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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 236

The Geography of Thought has a further subtitle that reads “How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, and Why.” The book was written by Richard Nisbett, and it certainly covers a controversial topic.

The central idea of the book is that people who grew up in Asian cultures and those who...

(The entire section contains 2241 words.)

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The Geography of Thought has a further subtitle that reads “How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, and Why.” The book was written by Richard Nisbett, and it certainly covers a controversial topic.

The central idea of the book is that people who grew up in Asian cultures and those who grew up in Western ones think in fundamentally different ways. When you’re writing your assignment on this book, however, it’s important to note that Nisbett is saying that this difference is in the culture only, and not anything in the DNA or biology of the different peoples.

After an introduction outlining what his approach will be, comparing the fields of economics, language, philosophy, and many others, Nisbett goes on to compare ancient China with ancient Greece.

Nisbett argues that Greece focused on the individual and their achievements. The interest in Greece was on understanding the fundamental nature of everything, including the essence of individuals. This is contrasted against ancient China which was all the way on the other side of the spectrum. They focused on a collectivist approach, where the emphasis in terms of individuals was on how they could help society.

It can help your approach to writing the assignment if you find instances in the book that highlight how this difference in outlook created totally different cultures—in Nisbett’s view. Many instances are going to be right around this first chapter.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2005

The first thing that will strike many readers of The Geography of Thought(Nisbett) is that it boldly takes on what could be a controversial topic. Richard E. Nisbett claims that Asians (especially those from East Asia) and Westerners (cultures of European descent) think and even perceive differently in important ways and that these differences are sufficiently culturally embedded to make them statistically predictable for members of the cultures involved. Even the choice of the terms “Asian” and “Western” to define broadly large groups of disparate peoples may be found questionable by some. Nisbett recognizes this potential problem in his introduction, admitting that it may seem unfair, in particular to some of East Asian origin, to ignore the vast areas of differences within these cultures. Nisbett, however, does not shy away from these characterizations. They are central to his task.

The author starts with an introduction to his subject outlining the breadth and depth of his investigation. He believes that the differences he sees in different cultural matrices are not limited to a few cultural artifacts but that they form the basic cognitive orientations which direct and, to some extent, determine how individuals think about, act in, and perceive the world and other people around them. He hints at a much broader enterprise when he characterizes Westerners as being oriented toward rules and categories, while East Asians are oriented toward context, both human and natural. Because the differences he sees lie at such a basic level of cognition, Nisbett can apply his observations across many disciplines and areas of study. Science and mathematics, economics, language, philosophy, and the social sciences are all brought under the lens of the author’s investigation.

Nisbett’s first chapter is a historical sketch contrasting ancient Greece and ancient China. He credits ancient Greece with the development of the idea of personal agency. To modern readers living in individualistic societies, it might seem strange to imagine any culture not based on individual freedom and responsibility, but on this point the author has support from many students of both ancient and modern cultures. According to Nisbett, the ancient Chinese represent a specific version of another (far more common, according to many social scientists) cultural pattern: The Chinese believed in and acted upon the idea of collective agency. For them, everything was to be done within a pattern of prearranged roles and networks of mutual obligations under a hierarchical system of organization. The Chinese goal was using politeness strategies to get along with others, as opposed to the Greek goal of using competitive strategies to get ahead of (or at least free from) others.

Nisbett spends some time contrasting Greek and Chinese philosophies in the ancient world. He notes that the Greeks tended to have a concern not only for categorization but also for classification of their categories according to an idea—or even more, an ideal—of essence. For the Greeks, it was crucial to find the true nature of objects in the world, apart from what was constantly changing and transforming them. Thus, human beings retain their essential identities even as they age and die. The Chinese, in contrast, not only did not focus on what might be essential in objects but also did not focus on objects at all. For them, the salient features of reality were always to be found in fluid context, not in abstracted singularity.

In Nisbett’s second chapter, “The Social Origins of Mind,” he outlines what he considers to be the structure of “homeostatic socio-cognitive systems.” In what he himself might admit looks at first like a Western approach, he traces what he considers to be the roots of cognition, from ecology through economy, social structure, attention (or perception), metaphysics, epistemology, and finally cognitive processes. He escapes the linear trap, however, in that he sees this structure working as well in reverse and as being accessible at any point, such that the homeostatic system is self-contained and self-propagating. Nisbett admits that modern means of travel and communication have brought about unprecedented interaction between these disparate cultural types, but he claims that the distinctive modes of thought still persist. Furthermore, they can be, and have been, measured by a number of different psychologists and social scientists. Much of the rest of the book is given over to descriptions of just such studies.

In his third chapter, Nisbett describes of the fundamental difference between group-based and individualistic cultures. The author’s ideas on this point resemble those of British anthropologist Mary Douglas, though he apparently has come to his ideas by a different route, as he does not cite her. Nisbett lays out cultural differences between the cooperative East and the competitive West that echo the distinctions Douglas makes between Hierarchist and Individualist cultures. Both base their ideas on the work of earlier social scientists who popularized the notion of a basic distinction between community and society. Community is defined as a culture with high solidarity but low personal freedom, while society is defined as the opposite. Thus a rural (community) versus an urban (society) environment can often be mapped according to this classification. It is a shame that Nisbett does not draw on Douglas’s work, as she has taken this basic scheme and developed it quite a bit more. Nisbett does not so much contribute to the theoretical model as provide many specific examples which fit into it quite nicely. He does, however, make use of American anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s notions of high- and low-context societies, which correspond very well with the concepts of community and society.

One interesting contribution by Nisbett is the idea of priming. While Douglas and most other social scientists tend to describe members of different cultures or subcultures as more or less permanently located within those structures, Nisbett describes transformations that take place when people cross over into new cultural situations. He describes experiments involving East Asians who start out paying more attention to context (either in a picture or in a story) than they do to objects or characters. The subjects can be made, through leading questions, to switch over to a “Western” mode of thought and vice versa. More interesting, once these subjects have been “primed” in this way, they continue to answer questions in ways which indicate that they have switched perceptual and thought styles, at least temporarily. Other studies of individuals who have lived for some time in a culture not their own show the effects of their having been “primed” for cultural patterns with which they did not grow up by their experience of living in the culture distinct from their own. While this finding might not be all that surprising, it does offer hope for cross-cultural understanding.

Beginning in chapter 4, Nisbett begins to support his thesis with examples, not only recounting many anecdotal experiences but also detailing many different psychological and social experiments, trying to show in specific terms how Westerners and East Asians see the world in distinct ways. Perceptual tasks, such as recalling a picture in which a background element has been changed or noting how a rod is placed in relation to a frame, are used to show how East Asians consistently pay closer attention to visual context than do Westerners, while the latter are able to recall focal elements better than are their East Asian counterparts.

In chapter 5, Nisbett explores the different ways in which the two groups he is studying deal with and explain causality. By various investigations, he seeks to show that in the West personal agency and responsibility are favored, while in the East contextual factors are looked to for causal explanations. This distinction is not limited to causality in humans, or even to animate life-forms, according to Nisbett. Even at the level of purely physical objects, Westerners attributed changes in motion more to the object and less to external factors (for example, resistance) than did the East Asians. Once again, it was possible in all these experiments to “prime” the subjects such that their responses were more in line with their counterparts from the alternate culture, showing that for the behaviors being tested, cultural environment seems to be the major factor.

Nisbett’s sixth chapter attempts to look at the problem through an examination of language. The author maintains that while Western European languages focus on nouns and categories, East Asian languages, and Chinese in particular, deal with reality using more verbal constructions and relations. This, he believes, results in, contributes to, and is evidence of a tendency on the part of East Asians to see the world in terms of relationships rather than in terms of categories. So if a picture of a cow, a chicken, and some grass are shown to the two groups, Westerners will tend to group the animals (nouns/categories) together, while the East Asians will generally put the cow with the grass (in a verbal relation of eating). Nisbett mentions the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, who first put forth the idea that language in some sense determines, or at least directs, thought. Nisbett might also have added the name of George Lakoff, a linguistic philosopher whose explorations of categorization Nisbett would no doubt find very congenial.

In chapter 7, Nisbett returns to the area of philosophy. In particular, he examines the Aristotelian premise-conclusion basis of (Western) logic and contrasts it with an East Asian preference for conclusions based on experience as well as a respect for change, contradiction, and paradox. Nisbett notes that it is not as if East Asians have trouble thinking logically, just as it is not the case that Westerners cannot evaluate context and its importance. It is simply that each cultural type approaches daily life from an opposite perspective. Thus, in a seeming contradiction, East Asians are known for being good at mathemathics, which requires logical operations. This reputation Nisbett attributes not to innate ability but to a particular work ethic and an emphasis on mathematics within the East Asian schools curriculum. Here again, Nisbett finds the cultural factor operative. If the (essential) character of the person or object is what determines given results from that person or object, then working harder will not really help much. If, however, external factors (such as working harder) are what really make for success or failure, then one must try one’s best.

Nisbett uses his last chapter to look at the impact that his findings might have. Naturally, he sees benefits in cross-cultural communication. Understanding and respecting another’s perspective is the basis for reducing conflict and perhaps even working together. He also sees benefits to plural perspectives as such. Many problems can benefit from multiple approaches, and life itself is more interesting when a variety of worldviews are in play. Furthermore, each perspective can bring a corrective to the other, perhaps resulting in each outlook keeping the best of its own viewpoint while using the opposite perspective to correct the weaknesses inherent in its single worldview.

In a short epilogue, Nisbett addresses the question of the future of these different thought styles. He sees three possibilities. One is that Western culture, so powerful and pervasive at present, will dominate. Another is that the cultural distinctions will persist and maybe even grow. The final possibility, and the one Nisbett prefers, is that the two cultural patterns will permeate and influence each other in positive ways.

One may quibble with Nisbett’s choice of terms and categories (for example, “East Asians”) to describe his cultural types, his overuse of Americans to represent the West, and his tendency to make the evidence fit his theory even when it is hard to interpret (Europeans often failed to fall into either grouping). He would also do well to cite other cognitive scientists such as Douglas and Lakoff. Yet his overall thesis is sound, his results convincing, and his subject eminently deserving of more study.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 12 (February 15, 2003): 1020.

Library Journal 128, no. 3 (February 15, 2003): 156.

The New York Times, April 20, 2003, sec. 7, p. 17.

Psychology Today 36, no. 4 (August, 2003): 75.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 8 (February 24, 2003): 67.

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