Friday, 25 November 2011

Who are 'Asians'?

So, there's this book. (You can't Click to look inside!, that's just part of the image. Go to Amazon if you want to do that.)

I'm not going to review it because I haven't read it (it's only on Kindle and I don't have one, as you know), and it's not fair to review a book based on the publisher's blurb. Let me just say that I'm deeply sceptical about its central claim, which is
that "human cognition is not everywhere the same"-that those brought up in Western and East Asian cultures think differently from one another in scientifically measurable ways. Such a contention pits his work squarely against evolutionary psychology (as articulated by Steven Pinker and others) and cognitive science, which assume all appreciable human characteristics are "hard wired." 
Of course there are cultural differences, and they may well be measurable, but I really don't think that this challenges the idea that all human cognition is basically the same.

[Update: I found this blog post with the text of an article submitted to Cognitive Linguistics. It reanalyses Nisbett's work and reckons it's due to linguistic differences rather than cultural differences, as Chinese people respond differently from Japanese people in tests. For instance, head-directionality, they claim, means that Japanese people mention context first, whereas American people mention salient information first.]

Anyway, like I say, I'm not reviewing it. I'm quibbling about a decision (by the publishers?) to keep the subtitle that was used in the US edition. It's this:
How Asians and Westerners think differently... and why.
I'm reasonably comfortable with the use of catch-all expressions for broad ethnic groupings; sometimes it's necessary. So 'Westerners', for me, means North Americans and West/Central Europeans, and probably also Eastern Europeans as well nowadays. As far as I can tell from the blurb, that's pretty much what the author intends:
those brought up in Northern European and Anglo-Saxon-descended cultures
But 'Asian', to me and to most UK English speakers, means people who look a bit like this:

That's Nihal, a well-known DJ on BBC stations Radio 1 and Asian Network. This differs quite a lot from what most US speakers mean by 'Asian':

Presumably the publisher knows about this difference. And presumably they didn't put the subtitle on the front cover for this reason. And throughout the blurb, it refers to 'East Asians', which is presumably a concession to this difference in the meaning of the word. But still, it makes me think the whole book is equally as careless (I'm sure it's not) and puts me right off reading it.

(Actually, we really could do with a better term than 'East Asian'. 'Oriental' doesn't seem to cut it these days, even though it just means 'eastern'. I'm fresh out of ideas though.)

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