Digging to Roam

Bias. Yes, you are biased too


My brother is an avid Red Sox fan, he knows all the statistics and watches all the games. When he was twelve he found an old camouflaged hat, he wore it while watching the first game of the season, and the Sox won. After that he wore it every game that year, convinced that if he didn’t it would jinx the games. When they won the World Series, he gave some credit to his hat wearing habits. What does this have to do with bias? Western rational thought would say that his hat had no bearing on the outcome of the game. Interpretations of my brother’s behavior depend on the who views him and how they do so.

Here I will use anthropology to explain how every perspective (every study, every political agenda, every belief system) is naturally biased because of the cultural lens through which it is viewed. In later posts I will talk more in dept about these issues and expand on them, but here is the groundwork and I hope it helps you understand how everything you hold true is bias, and that it’s the same for everyone.

Early Musings

In general, early scientific thought and academic thought, including anthropology followed a tradition of exclusion that did not allow for real consideration of ideas that could not be explained ‘rationally.’ Anything outside of the rational were noted as being markedly different. While trying to be objective anthropologists observed and analyzed cultures, but they did not note the inherent bias of the academic. The academic is a person, brought up in a specific socioeconomic cultural experience (meaning the way they were brought up was specific to their situation in a variety of ways from personal experiences to the type of school they attended to their economic status) and their life perspectives will without doubt affect the data they collect, it affects what sort of data is collected in the first place and how certain emotions or activities are characterized and categorized.

Magical Thinking

Lucien Lévy-Bruhl

(source: medihal)

In the late 1800s and early 1900s a scholar named Lucien Lévy-Bruhl from France was contributing to the foundation of modern day cultural studies (like sociology and anthropology). He likened the mystical thinking of symbolic based cultures to a psychotic-like behavior “governed by irrational fears…fantasy and…delusion” (Rogoff 2003). His ethnocentric approach did not allow him to understand their magical beliefs as reasonable. To be ethnocentric is to see your own culture (ethno) as the benchmark and only right way of thinking, it is the center of all rational thought (centric). So, these cultures that Lévy-Bruhl was studying were categorized as having irrational and crazy fears. His lack of self-perception prevented him from seeing the world through the eyes of the culture he was trying to learn about.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard was a British anthropologist who lived from the early 1900s to 1973, and he actually got Lévy-Bruhl to admit that he made people sound much more irrational than they actually were and that he was portraying different cultures as ‘savages’. Taking a step forward from Lévy-Bruhl, Evans-Pritchard studied the Azande of North Central Africa. When a grain tower fell over and killed someone, the locals said it was witchcraft. Evans-Pritchard sought out a more ‘rational’ explanation, he came to the conclusion that termites were to blame. The Azande people in the area said they knew about the termites already, but said it was witchcraft that made the tower fall on the man at the exact moment he was standing there. Evans-Pritchard could see that they understood the mechanics of a fallen tower, only they had another explanation than he did for why that particularly man was killed at that particular time in that particular way.

Gender and Bias

Magical thinking is a great place to point out biases because we all talk about “this religion” “that falsehood” “this creation truth” “that creation myth” but gender also presents a very important bias obstacle. This is not meant to be an in depth explanation of gender bias, but I’m hoping you will see how you perceive gender is not fact, it is cultural. Gender is not fixed, it is not inherent, it is something that people are socialized into, and different cultures have different gender ideals and norms.

Margaret Mead

(source: biography.com)

Margaret Mead, a famous and influential American anthropologist in the 1960s and ’70s wrote about cultures with strikingly different gender behaviors than Western society. In the Arapesh population of Papua New Guinea, the women were not interested in child-rearing and aggression was displayed by everyone and not a particular gender. Mead’s study of the Chambri (Tchambuli) people, also of Papua New Guinea, is a great example of different gender roles. The men were disorganized and concerned with their looks and gossiping. The women provided for the family by fishing and gardening and being responsible caretakers. At first glance, some would classify the males as feminine and the females as masculine, but even that categorization cannot be done without first saying “Ok, so this understanding of feminine and masculine is my own perception of those things, let’s see how they think about the world before I classify them into my own worldview.” Classifications are cultural, not universal.

Map of Samoa

(source: lonelyplanet.com)

Derek Freeman, a New Zealand anthropologist, is well known for criticizing Margaret Mead’s work in Samoa. In doing so he created the perfect example of being someone lacking self-perspective. He pointed out that Mead may have seen only what she wanted and said her feminist theories slanted her data. She may have wanted to believe that teenager were loving and that parents encouraged sexual freedom, so she then found this in her studies. Freeman came to the opposite conclusion when he studied in Samoa years after Mead had, while he could point out Mead’s bias, he could not point out his own bias. They both failed to see the cultural barrier they were banging their heads against and continued to try and force a sterile, non-biased approach. If both of them had recognized that a non-biased study is not possible, they may have seen some very different results.

How To Embrace Bias

Culture plays a major role in constructing your personality. We bring ourselves to everything. Everything you experience and see and read and feel is filtered through your personal store of knowledge and understanding. Sometimes cultures will clash because they have different sets of values and different languages to express those values. No common discussion can occur because of the lack of common ground. Knowledge and reasoning may be different between the two groups. When there is no shared culture and no shared language, a large gap is left, leaving a lot of space for misunderstanding. If we would embrace our own biases we could approach discussions with less arrogance and a more open mind. Cultural facts are interpretations and not universal truths that all humans abide by. Exploring how these truths come to be comes second to realizing that they are created and not inherent.

In anthropology it is necessary to look at cultures comparatively in order to understand how behaviors differ, but it’s more important to see studies as innately subjective and we must never forget that. If this is not done, any study will not really lead to an enlightened and greater understanding of humans but rather dichotomize human behavior and cultures. To analyze anything one must analyze within. In life, if we could approach each other with the knowledge that our thoughts are constructs and not absolutes everyone could learn to seriously chill out.

Kristance Harlow

July 6, 2013

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