Culture Dies Hard

By Thomas Kochman - 03.30.2010

The NY Times editorial “President Obama in Kabul” expresses the frustration of the U.S. and the President in trying to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai to “clean up his act” which constitutes among other things of a “commitment to eradicating corruption (including among his own family members), improving governance and institutionalizing the rule of law.”

While these goals may serve U.S. goals and interests, we question from a cultural standpoint, whether they are realistically obtainable.

For one “rule by law” or “rule by rule” works only to the extent that people trust that institutional policies and practices will be rationally and impartially administered and applied.

This is a tall order in those places where the social, economic and political structure is built around authoritarian leadership, class membership, tribal affiliation and across-the-board political and personal favoritism.

So what has to happen for that cultural change to happen?

We often ask in our diversity training “If you had to borrow $10,000, would you first go to a bank, or to your family.”

The mainstream U.S. response is, “Go to the bank.”

The more traditional ethnic response is, “Go to your family or friends.”

These answers are rooted in different cultural values and the different social experiences these groups have with public institutions.

Principally it revolves around what or whom you can trust.

Mainstream people’s experience with public institutions is generally positive. So they trust and rely on them, in part, because they can, and, because they value individualism, independence and self-reliance, also so as not to have to rely upon family and friends.

The experience of traditional ethnics with public institutions is often negative (“dollar short, day late”), and, consistent with tribal values of interdependence and reciprocity, they rely upon family and friends, also because they can, and so as not to have to rely upon public institutions.

These differences show up in the ways members of different groups approach and deal with institutions, especially official bureaucracy. Read more »