Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Mexican Culture and Collective Action

Posted 22 Jun 2011 / 0

Today there was an interesting feature on the Leonard Lopate show highlighting former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda and his new book Manana forever? Mexico and the Mexicans. The central thesis of the book is that Mexicans are a very individualist people, and that the failure of Mexican culture to foster collective action explains much of the country’s current plight.

I am not really qualified to assess Casteñeda’s claims, and I am fully aware that they take a rather strong stance on the often-asked question of whether the plight of a people results from internal or external forces. I am also a little dubious of any generalizations designed to depict such a large group of people. But two aspects of Casteñeda’s ideas are provocative and worthy of at least noting: 1) he ascribes the success or failure of a people to their culture, implicitly accepting the idea that culture determines fate and that different cultures compete; and 2) he suggests that the inability of a culture to foster collective (in other words cooperative) behaviors is a shortcoming.

These two hypotheses are begging to be tested with actual data. I do not have an exact idea of what data should be collected, but loosely I am interested in how to contrast the prevailing hypotheses that are often floated to explain the success or failure of particular countries or regions:

  1. The plight of the country or region is driven predominantly by its culture; or
  2. The plight of the country or region is driven predominantly by its interactions with other countries or regions.

A recent study on “tight versus loose” cultures published in Science took the approach of interviewing a small sample of people from various countries and then compared cultural attitudes with ecological and sociological variables. Perhaps the hypothesis implied by Casteñeda’s analysis of his own country — that successful countries are those that foster more collective action — could be tested using a similar methodology.

Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Radio & Podcasts, Sociology

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