It’s the culture, stupid! Or is it?

The events in Cologne have sparked controversies across Europe. This time, the topic is not the economic and social costs of the refugee crisis, but questions concerning culture and gender. We need a proper language in which to address these issues.

A shorter version of this article was published in Norwegian in Morgenbladet on 15 January 2016.

 

There is no simple answer as to what exactly happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. There was a large number of people partying in the city centre, in varying states of intoxication, and no version of the events is the only valid or possible one. You and I may easily perceive and interpret identical situations in quite different ways, even if we were both present. But a few facts seem indisputable. A rather large number of young men (a few hundred? a thousand?), most of them with a background in Arab-speaking countries, surrounded, groped and stole from young women who were by the train station to watch fireworks and celebrate the new year. The unpleasant event seemed to be a planned, coordinated mass assault. The police were taken by surprise, they acted inefficiently, and subsequently tried to brush the events aside, unwilling or unable to provide the bare facts.

This immediately sparked a heated debate in Europe – in the newspapers, in the social media, on blogs, websites, radio and TV. Some claimed that the problem boiled down to the fact that the transgressors were Muslims, and that it was an established fact that in the world of Islam, women who are not protected by male relatives can blame themselves if they are sexually harassed or even raped. Others spoke about uprooted people lacking a foothold in secular, individualist and relatively gender-equal Germany. Yet others contextualised the events by pointing out that men have always assaulted women sexually, regardless of culture and type of society, refusing to speak about culture.

It would probably not be feasible to try to develop an intermediate position between the grim pessimism of ‘I told you so’ and the defensive ‘this has nothing to do with culture’ However, a third position is possible, and it may contribute to a better and more accurate understanding of the Cologne drama, as well as providing tools for dealing with many other debates and issues concerning cultural diversity and social integration.

Before moving on, I should like to shed light on the fraught discourse about culture and minority by taking a detour via a comparable controversy which took place in Sweden just after the turn of the century, and which suggests that we’ve been here before.

 

Fadime revisited

In 2002, the Kurdish–Swedish woman Fadime Sahindal was murdered by her father, who thought that she had become ‘too Swedish’, shaming her family through her liberated life. In Sweden, where criticism of minority cultures is less common and less accepted than in neighbouring Denmark and Norway, the murder was generally described as an individual tragedy, or as an expression of a generic male desire to control female sexuality. The anthropologist Mikael Kurkiala wrote a couple of articles in Dagens Nyheter (and later reflections in Anthropology Today), where he argued that it was necessary to take the cultural dimension into account: In Kurdish culture, he said, there are in fact other ideas of honour and gender than in Swedish mainstream culture, and an account of Fadime’s death which did not include this dimension was, accordingly, seriously flawed. He did not allege that Kurdish culture turned Fadime’s father into a murderer, but took great pains to emphasise that the father had several possible scripts at his disposal, and that other Kurdish fathers would have chosen another script in the same situation. His point was, however, that there existed a script in Kurdish culture which justified the killing of close female relatives under particular circumstances, and that a similar script did not exist in Swedish majority culture.

Kurkiala was met with harsh criticism from different quarters. For example, the leading Social Democrat Mona Sahlin rejected the cultural approach, preferring instead to speak of male violence towards women. Mikael had anticipated objections, but was surprised at the strength of the reactions from the Swedish establishment, particularly the tone of moral condemnation. For once, an anthropologist was accused of spreading cultural prejudices about ‘the other’.

Yet it is easy to see that Kurkiala was right. What we should keep in mind here is that he was not being misunderstood (as is often the case with anthropologists who venture into the public sphere), but that mainstream Swedish society seemed to have decided that he couldn’t be right, since his perspective might contribute to racism and ethnic prejudices. This attitude, of course, is tantamount to placing a lid on contentious issues.

Culture and personhood

Some of the most important issues in culturally complex societies are class, exclusion and racism. For now, I bracket them, since the European debate currently mainly concerns culture and religion. So let’s talk about culture, then, with the Kölnische Drama as a backdrop.

As any anthropologist might point out, there are very sound reasons to avoid cultural determinism, that is explaining particular patterns of action by referring to a person’s cultural background (religion, here, is considered part of culture). Culture varies within every named group; persons are unique and make different choices in their lives; and culture is continuously evolving, changing and diversifying. For this reason, scholars of culture are – perhaps paradoxically – reluctant to attribute explanatory value to cultural differences. This reluctance is sometimes taken too far. Experience tells us that cultural differences do exist and have a bearing on everyday life. Family and kinship, gender and age, rank and hierarchy; all these basic aspects of human existence mean different things to people with systematically different experiences and knowledges. Frictions and clashes occur when such worlds meet through encounters and interactions, if the parties are not well prepared beforehand.

How can we speak of these differences without coercing people into artificially delimited groups, oversimplifying, fanning prejudices and establishing boundaries which are both politically unproductive and intellectually indefensible – in a word, contributing to a polarising discourse from which only extreme groups (notably Islamists and ethnonationalists) benefit? My present concern is simultaneously intellectual and political; it is an attempt to find a suitable language for describing a culturally diverse world, but it is also a task of some importance to enable a conversation beyond entrenched positions and cheap polemicism.

Most of the dilemmas and tangled issues concerning cultural differences in today’s culturally diverse Europe are related to different concepts of personhood, a much discussed term in anthropology, which can be used to unpack and analyse a wide range of more or less dramatic intercultural encounters in complex societies, from the mass assault in Cologne to courses offered to young mothers in Oslo’s culturally complex East Side.

What is a person, and not least, what does it entail to be a person? Is a person first and foremost defined through their duties or through their rights? Is a person entitled to take their own decisions and give their self-interest the pride of place, or are obligations towards others more important? And if the latter is the case, who are these ‘others’ – family members, neighbours, colleagues, members of one’s own ethnic group, or rather an anonymous, imagined community such as a nation or even humanity (or the planet)? Are persons endowed with equal rights, or is there a natural hierarchy according to which some have greater value than others? Are children persons on a par with adults, or should they accept their subordination? And what to make of the relationship between men and women – should it be symmetrical or complementary? Should men and women be as similar as possible, or would it be preferable that they have a gendered division of labour, since they were created differently by God or evolution?

Obviously, these questions can be answered in different ways, and here we approach the heart of the matter, namely how these young men in Cologne could conceivably treat young women as objects, in public view, with no regard for their dignity and humanity. (I have not carried out psychoanalysis on neither the men nor the women in Cologne, and so there is inevitably an element of speculation here.) But before we move ahead, it remains necessary, unfortunately, to state the obvious, namely that the vast majority of male refugees in Germany did not take part in these activities, although they share the same background as the suspected transgressors.

I-cultures and we-cultures

A contrast between two concepts of personhood,  arguably crude but nevertheless recognisable to many, can be drawn between ‘I-cultures’ and ‘we-cultures’. If a young woman belonging, say, to the German majority becomes pregnant outside of a stable relationship, people might exclaim: ‘The poor girl!’ Among non-European minorities, the reaction might instead be: ‘Her poor parents!’. This contrast can be connected to an established, if contested, distinction between a sociocentric and an egocentric concept of the person. This dualism and is associated with the anthropologist Louis Dumont and his comparative work on Europe and India. In India, he says, family and community is in the foreground; in Europe, the individual is ‘the supreme value’, sacred and with inalienable rights.

Consistent with a sociocentric conceptualisation, Gandhi once spoke of the individual as ‘a drop in the ocean’. It exists, but has no meaning without the surrounding masses of water. Now, this contrast is by far too simple and rough, but it may serve as an entry-point for a more nuanced and complex exploration.

The sociocentric person is not defined as an individual, but as a dividual. He or she is divisible into their relationships to others, whereas the West European individual is, as the word suggests, whole and indivisible. The boundary of the individual may be drawn at the skin, while the dividual ends where the relationships to others end. While the individual has rights, the dividuals has duties.

The dividual does not relate to differently positioned people in the same ways. You don’t behave in the same way towards your mother than towards your daughter, differently with your family than with strangers, and these are differences that make a difference. You are a node in a network, but it is the network that nourishes the node, not the other way around. Accordingly, many who live in arranged marriages see this institution as reasonable and natural. They owe a debt to their parents, whom they respect for being wiser and older, and they trust their better sense of judgement. Besides, a marriage is not a relationship between two persons, but between two families.

In the messy cultural environments characterising our time, where the old and the new, the nearby and the distant meet and mix, tensions continuously emerge between different conceptualisations of the person, often in one and the same person. You are torn between different ideals describing what you should be like, conflicting dreams, duties and rights. It is scarcely a coincidence that most Bollywood films deal with the tension between arranged marriages and love marriages. Here, different conceptualisations of personhood clash, and mind you, neither migration nor Islam has anything to do with it.

Values and social life

The variation in personhood is linked with social life. It does not come from nowhere, but is related to property rights, political systems, family and kinship organisation, rules of inheritance and economic practices. In societies where women cannot own means of production (land, businesses etc.), and where men inherit land, women have their primary activities in the domestic sphere. It may therefore be a common view that giving education to girls is a waste of time and money, since they’re just getting married anyway. In societies where religion is important, women are also generally more subordinated to men than in more secular societies. This is because high religious positions are usually reserved for men, regardless of religion. In these societies, there is not much informal social interaction between unrelated persons of opposite genders. To young, unmarried men, this implies, among other things, that they have nobody to sleep with. This is not an irrelevant detail if we are trying to make sense of what happened in Cologne.

Kinship, moreover, is important in societies where your social standing, your economic status and your possibilities for political influence depend on your place in a kin group. In such societies, the phenomenon typically called nepotism in Western Europe is widespread; that is, you give advantages to your relatives because you owe them as much. You are a bad uncle if you fail to help your nephew when he needs it. In this kind of society, severing ties with your family comes at a significant cost, which encourages conformism. We see here how differences in personhood are not merely existential or academic, but have tangible, practical consequences.

The ideological superstructure justifying these societal arrangements can be saturated with religion, but honour and shame are often more important. You shame your family if you behave indecently – or in a shameless way – and you are honourable if, as a woman, you ensure keeping unrelated men at bay. It is not your integrity as an individual that is sacred, but the quality of your relationships to significant others.

The implications are obvious. If you have a background in a society where kinship is important and men dominate in the public sphere, where voluntary, chosen love relationships are tabooed and undesired, and where honour and shame define essential qualities in a person, you may well get confused by the sight of large numbers of happy, partying, unchaperoned women in the public sphere.

Mixed persons

Some will ask, and rightly so: How can these general insights be useful in practical policy? In order to answer the question, I will briefly mention three PhDs in social anthropology from the last year. I am proud to have supervised all three, they all touch upon the question of personhood, and they are all based on fieldwork in culturally complex environments in Oslo.

Monica Five Aarset has written a study of middle-class life among Oslo residents with an Indian or Pakistani background. In one of her examples, she shows how a couple has come to rely on strict (‘Protestant’) time budgets which clash with that of their parents. They have fixed bedtime hours for the children and an everyday life regulated by the clock, while the parents’ time is unstructured, unbounded and perceived, by the young, as irresponsibly fluid.

Monika Rosten’s dissertation concerns young adults in Furuset, a satellite town in Eastern Oslo, showing how they strive to create a meaningful existential space for themselves. Maneuvring between racism and exclusion, the pressures from Islamicisation and religion, the expectations of their parents and their own career choices, they develop identities which are mainly Norwegian in form (individualist), while kinship and in some cases religion continue to be important factors in their lives.

Ida Erstad’s research, finally, concerns motherhood among young Pakistani-Norwegian women in Alna borough, eastern Oslo. In majority society, the dominant view is now (but this is fairly recent) that children should be raised to become independent individuals, responsible for their own lives and capable of making their own choices. The traditional Punjabi view, by contrast, emphasises diligence and loyalty, responsibility for others and respect for the elders. Norwegian children are subjected to many strict rules when they are small, and are gradually given more personal freedom as they grow up. With the Punjabi–Norwegian children, the situation is almost the opposite; they are allowed to run freely, have no fixed bedtime hours etc. when young, but are placed under greater constraints as they grow up, understand more and are capable of performing more chores. The mothers in Erstad’s material may experience their lives as being wedged between two cultural worlds, but in practice, they mix the Norwegian and the Pakistani elements. Their main goal is for their children to succeed in Norwegian society when they grow up.

These three vignettes, scratching the surface of much larger research projects, show how people who ‘live between two cultures’ in practice create mixtures. They are neither–nor and both–and. This corpus of empirical research, collected through several years of fieldwork, also demonstrates a will and a desire among minorities to fit in, achieve full membership in society and respect from the majority, and to make their contribution to the abstract community beyond the inner circles of kinship, ethnicity and religion. There are, naturally, other stories, and whoever seeks will easily find immigrants and children of immigrants who are embittered and disillusioned of majority society; but those I have mentioned are probably more representative of Oslo’s minority population.

Seen as a whole, this research shows that concepts of personhood change when people acquire new experiences. Courses on European values and gender equality can be held quickly and cheaply, and creates an impression of determined and active politicians, but they are of little help unless the target group is also able to acquire experiences which tell them that men and women are equal and should treat each other not only with respect, but with roughly the same kind of respect. You get these experiences by living in a society where you yourself are respected and are allowed to contribute. Your concept of personhood is linked to your everyday life, and when your experiences change, so do your relationships to other people. But this takes time, it can be laborious and expensive for all involved, and for such changes to be possible, minorities must be included at all levels of society.

* * *

Returning to the young men in Cologne and their dysfunctional view of women, it is obvious that there is an urgency to the situation at the moment. Pegida are marching, and the extreme right is gloating across the continent now. For starters, the police has to sort itself out and get on with its work. It will then be necessary to enlighten the young men about the German way of life, legislation and values. But at the end of the day, they must be incorporated into social contexts which convince them that they have arrived in an individualist society where independent women are a natural component in all parts of society. Integration is based on experiences, not on courses. This also means that the currently fast flow of refugees into Europe is problematic. For this transition not to fail, they must get something useful and meaningful to do, get to know some natives and pick up the language quickly. It is the responsibility of government at all levels to make these adaptations possible. Should vast numbers of refugees end, unintegrated, on welfare, the only beneficiaries are the extreme movements on either side. They are only capable of creating distrust, divisiveness and mutual suspicion.

Thanks to Pål Norheim for inspiration.

References

Dumont, Louis (1971) Homo Hierarchicus: Essai sur le système des castes, Gallimard, Paris.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (2015) Person, time and conduct in Alna. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 15(1): 11–18.

Erstad, Ida (2015) Here, now and into the future: Child rearing among Norwegian-Pakistani mothers in Oslo, Norway. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo: Ph D dissertation.

Kurkiala, Mikael (2003) Interpreting honour killings: The story of Fadime Sahindal (1975–2002) in the Swedish press. Anthropology Today, 19(1): 6–7.

Rosten, Monika (2015) «Nest siste stasjon, linje 2» – sted, tilhørighet og unge voksne i Groruddalen. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo: Ph D dissertation.

Aarset, Monica Five (2015) Hearts and roofs. Family, belonging, and (un-) settledness among descendants of immigrants in Norway. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo: Ph D dissertation.