Clash: 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Why does moving to San Francisco end in divorce for one Midwestern couple? Why is KIPP so successful at getting low-income students to college but unable to keep them there? Why did aid from the global north result in tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees starving to death?

In their latest book, Clash: 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are, Stanford Psychologists Hazel Markus and Alana Conner get to the root of these questions and many others by looking at one fundamental difference, between independent and interdependent selves, that cuts across regions, races, genders, classes, religions, and occupations.

The book details conflicts ranging from the frustrating to the catastrophic, illustrating what happens when the unique, independent individual collides with his relational, traditional, and interdependent counterpart. East versus west, north versus south, white versus black, male versus female, non-profit versus for-profit, rich versus poor – Markus and Conner take up the world’s biggest cultural divides, arguing these differences are all rooted in how we define “self.” Throughout the book, they show these rifts are not insurmountable and make a strong case for why everyone has a stake in meeting in the middle.

In the following excerpt, taken from Chapter 9, “The Economic Equator: Cultures of the Global North and South,” Conner and Markus look at why UN-led aid efforts in Sudan had such catastrophic consequences and why aid workers were so slow to recognize their mistake.

– Max Nesterak/The Psych Report

The Economic Equator: Cultures of the Global North and South

In early 1998 a famine descended upon southern Sudan, despite a United Nations–led effort to monitor and alleviate food shortages in the region. Aid workers suspected that military and tribal chiefs had been hoarding the food, so they began delivering rations directly to the most vulnerable people: nursing mothers, children, the ill, and the elderly. To the workers’ dismay, however, these beneficiaries rerouted the rations right back to their leaders. The aid workers concluded that corruption and inequality were so ingrained in the local culture that the least powerful people were colluding in their own destruction.

Anthropologist Simon Harrigan was sent in to investigate. One day he followed an elderly woman after she had received her ration. She indeed secreted the food away to her chief, rather than eating it all by herself. But instead of digging in to his newly supersized supper, the chief added the woman’s contribution to a collective pot. He then split the pot equitably among his people, including the elderly woman. Harrigan discovered that these redistribution practices were the norm, while so-called resource capture by leaders and other elites was relatively rare. Indeed, the Sudanese chiefs did such a good job apportioning food that no individual suddenly starved. Instead, the entire group slowly starved together. This proved disastrous; because aid workers were trained to look for early and isolated cases of severe malnutrition, they missed the subtler signs of a gradual mass starvation. As a result, when the effects of malnutrition finally became apparent, they were widespread and catastrophic. In 1998 alone, the famine claimed more than seventy thousand lives.

Aid organizations eventually realized that the immediate cause of the food crisis was not inefficient resource distribution. Instead, the problem was not enough resources to begin with. The crisis halted when the agencies simply sent more food. Yet more food is only a temporary fix for a bigger problem. Every year, the wealthy nations of the Global North spend billions of dollars to save the poor nations of the Global South from starvation, infectious diseases, ethnic tensions, and inefficient markets. If headlines are to be believed, however, this aid decays into second helpings for corrupt leaders, fake drugs for sick customers, stolen arms for civil wars, and special privileges for sketchy companies.

The culprit? “Culture,” many experts say, although they seldom explain what culture is, how it works, or how it transforms aid into evil. We agree that culture is partly responsible for charity gone wrong. Unlike many of these experts, though, we lay the blame not on any one culture, but on the collision between the cultures of donors in the Global North and recipients in the Global South.

The Global North-South divide is mostly one of wealth, and is admittedly fuzzy. Nations with the highest gross domestic products (GDP), per capita incomes, levels of industrialization, standards of living, and development of infrastructure are called the Global North. Most, but not all, of these nations are in the Northern Hemisphere (notable exceptions include Australia and New Zealand). The remaining nations comprise the Global South, and include Mexico, Central America, and South America; the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); the rest of Africa; Southeast Asia; and India.

Despite their amazing diversity, the people of the Global North have in common a sense of their selves as independent. For them, including the aid workers in Sudan, people are unique individuals, separate from their groups, in control of their fates, equal in rank, and free to act in their own self-interest. Indeed, for many economists in the Global North, the definition of being rational is acting in one’s own self-interest.

In contrast, the amazingly diverse people of the Global South have in common a sense of their selves as interdependent. For them, including the Sudanese famine victims, people live their lives through relationships, and see themselves as strands in a web, nodes in a network, or fingers on a hand. As a result, ties to kith and kin drive individual actions. For instance, in their analysis of the Sudanese aid fiasco, economists Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton conclude, “Survival of the kinship system was considered almost as important as physical survival.” In other words, people would forgo food for themselves to preserve the ways of their group. “Even a cursory reading of the anthropological literature on southern Sudan [would have revealed this and] could have resulted in a more effective response,” the authors write.

When the Global North attempts to help the Global South, the clash of independence and interdependence undermines many of its efforts. On the wealthier, northern side of the equation, scientists, policymakers, and aid workers assume that people everywhere operate according to the ground rules of the independent self. In the Sudanese famine, for instance, aid workers assumed that a person given food would keep it for herself, with no regard for the needs and practices of everyone else in her kinship group. Largely trained in the Global North, these workers strove to deliver their aid with efficiency, accountability, and transparency.

On the poorer, southern side of the equation, what donors call “irrationality,” “corruption,” and “inefficiency” are what many aid recipients call “sound operating principles.” The mistrust that pervades West Africa, the cronyism that besets India, the conflicts that pepper the Middle East, and the slow pace that hobbles Mexico are the flip sides of interdependent qualities, including a profound sense of history in West Africa, of duty in India, of honor in the MENA region, and of simpatía (Spanish for “pleasant and harmonious social relations”) in Mexico. The culture cycles supporting these different aspects of interdependence have brought meaning and order to the Global South for the past few millennia. And though the shape that interdependence takes in each of these regions is distinct, all versions promote and proceed from a notion of the self that is relational, similar, adjusting, rooted, and ranked.

The polite term for the poor countries of the Global South is developing nations. Many assume that once these interdependent cultures are all grown up, they will adopt independent culture cycles. Although GDP and independence are correlated, some of the most successful nations of the world (for example, Japan, Korea, and India) do not seem to be trading in their interdependence for independence. Indeed, to many Global Southerners, the efficiency and detachment of Global Northerners seem cold and soulless. Our best guess is that most of the Global South will embrace the parts of independence that are useful to them, and leave the others behind.

Adapted from the Book Clash: 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are. Copyright © 2013 by Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press.

Disclosure: Hazel Markus is a member of  The Psych Report‘s Advisory Board.