Chapter 9: ‘Asian Values’ and Cultural Explanations of Economic Change
INTRODUCTION: THE REVIVAL OF CULTURAL EXPLANATION After many years during which cultural relativism has prevailed, there are moves afoot to return to explaining levels of economic development in terms of cultural differences.1 Perhaps ‘moves’ is too strong. Most of what has appeared so far amounts to little more than claims that cultural differences do indeed matter, accompanied by requests for other scholars to investigate the topic. The new trend involves a willing and unhistorical suspension of disbelief about the ambiguities of cultural explanation. The reasons for this seem to be two-fold: one set of authors is, understandably enough, dissatisfied with standard explanations of economic development by way of either the ordinary categories of economics or Marxist-style ‘theories’ of dependency, while a different set is determined to find an explanation for the ‘East Asian Miracle’ in intrinsic and therefore permanent features of regional society.2 This second group uses cultural explanation for political ends, just as the cultural relativists do, but in its case not urging the equivalence of all cultures but the actual superiority of Asian ones. Western scholars have often been nervous about arguing against either position. As the Indian-born economist, Amartya Sen, observes ‘Western discussion of non-Western societies is often too respectful of authority’.3 Both types of author dismiss cultural relativism, explicitly or implicitly. I have no quarrel with that. It was always an irritating feature of intellectual conformity to find that any reference to cultural differences had become taboo and that all cultures must be presumed equal. But...
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