Family fortunes of Bronze Age mint

The East in the West
May 31, 1996

When Kipling wrote "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," he was not only creating one of the more elegant cliches in history, he was also giving expression to a grand contrast that was already influential in contemporary European thought. To be sure, for Kipling the "East" was not vastly more extensive than the Indo-Gangetic plain. But the focus on India as the quintessential East was not unnatural for someone who concentrated so much on the Raj and was so overwhelmingly involved (in a way that many British administrators in India were) with a country that James Mill had identified simply as "that great scene of British action".

The 19th-century setting is quite important in the way Kipling saw things. It was a period when the Raj was very well established - even mature - well after its hesitant origin in the 18th century. Indeed, he wrote a century after the time when such diverse observers as William Jones and Warren Hastings were deeply curious about the past of a still alien country over which they were assuming control. The newly founded Asiatic Society of Bengal (1784), in which both of them - and many other British officers - played a major part, had been full of wonder and admiration for India's intellectual heritage about which they had known little.

The 19th century brought in a more asymmetric relation of established masters and vanquished subjects. James Mill convinced himself, and convinced generations of 19th-century British administrators trained in his History of British India (written by Mill without visiting India and without knowing any Indian language - classical or modern), that - contrary to the claims of William Jones and others - India had "in reality made but a few of the earliest steps in the progress to civilisation". His diagnosis of primitiveness was not, however, confined only to India. It was also a period when Asia as a whole still appeared to many Europeans as an undifferentiated mass in which distinctions between one "eastern" country and another seemed to be of little importance. Mill supplemented his judgment about India by the further generalisation that the state of civilisation of India was "very nearly the same with that of the Chinese, the Persians, and the Arabians", adding also, for good measure, "subordinate nations, the Japanese, Cochin-chinese, Siamese, Burmans, and even Malays and Tibetans."

Asia is where 60 per cent of the world's population live, and that proportion was higher - not lower - two centuries ago. And yet generalisations about "Asia" have been a recurrent feature of European theorising, just as - right now - they are becoming an important feature of a significant part of Asian thinking as well (on which more presently). The contents of the regional generalisations have been shifting over time, depending on what was going on at the time. Perhaps we can call this "freeze-frame theorising". You see the world as it is right now, then theorise about the causation of the presently observed asymmetries in terms of age-old constants that make some nations succeed and others fail (not in terms of dynamic movements in history). The frame in Kipling's time, which we might call the "imperial freeze-frame", took the great asymmetry in military and economic power between the "East" and the "West" to be an expression of some very long-run (if not permanent) handicap of the "East".

Even though Jack Goody does not see the thesis of western basic superiority quite in this way, his powerfully argued monograph provides, inter alia, an informative account as well as a definitive rebuttal of this "imperial freeze-frame". The European view of the "East" as "static" and "backward" is discussed with a wealth of evidence, beginning with a citation from the poet Imlac in Samuel Johnson's Rasselas about the state of the world outside the "Happy Valley". Imlac points to "the northern and western nations of Europe" as the nations that are "in possession of all power and all knowledge, whose armies are irresistible, and whose fleets command the remotest parts of the globe". That focus on asymmetry grew in forceful articulation over time, and Goody particularly concentrates on Max Weber - and to a lesser extent (and somewhat less fairly) on Karl Marx - as theorists of the basis of this alleged asymmetry in favour of the West.

Drawing on a wealth of material on the history of India, China and Japan, Goody shows how flimsy is the factual basis of the alleged causation behind the basic superiority of the West. In presenting his extensive scrutiny and refutations, Goody particularly focuses on the theses that (1) the West had a special kind of rationality of thought and decision that gave it clear historical advantage over the East; (2) the tradition of accounting and book-keeping, which had been well-developed in the West, was lacking in the East; and (3) the involvement of the family in business affairs made the East less suited for the growth of modern capitalism.

Goody shows why none of the claims stands up to critical examination. The tradition of rationalist thought, which is often misleadingly called "western rationalist thought", is plentifully present in different parts of eastern cultures. As far as the tradition of book-keeping and accounting is concerned, it is quite ancient in China and India. And so it is also in the Arab world, flourishing already at the time of the Prophet, with the "capitalist calculation of accounts" becoming "more popular in the Near East with the introduction of Indian positional numerals at the beginning of the 9th century by the Islamic mathematician al-Khwarizmi". Goody could have added that it is from al-Khwarizmi that the English mathematical term "algorithm" is derived, which is just one illustration of the extent to which western mathematics relied on intercourse with Arab, Indian and Chinese works.

In this field, Goody comes close to an alternative general theory. As he puts it, "the potentiality for further development was there in both regions, since all the main societies in the Eurasian continent built on the common achievements of the Bronze Age in terms of wealth (through production, consumption and exchange or trade) and know- ledge (through writing)". "In subsequent periods the West triumphed at times, the East at others. There were no deep structural features such as differences in rationality that prevented such an oscillation, but rather more immediate, contingent ones. So the search of much western social science for reasons for the rise (and possibly decline) of the West needs to be re-examined and aimed at different targets."

If the common theses about the historical advantage of the West in terms of rationality in thought, action and accounting are factually untenable, the very conception of the debilitating role of the eastern family in the development of business, argues Goody, is just mistaken. Goody presents much evidence to establish that this diagnosis is based on failing to understand what family connections did to business in the East, and what role the family played in the emergence of modern business in the West as well. "To regard the East's development as having been impeded by the family," Goody concludes, "is fundamentally wrong".

It is not easy to cover, here, the variety of topics on which Goody throws significant light. Nor easy to reflect the cogency with which his main demonstrations proceed, establishing a departure in the way the East and the West are to be viewed for comparison, contrast and understanding of interrelations. I do not doubt that specific questions can be raised by some historians about particular details of claims and interpretations presented by this daring social anthropologist, dealing with historical data over very long periods and from many different cultures. But the main critical thesis of Goody, disputing the view of the East as backward and static (trailing well behind the West much before the modern era) convincingly emerges from the totality of analyses and evidence presented here.

So I do recommend strongly Goody's The East in the West both as a corrective of some of the standard understanding of the difference between the East and the West, and also generally as an enjoyable book on cultural studies with many interesting arguments and striking illustrations. I shall, however, fail in my job of being a critical reviewer if I do not point to some problems and incompletenesses that are worth considering. But first a disclaimer. In presenting a thesis of the kind that Goody does, there is always the danger of being mistaken for a theorist who argues that all the world is the same and there are no distinctions to be drawn. This is not Goody's position. As he explains, he is "not trying to make all the world the same but simply to state that the major societies of Eurasia were fired in the same crucible and that their differences must be seen as diverging from a common base". "Moreover, these differences are rarely if ever of the deep-seated kind that would prevent 'modernisation', or even its onset."

What, then, are the issues that can be raised? I shall concentrate on three questions. First, Goody's characterisation of the European view of the East is largely confined to what I have been calling the imperial freeze-frame. But that has not been historically the only western view of the East. In the period following the establishment of European military hegemony over Asia (what the history syllabus of the University of Cambridge used to call "the expansion of Europe", evoking the image of metal in heat), the view of European superiority became well established, and this was amply reinforced by Europe's industrial and economic power, which was by then also firmly established. It was indeed the dominant 19th-century view of Asia, and Weber and others, on whom Goody concentrates, wrote in the heyday of that tradition. James Mill (whose works are not discussed by Goody) was a great formaliser of this freeze-frame, but as one of the pioneers, Mill was arguing against an established tradition which did not see the East as basically static and backward.

To see different perspectives on Asia, one does not have to go all the way back to Arrian or Megasthenes, or even to Marco Polo. There are many altogether different accounts by western theorists of culture before the imperial freeze-frame settled in and made the canonical view the one on which Goody concentrates. For example, Voltaire's cataloguing of the important things to come from India ("our numbers, our backgammon, our chess, our first principles of geometry, and the fables which have become our own") does not see in India or Asia any great denial of what is now called western rationality. This creates some problem for the starting point of Goody's argument ("much of European history and social theory has viewed the East as 'static' or 'backward'"), and his rich historical analysis starts off with a somewhat ahistorical diagnosis of the quintessential European view of Asia. This does not, however, reduce the value of Goody's refutations, since the view that Goody challenges has been very powerful in European thought since the 19th century.

Second, as time has passed and things have changed, the imperial freeze-frame has been followed by other accounts of the world, with new frames around which contemporary theorising has settled. The stereotypes that need challenging have also moved on with the times. When Japan emerged as a major economic and military power, the Eurocentric view adapted itself to include Japan in the world of privileged cultures. Specifically Japanese norms, traditions and values - from the martial samurai heritage to its family-centred business traditions - began getting very special and favourable attention. But then the frame moved further on. Some Asian countries and regions other than Japan - South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong - started doing very well, and the identification of Asian successes had to be extended to them too. So the samurai had to give way, at least partially, to shared traditions on the eastern edge of Asia. This development was followed by mainland China itself becoming a country with very fast economic growth, with a rapid transformation of its economy and society. So the prevailing theses shifted to the special virtues of Confucianism - the cultural tie that binds China and Japan and much of East Asia. This has become a dominant tradition now, in explaining the very modern success of East Asia in terms of the very ancient teachings of Confucius.

However, Thailand has meanwhile started forging ahead at remarkable speed, and Thailand's cultural background is Buddhist rather than Confucian. Japan too has had much Buddhism in its past (as has China), and this would no doubt have received more attention had Thailand taken the lead earlier than Korea; but now the earlier Confucius-centred theory is due for revision. Even more recently, the economy of Indonesia too is expanding very rapidly, and Indonesia has, of course, an Islamic present and much Buddhist and Hindu as well as Muslim cultural achievements in the past. More recently still, to add to the cacophony, the large economy of India has started to move forward rather rapidly, and past explanations of sluggishness based on the nature of Indian culture are giving way, at this very moment, to cultural explanations of economic dynamism, with identification of other parts of Indian tradition, including - as it happens - some features well-discussed in Goody's refutation of the Eurocentric view (for example, India's long tradition of business, accounting and mathematics).

What would need challenging is the freeze-frame approach itself, going beyond the refutation of the particular Eurocentric view (related to the imperial freeze-frame). The temptation to seek explanation of the contemporary world in age-old dichotomies of culture and values is very strong, and this tendency is increasingly taking a new - quite pro-Asian - form, different from the Eurocentric view which Goody scrutinises and demolishes.

Finally, while Goody does challenge the Eurocentric view, his own focus can be described as Eurasiacentric. Africa receives relatively little attention, and even Egypt figures rather marginally. This is not really a limitation, since this work is explicitly about the East and the West, but the imperial freeze-frame does apply to the western understanding of Africa as well, and the reader would like to know what Goody makes of that. In fact, a re-examination of Africa (including the fields in which Africans have historically flourished) will need examination in another work. The contemporary world does not yet provide a tempting freeze-frame for that exercise, since Africa is so full of problems right now, but as and when things move ahead in Africa, its past traditions will begin to receive more respectful attention. New explanations no doubt will, then, be found as to why it is altogether unsurprising that Africa, given its background, is doing so very well.

Freeze-frame theorising is immensely versatile and adaptive, and its very arbitrariness gives it reach and appeal. But the need to challenge that general approach has never been greater. The devastation brought about by the cold war in Africa has left its mark. Every toppling of an orderly government by military strong men used to receive support from one world power or the other (depending on which side the strong men took), and one side or the other was ready to provide comfort as well as armament to brutal dictatorships. The continent's indigenous economic and political problems were immensely worsened by its being the battleground of the major power blocks from the 1960s onwards, and the legacy of that military-led disruption still remains influential. The temptation to see in contemporary Africa's maladies not its recent misfortunes but reflections of its age-old past is evidently strong (judging from what gets written about Africa these days), and this relates to the ad hoc nature of the explanations of contemporary frames through the invoking of historically frozen contrasts.

None of this is meant to deny the excellence of Goody's important monograph. It does not detract from the value of Goody's contribution to point to the need for asking broader questions, and for scrutinising the general approach of freeze-frame theorising itself. The general approach to be resisted includes the particular thesis that is so convincingly demolished by Goody.

Amartya Sen is professor of economics and philosophy, Harvard University.

The East in the West

Author - Jack Goody
ISBN - 0 521 55360 1 and 55673 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 304

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