Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner

320 pages, Hudson Street Press, 2013

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The assumption that higher-order mental processes are universal— that they develop in fundamentally the same way for everyone—has long dominated the field of psychology. In recent years, though, scholars who write from the perspective of cultural psychology have challenged that premise by providing evidence that those processes emerge within a specific cultural context. This perspective informs the book Clash! Both of its authors, Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner, are cultural psychologists, and in the book they use insights and research drawn from cultural psychology to analyze a wide range of social conflicts.

Markus and Conner base their analysis on the contrast between individualism and collectivism. They outline two opposing views of self: Independent selves are “individual, unique, influencing others and their environments, free from constraints, and equal (yet great),” they write, whereas interdependent selves are “relational, similar to others, adjusting to their situations, rooted in traditions and obligations, and ranked in pecking orders.” They argue that everyone, in varying degrees, harbors both of these views of self. The clashes that occur when those views come into conflict, they suggest, lie at the root of many contemporary social problems.

The central message of the book is prescriptive. Markus and Conner hold out the promise that social progress and individual self development will result from efforts to integrate the two cultural perspectives that they describe. “To build a more prosperous and peaceful world, everyone must be both independent and interdependent,” they contend. “This means that people who tend to be more independent will have to hone their interdependence, while people who tend to be more interdependent will need to polish their independence.”

In separate chapters, the authors argue that the tension between independence and interdependence underlies a series of high profile social conflicts: West versus East, men versus women, business groups versus nonprofit groups, and so on. A final chapter covers the way that individuals experience that tension in their everyday lives. Markus and Conner provide examples of how, in each of these contexts, the effort to strike a balance between the independent self and the interdependent self can lead to positive social and individual change.

Impressively broad in scope, Clash! provides a sophisticated overview of the challenges that arise in addressing major social problems. It’s written in an engaging style that will appeal to a general audience, yet it’s also well documented with empirical evidence. Markus and Conner offer a highly readable overview of recent findings in cultural psychology, and they offer valuable insight into the trade-offs and complexities of social life. They urge readers to consider, for instance, how a cultural practice such as nepotism may form the underside of an interdependent sense of role-related duty. Elsewhere, they explore how the innovative business practices of Silicon Valley technology firms reflect individualistic values; by contrast, they suggest, the strong communal ties that many people associate with the US Midwest reflect an interdependent outlook.

Despite its many strong points, however, the book does not fully address certain key issues. Markus and Conner repeatedly assert that diversity exists within any cultural group, and that both the independent sense of self and the interdependent sense of self can assume various forms. “Japan is not China or Korea or Vietnam or India. The United States is not France or England or Australia,” they write. Yet they show little recognition of the nuances that help to define different cultural outlooks. Nor do they acknowledge the distortions that can result from emphasizing a pan-cultural distinction between independence and interdependence.

Markus and Conner also pay limited attention to how people reconcile the different views of self that they hold in different social contexts. Rather, the authors leave the impression that self-integration is merely a matter of arithmetic: They encourage the reader to tally those cases in which he or she holds an independent sense of self and then to subtract that number from the tally of cases in which he or she holds an interdependent sense of self. The resulting score, they suggest, will reflect which sense of self is dominant.

Although the authors acknowledge the importance of institutional practices that affect cultural perspectives, they treat those perspectives as viewpoints that individuals choose to adopt in the service of strategic goals. In doing so, they downplay the degree to which cultural outlooks include non-conscious aspects that are not freely chosen—outlooks that entail deep affective commitments that people do not readily relinquish.

In Clash!, social activists will find information to make the case for social policies (affirmative action, for example) that have merit precisely because they honor both self dimensions. In the end, though, the model presented here offers a more complete rationale for a Western liberal policy agenda than it does for any competing agenda. For that reason, it provides only limited insight into the enduring appeal—and, in some cases, the growing influence—of political and social movements that reject Western liberal priorities.

Note: Alana Conner, coauthor of Clash!, is a former senior editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review. Earlier in her career, she served as an undergraduate research assistant to reviewer Joan Miller at Yale University.

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