in the Brains of Caucasian and Asian People’. [x] I was going for the hard science angle,” he smirked. “You know, I’m glad we can finally move past all that multicultural bullshit that says race isn’t real. Now we have hard scientific proof — it’s in the brain!”

Kitayama was confused. Could they be talking about his study? It’s true that he used both Asian American and European American test subjects. But nowhere in his study had he said a thing about any so-called “Caucasians”! [xi]

“I’m worried about how well those Asians do in math and science classes, though,” said the man. “My son says the Asian kids at his school always study together and get the best grades. Say, Fiona, you don’t think they’re really any smarter than we are, do you?”

“Oh, no,” laughed Fiona, as she widened her bright blue eyes in appreciation of what she assumed was a joke. “I took a bit more trouble with my piece. My editor likes me to change things around a bit. And I used a book metaphor for my title. I wrote: ‘Why people with a European background can’t help but judge a book by its cover.’” [xii] She laughed appreciatively at her cleverness, before adding, “Apparently we can’t help our biases. Race is in our DNA, after all.”

Kitayama was horrified. “No,” he cried out, “you’ve got it all wrong! It’s not about race! It’s about culture — don’t you see? It’s not even about Asians and Europeans! It’s about people who have been socialized to be independent versus those who have been socialized to be interdependent! Culture is in the brain, yes, but culture is something that we can change. For that matter, the brain can be changed, too!”

Fiona frowned. “Did you hear something?”

“No,” the man answered. “Why, did you?”

“Yes, you did!” Kitayama yelled, waving his arms to get their attention.

“I guess not,” she said, casting an unseeing glance in Kitayama’s direction. Her brow smoothed. “Shall we go?”

Kitayama watched in dismay as the man leaned across the table to kiss Fiona on the cheek.

“Ciao,” he said, and walked away.

Kitayama took a step toward the woman, and just as his foot fell, he woke up. “Thank goodness that’s over!” he thought, breathing a sigh of relief, “I guess it was just a bad dream.”

And so ends the dream. But the story continues on . . .

The Story Behind the Story

My work over the past several years has taken me deep into the interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity, with the result that I have learned much about human motivation and behavior — especially about how humans respond to others whom they see as essentially different from themselves. I have also confronted the wide gap between what scholars of race and ethnicity know about the workings of race as a globalized system of social distinction and inequality on one side, and the way race is talked about by almost everyone for whom it is not an object of study on the other. Most people still believe that race — if they believe it exists at all — is essential to the person. According to the Western origin story that emerged in the 15th century and coalesced into a relatively coherent narrative in the 18th and 19th centuries, race is an immutable and stable essence found within a person’s body, blood, or DNA. Race, in this account, is something a person either has or is.

But, as Hazel Markus and I argue in Doing Race, race is not a thing at all. Rather, it is a doing — a dynamic and ongoing system of historically-derived and institutionalized ideas and practices. As we define it, “doing race” always involves creating ethnic groups based on perceived physical and behavioral characteristics, associating differential power and privilege with these characteristics, and then justifying the resulting inequalities. [xiii] We did not invent this alternative understanding of race (although we are doing our part to elucidate and extend it); it is a conception that has emerged over the past several decades among scholars of race and ethnicity working in various disciplines. But it remains a largely untold tale — overwritten and crowded out of the public sphere by the more familiar story in which race is a matter of biological endowment.

One common way of doing race involves assimilating new information, incidents, people, and scientific studies to the old and familiar story of race — even when the subject has nothing to do with race, per se. Such assimilation occurs because something about that information, incident, person or study is coded for race in the mind of the person, or within the logic of the institution, that is doing the assimilating. I could give countless examples, but I focus here on one that addresses a topic previously treated in this forum — namely the way in which “human cognition and emotion is embodied and embrained.” [xiv] The case involves a study described in an article by Jinkyung Na and Shinobu Kitayama entitled “Spontaneous Trait Inference is Culture Specific: Behavioral and Neural Evidence.” [xv] As my story indicates, the study provides evidence regarding the specific ways in which culturally-variable values and practices are embrained.

My muse, then, came in the form of the pre-publication publicity for Na and Kitayama study. Even though the content of the news stories hew closely to the press release issued by the APS, the headlines under which they appear clearly frame the study in terms of race. This is happening, I submit, both because the word “culture” is sometimes recruited as a proxy for “race” in common parlance, and because the familiar story of race predisposes us to understand the differences between European and Asian populations in biological, rather than cultural, terms.

To be clear, there are two points I am making with this post. The first is that culture is a significant shaper of human cognition, motivation, and emotion. The second is that the story of race as a biological thing that humans either have or are is not only inaccurate, but also it serves to distort our understanding of human nature. Another way of saying this is that human difference really matters — but not in the way most people think it does.

Whether and how humans understand the workings and significance of both culture and race will significantly affect the trajectory of our human story. I wonder — how we will write the ending?


[i] Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, Motivation,” Psychological Review 98.2 (1991): 224-253.

—, “Cultures and Selves: A Cycle of Mutual Constitution,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 5.4 (2010): 420-420.

Shinobu Kitayama and Jiyoung Park, “Cultural Neuroscience of the Self: Understanding the Social Grounding of the Brain,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 5.2-3 (2010): 121.

[ii] I take the nickname for this allegorical character from the word reconocimiento, which is Spanish for recognition.

[iii] Markus and Kitayama, “Culture and the Self.”

[iv] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002) 39.

[v] Shinobu Kitayama and Steve Tompson, “Envisioning the Future of Cultural Neuroscience.” Asian Journal of Social Psychology 13 (2010): 97-99.

[vi] Kitayama and Tompson.

[vii] Shinobu Kitayama and Ayse K. Uskul, “Culture, Mind, and the Brain: Current Evidence and Future Directions,” Annual Review of Psychology 62 (2011): 419-449.

[viii] Kitayama and Park.

[ix] Association for Psychological Science, “Actions and Personality, East and West,” EurekAlert! 11 April 2011. 14 April 2011 (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-04/afps-aap041111.php)

[x] Association for Psychological Science, “Cultural Differences Are Evident Deep in the Brain of Caucasian and Asian People,” ScienceDaily®. 13 April 2011. 14 April 2011 (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110411163922.htm)

[xi] The term “Caucasian” as a specifically racial term for white people was invented by the German scholar Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1795.

[xii] Fiona MacRae, “Why People with a European Backgrounds Can’t Help but Judge a Book by Its Cover,” MailOnline.com. 13 April 2011. 14 April 2011 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1376398/Why-people-European-background-help-judge-book-cover.html)

[xiii] Paula M. L. Moya and Hazel Rose Markus, “Doing Race: An Introduction.” Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010) 1-102.

[xiv] Although my post is not a direct response to Robert Sapolsky’s excellent post, “This is Your Brain on Metaphors,” mine was inspired by and is in conversation with that earlier post. Sapolsky’s meditation on metaphors started me thinking about the power of stories, and his claim that “human cognition and emotions are not only embodied, they are embrained” prompted me to wonder what difference cultural variability might make to the process and product of embrainment.

[xv] Jinkyung Na and Shinobu Kitayama, “Spontaneous Trait Inference Is Culture Specific: Behavioral and Neural Evidence,” forthcoming in Psychological Science.

29 comments to A Story in Two Parts, With An Ending Yet To Be Written

  • Paula Moya’s wonderfully clever story of Kitayama tells a familiar tale about a very particular and context-bound academic culture imagining itself to be a neutral space of meritocracy and context-transcendence. The emerging interest in brain studies and neuroscience is certainly an important development with intellectual legitimacy in its own right, but it is emerging within specific communities of scholars laden with thick histories of baggage. Certainly, part of the lure of brain studies and fMRI scans is their ability to appear objective in the old-fashioned sense. No more sociology of knowledge needed.

    Race remains a powerful metaphor that sings a siren call to researchers to explain their data, as does gender perhaps even more so. With gender, theorists can claim ‘hormonal roots’ of measurable difference in career commitment, and thus it provides more significant biological material to develop a causal story around than phenotypic race can offer. While Louann Brizedine’s The Female Brain reaches bestseller status with its poor argumentation and bogus conclusions, Cordelia Fine’s decisive rejoinder, Delusions of Gender, languishes in hard copy. The market-driven publishing houses, even in the rarefied academic niche, care little for truth when profit might be had.

    Kitayama’s story of cultural differences explaining behavioral differences, thus, can only explain so much. The land of Independence dominates the land of Interdependence because of the ways knowledge is dependent on power structures for its formulation, articulation, and justification. Foucault’s dyadic concept of power/knowledge might help us develop a causal story for the worrisome state of the new neuroscience.

    Mayan philosophy poses an interesting alternative metaphor. Rather than the brain being considered the organ from which human reason emerges, they imagined it to be the heart. This sounds incredibly counterintuitive from the perspective of European cultural traditions, where the emotions of the heart have been represented through centuries of Platonism and Cartesianism as capable only of thwarting reason, not aiding it, much less comprising its originary locus. But the Mayan idea might make some sense. It is the heart, after all, that provides our orientation, determining the focus of our perception, what emerges in its foreground and what recedes into the background. It is the heart that motivates, and directs, and pumps with tireless persistence the same in all of us. Perhaps more than the brain, it is the heart that makes us human.

    • In her thought-provoking reply, Linda Martín Alcoff sounds a cautionary note about the turn to neuroscience, noting that: “Kitayama’s story of cultural differences explaining behavioral differences, thus, can only explain so much.” Certainly Alcoff’s point is well taken. But in conceding its limitations, I nevertheless want to emphasize the advantages of the kind of empirical work Kitayama is engaged in.

      By themselves, psychological studies, whether behavioral or neuroscientific, will never be able to provide causal historical analyses for why neuroscience currently has such a hold on the larger academic imagination. Such analyses are necessarily too complex—they involve too many complicating factors—to allow for the creation of discrete empirical studies that can be tested and replicated in the laboratory setting. But empirical psychological studies—when they build on earlier work and when they are set within the context of (theorized in relation to) larger historical, economic, and cultural formations—can actually tell us quite a lot about ourselves as human beings.

      In the case of the work done by Kitayama and Markus, the empirical studies that laid the groundwork to demonstrate the existence of interdependent and independent ways of being in the world have been important for building a compelling and convincing case for the idea that the values, ideas, and practices that humans are engaged in on a daily basis actually affect human motivation, cognition, and emotion. Some of us might believe that culture matters, but some others might believe that humans are really pretty the same underneath it all. What the empirical work does is give us a fairly compelling way to adjudicate the question, and also to clarify how, when, and in what circumstances culture matters. In a multicultural world like our own, knowing how, when, and in what circumstances culture really matters is valuable for learning how to get along and for grounding the case for redress in situations of violent cultural suppression.

      I see Kitayama’s turn to neuroscience not necessarily as a privileging of neuroscience over behavioral studies, but rather as yet another way to make his case. It is another data point, another piece of evidence, another plank in the argument that societies that value independence are different from societies that favor interdependence in ways that are both significant and interesting.

      Beyond that, I was very interested in Alcoff’s mention of the Mayan metaphor of the heart as the organ from which human reason emerges. This highlighted for me the taken-for-grantedness within neuroscience of the idea that the brain is the source of the self. Granted, my understanding of neuroscience is rudimentary, but my impression is that cognitive neuroscientists are still pretty foggy about what exactly is going on in the brain. They do a pretty good job of showing that certain regions in the brain light up when certain questions are asked, or when test subjects are shown particular images or instructed to imagine specific scenarios. But I haven’t yet seen that they are yet very good at explaining the underlying mechanisms, or about why certain parts light up for some people but not for others.

      (I also learned the other day [from some researchers who should know!] that left-handed people are systematically excluded from fMRI studies because their brains are wired a little differently from right-handed people. But left-handers are about 10% of the world’s population! One is tempted to ask how a researcher can make pronouncements about “the human brain” when he or she has systematically excluded such a large portion of the population, especially that portion most likely to screw with the data?!)

      It occurs to me that if a researcher were to monitor the heart rather than the brain, physiological changes might similarly register in the hearts of those test subjects who are asked certain questions, shown particular images, or instructed to imagine specific scenarios. If this were the case, then the heart would at least have a case in the struggle for metaphorical supremacy regarding the source of the self.

      But in the end, I would have to tentatively come down on the side of the brain as the source of the self. While I could yet be argued out of this position, it seems that we are most likely to say that a person is “not herself” when her cognitive or emotional capacity is somehow impaired by brain injury or affected by those hormones or drugs that govern behavior by acting on the brain. Something to consider: I might lose my heart to disease and have someone else’s put into my chest cavity and still be “myself.” But could I lose my brain, or a significant portion of my brain, and still be “me”?

  • Response to Paula Moya:

    What happens when the land of Interdependence experiences an earthshaking catastrophe, followed quickly by an enormously destructive wave of confusion, with both events then leading to the meltdown of a supposedly fail-safe, imperturbable source of power?
    Not only are the theories that had explained human behavior in the land of Independence forced to their limit, even the ways of conceiving the rules of Interdependence reach a limit as well.

    In the cases of natural disasters, the limits of customary thought are defined by the forcible adjustments to the protocols that have been carefully developed in order to respond to deviations, of varying degrees, from normal experience. In the case that Paula Moya brilliantly narrates, something else, of necessity, is the case. In her interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity, especially in her recent collaborative work with Hazel Markus, Moya has developed a compelling case about how humans respond to others whom they see as essentially different from themselves. This difference between the two concepts is important because the story of race in the European and American contexts predisposes us to understand the differences between, say, European and Asian populations in biological, rather than cultural, terms. The habitual and all-too-easy translation of the story of “culture” into “race” as a matter of biological endowment is a habit of mind that obscures and deflects our understanding of the relationship between, but the necessary divergence of, race and culture.

    While I agree in a very fundamental way with Moya’s argument about the obscuring of difference between culture and race, I wish to push Moya’s fairytale in a slightly different direction to see what we may learn about the nature of the human by testing the limits of cultural difference. To do so I will extend Moya’s fairytale about Kitayama in the lands of Inter- and Inde-pendence to the instance of the recent disasters. In the wake of the natural disasters compounded by hubris in the land of Interdependence, was it indeed the case that we witnessed a fundamental difference in the behavior of the victims of the disaster? Is it possible that what the world observed in the wake of the multiple catastrophes was a set of behaviors that were no different than the behaviors that would have been observed anywhere in the world of Independence? Especially in the case of the responses to the near and partial meltdowns of the nuclear reactors, were the resulting social calamities and tragedies conceived of and responded to differently than would have been elsewhere? Governing bodies and business groups of Interdependence seemed as willing to sacrifice the health and safety of emergency response professionals, power utility employees, and everyday citizens residing in the nearby area of the disaster as would have those of any land of Independence. The point of my parable is simply to point out the extent to which cultural difference in the case of the recent disasters in the land of Interdependence seemed to have been trumped by the practical necessities of larger structures of power than those motivating cultural difference. What do we learn at moments of extreme crisis such as these in the land of Interdependence , moments when cultural mores are pushed to their extreme limit? Do cultural differences hold up?

    This set of questions is important because if we are to see the extent to which “culture is a significant shaper of human cognition, motivation, and emotion,” then it is crucial to understand the limits of that shaping. And like the metaphorical compounding of disasters which beset the land of Interdependence in our initial parable, the compounding of error and the failure to see the limits of the difference between culture and the nature of the human can easily lead to a graver disaster – the very distortion our understanding of human nature, as such. For this reason, despite these hesitations, I am, finally, in substantial agreement with Paula Moya when she narrates, beautifully, that “human difference really matters — but not in the way most people think it does.”

    • In his response, Ramon Saldívar asks what we might learn about human nature in circumstances that test the limits of cultural difference. He points out that the reaction to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on the part of Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) and the government was familiar to those of us in the West. It involved obfuscation and the deliberate diminishment of the dangers involved in an attempt to calm the fears of the affected populace and perhaps also to minimize liability on the part of the company. We have been witness to similar obfuscation and diminishment during the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill, and environmental groups to this day believe that the dangers and impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill were underreported. Moreover, for all our vaunted independence, Americans have shown again and again that they can come together in at least some situations of crisis and make sacrifices for the greater good. Given all this, is the way the Japanese handled their environmental disaster really so different from the way we in the United States have handled ours? In such a moment of crisis, do the “cultural differences” identified by Markus and Kitayama really “hold up?” And if they do not, then what does that imply, Saldívar asks, about “the extent to which ‘culture is a significant shaper of human cognition, motivation, and emotion?’”

      My first impulse is to point out that the studies done by Markus and Kitayama have been designed to test tendencies toward independence and interdependence as they play themselves out in the course of everyday life—rather than in extreme situations. So while we might extrapolate from Markus and Kitayama’s studies to speculate about differences in response, we would lack solid empirical data to back up those speculations—which in the social sciences (if not in the humanities) would be considered an important part of answering the question.

      But Saldívar’s post also raises a more fundamental question that intrigues me because of what it suggests about our various disciplinary biases. This is the question of when and in what circumstances human nature is best revealed. Is it best revealed in moments of crisis, when we humans are pushed to the limits of our endurance? Or is it best seen in the ideas, values, and practices that are part and parcel of our everyday behavior? In other words, should we look to the boundary or limit case in order to see the truth of the whole? Or should we look to the everyday, ordinary case that, in its reliability and repeatability, adds up to truth of the whole?

      My point is simply that in literary studies, with some notable exceptions, scholars are interested in the unique and extraordinary rather than the usual and the mundane. For the most part, we have been trained to value the literary masterpiece rather than the best-seller page-turner sold at the airport bookstore. Having been weaned on John Keats (‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’), socialized by Jane Austen and seduced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the average literary critic is more likely to look to the “well wrought urn” (to borrow a phrase from literary critic Cleanth Brooks) than to the mass produced vase (available at Crate and Barrel) for that which will reveal to us the ‘truth’ about ourselves. We favor, in other words, the extraordinary over the everyday.

      How might the empiricism of social psychology require, by contrast, a privileging of the everyday?

  • Lupe Carrillo

    Moya’s article, in both content and form, brings attention to many important issues, including the following two that I would like to discuss in my commentary: One, how culture (rather than one’s racial makeup) is a more accurate predictor of our values, ideas, behaviors and perspectives and two, how cultural narratives and representational forms influence our understanding of culture. While some narratives do a wonderful job in showing the dynamic historical and social forces that creates culture, other narratives create a static picture of culture as based on fixed, biological racial difference. Thus, aesthetic representations and narratives about human difference (the manner in which our differences are told and expressed, that is) can both facilitate or obscure our understanding of not only culture but of how culture creates behavioral difference.

    I thought Moya’s employment of the fairytale form creatively and self-reflexively highlights how representational modes play a crucial role in framing what constitutes culture and cultural background. The allegorical, imaginative flights offered by the fairy tale form allows the reader (us) to see culture apart from its racial connotations and see how culture functions as a set of shared values, behaviors, and relationships (i.e. the land interdependence). The fairytale demonstrates that Kitayama’s difference, (that is his different behavior, experience, worldviews and even research interests) is based on the fact that he comes from the land on interdependence and not from a specific racial group. While Kitayama’s name reveals or alludes to an ethnic difference, the major difference that Moya’s fairytale successfully highlights is cultural values and not racial markers. So often in conventional mainstream narratives, we attribute a person’s distinct values and behavior to their race (their visible difference and identity) rather than the (not as visible) cultural background, a social organization formed by customs, traditions, arts, economic structures and social relationships. By taking a shortcut in finding the meaning of human difference we see race rather than social organization, (i.e. the land of interdependence) that would provide us a more fruitful view of each other.

    But why does our society often confuse race with culture? This is a question that continuously comes up for me. This article forces us to carefully examine this constant conflation of race and culture and why we are accustomed to equate biological difference with culture. As the story of Kitayama’s research demonstrates, there is an undeniable connection between the body and culture, but we must pay attention to the complexity of this relationship. We must understand that just because culture becomes “embrained” and historical differences manifests themselves emotionally and behaviorally, does not mean that we can easily conflate culture and the body. Culture informs the body and vice versa in a dynamic, complex process.

    But this complicated relationship between cultural experience and the body seems to be getting more attention as of late by the medical world. The New Yorker’s March 21st issue, for example, features a a story about a physician in San Francisco, Nadine Burke, who noticed that her underprivileged young patients who grew up in a culture of violence and poverty in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco had significant health problems such as asthma, migraines, obesity and bronchial issues and where more likely to experience signifiant health problems as adults.* After researching the expanding fields of stress physiology and neuroendocrinology, Burke discovered that people who come from a background of poverty (which, just to bring race and ethnicity back into the discussion, happen to be under-represented ethnic minorities) are more likely to develop not only emotional conditions but “neurochemical” situations, thus providing a poignant example of how social historical experience and structural inequality manifests itself as significant chemical changes in both the brain and body. This is the process of “embrained” that Moya’s article mentions.

    Indeed, Michael Meaney, a neurobiologist at McGill University, and his colleagues found that early adversity alters the chemistry of DNA in the brain and causes neurochemical dysregulation, which can lead to depression, cognitive difficulties and distinctive behaviors. While this New Yorker article does a great job of exposing alternative narratives to understanding how the culture of poverty actually has biological neurochemical consequences that must be addressed by doctors when treating under-privileged communities, I was struck by how the article was more concerned with the scientific research and chemical treatments of patients and less concerned about the cultural and economic differences that are also dictating the behavior and medical health of the patient.

    And this where we go back to one of Moya’s major points in her article that our understanding of difference is heavily influenced by the stories and (in this case) the news stories that frame the description of human behavior. We as a society always seem to privilege biological traits (i.e. race, gender, etc.) and the scientific data as the site to examine difference. By ignoring how human relationships, the organization of society, and the affective expressions of this organization (i.e culture) play a crucial role in why some people are interdependent while others are not, we fail to do justice to the complex uniqueness of human experience and subjectivity.

    *Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/03/21/110321fa_fact_tough#ixzz1LSGdWqoY

  • Paula Moya’s essay, with its extended and open-ended moral, as well as the discussion that has followed, have made for truly thought-provoking and pleasurable reading for me. I have been so stimulated that I have more to say than I should really put in a comment here; I’ll write a longer version of this response in a forthcoming post on Arcade, where I will also enthusiastically and emphatically link back to this discussion.

    This story helps me see that questions of ethnicity and cultural difference are great matches for cognitive science. It has sometimes seemed that cognitive approaches in the humanities would have to opt for a strongly universalist version of “human nature” that plugged its ears to the many critiques of the idea that literature and art contain straightforward, decontextualized lessons about the essence of the human. But few questions could be closer to the heart of the ways in which culture and human biology interact than those of identity, ethnicity, and race.

    I also share Moya’s dismay at the ways contemporary science reporting uses cognitive- and neuro-scientific research to—in Moya and Markus’s terminology—do race, reinforcing stereotypes about racially-implanted essences. Such reporting often seems to assume that when ethnic, gender, or other differences can be shown to explain some part of the variation in people’s behavior, this “proves” the truth of stereotypes. Usually the research does just the opposite, by illuminating the biological, psychological, and social basis for the range of variation both within and across groups.

    The importance of emphasizing variation is also, I gather, a key issue in the cognitive and behavioral sciences themselves. In a recent Behavioral and Brain Sciences target article, Joseph Henrich et al. discuss how overusing subjects from WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Democratic, and Rich) societies, especially American university students, has distorted psychological accounts of human nature. Such societies are, from the comparative perspective, unrepresentative in many ways. Henrich et al. give a powerful brief for comparative research in the behavioral and brain sciences. One of Henrich et al.’s specific examples is, the “fundamental attribution error,” which turns out to be “less fundamental elsewhere.” In the work by Na and Kitayama Moya illuminates for us, it turns out that this error is not even fundamental “here,” in the US.

    As a scholar of literary culture myself, I am particularly interested in the contrast Moya indicates between racial categories (the journalists’) and cultural ones (Kitayama et al.’s). This shift seems absolutely central to me. But I want to make a point which is complementary to Ramón Saldívar’s. One challenge is this: how can we avoid using cultural categories as, in Moya’s incisive phrase, “proxies” for racial ones?

    Consider Kitayama’s cultural category: interdependent versus independent schemas of the self. As Moya’s choice of the fairy-tale mode subtly indicates, there is an important difference between living in the United States and living in the Land of Independence. In the USA, Na and Kitayama needed only to recruit American undergraduates from multiple ethnic backgrounds as research subjects in order to have a subject population with a wide range of scores on a measure of interdependence vs. independence. (I was able to read a preliminary version of the Na and Kitayama essay thanks to the APS public relations office.) Being Asian-American or European-American is not the same as being Interdependent-American or Independent-American. In Na and Kitayama’s studies, each of the Asian- and European-American student groups had a wide range of inter/independence scores (even if on average Asian-Americans favored interdependent self-schemas somewhat more). The same overlapping distributions are visible in the study’s key results, which relate these cultural variables to “spontaneous trait attribution”: Na and Kitayama find a substantial difference, but also a considerable overlap, in their subject groups’ responses.

    There is no simple equivalence between Interdependentians and people with East Asian heritage. Yet Na and Kitayama sometimes seem to want to speak of independent or interdependent schemas of self as properties of whole populations or whole cultures, equating them with European or Asian “culture” (i.e., heritage) respectively. But, as Markus and Kitayama themselves say in the 2010 theoretical essay cited by Moya, we can assume both self-schemas are available, though not equally, in any culture. Should we say that Asian-Americans have “a” culture and European-Americans another? Does “American” culture encompass them all? What are the boundaries of a culture, and what is the relationship of a given individual to a culture, whether that individual does ethnicity, or has race or ethnicity done to her, or neither?

    In short: one of the tasks, as we strive to develop better ways to understand and explain human difference, is to find cultural categories that can help us illuminate, rather than reify or essentialize, complex distributions of behavior. I believe Moya’s intervention here, like the scholarship she cites, make important contributions to this still-incomplete effort.

  • This is a neat post with thoughtful, compelling replies. Let me add briefly that the problem with seeking a bodily explanation for difference is not just cultural arrogance: it is a cognitive default. We humans seek meaning. We identify and prototype and categorize, and we distinguish between the socially learned and the bodily natural even in social worlds in which the culture (the shared pattern of interpretation) refuses to do so. As a result, when we see complexity we tend to interpret it simply, and when we seek for a ‘real’ difference, we tend to interpret it as natural.

    This is a real problem for academic fields like anthropology, my own discipline, that try to understand cultural complexity. When we argue for cultural difference, we find that we are interpreted as identifying types of brains and bodies: and so we resist and often find ourselves arguing against any account of difference at all. Then we’re back where we started, which isn’t good for any of us.

    The challenge then is to create a dimensional way of thinking that can be grasped by a categorizing mind. One example of the challenge is the problem of psychiatric diagnosis. The original biomedically driven nosology (DSM III) emerged because we desperately needed a way to draw distinctions between kind of mental illness in order to do research. No one really believed at the time that there was a clear, unambiguous difference between, say, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But you name the difference, and inevitably, those who use the categories begin to think in terms of deep biological differences, a chasm between two ways of being. And of course there are bodily differences. But the more we know and understand them, the less it looks like there is any absolute difference at all. So now there is a movement to reverse the trend. But it is very hard to imagine busy clinicians checking off points on five continua to characterize a single patient.

    I like Kitayama’s work because it gives teeth to the reality of difference and because it teaches us that bodily difference is socially learned. The more we know about the natural, the more socially responsive it becomes. But it isn’t easy to make that clear to the intuitive mind.

  • Gavin Jones

    Whenever I walk the length of History bookshelves in the bookstore to get to the ever-dwindling section of Literary Criticism, I think about how literary studies has — with a few exceptions — ceded the practice and the joy of narrative to sister disciplines. As scholars of literature, we analyze narrative but, unless we are writing literary biography, rarely do we engage the power of storytelling itself. Paula Moya (my colleague in the Stanford English department) bucks this trend by turning to two fundamental forms of narrative, the fairytale and the dream narrative, to uncover the story of race. Thinking historically, we can place Moya’s story in the tradition of Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” which likewise employs a narrative technique — a play with focalization — to expose the unconsciously racist assumptions of the white liberal conscience. In Melville’s story about a slave rebellion at sea, the American captain Amasa Delano’s desire to respect cultural difference only masks an unconscious assumption of intellectual hierarchy based on the biology of race. Moya implies that we have not progressed too far on this question in the 150 years since Melville’s tale. Race, for Moya, is the story of how cultural difference, as an embrained phenomenon, gets collapsed down into the biological idea of racial essence. If race is a “doing,” as Moya and Hazel Markus argue in their influential collection of essays, then narrative is the perfect medium to describe and attempt to understand its dynamic processes of emergence. This is perhaps why race is (or so it seemed to me when I began to study American literature in the 1990s) the Great American Subject, which threads its way through so many of our major texts, as writers have attempted to understand the structure of race and the contradictions it creates in the nation’s democratic experiment.

    Fairytales are stories that cultures tell about themselves to help understand basic aspects of their social structures. Dream narratives, of course, take us into the realms of psychology and the unconscious. Thus, in its very structure, “A Story in Two Parts” juxtaposes the realm of the cultural (the fairytale) and the realm of the psychological (the dream), just as the story of race is the story of how we understand the relationship between culture and mind. To borrow from Russian Formalism, Moya’s fairytale defamiliarizes aspects of the common, hence heightening our perception of what we might easily take for granted. Moya’s fairytale humorously exposes the politics of alleged difficulty and intellectual distinction that increase the cultural capital attained by certain academic theories and approaches. “There’s something so wonderfully hard about cognitive neuroscience,” thinks Connie, almost falling into this trap of prestige. Moya’s dream narrative, on the other hand, works to close off many of the possibilities opened by the fairytale. The fairytale describes an ideal network of intercultural relationships: the implicitly Asian Kitayama enters a relationship with the implicitly Latina Connie (named, we are told in a footnote, from a Spanish word) with the help of the implicitly Anglo-American Markus. But this network is finally defeated by a blue-eyed, Eurocentric conspiracy that suggests how the power of discourse — with its recourse to familiar metaphors of difference — can easily deflect and reshape the neurologically “real” evidence uncovered by Kitayama. The “old and familiar story of race” works to overpower the multicultural understanding of difference, just as the slave rebellion in Melville’s “Benito Cereno” is finally defeated, and the power of the white masters is inevitably restored.

    Or at least, this is where we are at the end of part two of Moya’s narrative. The third part is yet to be written. To play finally with Moya’s own play with genre, could I call for a third part written in the tradition of lo real maravilloso? Perhaps its magisterial power to deconstruct the binaries of Western thought can help us to imagine a possible future of cultural difference without racist distinction.

  • Elda María Román

    Reading Paula Moya’s provocative post made me think about the possibilities of another thread in this story, a spin-off of sorts, where the minor characters become more prominent. What if Race and Culture, rivalrous siblings dueling it out against a backdrop of disciplinary and popular interests, called a cease-fire in order to sit down and engage in debate? What reasons could the elder Race cite for his continued role as preferred category? Perhaps he’d gloat about his legacy in the historical record and legal realm and then boast of having human nature on his side and the inevitability that humans will condense all information under the easiest rubric possible, such as phenotype. Would he flip through his portfolio to showcase his brand appeal, his spreads in newspapers, journals, and his acknowledgements from various comedian friends? Would he then grin and declare that he is clearly the default winner among those who see themselves as devoid of Culture but would, as reinforced by even the Census, see themselves as having a Race? How could Culture not interrupt here to mention the merits of his own accomplishments, in bringing attention to heterogeneity and multiplicity? And that rather than focusing on people’s looks, he is attuned to what people do, and how their circumstances affect what they produce. His is, after all, an attention to detail and specificity that would shame his messy older sibling if said sibling even cared about organization to the extent that Culture clearly does. Here, with this venture into name-calling, would the discursive duel begin to end, with nary a winner declared but with preliminary reasons laid out in answer to the question: What are the incentives to using Race or Culture as categorical labels?

  • Shikha Singh

    Having to grow up with two different cultures I can easily say that culture does affect the human cognition, motivation and emotion. Dealing with the values and culture my parents were brought up with and having that culture being implemented on me at the same time as having the American culture influence me i realize how much of an impact it has on the personality.

    Personality can include the way a person thinks, what they find is right or wrong, their outlook on different apparatus, and what they find important. All these characteristics of personality influence one on the way they think, in other words human cognition. So then how does culture impact human cognition?-Simply by embedding certain “rules” of the culture into one’s mind. This may sound unjust, but in actuality, cultures do set rules that the people in the culture subconsciously follow. For example, in America if one does not look straight in the eye they can be suspected to be lying. However, in India if one does look another in the eye and if the person they are looking at is elder to them then it is a sign of disrespect. Therefore, in America people will be following the rule of looking at someone straight in the eye and in India people will be following the rule of showing respect in their own way. Such a miniscule difference in culture can create a great amount of difference in a person’s personality. In interdependent cultures people are brought up with high importance to the elders. This compels them to believe that one should always listen to the elders because they know best and one should never do anything that will harm them in any way, whether it is emotional or physical. On the other hand in independent cultures the value of elders is not as strictly embedded in the youth’s lives and this compels them to make their own decisions and not feel the need to consult the elders often times or even consider their opinion. Such contrast in thinking makes one human think highly emotionally as they try to please the elders and think about their feelings and what will hurt them and what will not as oppose to the other human who thinks practically about what is best for what they value the most individually.

    I have always said that racism exists everywhere one goes whether one accepts it or not. It is in our blood as human beings to categorize everything we see and put some value to it. The Europeans called African Americans the “colored people” and set a value to them. However, such categorizing is not just limited to racism. Humans also categorize people by their wealth status, their political status etc. Unfortunately, cultures correlate to race because in most cases each culture is made up of a group of people that are in the same race. For this reason often times humans mistakenly assign the differences in people from different backgrounds as racial differences which leads to racial profiling. Instead one needs to look at the cultural differences and needs to start looking beyond race or color and look at cultural differences or different criteria. The way one thinks or becomes is highly influenced by their surroundings in my opinion and this can be a very interesting topic to look into while relating to human cognition which many people have already done.

    As for the ending of the short story, Kitayama should decide to put away his research and find a way to direct humans to think beyond race and think along the lines of why human differences exist in the way they do and what can others learn from other peoples’ differences?

  • Michael Hames-García

    Paula Moya raises some excellent points for consideration, and I very much enjoyed reading her post and the several responses to it. I think that humanities and social science scholars ignore natural science research at our peril, and I therefore applaud Moya for engaging this scholarship so seriously. There is a reason why the public lends so much credence to natural scientists. If I begin to have serious, recurring headaches, I will most likely want to have an MRI, not a lecture about the socially constructed nature of pain. I may be as skeptical of scientific objectivism as the next person with a PhD in English, but I put my faith in the reliability of scientific method and experimentation every time I board a plane, get a prescription filled, or drink city tap water. Despite its flaws and overreaching arrogance, science has demonstrated its importance for human society time and time again. Whether we are talking about genetics or psychology, humanities and social science scholars of race and ethnicity cannot afford to simply ignore natural science research — because no one else will. Often scientific conclusions about race can seem inconvenient because even scientists themselves misunderstand what they are researching. Unlike Kitayama, some natural scientists do not start out with a clear understanding of the difference between race and culture or the socially constructed nature of race and ethnicity. They are themselves products of the stories we tell about human difference, after all. They can thus sometimes present their own research as being about race rather than as about culture or genetic distance. (For example.)

    It is therefore important for humanities and social science scholars to be present as first-line interpreters and disseminators of scientific data. If we simply turn our backs on science — refusing to understand it or to engage with it seriously — then we leave it to journalists and scientists themselves (many of whom lack critical perspective about the history of race and racism) to frame scientific data about human difference. I think there are also a number of important conversations that we can help to begin about race/culture and science. Among them is one gestured to by Andrew Goldstone in his comment above. To what extent do our continued categorizations create the differences we are looking for? For example, can we find ways of talking about the broad, overall differences that typically exist between Interdependence and Independence without falling into discussions that assume a rigid separation between and homogeneity within the two lands? To what extent does the scientific research process itself encourage an a priori assumption about the importance of racial or ethnic difference? (For example, I recently guided three students through my university’s Institutional Review Board process. The instructions for the IRB protocol specifically ask applicants, “What is the scientific or scholarly justification for the number, gender, age, or race of the population you intend to recruit?” An obviously well-intentioned question, this nonetheless can trigger any number of “stories” about the nature and importance of racial difference–thereby eliciting bogus scientific and scholarly “justifications” for race.) I think Moya’s story models for us a way to engage with scientific research and to disseminate it within a new frame, and I hope that others will take up her challenge to think with scientists about their research and its results.

  • When Paula Moya clarifies, towards the end of her thought-provoking posting, that the story of race as a “biological thing” is not only inaccurate, but it distorts our understanding of human nature, I am reminded of important parallel conversations happening in sexuality studies, particularly from a cohort of queer studies scholars and activists pushing back against the dominant biologism that anchors liberal and conservative perspectives on “sexual orientation.” Gayle Rubin perhaps best summarized this critique in the 1980’s when she stated: “Human organisms and human brains are necessary for human cultures, but no examination of the body or its parts can explain the nature and variety of human social systems. The belly’s hunger gives no clues as to the complexities of cuisine. The body, the brain, the genitalia, and the capacity for language are all necessary for human sexuality. But they do not determine its content, its experiences, or its institutional forms.”

    “Biological” arguments for and against homosexuality abound. Extreme conservatives have historically invoked homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” (in order to argue that it can therefore be changed) and queer folk—cornered to contest this reactionary rationale and the violence that it perpetuates—take recourse in biological explanations (i.e., “I was born this way!”). The recourse to biological arguments surely mitigates oppression and injustice by invoking certainty and immutability. However, it has the potential to produce another, more insidious kind of violence by paying very little attention to the tolerance trap through which queers are acknowledged as viable, valuable, and visible “citizen-humans.” Tolerance—as Jackobsen and Pelligrini have argued in Love the Sin—has been used historically as a method to expand rights to various constituencies. But each success of “inclusion,” they argue, needs to assess how DIFFERENCE and HIERARCHY comes to be affirmed and entrenched in the process. The recurring use of biology to “explain” homosexuality concedes (in an almost imperceptible way) that if sexual orientations were in our control, then we might consider changing them and societies might have an interest in challenging it as a viable orientation. However, since sexual orientations are, according to the biological argument, immutable and ingrained in the brain from birth, then we need to leave queer folk alone. They can’t help who they are.

    Since we are speaking across disciplines in this online conversation, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek mathematical equation is in order. This equation concedes that being tolerated is certainly better than being abused, murdered, or bullied, but it also reminds us that being “tolerated” through discourses of biological certainty does not equal freedom.

    Being “Tolerated” > Being Murdered or Abused ? Freedom.

    There is still much more dialogue to be had regarding what scientists and humanists understand not only about race, human sexuality, and culture, but also about the politics of knowledge production. Moya’s posting reminds me of the difficulty of this dialogue, but also of the special role certain scholars play in what Jack Tchen has called “curating dialogic spaces.” Perhaps this online venue is a good example of that precious and rare “curatorial” work.

  • Reading Paula Moya’s post and the thoughtful comments that followed, I am interested in the way everyone — from Kitayama to nearly all of the commenters on his story — have grappled with the question of what happens when the concepts of “culture” and “race” are used as stand-ins for one another. Since reading the story a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about the moment when Kitayama declines Markus’s invitation to contribute to her book on race and ethnicity. This moment, of course, clearly foreshadows Kitayama’s nightmare of seeing his work subsumed into cultural narratives used to maintain racial hierarchies. I’m wondering, though, how Kitayama’s own perspective on his work changes after seeing his work used to re-biologize race. Does he continue to insist that his work is strictly about culture? Or does he eventually decide that in a world structured by racializing ideas and systems his work can be appropriated to “do race” — and, therefore, that his work is (in a certain way) about race after all? If he chooses the former path, is he failing to recognize the complex relationship between the concepts of culture and race? And if he chooses the latter, does he risk reinforcing the connection between culture and race, thereby making the two concepts even more difficult to pull apart?

  • Héctor Hoyos

    I find myself thoroughly persuaded by the claims and method of Paula Moya’s posting, as well as in agreement with several of the comments so far. Particularly, I share Gavin Jones’s observations about the relevance of narrative for this kind of undertaking. If racial identification is in constant flux, then storytelling can capture what is most important in this movement: its trajectory.

    The character Kitayama could have been in a different situation at University of Michigan. Say he were called upon to represent the views of the entirety of Interdependentians. A tall task! But one he might embrace willingly, along the lines of Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism”: sometimes it takes this sort of compromise to intervene in the workings of Journal. Here trajectory, or in narrative terms denouement, is crucial: no account of the resolution is complete without mentioning the conflict that precedes it. And so even ratialized, essentialist takes on ethnicity may play a role in a progressive agenda. For an added example, one could think of José Vasconcelos’s notion of a “raza de bronce” (bronze race) within its historical context.

    Many stories follow an archetypal narrative mode that has been among us for a long time, namely the “nature versus nurture” debate. Why we should situate episteme on one end or the other of the spectrum, or whether we are in fact talking about a spectrum or about a dichotomy, varies over time. The metahistory of the debate cannot be elided, however, if we are to have a self-critical regard to our own contributions to its unfolding. This is why I think the character “Journal” plays such a lucid role in Paula Moya’s fable. The constitution of an epistemic vantage point to talk about ethnicity is internal to the making of ethnicity itself. Taking stock of this recurrent structure –a blind spot– may serve us well in our efforts for thinking about ethnicity. Or, in Paula Moya and Hazel Markus’ terms, in the process of doing and undoing race, a process whose narrative horizon is always already the contingent, pressing goal of social justice.

  • The conversation has moved on to the potentials and the dangers of a closer collaboration of the humanities, the social sciences and the cognitive sciences, but I would like to ask you to backtrack a little and pick up the thread of narrativization and generic alteration weaved by earlier contributors to this amazing post. It can take us to the broader need for rules and categorizations mentioned by Shikha Singh.

    As all good and moving stories, Paula Moya’s provocative open-ended tale in two parts offers one plotline around which the narrative can unfold — the betrayal of Kitayama, a researcher dedicated to the study of cultural difference. Kitayama is betrayed by a “blue-eyed, Eurocentric conspiracy,” as Gavin Jones sums it up so provocatively. This conspiracy wields “the power of discourse” (Jones) to bring Kitayama’s research in line with a larger and longer “story of race as a biological thing” (Moya). Being the good short story that it is, Moya’s tale has a neat dramatic structure, it can be read in a single sitting and it does not stop with a moral. Instead, it interlaces a number of subplots that feed into and yet grate against the major dramatic action. These are

    • The story of a pervasive academic hope that conjunctions and collocations between research, culture and race cease to matter — that academic discourses become ‘postrace’
    • The story of a rising scientific interest in the ‘depth’ and the mutability of cultural difference. Whether the cognitive sciences are adequate partners in this scholarly inquiry is a question to be answered by each reader individually (and Michael Hames-García offers a very convincing one)
    • The story behind the climactic betrayal, which distances the ‘hard’ sciences from the ‘soft’ humanities with regard to public attention and accreditation and, arguably, with regard to self-reflexivity and self-awareness

    Data-backed headlines, so the story goes, are sexy and cool and they can be racist. But it is not only in data-driven headlines that race is “done.” As Hazel Markus and Paula Moya indicate in the introduction to their interdisciplinary collection of essays entitled Doing Race, race involves many actions and among them the act of storytelling is quite central. Scholarly and scientific research is implicated in the practices of race as well, but the volume suggests that today’s state-of-the-art research in the fields of the social sciences and the humanities can change the typical conversations about race and ethnicity, thus attempting “to change their meaning in society” (Markus/Moya 76). With the story of Kitayama we learn of some of the difficulties to be encountered when attempting this change.

    Moya’s strategic fictionalization highlights contentions where they would otherwise go largely unnoticed and it invites us to see the emerging conflict between behavioral studies and cognitive science as something that follows established plotlines and narrative patterns, hence putting the art of story-telling itself under scrutiny.

    The story’s protagonists — Kitayama and Connie — inhabit a middle ground where multiple affiliations must be formed and where multiple misprisions and misreadings occur. Inviting simplifications of the cultural and societal makeup in “the land of Independence” and the “land of Interdependence,” Moya drives home the point that our world is shaped and crafted through narrative and its concomitant patterns of interpretation. Gavin Jones and Ramón Saldívar have already identified the narrative formats at work here: the fairytale, the dream narrative and the scholarly argument. These formats competitively negotiate the sustained presence of “the familiar story of race” in societal and cultural analysis.

    But what does it mean if we address race as a story? Race is a “complex system of ideas and practices” that involves “historical events, political movements, institutions, narratives, and practices” (Doing Race 62), it is a “metaphor” (Martín Alcoff), a “habit of mind” (Saldívar), and, possibly, “the Great American Subject” (Jones). With its three generic forms Moya’s narrative enables us to see race in all of these guises, acknowledging the productive frictions that arise from such a wide range of definitions.

    As Monika Fludernik has noted, the act of narrativization requires that a reader resolve incommensurabilities by seeking orientation along the lines of prototypes, frames and schemata (Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology, 1996, 31-35). We can argue, then, that Moya’s changing narrative modes reflect actions that are constitutive to the story of race itself, thus drawing attention to the eternal search for frames, scripts and schemata that is at its base. The story of race, as Luhrmann notes, is grounded in “a cognitive default,” which demands that simplifications and categorizations be made. Acts of complexity reduction characterize all of the fields in which race is ‘done’: narrative plot lines and scripts, poetic and rhetorical devices, social practices, forms of commemoration and rituals of institutions need shared patterns and shared categories, or else they would not be able to provide meaning.

    This action of complexity reduction runs through Moya’s essay as an implicit theme. Competing narrative formats revolve around sets of words and actions that reduce complexity and offer simpler categories instead. Moving from fairytale to dream narrative to scholarly argument, the essay builds up patterns and categories that are simultaneously challenged from within and without. These challenges might raise hopes for an end to race as a crucial story shaping either social, political, and academic interaction or their analysis. Most likely they effect something much smaller first. They made me wonder about the use of narrative in behavioral and cognitive research, about the use of texts and images in studies which reconceptualize culture as something that is embrained. What, I wonder, could be future results of these studies, if they were accompanied, critiqued and sustained by literary and cultural scholars who drew attention to acts of narrativization?

  • Aron Rodrigue

    This wonderfully suggestive story by Paula Moya and the following posts raise fascinating issues. From the historian’s perspective, “race,” “ethnicity,” and “culture” all have their own distinctive genealogies. Each one has its own valence, resonance, and “doing” that is time and place-specific. And yet each meaning is slippery and is in constant evolution.

    Tanya Luhrmann makes a very important point. How do we recognize, describe, and accept difference without falling into essentialist biologized categories, a constant temptation. And how in the attempt not to yield can we resist giving in to another temptation, the eradication of difference in our analytical tools.

    What haunts Paula Moya’s story and all the comments is what has yet to be named, the universal. Science and indeed most of social sciences and humanities have been constructed on universalist models, though the humanities have been perhaps somewhat recalcitrant here. The university as an institution came historically into being predicated upon structuring fixed notions of universal knowledge. That is to say that the very institutions that study and produce knowledge have their roots in the quest and transmission of the universal. It is only recently that the opposite of the latter, difference, categorized in numerous areas such as “class,” “race” and “gender,” to name a few, has started to question it. But we are still trapped in this binary dance of pas de deux between universalism and difference. How do we introduce others to dance on the stage? Perhaps Paula Moya will point the way in her ending to her story yet to be written….

  • Mariana Ortega

    Brain or heart, dependence or interdependence, literature or science, truth or fiction, universal or particular, biology or culture—who or what are we? Dichotomous thinking permeates our search to understand ourselves. We know quite well where such thinking and doing has led—to the prioritization of specific forms of knowledge that boast epistemic superiority and the retrieval of that which is true and real while covering up the complexity, multiplicity, even ineffability, of human existence. The story of race, with its numerous chapters appealing to the biological truth of race and the subsequent undermining of the humanity of some because of this newly found truth is a prime example of such thinking.

    Narratives, stories that are supposed to be told and not lived, have for some become flowery ornaments for our amusement while scientific narratives are supposed to uncover the facts of the matter, a very important matter at that, our own humanity and the lack of humanity of others who are different. As Gavin Jones points out, as opposed to other literary critics who themselves have given up engaging with storytelling, Paula Moya offers us the joy of narrative in two of its fundatmental forms, fairy tale, and dream, narrative. By doing so, Moya prompts us not to forget the power of stories to enhance our knowledge of ourselves and the world. The weaving of the stories with contemporary treatments of race and Moya’s own understanding of race opens up a space of reflection and a warning not to confound culture with race. This is a skillful move on Moya’s part and a welcomed one as it presents a multi-layered approach to thinking about race that invites discussion about connections between literary studies, philosophy, race theory and fields such as cognitive science and neuroscience.

    One of the issues that I find most intriguing and at the same time most challenging for us as we think through Paula Moya’s multi-faceted invitation is how not to fall into the dichotomous thinking that informs most of our discussions about who we are—a step that is to be crucial for the ending yet to be written. Ramón Saldívar by way of thinking through our behavior on moments of crisis, problematizes the story of independence and interdependence. He does so by pointing out that ultimately cultural difference does not hold up. It is not clear that only the moment of crisis and not everydayness allows for this possibility. Yet, what strikes me when I think of independence and interdependence is our complexity and multiplicity when we negotiate different contexts and possibilities and the ways in which both independence and interdependence play a role in our lives. There is a complexity about us and about our experience that needs to be recognized and that may not fit neatly into our categories. Moreover, the categories themselves cannot be assumed to be neat compartments that we can clearly separate and analyze. Michael Hames-García’s question “can we find ways of talking about the broad, overall differences that typically exist between Interdependence and Independence without falling into discussions that assume a rigid separation between and homogeneity within the two lands?” is crucial. Why should the source of the self be the brain or the heart? Why should biology or culture be the answer in our quest to understand race? Various theorists already appeal to the interconnectedness or enmeshedness of the various aspects of our existence as well as to the need for different disciplines to work together. Moya’s story prompts us to think in this direction. But perhaps another dream remains for many working on race and other aspects of our selves, not Kitayama’s bad dream of being misunderstood and misappropriated, but the dream of neat dichotomous categories with fixed boundaries that can be fully understood and used as primary explanations for our humanity, a dream of “binary dances” (Aron Rodrigue) as it were—a nightmare if indeed we are to do justice to the complexity of what it means to be human.

  • Alex Woloch

    I’ve also followed this discussion with interest, and its fascinating to see the way that Paula Moya’s cunningly suggestive and thought-provoking piece has generated this rich set of responses. I share Michael Hames-García’s inclination to go to a doctor for an MRI rather than to an English professor for a discussion of the social construction of pain, but this posting did get me thinking about the specific heuristic and diagnostic capacities of narrative. One of the most compelling literary representations of a scientist might be the portrait of the brilliant, knowledgeable, ambitious, flawed doctor and researcher Tertius Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. If we’re talking about — or trying to make the case for — the epistemological and cultural value of literary narrative, in dialogue or even competition with science, this portrait might be a good place to start. Eliot’s novel is famous as an enduringly relevant, engaging and intellectually exciting narrative — and the portrait of Lydgate, in particular, could still resonate, I imagine, with many doctors, researchers and scientists today (even while highlighting the way that these different terms were much more amorphous in the nineteenth-century). More specifically, Eliot’s depiction of Lydgate is notable for the way that it engages so seriously with the young doctor’s commitment to the scientific method and the propulsive movement of scientific knowledge while also embedding the character in a web of complicated social relationships, misprisions and mistakes which cannot finally be separated from his analytic drive. This portrait is relevant to Moya’s larger concerns as well because Eliot’s engagement with Lydgate, at once sympathetic and ironic, cuts so clearly across socially-grounded forms of difference — not race in this case but gender. Specifically, Eliot’s narrator in many ways identifies with the fundamental premises of Lydgate’s scientific aspiration — in particular his intertwined commitment to systematic analysis (the search for a single unifying “tissue” at the basis of biological life) and medical reform — even while making the reader starkly aware of a set of biases, in Lydgate’s understanding of and relationships with women, that would mostly likely serve to exclude the narrator herself. Lydgate is thus both a character through whom the third-person narrator’s own intellectual personality is crystallized and amplified, and a character who would reject or negate the perspective and authority of the female novelist as such (perhaps as Kitayama, in Moya’s narrative, sees himself disappearing from view in the bad dream at the center of the story).

    But Eliot’s “narrative web” in Middlemarch (which makes connections, and accounts for complicated, embedded chains of social interaction), is relevant to Moya’s piece in another sense as well. At the core of Moya’s analysis, as I understand it, is precisely the kind of complicated social and epistemological misunderstanding — what Barbara Buchenau aptly calls “multiple misprisions and misreadings” — that the aesthetics of the nineteenth-century realist novel, at its strongest, is keenly attuned to. Like Middlemarch itself, in Moya’s narrative small changes and shifts — in particular the misprisions that occur as Kitayma’s research is paraphrased, reported on, and disseminated — can have very large, ramifying consequences (“incalculably diffusive” as the narrator writes in the final sentence of Middlemarch). Moya’s fairy-tale and dream narrative in fact rely on these kind of subtle tensions, in their meditation on how the discourses of culture and race can become treacherously collapsed and confused with one another.

  • First, I will concur with and adapt as my own the statement by Shikha Singh in his reply: “having to grow up with two different cultures I can easily say that culture does affect the human cognition, motivation and emotion.” I say, yes.

    Second, I will point out that as Paula Moya’s sister, our cultural experiences were the same through high school, and probably beyond: as such I understand fully the genesis and agree with the evolution of her theoretical perspectives in her scholarly work, only a small portion of which is exemplified in this very witty story.

    Third as a trained cognitive neuroscientist, I lament on how difficult it is to study culture in a way that is “acceptable” to the current body of cognitive neuroscientist researchers, and can empathize completely with Kitayama’s experiences, a researcher dedicated to the study of culture. That being said, I take heart that in the popular scientific press (e.g. http://www.sciencedaily.com/), I can type in the word “culture” (also “race”) in the search box and see that productive scientific inquiry is now being done.

    Forth, I will extend the statement by Michael Hames-Garcia in his reply, that “humanities and social science scholars ignore natural science research at our peril” to add that the natural sciences ignore the philosophical and theoretical insights from the humanities and social sciences to our peril. Rigorous scientific inquiry is theoretically driven as well as data driven, and perhaps the humanities and social sciences are in the best position to “push the envelope” in new theory development, which can be adapted for scientific inquiry and experimentation.

    It is accurate to say that the vast majority of cognitive neuroscience research takes as a given the universalist perspective (as pointed out by Aron Rodrigue in his reply). This perspective is reinforced in every step from theory development to the methods we use. For example in our methods (human neuroscience), while we have multiple participants in our studies, a first step is to average across all the data in our statistical analysis (ANOVA), to get to the “true” cognitive response which is presumed to he basic to all human beings. While this is likely valid for early sensory processes such as visual perception in the primary visual cortex, beyond that (even in higher visual areas) it may be more valid to consider the differences as well as the commonalities in individuals in our analysis. The problem may be in part the choice of statistical tools, as far more advanced statistical tools would be necessary to rigorously control for all differences except that being studied in each analysis (so as to avoid confounds and thus the inability to accurately identify the source of the difference — which is of primary interest). More advanced statistical tools are only beginning to enter our toolboxes.

    There is so much more to be said I am sure, much of which I have not resolved for myself yet, so I will stop here. But these are all the thoughts that I am grappling with as I set out to develop my cognitive and social cognitive research program, that which I am doing now, since I received my PhD this year (2011) in psychology/cognitive neuroscience.

  • Stephanie Fryberg

    I have great appreciation for “The story in two part” as I think it beautifully portrays the taken for granted intersection between culture and race. Throughout the story, Moya highlights the ways in which race and culture, two concepts that for all practical purposes mutually constitute one another and society, are forced into distinct theoretical corners. In social sciences attempting to study culture and race takes a scholar into the muckety-muk of fairytale la-la-land. As Kitayama’s less scientific sibling, such researcher would be denounced by Basic and Processes, Connie, and Methods as conducting noisy, unclean science. The irony being, as Moya highlights, that race and culture are not distinct concepts, they are highly related concepts that shape the everyday realities of people in American society.

    Take the recent operation to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. The linking of the operation to kill Public Enemy #1 with Geronimo, one of the most famous Native American figures in history, is an excellent example of race and culture “making each other up.” First, the stereotyping and prejudice literature tells us that creating a mental link between Geronimo and Osama bin Laden is likely to influence attitudes toward Native Americans in this country. While many will decry racism or at least racial insensitivity, the fact remains that the practice of using Native American images and stereotypes runs deep in the American cultural imagination. Americans have a long history of “playing Indian” that supports and fosters the ongoing oppression of Native people in this country.

    Of course, as the story goes, Kitayama can choose to study culture and not race, but can a Native American scholar make the same choice and successfully study the cognitions, emotions, and motivations of Native Americans in this country? Another ending yet to be written…

  • Jennifer Harford Vargas

    Both refreshingly creative and intellectually rigorous, Paula Moya’s post has, not surprisingly, generated an incredibly rich discussion. Several respondents have analyzed Moya’s use of multiple narrative forms—the fairy tale, the dream narrative, and the scholarly argument—and Gavin Jones even suggests Moya finish her post in the style of lo real maravilloso (a marvelous suggestion I might add!). Moya’s recourse to creative writing, her “strategic fictionalization” as Barbara Buchenau puts it, enables her to talk about culture and race by telling a story, thereby opening up an important discussion of how representational modes frame our understanding of culture and race. Gavin Jones posits that since race is a doing “then narrative is the perfect medium to describe and attempt to understand its dynamic processes of emergence,” and Alex Woloch discusses the “heuristic and diagnostic capacities of narrative.” While I completely agree with the observations both offer in their posts and I recognize the immense benefits of narrative, what are its limitations? As Lupe Carrillo points out, “aesthetic representations and narratives about human difference (the manner in which our differences are told and expressed, that is) can both facilitate and obscure our understanding of not only culture but of how culture creates behavioral difference.” How can we mobilize different aesthetic modes to construct interpretive schemas that help people conceptualize that race is not biological and that culture, as Moya asserts, shapes “human cognition, motivation, and behavior”?

    Ernesto Martínez’s attempt to develop a mathematical equation to understand tolerance vis-à-vis violence and freedom and Linda Martín Alcoff’s reminder that there are multiple metaphors for the source of the self (such as the heart in the Mayan tradition) got me thinking about other ways to imagine and represent our theories of culture and race. I submit that we need to develop many stories, pictures, performances, artwork, graphs, etc. to represent the complexity of race and culture because the more different kinds of representations we create the more likely people will be able to grasp how race and culture are doings and in turn share this with others. I am reminded of how difficult it is for academics to appear on news programs because we do not think let alone talk in short sound bites; moreover, humanities scholars rely especially heavily on the written word. Yet, we need to develop more accessible means of communicating if we hope to change the hegemonic and erroneous conceptions of culture, race, and biology people have. In their “Introduction” to Doing Race Moya and Markus offer two diagrams to represent how race is, as Moya puts it in this post, “a dynamic and ongoing system of historically-derived and institutionalized ideas and practices.” The first diagram (page 18) depicts a series of people surrounded by and inter-connected through different shapes; instead of having these shapes within them as biological or essential characteristics, the diagram effectively shows how they are doing and having done to them these characteristics. The second diagram (page 33), which depicts a “racial iceberg,” strikingly represents in easy-to-grasp visual form how much of what we do not automatically see about race—such as institutionalized and legalized inequality, social movements, world-historical events, foundational narratives—is below the surface of the iceberg tip that we do see in a manner that recalls Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing that 7/8ths of a story’s meaning exists below the surface of what is written on the page. When Moya and Markus present their work in public, they use everything from the Broadway musical Avenue Q to pictures of tshirts to make their theories accessible and thereby easy to disseminate. I have always appreciated how the Norton Anthology of African American Literature comes with two CDs of spirituals, music, and poetry and have yearned for more multi-media anthologies, especially academic ones. How can we collaborate or engage in dialogue with different creative producers— performance artists, creative writers, musicians, visual artists, material artists, etc.—to make our scholarship not only more inter-disciplinary but more inter-media?

  • My comment is not directed at the specifics of Moya’s fable, but at the notion of “doing race.” I’m interested in the range of behavior that could be considered as doing race.

    As an example I want to use a passage from an article in Krin Gabbard’s anthology, Jazz Among the Discourses (1995), one of a pair of anthologies arguing that “jazz has entered the mainstreams of the American academy” (p. 1). One Steven Elworth contributed a paper examining the critical transformation of jazz into an art music: “Jazz in Crisis, 1948-1958: Ideology and Representation.”

    In the course of his argument, Elworth offers this observation (p. 65):

    The major paradox of all writing about culture is how to take seriously a culture not one’s own without reducing it to an ineffable Other. I do not wish to argue, of course, that one can only write of one’s own culture. In the contemporary moment of constant cultural transformation and commodification, even the definition of one’s own culture is exceedingly contradictory and problematic.

    When I first read that sentence my reaction was something like “Right On, Brother!” Then I began thinking, and the more I thought, the stranger those sentences became.

    What I’m wondering is whether or not, in that passage, Elworth is doing race, though perhaps not in the sense the Moya means the term. The culture Elworth is talking about is not someone else’s culture, not in any analytically useful sense of the term. It’s his own culture he’s talking about, and he’s Othering it. If he’s not ‘doing culture,’ then he must be doing race, as that’s all there’s left to ‘do’ in this case.

    So, just what “culture not one’s own” is Elworth talking about? Since this article is about jazz I assume that jazz culture is what he’s talking about. While the jazz genealogy has strands extending variously to West Africa and Europe, has been and continues to be performed by Blacks and Whites, before audiences both Black and White – though, in the past, these have often been segmented into different venues, or different sections of the same venue – the music is conventionally considered to be Black. That convention is justified by the fact the music’s major creators have been overwhelmingly Black. Thus it follows that jazz culture is, as these conventions go, Black culture.

    That convention leads me to infer that Elworth is White. I do not have any hard evidence for this assumption; I’ve never met the man, I’ve seen no photographs, and the contributor’s blurb certainly doesn’t indicate race. But the same set of conventions that dictate that jazz is Black music also make it unlikely that any Black scholar would refer to jazz culture as “a culture not one’s own.” It follows that Elworth is White, or, at any rate, not-Black.

    I don’t know anything about Elworth beyond this article and a note indicating that, at the time of publication (1995), he was completing a doctorate at NYU. The fact that he is writing about jazz suggests that he likes it a great deal and knows more than a little about it. It is quite possible that he grew up in a house where folks listened to jazz on a regular basis. If not that, perhaps he discovered jazz while among friends or relatives and came to love it. He may also attend live performances, perhaps he is a weekend warrior, jamming with friends either privately or in public. He may well have been to weddings where a jazz band played the reception. He is comfortable with jazz; it is not exotic music. That is to say, it is unlikely that Elworth discovered jazz in some foreign land where no one speaks English, nor eats and dresses American style, nor knows anything of Mozart or Patsy Cline, among many others. Jazz is a routine and familiar part of Elworth’s life.

    So why doesn’t he think of it as his culture? Why must he caution himself (and us) against “reducing it to an ineffable Other.” On both counts the answer is the same: convention. The same set of conventions would require that Leontyne Price think of Puccini’s music as belonging to someone else’s culture, though she sings the music superbly, and may also require that a Black physicist – such as, currently president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – think of Newton and Einstein as belonging to someone else’s culture. On the other hand, I may claim both physicists for my culture despite the fact that I’ve not studied physics since high school and make no use of it in my professional life.

    Except that no one in fact asks Leontyne Price to think of Puccini’s music as someone else’s, at least I don’t think they do. Nor does anyone ask Shirley Jackson to think of physics as someone else’s culture. So why is it utterly conventional, if not demanded, that Steven Elworth think of jazz as someone else’s culture? Why does he Other his own cultural practice? One might venture that this convention is a way of acknowledging the history of jazz. But why does such acknowledgment seem to require this Othering? Why does convention deny Elworth permission to own his own culture?

  • Lee Konstantinou

    Reflecting on this stimulating discussion, I am reminded of the culturalism of Samuel P. Huntington, who famously justified some of his chauvinistic claims not in terms of race but in terms of “civilizational identity,” a concept which ultimately served as a warrant for concern in Who We Are? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, a book unashamed to suggest the superiority of Protestant Anglo-centrism over what he ominously calls the “Mexican/Hispanic Challenge.” One response to Huntington might be to say that he is really, surreptitiously, “doing race,” but I think the more disturbing possibility is that he is quite sincerely “doing culture,” and that “doing culture” can be just as problematic and chauvinistic and tribalistic and exclusionary and damaging to human dignity as “doing race.”

    I mention Huntington because his claims regarding different “core cultures” seems to bear quite directly on Kitayama’s research. Technically, the “doing” of race Moya refers to is quite independent of the content of Kitayama’s research, in the sense that the press release and journalistic accounts she cites are misreading the real (culture-focused) content of Kitayama’s fascinating research. Yet, I would add that we should not automatically assume the salubrious effect of arguments grounded in cultural difference, that the “deepness” of cultural dispositions in the brain can be deployed as easily to argue for exclusion and discrimination as understanding and reconciliation.

  • Ai Nakamura

    I am an anthropology researcher at Tokyo University studying Hokkaido indigenous culture in the Ezo Republic era. I object to the stereotypes of Japanese and East Asians that Dr. Moya uses in her “fairy tale.”

    She stereotypes Japan as a country of “very attentive to one another’s needs and desires; they sought to engage in behavior that would minimize conflict while maximizing empathy, filial piety, and mutual understanding.” If Dr. Moya were to study Japan, she will find that these cultural traits are matters of great complication. To take just one example, she says the “interdependence” land of Kitayama engages in behavior to minimize conflict. This claim reduces a complex dynamic of social mediation of conflict to a one-dimensional caricature. Does Dr. Moya know that she will find great variation in levels and types of social conflict in Ch?goku and Kansai regions as compared to Tokyo?

    Kitayama’s meek and helpless behavior in the “fairy tale” denotes him as a “model minority.” Kitayama is polite and honors his parents. As well, Professor Moya makes him a cuckold, another stereotype of the sexual inadequacy of East Asians. Is Dr. Moya aware that these stereotypes are not related to “interdependence”? Why are they in her “fairy tale”?

    I agree with Dr. Moya’s point about confusion of race and culture. I object to her stereotypes in stating this point.

    • william flesch

      I must take exception to at least part of this piece as well. Despite the disclaimer that the “Story in Two Parts” is fiction, I think it should have been fact checked before being published, for reasons I’ll set out below.

      At first I thought Professor Moya’s story was a mildly Swiftian parody, meant to show how narrative depends on just the propensity to attribute traits spontaneously that Kitayama in the story and Professor Kitayama in real life are in part considering. In that case, the universal existence of narrative would be evidence for the universal existence of such a propensity, even if its manifestation was affected, even strongly affected, by culture. But I believe I was wrong: the story is not the interesting and subtle parody I first credited it with being.

      (My own disclaimer: I mentioned my worries about this story elsewhere, in terms somewhat whose passion I regret, so my point was pretty much ignored. Herewith a couple of (I hope) more temperately formulated observations, but you should be aware that Professor Moya and I have had one heated exchange already. As I say, this was my fault and I regret it.)


      Professor Moya refers to Fiona (a footnote refers us to “Fiona MacRae”) as racist.

      Racist? Yes: since the fairy-tale Fiona believes that “Race is in our DNA, after all” and that race accounts for cultural differences (here a difference in the propensity to attribute behavior to fundamental traits of character). Fiona’s conjunction (her simultaneous assertion) of these two propositions is racist.

      Professor Moya has placed a disclaimer above her story: everyone in it is “thoroughly fictionalized.” More thoroughly than you might think perhaps. Fiona MacRae, on whom the laughing, clueless, blue-eyed, complacently self-appreciative villain of the fictional Kitayama’s telling and prophetic dream is based, did not write anything like the sentiment attributed to her: that “Race is in our DNA, after all,” a fact you can verify by checking Professor Moya’s footnoted reference to Ms. MacRae’s article.

      Now it’s worth repeating that Professor Moya’s striking description of Fiona includes mention of her “bright blue eyes.” Why? At least one commentator sees her as representative of a “blue-eyed, Eurocentric conspiracy.” I don’t think Professor Moya’s story implies such a conspiracy, but one sees why Professor Jones might interpret the story that way in his comment. I don’t read it that way: I think we’re just meant to see how someone who would benefit from a certain way of “doing race,” would therefore do race in the racist way that Fiona does (and would contribute to the general diffusion of this noxious ideology among science reporters over patio lunches).

      Please note that I am not saying that noticing eye-color is racist. I am saying eye-color in any fairy tale clearly has a function in the narrative, and the fact that Professor Moya underscores Fiona’s eye color does warrants some such interpretation as Professor Jones’s: at least that Fiona self-identifies as part of a Eurocentric elite. Really, why else is her eye color mentioned?

      And since Fiona is based, however loosely, and with whatever disclaimers, on the author of the footnoted article, Fiona MacRae, there’s a deniable but fairly strong implication here that the real Fiona MacRae is not only symptomatic of a general cultural project of doing race, but is an actual racist. (Professor Moya has informed me in the exchange I’ve alluded to that she believes the real Fiona MacRae does not have blue eyes. I think that makes the fictional Fiona’s blue eyes even more of an issue.)

      The real Fiona MacRae. Show of hands: how many people reading the story thought that the real Fiona MacRae said or implied that “Race is in our DNA, after all”?

      She didn’t and the record should reflect that.

      Or maybe you thought that at least the nameless male headline writer, the other villain in Kitayama’s dream, had no warrant for heading his article “Cultural Differences are Evident Deep in the Brains of Caucasian and Asian People”? I agree that this is an awful headline, but I note, at least for the sake of accuracy, that Kitayama’s dream has betrayed him a little: the headline is picking up from the press release (which Professor Moya footnotes) put out by the Association for Psychological Science to promote Professors Kitayama and Na’s forthcoming article in its journal Psychological Science. The first paragraph of that press release says: “The researchers studied the brain waves of people with Caucasian and Asian backgrounds and found that cultural differences in how we think about other people are embedded deep in our minds.”

      Yes, the headline is somewhat worse (“Caucasian and Asian People” rather than “people with Caucasian and Asian backgrounds”). But it’s a headline, and the mild inartfulness of its summary of the lightly rewritten press-release it heads is hardly as telling as Professor Moya’s fairy tale makes it.

      If I can criticize a fictional character’s choice of dream, I think that Kitayama ought to have dreamt about Arpel the press officer for the Association for Psychological Science. Arpel, a footnote would tell us, is a thoroughly fictionalized version of Arpel Witherspoon, who is the contact person for the press release (I’ve edited this comment after drafting it to change her first and last name, which you can find on the press release: it just seemed too icky to fictionalize a real person by using her real name).

      And I think how such a dream would go might depend on whether Ms. Witherspoon had in fact vetted the press release with Professors Kitayama and Na or not. It seems to me that it is fairly common practice to do so — I’ve vetted press releases concerning my work — but I don’t know. Kitayama’s dream about Arpel might allow us to infer the back story of how the press release got written. It is a back story. Arpel might in fact rightly be regarded as symptomatic of how some people do race, at least how the Association for Psychological Science, the publisher of the article, does race. But that would lead to a troubling irony.

      For we might have to wonder why the Association for Psychological Science was publishing the article in the first place, if the way they promoted the article is part of the problem, not part of the solution. The more accurate fairy-tale (to use an oxymoron germane to Professor Moya’s remark that “the issues under discussion…are very real”) — the more accurate fairy-tale I’ve suggested might, through some characterization of Arpel’s eye color (blue like Fiona’s or brown?) or her preferred dining venues (a patio restaurant, like Fiona’s and the “man”‘s, or McDonald’s) or her credit status (is she a credit card holder, like Fiona, or does she rely on debit cards or even cash?), give us some clue as to how to interpret Kitayama’s dream.

      I must say that I feel uncomfortable even mentioning this hypothetical dream-version of Arpel, so I am going to go back and change her name here — I first drafted this, on Professor Moya’s principles, using her real name. But it seemed wrong to do so when it occurred to me she might read this.

      I think it seems likely that some readers of this post have been misled about what the real Fiona MacRae said and did, misled by techniques that are all the more effective for being couched in the knowing tone fiction affords.

      So I would like to post this comment for the record.

      Coda: I’ll add that Professor Moya, elsewhere, concedes that Ms. MacRae might be upset by her characterization of Fiona: “Sure, McCrae could be upset with me, but she’d be missing the point of my story.” So I’ll just offer, for what it’s worth, the anecdotal observation that a coupe of years ago I somehow got to be a fictional character in a parable generically similar to Professor Moya’s, on a stranger’s blog, on the basis of his reading of something I wrote. The way I came off on his blog was innocuous – he wasn’t making my fictional counterpart racist or self-satisfied or thoughtlessly affluent. But I still found it unnerving and obscurely hurtful. I can’t imagine what Ms. MacRae might feel at the way Fiona is characterized, in Professor Moya’s original tale or in Professor Jones’s comment, whether or not feeling that way was missing the point of the story.

  • Hazel Rose Markus

    As behavioral scientists seek to explain human behavior, they will scan the body and the brain. What they “see” will of course depend on the concepts, categories, metaphors and stories (theories, hypotheses) they bring with them. They do not come to the observation of behavior empty-headed or empty-handed. Seeing is a combination of what is in the observed behavior and what is in the head or tools of the perceiver.

    Race, for example, is a powerful story used to make sense of some perceived characteristics or behavior. It is a story that essentializes and naturalizes difference and simultaneously justifies a particular hierarchy and arrangement of power. Paula Moya’s fairy tale and dream ingeniously reveals the significance of the story in the explanation of observed behavior. It also highlights the need to further elevate the study of stories–their sources, functions, and consequences—as behavioral scientists proceed with the analysis and explanation of behavior. Why are stories that explain behavior in terms of stable traits or motives inside individuals seemingly so much more compelling than stories that explain behavior in terms of relationships with others or in term of ideas, norms or practices in the social world? (Or, are these stories just more compelling for the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic among us or for those who share particular histories or philosophical and religious groundings?) What makes a story compelling and how do competing stories develop and take root? What other highly compelling stories exist in the world? Moya’s contribution based on the findings of Kitayama and colleagues also succeeds in suggesting an ambitious interdisciplinary, comparative project that will require a unique and unprecedented collaboration among humanists and behavioral scientists.

  • Shinobu Kitayama

    I immensely enjoyed reading a fictionalized version of myself. Paula Moya’s version of my story bears some uncanny resemblance to my own version of it. Of course, now that this fictional version is sufficiently compelling in its own ways, it is not entirely clear whether my own version—at least the one I thought I had before reading this one—might have any legitimate primacy: maybe Moya might have been right. In the end, however, it will not matter. For what’s at stake in Moya’s story lies, not in its truthfulness, but in the question it raises on how culture and race might best be conceptualized in the emerging discipline of cultural neuroscience.

    The Na and Kitayama paper Moya refers to in her contribution deals with a robust and persistent tendency to attribute dispositions to an actor even when the actor’s behavior is severely constrained by context. The tendency, we argued, is so strong that it occurs automatically or spontaneously — even when the social perceiver does not have to make such an inference.

    In the literature of social psychology, the tendency for trait inference (or dispositional bias) is considered so robust and pervasive that it is sometimes called the “fundamental attribution error”. This term, in fact, is becoming part of the popular culture as well (at least in the place we know best). Enter the term in Google, you will get 23 million hits. If the popularization of a scientific term is any indication of its validity, the fundamental attribution error will surely be valid. It must be real, pervasive, and in fact, fundamental.

    The thrust of our paper was to make a point that this may well be true in one cultural context where the term was invented, original supportive evidence for the effect was gathered, most of the researchers who studied the effect had been born and brought up, and its popularizers currently reside. The paper made this point by demonstrating that trait inference is highly spontaneous and automatic. One significant twist we made, however, was that the fundamentalness of the fundamental attribution error might not go too far outside of this particular context; for Asian Americans don’t show any evidence for spontaneous trait inference — and thus, that for the fundamental attribution error.

    An irony evident in most of the media blurbs Moya highlights is that they drew a strong trait inference from the experimental results. In this case, so Moya argues, the issue is even worse. They are attributing the presence or absence of spontaneous trait inference, not just to people who are showing the phenomenon (“European Americans”) or not showing it (“Asian Americans”), but also to their brains! This IS the ultimate vindication of the fundamental attribution error at work in, at least, Western media circles.

    If there was the single most significant message cultural neuroscientists need to glean from Moya’s story, as well as all spirited commentaries made on it, it would be this: Psychological tendencies — including their neural substrates — are an emerging property of a person acting in a cultural context. The cultural context for European Americans, including the media coverage noted by Moya, facilitates the psychological effect at issue, which in turn creates bits and pieces of the context itself (remember blurb writers are themselves the products of this cultural context).

    At the present moment, the field as well as the popular culture in which it is embedded has failed to find an effective way to discuss the dynamic mutual interaction between person (or brain) and context. It fails to recognize, in large part, that the interaction between the two (or three) could be so dense and intense that the original dichotomy (person vs. context) or trichotomy (person vs. brain vs. context) might eventually be dissolved or, some could even argue, that it should be suspended for, at least, some critical analytic moment.

    In any event, to get the notion right, and place it in the current scientific discourse of cultural neuroscience is a big challenge that many of us face. It is evident to me that only through an extensive collaborative effort by both scientists and humanists could one hope that this thorny issue be addressed in any satisfactory fashion.

  • Paula M. L. Moya


    I wish to begin by thanking all those who commented on my “Story in Two Parts, With an Ending Yet to be Written,” and who, by so doing, helped create what has become an incredibly rich and interdisciplinary conversation. From prior knowledge, or from what I was able to glean from their comments or the web, the commentators on this post hail from a wide range of departments and disciplines: Philosophy (Linda Martín Alcoff, Mariana Ortega), History (Aron Rodrigue), Anthropology (Tanya Luhrmann, Ai Nakamura), Social and Cultural Psychology (Stephanie Fryberg, Hazel Rose Markus), Cultural Neuroscience (Shinobu Kitayama), Cognitive Neuroscience (Linda Moya), Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies (Michael Hames-García, Ernesto J. Martínez), and Literary Criticism (Ramón Saldívar, Lupe Carrillo, Andrew Goldstone, Gavin Jones, Elda María Román, Julie Avril Minich, Héctor Hoyos, Barbara Buchenau, Alex Woloch, Jennifer Harford Vargas, Lee Konstantinou, William Flesch). Bill Benzon is an independent scholar with a wide range of interests, and also a working jazz musician. Shikha Singh appears to be an undergraduate student at North Carolina State University.

    A primary reason I engage in the interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity is because it allows for a deep scholarly engagement with a number of philosophically-, psychologically- and sociologically-informed issues. Happily, many such issues have emerged in this forum through the thoughtful speculation, deep discussion and also disagreement evidenced in my interlocutors’ comments. Although there are many threads I could follow in my response, I will focus on four: 1) the power and limits of narrative for shaping and transmitting knowledge; 2) the complicated relationship between culture and race; 3) the way starting assumptions affect resulting conclusions; and 4) the dialectical relationship between the universal and the particular. Throughout, I reflect on the “doing” of race, ethnicity, and culture as projects of power and privilege.

    The Power and Limits of Narrative

    In crafting my two-part tale about how the pre-publication press reports for Na and Kitayama’s research illustrates the “doing” of race, I was responding to a remark made by the immediate past president of the Modern Languages Association (MLA), Sidonie Smith. The night before I began writing my post, I was at a dinner where Smith commented on the much-discussed “crisis in the humanities” by suggesting that literary critics need to tell better stories about why the humanities are crucial to the production and transmission of knowledge in contemporary society. Her remark resonated for me because I have spent the last few years exploring ways to make the scholarship on race and ethnicity more accessible to people for whom race and ethnicity are not objects of study. For the most part, the level of discourse in the public sphere about race and ethnicity is appallingly low, even though the level of scholarship about them is high. One reason for this is surely the form in which scholars of race and ethnicity share and discuss the implications of their research findings (the scholarly or research article); another is the narrative power of what I refer to in my posting as “the old familiar story of race.”

    According to literary critic Peter Brooks, narrative is “a specific mode of human understanding,” while narrative genres embody “a form of thinking, a way of reasoning about a situation” (Reading for the Plot, 7–9). This conception of narrative — echoed in this forum by Gavin Jones (“Fairytales are stories that cultures tell about themselves to help understand basic aspects of their social structure”), Héctor Hoyos (“storytelling can capture what is most important in [the] movement” of racial identification), Barbara Buchenau (“our world is shaped and crafted through narrative and its concomitant patterns of interpretation”), Alex Woloch (narrative has “specific heuristic and diagnostic capacities”), and Hazel Markus (what scholars and researchers “’see’ will of course depend on the concepts, categories, metaphors and stories [theories, hypotheses] they bring with them”) — has the advantage of drawing attention to narrative as a dynamic process as well as to humans’ involvement in the making of specific narratives.

    It is with a conception of narrative as a dynamic process resulting in the production of different types of stories by means of which humans interpret the world around them (and especially the situations they confront) that I understand race as a kind of story. This is the view under which race can be understood as a “social construct” that has been made “real” in the world. “Race” is a complex and world-making fiction that has emerged over time. It is told and retold, constantly changing to fit different local circumstances, as individuals and communities together strive to make sense of certain aspects of our shared world. Specifically, the story of race works to make sense of visible human difference, to explain the existence of conflict between groups of people from different cultures and regions of the world, and to legitimate inequality and exploitation in the context of a Western and modern ideology of equality. It is a story for which most people know the trajectory (inevitable conflict, as per Hoyos) and many people accept the purported ending (that is, non-European inferiority and exploitation). Race is a story that shapes all of Western society’s present-day social, political and economic institutions, while motivating people’s behavior in both conscious and unconscious ways.

    What better way, then, to illustrate the doing of race than by telling a story? I wanted to highlight how the pre-publication publicity for Na and Kitayama’s research about the embrainment of culture was “doing race,” while illustrating the importance of narrative (and implicitly of the humanities). I conceived of it as a way of fighting the story with stories, if you will.

    Of course, how successful my story in two parts is depends not only on how well I have “curated” this particular “dialogical space” (as per Ernesto Martínez) but also (as Markus rightly points out) on what individual readers bring to the conversation. As powerful as narratives can be, they also have significant limitations, primarily due to their reliance on generic conventions — conventions that dictate the form a narrative will take, and with which individual readers may not be familiar. I chose the fairytale form to tell the initial tale of Kitayama’s cultural neuroscientific research because it has a happy ending, as do all good fairytales. The familiarity of the fairytale form to most Western readers also allowed me to convey, in a foreshortened form, what is at stake for Kitayama’s overall research program. Given the familiar aspects of the fairytale form, there were spaces into which I could easily slot Kitayama (as the seeker-hero), Markus (the donor-helper), scholarly recognition (the desired object, and metaphorically, in the guise of Connie, the princess), the widely accepted belief in psychology regarding the existence of basic human processes of mind (the villain), and the theory of the mutual constitution of self and society (the magical agent) in order to vividly highlight for non-psychologists the significance of Na and Kitayama’s new research. But a limitation of the fairytale form is that it requires the storyteller to reduce the characters to types. Fairytale characters — or “dramatis personae” in V. Propp’s influential analysis of the fairytale genre — are less important for who they are than for what they do. This is why Ai Nakamura’s criticism of my tale (on the basis that I trade in stereotypes) is, from my perspective, beside the point. Certainly, stereotypes can be pernicious, but they are also very common and very powerful ways of communicating ideas succintly. My point in telling the story of Na and Kitayama’s research in fairytale form was not to tell the full and complete truth about them as real human people in the world, or even about their findings regarding the embrainment of independent and interdependent ways of being in the world. Rather, I hoped that I might inspire non-psychologists to do what Andrew Goldstone so clearly did: look up their work and read it for themselves, while considering how easily research about culture gets framed as research about race.

    As Nakamura’s response makes clear, one of narrative’s essential features also forms the basis for one of its limitations for communicating ideas. In writing about Kitayama in the form of a story, I was depending on my readers to have a basic understanding of the fairytale and short story form, together with a willingness to confront a serious issue in a playful guise. The literary critic Tzvetan Todorov reminds us that a genre is “nothing other than a codification of discursive properties” such that genres are “institutions” specific to a given society (“Origin of Genres,” 17–18). It is “because genres exist as institutions that they function as ‘horizons of expectation’ for readers and as ‘models of writing’ for authors” (18). For any given story to work, the writer and her readers (or the storyteller and his listeners) must enter into an implicit compact whereby they understand and agree to the rules of that specific communicative interaction. Problems necessarily arise when not all parties to a particular communicative interaction are aware of, or willing to accept, those rules.

    It was, in fact, because of the limitations of the fairytale form that I turned to a different narrative genre to discuss the way Na and Kitayama’s research was turned into a story of race. I chose to narrate that portion of the tale in the form of a short story cast as a dream — the kind of dream in which a person tries to move but finds that she has no power over her limbs, or else tries to talk but finds that he cannot be heard. As with my fairytale (and consistent with the dictates of the short story form), the characters in my dream sequence are figured again as types rather than as representations of actual individuals. So, for example, the character of Fiona serves the allegorical function of the clueless and even possibly well-meaning (yet unconsciously racist) white liberal, while the male journalist from Science Daily serves to embody (and to voice) the fear on the part of many Westerners that the era of European racial and cultural ascendancy might be finally coming to an end. Whether or not this fear was born with the opening of the Beijing Olympics — as per the comedian Stephen Colbert! — it was everywhere in evidence during the January 2011 Amy Chua “tiger mother” brouhaha.1 Importantly, I have not invented these character types or racial attitudes; they exist in the world and so help shape the context within which actual people from different racial and cultural groups interact.

    Together, the two journalists are meant to represent the press as a whole, and the way it often simplifies and distorts scientific research more generally. The reasons for this distortion are legion, and much too complicated for me to reflect on here in an exhaustive manner. Suffice it to say that with the changing ways Americans are consuming their news (cable news, opinion blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), news organizations are increasingly finding themselves short-staffed, under-resourced, and forced to rely on the wire services for stories. As fewer journalists have the time and the expertise to fully comprehend and fact-check the stories that bear their bylines, ever more distortion of complicated and difficult scientific research is bound to occur. My fictionalization of this process is thus meant to remind the reader that in the case of research that can be construed to support existing ideas about innate racial difference, the kind of distortion I point to is not just an epistemic and communicative failure, but also a social tragedy in the making. (This holds for other kinds of putative biological difference too, as the postings by Linda Martín Alcoff and Martínez about gender and sexuality make clear). Of course, the meaning of my story is itself subject to distortion — especially in those cases in which a reader like William Flesch “sees” the characters as representing actual people rather than social types.

    Perceiving Human Difference

    Why, how, and to what effect, humans make social distinctions are at the heart of the various comments on this posting. Shikha Singh focuses on the why when she suggests that categorizing is an essential aspect of our humanness: “It is in our blood as human beings to categorize everything we see and put some value to it.” Similarly, Tanya Luhrmann implies that there is something built-in to the human psyche (a “categorizing mind”) that causes us to seek meaning by identifying, prototyping and categorizing. She writes that “seeking a bodily explanation for difference is not just cultural arrogance: it is a cognitive default.” Other contributors focus on the mechanisms and consequences of identifying and naming difference. Lupe Carrillo notes that any mention of the biological in discussions of human social behavior usually ends up in a privileging of the biological over the social in subsequent analyses. Buchenau and Woloch both note the way my original posting highlights the “very large, ramifying consequences” of the “multiple misprisions and misreadings” that “occur as Kitayama’s research [about cultural difference] is paraphrased, reported on, and disseminated.”

    Other comments emphasize the extent to which a researcher’s starting assumptions about race and culture, and the analytical tools he or she uses, shape the resulting findings. Markus calls attention to the way cultural contexts (including taken-for-granted assumptions about the meaning and importance of race) shape the questions and conclusions people formulate about what they are observing or studying. “Seeing,” Markus explains, “is a combination of what is in the observed behavior and what is in the head or tools of the perceiver.” Linda Moya provides a concrete example of how bias can be built right into a researcher’s methodology or tools. In human neuroscience, she explains, “a first step is to average across all the data in our statistical analysis (ANOVA), to get to the ‘true’ cognitive response which is presumed to be basic to all human beings.” Michael Hames-García points to the instructions for the Institutional Review Board Protocol, which, he notes, can “trigger any number of ‘stories’ about the nature and importance of racial difference — thereby eliciting bogus scientific and scholarly ‘justifications’ for race.” Luhrmann worries about the extent to which the simple act of naming a difference can serve to reify the difference that is named: “you name the difference, and inevitably, those who use the categories begin to think in terms of biological differences, a chasm between two ways of being.”

    What all the contributors share is a recognition that consequential human difference exists, even if identifying and talking about it in ways that are adequate to its complexity are fraught with difficulties. Ramón Saldívar and Mariana Ortega, for example, resist that what they perceive as a too-clean distinction in Na and Kitayama’s work between the two ways of being (Independent and Interdependent), and the two different societies (Japan and the United States), wondering if the truth is somewhat more messy. Goldstone points out that “one of the tasks, as we strive to develop better ways to understand and explain human difference, is to find cultural categories that can help us to illuminate, rather than reify or essentialize, complex distributions of behavior.” Lurhmann wonders how we might “create a dimensional way of thinking” about culturally complex human differences. And Hames-García asks, “Can we find ways of talking about the broad, overall differences that typically exist between Interdependence and Independence without falling into discussions that assume a rigid separation between homogeneity within the two lands?”

    Culture into Race2

    I first came across the Na and Kitayama research referred to in my story when, as a new user of Twitter, I typed “#race” into the search engine to see what would happen. Up popped a lot of tweets about car racing, along with some tweets about the particular social formation I was looking for. One tweet was attached to the name Kitayama, a name with which I have long been familiar because he works closely with my colleague Hazel Markus. I followed the link and came across references to the Na and Kitayama article, which at that point in time had not yet been published. I was puzzled, because from what I know about Kitayama’s research agenda, he studies culture, not race. As I read through the pre-publication publicity for the article, I realized I was looking at an example of how culture becomes race. That is, I was seeing an example of how psychological research about cultural variations corresponding to social group formations could be interpreted as having been caused by innate biological differences that are widely believed to be racial in nature. I had found a beautiful example of the “doing” of race in which race is done without any particular malice or ill will on the part of any one person, but simply in the course of people going about their everyday lives.3 What was interesting about this particular instance — aside from the interest generated by the research itself — was not that it was unusual or egregious, but rather that it was so typical. Furthermore, it was happening in real time, and was taking place in a way that I would be able to document for the readers of my On the Human post.

    The conflation of culture with race is a concern expressed by many of the commentators in this forum. Carrillo asks why our society so often confuses race with culture, while Elda María Román imagines the two as rivalrous siblings struggling for supremacy. Ortega sounds a cautionary note about either confounding the two concepts or falling into the trap of seeing them as dichotomous and easily separable from each other; in so doing she importantly reminds us about the complexity and multiplicity of human experience and existence in general. In this she is joined by Martínez, who compares the biologization of race with the concomitant biologization of homosexuality. Without denying the contribution scientists (including biologists) can make to more comprehensive and accurate understandings of ethnic ancestry or sexual behavior, Martínez perceptively observes that how we talk about any human difference, and the causality we attribute to it, will affect not only whether we try to change or eradicate that difference, but also where it fits into the prevailing social status hierarchies. For his part, Aron Rodrigue sagely reminds us that, “‘race,’ ‘ethnicity,’ and ‘culture’” each has its own distinctive genealogy, while also conceding that the meaning of each term is “slippery and in constant evolution.”

    One reason race and culture are often conflated has to do with the way the three terms referred to by Rodrigue have evolved. Following the horrors of the Jewish holocaust and the shaming of militant defenders of white supremacy by non-violent resisters such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez during the American civil rights movements, openly avowed racism has gone out of style — as has the term “race” itself. However, since the social formation referenced by that term did not disappear, Americans (and others around the world) have devised a variety of ways to talk about race while avoiding the use of the term. Some use “ethnicity” as a less volatile substitute, while others turn to “culture” as a polite euphemism (Doing Race, 38–39). Thus, while the three terms refer to different concepts, they are occasionally used interchangeably. One has to listen carefully, and pay close attention to the context in which a given term is used, to figure out which meaning is being communicated.

    Finally, there is another, more fundamental, reason why the concepts of culture and race are difficult to pull apart: they are mutually constituted, as Stephanie Fryberg points out. In her comment, Julie Minich asks a series of provocative questions regarding how the real-life Shinobu Kitayama might feel about seeing his research on culture being used to re-biologize race. She asks:

    Does he continue to insist that his work is strictly about culture? Or does he eventually decide that in a world structured by racializing ideas and systems his work can be appropriated to do race — and, therefore, that his work is (in a certain way) about race after all? If he chooses the former path, is he failing to recognize the complex relationship between the concepts of culture and race? And if he chooses the latter, does he risk reinforcing the connection between culture and race, thereby making the two concepts even more difficult to pull apart?

    I like Minich’s questions because they invoke the mutual constitution of race and culture to incisively capture the dilemma that social science researchers like Fryberg, as a Native American scholar who studies Native American culture, find impossible to avoid. Fryberg notes that, in the social sciences, race and culture are forced into distinct theoretical corners such that attempting to study them together “takes a scholar into the muckety-muk of fairytale la-la land.” As a result, the social scientific scholar who designs her research in a manner that recognizes race and culture as “highly related concepts” will be considered by mainstream social science as “less scientific,” and denounced as a purveyor of “noisy, unclean science.”

    Fryberg’s observations comment on a key methodological aspect of “scientific” empirical procedures, and point toward what Jones describes as “the politics of alleged difficulty and intellectual distinction that increase the cultural capital attained by certain academic theories and approaches” — by which I take him to mean a politics of knowledge that valorizes empirical and “scientific” over qualitative and “humanistic” approaches. As I have indicated above, empirical studies are powerfully important for proving untested hypotheses. Even so, I recognize that what Buchenau labels “complexity reduction” is built into their methodology. In order to gather enough data to prove a claim about one causal factor, social scientists using empirical approaches generally seek to isolate that factor by controlling for variation in other factors that might contribute to how that phenomenon is expressed. And although some empirical investigators may be aware of the complexity reduction in which they are engaging, their results and discussion frequently ignore other factors in a way that conveys to the reader or hearer the impression that race and culture can be actually, and not just analytically, distinguished from one another. Furthermore, as Fryberg’s Geronimo example makes clear, the fabrics of our multiple American cultures have the story of race woven right into them. As a result, and despite their greater cultural capital in the academic marketplace, scientific approaches to knowledge production that attempt to identify discrete categories into which people or practices can be slotted will finally be inadequate for capturing the full complexity of social phenomena like culture and race.

    In response to Lee Konstantinou’s very fair question regarding whether Samuel Huntington was “doing culture,” rather than “doing race,” I suggest that it is because culture and race are mutually constituted categories that Huntington could so easily do race by invoking culture. Of course, what one calls what Huntington was doing in his books The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) and Who Are We? Challenges to American’s National Identity (2004) depends, in the end, on how one defines the concepts of “race” and “culture.” In our co-authored introduction to Doing Race, Markus and I define “race” as a dynamic process that results in the denigration and exploitation of one or more ethnic groups on the basis of physical or behavioral characteristics that are assumed to be rooted deeply in the biology or culture of the targeted group (15). Specifically, we define race as a dynamic system of “historically derived and institutionalized ideas and practices that: 1) sorts people into ethnic groups according to perceived physical and behavioral human characteristics that are often imagined to be negative, innate, and shared; 2) associates differential value, power, and privilege with these characteristics, establishes a hierarchy among the different groups, and confers opportunity accordingly; and 3) emerges when groups are perceived to pose a threat (political, economic, or cultural) to each other’s worldview or way of life, and/or to justify the denigration and exploitation (past, current, or future) of other groups while exalting one’s own group to claim an innate privilege,” (21). The important thing, whatever one calls it, is to identify the negative process involved in “doing race,” and to be able to recognize when someone — even someone who holds a chaired professorship in political science at Harvard University — is involved in doing it.

    This brings me to Bill Benzon’s question regarding whether Steven Elworth is “doing race” when he implies that jazz is black music, and jazz culture is black culture. Benzon makes a number of shrewd observations in his comment, and asks the right kinds of questions: Given that jazz is a routine and familiar part of Elworth’s life, why doesn’t he think of it as his culture? To answer Benzon’s question directly, I would say that, no, Elworth is not “doing race” — although race has everything to do with why Elworth is so careful about not claiming jazz as his own. There is a context here that we have to pay attention to — a context involving the systematic exploitation and appropriation of African Americans’ bodies, labor, and products by (primarily) European Americans over several centuries into the 20th century when jazz originated. Elworth clearly does not want to participate in that appropriative tradition; he appears, moreover, afraid that he might inadvertently participate in practices that others might see as “doing race.” And so he does what he claims he does not want to do, that is, he makes jazz culture into an “ineffable other” from which he is necessarily separate. Certainly, by 1995, Elworth might have been able to recognize jazz culture as a living culture that had jumped the boundaries of the African American community and seeped into American society more broadly. I have to sympathize with Elworth’s caution and evident desire not to participate in the “doing” of race, even as I hope that we can collectively develop straightforward and honest ways of dealing with our historical legacies — including those that have led to the development of new art forms like jazz — without evasion or fear.

    The Universal and the Particular

    As Rodrigue astutely points out in his comment, underlying the question of human difference is the existence of the human universal. Precisely what, if anything, is a basic (or universal) human psychological process is the question that Kitayama and his several colleagues have been engaged in exploring for several decades now. Importantly, that there is a human universal is assumed in the very nature of the questions they seek to answer. After all, the only way to identify a cultural difference is to specify that variation (interdependent as opposed to independent) against a background of sameness (humans as social animals).4 So, rather than saying that there is nothing universal or basic to human psychology, Kitayama and his colleagues work through several overlays of culture to identify a different universal — one that can be expressed only in contextually (that is, culturally) particular ways. Moreover, rather than choose between an unproductive theoretical binary which claims that humans are either biological beings hardwired to behave in particular ways or else that they are culture all the way down, Kitayama and his colleagues unearth a human universal that shows them as beings that meld the social with the biological.

    In the case of the study that formed the subject of my story, Kitayama and Na were able to demonstrate, using both behavioral and neuroscientific measures, that people with significant exposure to interdependent cultural contexts — like those found in many Asian countries — do not typically engage in spontaneous trait inference. Spontaneous trait inference, a.k.a. the “fundamental attribution error,” is a practice that (Western) social psychological researchers have long claimed was fundamental to all humans. Through their studies, Na and Kitayama revealed that spontaneous trait inference, rather than being a basic human psychological process, is instead a product of the dynamic interaction between individuals and the independent cultural context within which they have been socialized. Thus, in the process of calling the “fundamentalness” of the “fundamental attribution error” into question, Na and Kitayama posit a new socio-biological universal: “psychological tendencies — including their neural substrates — are an emerging property of a person acting in a cultural context.”

    As both Markus and Kitayama point out in their comments, the irony is that most of the pre-publication press reports acted out precisely the phenomenon that Na and Kitayama were studying. The press reports first noted an observed behavior and then represented study participants’ engagement or lack of engagement in the practice of spontaneous trait inference as being located in the participants’ brains or racial/ethnic identity rather than in the social context in which the study participants had been socialized, or in some combination of the two. Speaking about those societies that Joseph Heinrich et. al. refer to in a 2010 Behavioral and Brain Sciences article as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD), Markus asks, “Why are stories that explain behavior in terms of stable traits or motives inside individuals so much more compelling than stories that explain behavior in terms of relationships with others or in terms of ideas, norms or practices in the social world?” Kitayama is more direct: “most of the media blurbs Moya highlights…drew a strong trait inference from the experimental results…. They are attributing the presence or absence of spontaneous trait inference, not just to people who are showing the phenomenon (“European Americans”) or not showing it (“Asian Americans”), but also to their brains! This IS the ultimate vindication of the fundamental attribution error at work in, at least, Western media circles.”

    A New Way Forward

    I hoped with my posting to convey the centrality of narrative to humans’ meaning-making processes, and specifically to those processes that contribute to the doing of race. By posting a story in two parts with a short open-ended comment, I took a step toward developing what Jennifer Harford Vargas calls “a more accessible form of communicating” my understanding of how race had been done in the pre-publication publicity for Na and Kitayama’s study. I believe, as per Jones, that “narrative is the perfect medium to describe and attempt to understand [race’s] dynamic process of emergence.” Narratives, as Buchenau points out, can be wonderfully suggestive; more can be communicated in a relatively short space with a story than can be expressed in a carefully articulated critical argument. And because stories operate on us in subconscious ways, I believe they can be particularly effective for helping to illuminate and/or change, “hearts and minds.”

    Together, all the comments about my posting on this forum make a case for the “ambitious interdisciplinary, comparative project” requiring a “unique and unprecedented collaboration among humanists and behavioral scientists” that Markus, Goldstone, Hames-García, L. Moya, Harford Vargas and Kitayama all explicitly call for. Additionally, the comments to my post together make the point that: 1) the object under investigation; 2) the tools brought to bear in the analysis; and, 3) the overarching cultural context(s) must each be interrogated if the goal is to arrive at a more objective and complete understanding of any social phenomenon. It is in the spirit of such collaboration — one that recognizes and appreciates the different contributions that qualitative (narratological and historical) and quantitative (statistical and empirical) approaches make to our quest for better knowledge about our most intractable and puzzling social phenomena — that I thank all the contributors to this discussion for their generosity and wisdom. From it, I anticipate a new way forward.

    Works Cited

    Adams, G., and H. R. Markus. “Toward a Conception of Culture Suitable for a Social Psychology of Culture.” The Psychological Foundations of Culture. Eds. M. Schaller and C. S. Crandall. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. 335–360. Print.

    Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1984. Print.

    “Colbert Report: Amy Chua. Amy Chua explains how she tried to raise her two daughters the same way her strict Chinese immigrant parents raised her.” Colbert Nation: Home of the Colbert Report. Web. 5 August 2011 .

    Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33.2-3 (2010): 61–83. Print.

    Moya, Paula M. L., and Hazel Rose Markus. “Doing Race: An Introduction.” Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century. Eds. Hazel Rose Markus and Paula M. L. Moya, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1–102. Print.

    Propp, Vladímir. Morphology of the Folktale. Ed. Louis A. Wagner. 2nd ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968. Print.

    Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Origin of Genres.” Trans. Catherine Porter. Genres in Discourse. Originally published as Genres du discours by Editions de Seuil, 1978. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 13–26. Print.


    1. See also the advertisement produced by Citizens Against Government Waste featuring a Chinese professor lecturing his students in the year 2030 about the hypothetical “fall” of the U.S. government due to over-taxation and over-spending. The ad attempts to exploit Americans’ fear of China’s emergence as an economic and political power to implicitly critique the policies of President Obama. If the comments on the YouTube re-postings of the advertisement can be taken at face value, the ad has been largely successful. Available on YouTube as of August 5, 2011.

    2. By culture, I mean “explicit and implicit patterns of historically-derived and -selected ideas” that are embodied “in institutions, practices, and artifacts” as both “products of action and conditioning elements of further action” (Adams and Markus, 2004).

    3. Because we live in a society that is organized according to race, we all “do race” simply by participating in the routines and rituals of ordinary life.

    4. Or, to recur to Luhrmann’s medical example, in order to compare bi-polar disorder with schizophrenia, one needs to recognize both as manifestations of the human psyche that differ in some recognizable ways from the psyches of humans who do not suffer from either.

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