Cultural relativism: Another victim of Arab revolutions?

As we are watching the fall of dictators and the wind of liberty sweeping in the Arab world, we may not have noticed another victim of this “springtime of Arab people”, namely the individualistic/collectivistic divide. In psychology, many scientists have adopted a kind of culturalism according to which the reason people behave differently across culture because of the “culture” in which they have grown up: People are raised in a particular culture and they come to adopt the particular attitudes and beliefs of their parents, teachers and elders. This explains why people behave differently in different places. For instance, psychologists have often emphasized that some cultures are more individualistic while others are more collectivist and other similar dichotomies have been put forward: sociocentric vs. egocentric, independent vs. interdependent, bounded vs. unbounded.


Tahrir Square, February 10, 2011

Whatever the terms, the central idea in the individualistic framework is that the person is an autonomous agent, whereas the central idea in the collectivist framework is that the group is an interconnected and interdependent network of relationships. In the former, personal goals are primary; in the latter, shared goals are primary.

As Turiel (who is critical of this approach) puts it:

“A core feature of individualistic cultures (usually western ones) is that the highest value is accorded to the person as detached from others and as independent from the social order. People are therefore oriented to self-reliance, independence, and resistance to social pressure for conformity and obedience to authority. By contrast, collectivistic cultures (usually non western ones) are oriented to traditions, duty, obedience to authority, interdependence and social harmony; hierarchy, status and role distinction predominate.”

In fact, it has been argued that this culturalistic dichotomy works pretty well: Westerners are individualistic and that explains why free market and democracy flourishes in the West, whereas the rest of the world is more collectivistic, supporting things like “Asian values” and “Muslim ethos”.

Well, but then, what about Tunisia and Egypt? How to explain their transformation overnight? How could collectivistic people possibly embrace such individualistic ideas as freedom and human rights? How can they rebel against traditional norms?



You may not be surprised to find out that I believe the explanation lies in the existence of a universal ‘sense of fairness’. This sense of fairness is, I suggest, an adaptation to social life and to the competition among individuals to be recruited in cooperative networks. It has been selected to cause individuals to share the burdens and benefits of cooperation in a fair way. It prevents individuals from exploiting others and also from sacrificing them too easily in the name of the group.



In an in-depth and rigorous study on morality, Turiel demonstrates that, indeed, the respect for justice and individual rights is present all around the world. Using a unique combination of experimental and ethnographical works (such as Lila Abu-Lughod’s work on Bedouin women, Kristin Neff’s study of Hindu women, Fatima Mernissi’s story of her life in a harem in Morocco and his own research in the US or in Israel), Turiel shows that people resist oppression and bargain for their rights whenever they can.

But whether or not it is right, this naturalist theory needs to explain why non western cultures look so different. I see at least two possibilities:

1. People everywhere have intuitions about fairness and rights but they are kept from behaving on their basis. This seems to be the case in Abu-Lughod’s and Neff’s studies where women have clear intuitions about their unfair situation but are not in a position to stand up for their rights.

2. People everywhere have intuitions about fairness and rights, but they do not have the same beliefs about the way these rights are to be defended. They may think for instance that democracy is impossible in their country. After all, that was the case in Europe before the French and the American revolutions. Lacking democratic experience, people – even philosophers – thought that democracy was impossible, because they saw people as being too dumb or modern countries as being too big. Better trust enlightened despots, they thought, and despotism may indeed be better than chaos. So, from our perspective, people may look as if they did not care about rights, while they simply did not have the same beliefs about the possibility of democracy.

Picture: Voltaire, liberal philosopher but skeptical democrat

The culturalist account explains differences between societies by positing internalised psychological differences. But how could Arabic people have changed their deep intuitions so rapidly? Can a whole people swing from collectivism to individualism overnight? Probably not. What can change very rapidly however are the two elements I just mentioned: the equilibrium of power between the dominant and the dominated, and the information people have access to.

These two points, in particular, explains why internet was so important in the Egyptian and Tunisian uprising.

1. On domination: Facebook and Twitter allowed people to coordinate in a totally new way, and to reverse the balance of power between the people and the State

2. On information: Youtube, Wikileaks and Al-Jazira allowed people to know that revolution was possible and that there was a way toward democracy.

Picture: President Obama’s speech against culturalist theories and in favour of a universal sense of fairness (video here)

“And while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history — echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice.”



Rational choice: yet another victim?

At first sight, the above analysis seems to fit quite well with rational choice models. Rational choice theories of collective actions have emphasized the importance of coordination and information (see Ostrom's work for instance). To overthrow a government is indeed a collective action problem: everyone has an interest in overthrowing the government but no one wants to pay the cost of trying to do so (see Medina’s funny introduction of his book (open access here), in which he imagined three advisors using rational choice theory and debating with a dictator about the likelihood of a revolution). In this context, being able to coordinate and knowing that such a process is likely to work are crucial elements.

The Tunisian and the Egyptian revolution may nonetheless prove rational choice theories to be inaccurate. As pointed out by Pascal Boyer in an earlier post, these theories suffer from a number of important problems such as “[a] the agents do not know or care about the identity of the other agents involved in the collective action, they are not affected by how the final result is achieved, and [c] they are not interested in the payoffs to other agents (they are only motivated by their own payoffs).”

I’d like to add two other problems that may prevent rational choice theory from explaining the Arabic revolutions:

Rational choice theories do not take into account the fact that people are ready to pay an important cost to overthrow the regime. In Egypt, thousands of people went to Tahrir square knowing that they was a probability to be killed there. Their own interest was to stay at home in the hope that other will take the risks. Rational choice theories are unable to explain the start of a revolution. As Medina writes, for instance: “we can never know when some equilibrium will become focal because focalness depends on salience and salience, in turn, can be the result of psychological frames that individuals come to adopt. But these psychological frames are not accessible to the game theorist.”

Again (no surprise), a naturalist approach based on the idea that humans are endowed with a sense of fairness may help to overcome the difficulties faced by rational choice theories.

On altruism: A sense of fairness may explain why people think that it is their duty to share the burdens and benefits of the revolution (there is a subtlety here, since many people would agree that people are not selfish but many would interpret sacrificing one’s own life as an act of altruism that can only be explained by group selection. The alternative explanation, I think, is that it can be mutually advantageous to cooperate to overthrow a dictator: the costs are high, but so are the benefits). On salience: The existence of a sense of fairness may explain why the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and the murder of Khaled Mohamed Saeed played such an important role. In both cases, the unfairness was so spectacular – there was no way that someone, without being cynical, could argue that both victims were not innocent and that by killing them the policemen were doing a service to the people – that everyone could agree on Facebook to fight against such unfair actions. Of course, I am not saying that it was possible to predict the start of the revolution (the number of parameters are way too important), only that a common sense of fairness provides a clue as to why some cases – because they are more spectacularly wrong – can become better coordination points for people than others.

Picture: President Obama’s speech against rational choice theories and in favour of a universal sense of fairness (video here)

“This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence — not terrorism, not mindless killing — but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.”


  • José-Luis Guijarro 11 March 2011 (10:03)

    I have always hated the kind of cultural relativism which maintained that different cultures need different political systems. I heard during all my early life that we, Spanish people, were too anarchistic to deserve political freedom, and that Franco’s regime was a blessing for us. We did not overthrow him, as is well known, but this apparently wild people of Spain have managed a typical western democracy in 30 odd years, so much so, that scenes like the one in this 1975 video seem impossible to young generations and ludicrous to oldies, if it were not by the vivid horror we remember so neatly: I like the [i]sense of fairness[/i] theory, and I do believe that this is a natural disposition of human beings. We should not be so weary of helping people achieve their freedom goals and not (as was done during the Spanish Civil War, and now in the case of Libia) hesitate to act when different dictatorships threaten this natural and universal longing for freedom.

  • Tage Rai 11 March 2011 (10:36)

    The post taps into a deep argument about the source of moral disagreement. Some argue that everyone believes in the values espoused by the western philosophical tradition, ideas such as equality, harm-avoidance, and the non-contingency of moral beliefs on authority- all tenets of Turiel’s domain theory- and that the only reason we see differences is because of moral errors due to unjust cultural institutions or mistaken beliefs of older generations. Other folks (including myself) believe that both the ethnographic lit. and evolutionary rationales suggest that some moral disagreements are actually “genuine” and reflect a kind of pluralism that cannot be reduced to a simple misunderstanding of facts or lack of freedom/power to express true beliefs. Evidence that some people resist inequality is not convincing because A) many more people support it under some conditions and B)it is entirely possible that some kinds of authority are perceived by subordinates as legitimate and right, while others are perceived as illegitimate and oppressive. One example of what I’m describing is the notion of “fairness”- the post (and Turiel) describe it primarily in terms of equality, where inequality is ‘bad’. And yet, what’s fair can also be based on issues of merit, need, and even rank. Most of us agree that Deans [u]deserve [/u]better offices and paychecks than professors, who in turn deserve better than grad students. These issues of rank are not about who has contributed the most, as most people in the world think it is natural and right that leaders are entitled to more than followers, and in return it is the duty of leaders to lead, guide, and protect subordinates. What we are seeing in the middle east right now is more a reflection of what happens when leaders fail to uphold their moral obligations and are maintained solely through coercive power. Importantly, there’s no logical way to pit these different notions of fairness against each other- the value of equality is simply incommensurate with needs or merit or rank- as I’ve argued [url=]elsewhere[/url], the moral motives people pursue are likely tied to the different kinds of social relationships they are in, where some motives are more effective in different social-relational contexts. Which brings me to the final point, it is not that “Westerners are individualistic and that explains why free market and democracy flourishes”, its likely the other way around- social ecologies affect the kinds of social relations that develop, and these lead to different moral motives.

  • quentin ruy 11 March 2011 (10:49)

    I saw a TV show recently (in France) where they said Emmanuel Todd had almost predicted the arabic revolutions in his book “Le Rendez-vous des civilisations” on the base of demographic data. He explains the median age in arabic countries is between 25/30 years old (instead of around 40 in Europe), and family structures evolved rapidely recently, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, toward more individualism. Todd says that revolution seems extraordinary to us only because we live in “old” countries where it seems impossible, but they used to be very frequent in history. His book was originally a counter argument on “the clash of civilisation”, where he argues that different cultures tend to converge instead of diverging. I found it quite convincing, and I think cultural relativism has always been a bit excessive (after all, no culture is an island).

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 11 March 2011 (13:59)

    Nicolas, I buy your point, but I’d go further. Let us make another effort to get rid of culturalism, and stop calling this an Arab movement. For all we know, the movement might be stifled everywhere outside Maghreb, in which case it will stay in History as a series of Maghreb revolutions (not ‘Arab’). Alternatively, there are signs that it might have strong repercussions in Iran, China – why not Central Asia? Calling the movement Arab presupposes that it will reach most Arab-majority countries and few others. There is an implicit theory here, that may or may not stand the test of future events.

  • Nicolas Baumard 11 March 2011 (15:47)

    @ José-Luis Guijarro Yes, Spain is definitely a good example and a far closer to us than the French and American Revolutions. On the point of helping people, however, I think I understand Obama’s cautiousness: people are not only motivated by fairness, they are also motivated by reputation management emotion such as pride. As [url=]Olivier Roy[/url], a specialist of Islam, noticed as long as the Bush administration was trying to impose democracy, many people in the arabic countries could simply not accept democracy, but now that Obama is not trying to impose it, they are willing to embrace it… @ Tage Rai I totally agree with you: fairness is many things. And that’s the advantage of having an evolutionary framework. The idea I defend is not that people favor equality, or equity, or whatever, but that they aim to have mutually advantageous relationships with others and the forms these relationships take depend on the context. If X has contributed more than Y (of if we think it is the case), then we do not favour equality and we prefer equity, but if X and Y have contributed equally, then equality is the best solutions. And of course, our evaluation of each person’s contribution depends on our cultural knowledge: people may think that X deserves more because priests/nobles/kings/capitalists contribute more. A universal mechanism can generate a great variety of judgments! @ quentin ruy I totally agree. I think that people in Cognition and Culture often overestimate the role of transmitted culture (everything has to be explained in terms of transmitted beliefs) and underestimated the role of environmental factors. I took the example of Internet, but demography is another big environmental change. @ Olivier Morin I agree with you: it may not be particularly Arabic. However, there is one reason to think that Arabic cultural still play an important role, and the reason is language: Al-Jazira is watched in all Arabic countries but, I guess, less much outside. In other word, the flow of information that played such a big role in the revolution is bigger from one Arabic country to the other, than from Arabic countries to China or Iran. But let’s hope that the wind of liberty will cross the linguistic barriers (and apparently, indeed, it has started to do so).