Is Your Culture ‘Tight’ or ‘Loose’? The Answer Could Explain Everything

Is Your Culture ‘Tight’ or ‘Loose’? The Answer Could Explain Everything

RULE MAKERS, RULE BREAKERS
How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World
By Michele Gelfand
376 pp. Scribner. $28.

There is a longstanding debate among social scientists about what ultimately drives human behavior. Do ideals, symbols and beliefs lead people to act as they do? Or are the wellsprings of action and the drivers of history less ethereal: money, fear, the thirst for power, circumstance and opportunity, with culture as an afterthought?

Scholars in the first camp are culturalists; in the second, materialists. And the disagreement between them is not merely academic. It spills over into heated policy debates about crime, poverty, immigration, economic development and everything in between.

In “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers,” the psychologist Michele Gelfand sides with the culturalists. “Culture is a stubborn mystery of our experience and one of the last uncharted frontiers,” she writes. Her aim isn’t to guide readers through all the complex elements that make up a culture, but to draw attention to one aspect she believes has been ignored: the social norms — or the often informal rules of conduct, the dos and don’ts, the sources of tsking and raised eyebrows — that emerge whenever people band together.

According to Gelfand, cultures can be located along a continuum from “tight” to “loose” depending on the strictness of these rules. “Tight cultures,” she observes, “have strong social norms and little tolerance for deviance, while loose cultures have weak social norms and are highly permissive.” Think of the difference between a gathering for buttoned-up middle-aged churchgoers and a party for 20-somethings in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

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Gelfand’s thesis is that mapping the tightness or looseness of the cultures of various groups — nations, regions, social classes, companies, friendship circles — helps explain things that might otherwise be puzzling. After discussing the dynamics of social norms she goes broad, using the tight-loose distinction to analyze authoritarianism, populism, terrorism, inequality, political polarization, the world of business, even the happiness of individuals.

Take authoritarianism: Why did Egyptians vote overwhelmingly for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in that country’s 2014 presidential election, choosing to be led by an autocrat just a few years after the democratic hopefulness of the Arab Spring?

Gelfand argues that whatever a country’s baseline level of constraint (Egypt’s religious conservatism would put it near the tight end of the spectrum), it can adjust in response to shifting conditions. Perceived threats, including social instability, produce tightening. So it was in Egypt, she claims. The ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the political chaos that ensued sent Egypt’s society into a tailspin, leaving voters yearning for a strongman who could assert control and bring back order.

Although Gelfand can occasionally come across as too much of a salesperson for her big idea, she’s generally an engaging writer with real intellectual range. She sparkles most when diving into evolutionary anthropology to make sense of long-term patterns in cultural tightness and looseness. Humans have evolved to be strikingly sensitive to norms, which provide a major evolutionary advantage as a way of facilitating cooperation. The evidence Gelfand reviews suggests that tighter cultures tend to form in the face of ecological challenges, high population density and threats from other groups. This is interesting stuff.

The problem is that — in spite of the context she provides for how norms developed in the first place — Gelfand routinely ignores materialist explanations for the various phenomena she considers. Sure, would-be strongmen can and do exploit voters’ fears of instability and change. But another crucial element in explaining why Sisi, Egypt’s former minister of defense, won 96 percent of the vote is that the military, determined to maintain its grip on the country and to keep billions of dollars in foreign aid flowing, banned the main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, after deposing Mohamed Morsi, the inept but democratically-elected Islamist president who followed Mubarak in office.

Other examples are even more glaring, as when Gelfand accounts for limited upward mobility in the United States by pointing to the ostensibly tight culture of the working class, incapable of the flexibility needed to find a place in the new economy. She writes as though the hoarding of resources and opportunities by the wealthy was not a huge part of the story.

The fact of the matter is that the very best research done today by social scientists straddles the culturalist-materialist divide. This work — Matthew Desmond on urban housing, Mario Luis Small on social networks and inequality, Kathryn Edin on poverty, Robert Shiller on narrative economics — highlights multi-factor causes and the intertwining of cultural and material influences. “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers” could have benefited from some of the same balance and nuance.

Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College.

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