Uninspired view of culture and development

Culture and Development: Cultural Patterns in Areas of Uneven Development K C Alexander and K P Kumaran Publisher: Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1992 Price: Rs 195

By Gopal K Kadekodi
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

WRITTEN jointly by a sociologist and an anthropologist, the book raises hopes of providing an understanding of uneven development within cultural and historical paradigms. Unfortunately, the reader is left disappointed.

The connections made in the book between culture and development are astounding. In Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru attributes India's poverty, despite its rich cultural heritage, to its citizens' spirit of resigned acceptance. But Culture and Development lacks any such philosophical discussion of culture and development. The authors instead adopt a short-sighted vision of culture as tradition, knowledge and attitude. "Culture," they say, "is the component of the production system influencing the pattern of production as well as being influenced by it." Such a view neatly reduces culture to economics and it is hasty conclusions like this that damage the book's readability.

The authors begin with a hypothesis that links knowledge and values with the level of development and state, "The pattern of knowledge and values in areas with different levels of development varies." Does this make sense? Do knowledge and values vary depending on development or is it the other way around? The authors fail to explain the linkage and reach conclusions that are far too simplistic. "The pattern of culture in a developed area," the authors contend, "is likely to be different from its pattern in an underdeveloped area. While the cultural pattern in the underdeveloped area is likely to be characterised by a low level of knowledge about various aspects of day-to-day life and less economically rational values, those in developed areas are likely to be characterised by higher levels of knowledge and more rational values." The authors' confusion about the link between cultural knowledge and values and knowledge about day-to-day life and economic values, all implies economic well-being.
Evaluating culture The book's basic problem lies in identifying and measuring culture. Quantifying development through indices is easy but controversial, and culture is far too complex to measure. The authors fail to touch upon this basic issue, and instead, jump to "knowledge" (cognitive ideas) and "ideology" (evaluative ideas) as the two dimensions of culture that they insist are quantifiable.

Using circuitous arguments, they arrive at several attributes oft living as synonymous to respective cultural dimensions. This short-cut to empiricism has made it easy for the authors to evaluate the cultural dimensions in varying or uneven developmental situations.

The authors have based their findings on sample data from three districts -- Azamgarh and Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh and Thrissoor in Kerala -- on socio-economic characteristics and on knowledge about natural phenomena, agricultural practices, demography, technical skills, concern about philosophical and moral issues -- all paradigms of development. A similar approach is used in assessing value orientation. Basic values, social values, human relations, agronomic practices, nutrition and fertility behaviour have all been studied. Though the size of population and the number of households differ significantly between the three sample districts, a uniform sample of 200 households was interviewed in one block in each district. Such a sampling procedure can easily lead to bias.

Misleading methods
The methods adopted by the authors to quantify the interview responses are based on what is rated a correct answer or good judgement, and on equal weightage or scores being attached to different questions to arrive at an aggregate index of knowledge or value. Both could be termed totally misleading in any social science research.

Statistical jargon like correlations between indices and developmental attributes and regression models appear frequently in the book. For example: "Most religions prohibit eating certain items (such as beef by Hinduism, pork by Islam). Do you think one should follow such teachings?" According to the authors, the expected answer is "No". But is there any theory that such religious teachings are deterrents to development? As a result of this misleading research, the authors conclude knowledge of agronomic practices are not influenced by socioeconomic factors!

This is an ambitiously planned book, but it fails because it presents marginal empirical evidence. The question remains: Do development paradigms have anything to do with culture at all? They do, I'm convinced, but more research is required to provide proof.

---Gopal Kadekodi is with the Institute of Economic Growth at Delhi University.

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