13 Jun 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?
Continued: On Cooperation and Team Work – 5