On Cooperation and Individualism – 4

Before moving on in this series we need to make a correction.

One antonym for cooperation is competition; another is individualism. In the context of the behavior we have been discussing, individualism, not competition, was the appropriate term to use.

The inferences we have made are not affected but it is important to have the concept right.

Let us go over the essentials again and in a little more detail. The essence of the argument was that the nature of the labor requirements of different staple diets could be so different as to socialize very different behavioral attitudes in the communities.

We took rice as one of our examples and a quote from an article explains the labor needs of the crop very well:

In rural Japan, for example, cooperative work parties known as yui are formed most frequently at the time of rice-transplantation and second most frequently at the time of rice-harvesting. During these two seasons of the year, most Japanese farm households come to be faced with a serious labor shortage, and thus become obliged to procure extra labor force through labor exchange, because both rice-transplantation and rice-harvesting are not only highly labor-intensive work, but also need to be completed up within a very short term (preferably one day per paddy field).

When a yui work party for rice-transplantation is formed by, for example, five households (A, B, C, D, E), the exchange of labor is normally done in the following way. On the first day, all the households work together on A’s paddy. On the second day, all work on B’s paddy. Then, all work on C’s on the third day, on D’s on the fourth day and on E’s on the fifth day. In this manner, all households’ paddies will have been transplanted when one cycle of labor exchange ends.

This makes the rationale very clear. No matter how diligently household A works on its own field, unless it cooperates with other households it cannot realize the output of its own efforts.

The situation in the case of wheat farming is very different. No such cooperative exchange is essential for realizing the output. The output from a household farm depends upon the household’s own inputs, ignoring external factors like weather on which no household has control. Households that are more diligent reap a higher return. This kind of farming favors the behavioral trait of individualism.

Individualism need not translate automatically into competition. That depends on other dimensions of the system. Thus, if the economy is based on market principles or if politics is based on a British-style electoral scheme, an individualist culture would adapt very quickly to a competitive ethos. The same kind of adaptation might be much slower and show distinct modifications in societies with a tradition of cooperation. In an earlier post we had highlighted the unique adaptations to the electoral system in Japan. We are also quite aware that Japanese corporate decision-making is much more consensus based compared to Western norms even though it is part of a market economy.

The lesson we have to take away is that it is not good enough to explain away all differences in behavior or social responses. It is not good enough to say that the Japanese cooperate more than Indians because they are Japanese and we are Indians. It is a lot more challenging and satisfying to see if we can come up with a hypothesis to explain the differences. In this quest, as one of readers had commented earlier, our best friend is the question WHY. We have to push ourselves and ask, for example, what factors might lead to more cooperative behavior in Japan compared to India. We might not always find the answer we are seeking but we could well discover something quite unrelated simply because we have initiated the process of thinking.

To go back now to the partition of the subcontinent. The hypothesis we were exploring was that Malaysia, with arguably a more complex situation, managed to find a shared solution that preserved the union. In India, individualist leaders with no traditions of trust or cooperation, kept arguing and upping the ante and finally allowed a third party to impose a solution at a horrible cost to the community. Yet, everyone ended up with his or her own smaller farm where life seemingly went on as usual. Nobody cared about the social cost of the ensuing conflict.

How grateful must the people of Malaysia be now enjoying a GDP (PPP) per capita in 2007 of $13,379 compared to $2,753 in India, $2,525 in Pakistan, and $1,242 in Bangladesh.

So we come back to the question we had asked earlier: Are we what we eat?

This is the fourth post in this series. The first three posts are here, here, and here.

Continued: On Cooperation and Team Work – 5


  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:36h, 14 June Reply

    How would this developing hypothesis apply to the split between Malaysia and Singapore, which was also largely very amicable although there were racial undertones to it?

    Malaysia and Singapore recently worked out their terrotorial dispute over the Pedra Branca Islands. They took the case to the ECJ and committed to the decision of the ICJ. The issue is now settled – the islands belong to Singapore. But the manner in which they went about this is what is remarkable. Singapore also has territory disputes with Indonesia and they are slowly working the matter amicably with them. Why can’t India and Pakistan resolve its issues in a similar manner?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:13h, 14 June

      You have identified an important aspect that even if there is a dispute there are ways to reach amicable settlements – which can include separation. This is quite striking in East Asia. Even when disputes are not fully resolved, they are not allowed to paralyze the communities. The case of China and Taiwan is a good example – trade and investment are growing while the political issues remain contentious. Singapore gets as crucial a commodity as water from Johor.

      This makes one wonder why India and Pakistan cannot increase trade while they deal with other issues. Clearly the welfare of the ordinary citizens does not carry much weight in the deliberations of the leaders or of the emerging middle classes. It certainly has something to do with the mindsets.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 14:01h, 14 June Reply

    Do you think there is any creedance to the argument that the hostility based on religion (Indo-Pak) is more deep rooted than that based on race (Malay-Chinese-Indian-Javanese)?

    Is there any creedance to the argument that although politically separate Singapore is joined at the hip to Malaysia, depending on it for some fundamental needs like water? It cannot afford to get into a war with its neighbours and is forced to adopt an amicable approach. India and Pakistan are not tied to each other in that sense. Perhaps the trick to the resolution of the conflict is then is to develop the trade relations between the two neighbours to such an extent that the idea of going to war appears immediately too costly. But that raises questions about whether such trade can be developed when there is so much mistrust of each other – each country would harass the citizens of the other who cross the border, even for trade? While many may argue that there is so much similarity and friendship between the people, the fact remains that the political class that comes to power in each country is one that wants to continue the hostilities and issues directives to that effect. Perhaps the voices of those clamouring for friendship in the two countries must work harder to ensure that their voices find political expression.

    But I have drifted far from the topic of your post. May be our ‘wheat-cultivation’ instincts are really too strong and any appearances of friendship between the countries’ citizens are illusory! 🙂

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:10h, 14 June

      Vinod, The following thoughts come to mind:

      1. The situation in Malaysia could also be looked upon in terms of religion with the majority Malays, Chinese and Indians belonging to different religions.
      2. The post-separation scenario between Malaysia and Singapore could be characterized as you have done – Singapore being dependent on a critical resource like water might think it cannot afford a war. But Malaysia could have decided to use force earlier to prevent the separation like Pakistan did in the case of Bangladesh.
      3. Whether India and Pakistan were similarly tied or not was a matter of vision. Punjab (the land of five rivers) was one ecosystem and to split it did not make much sense. If you see the river Ravi now, it is a pathetic stream almost dry for most of the year.
      4. The friendships between the citizens of the two countries are not illusory. Wherever they study, work or live together they develop abiding relationships. When they communicate with each other across borders without ever having met (as on blogs) they are completely different. Clearly we are suffering a lot because of restricted opportunities to meet.
      5. Trade is certainly one of the ways to a peaceful future. Here, the leaderships have stalled any progress just as they have on making travel easy.
      6. We have to ask what the leaderships have to gain by keeping the people apart and indoctrinating them with negative images of the other. In Pakistan’s case the logic is easy to understand – the rationale for a disproportionately large army and military dominance of society would disappear with the end of hostilities. The Indian case is harder to fathom – perhaps it is less material and more psychological. Or the fact that the poor who would gain most have very little say in these decisions and the decision-makers are doing well enough to indulge their prejudices without any costs to their personal standards of living.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:47h, 04 December Reply

    Wheat People vs. Rice People

    The same hypothesis shows up again.

  • JJk
    Posted at 07:03h, 12 December Reply

    That is obvious right. Some nations are focused on religion and aren’t for the common man. The distance power,culture is smaller in for example Silicon Valley where a common man can Ask investors for money regardless of his race religion and economic status. Where do you find that in the world? A poor common man with a brilliant idea can ask a,group,of billionaires for money..!!

    I meant a common man in the US can ask investors for money provided he have a brilliant idea… Where do have that type of system in the world that is regulated?

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