Status Quo

OK Maybe it’s not status. It’s certainly not a theory.

If it were a theory, in the scientific sense, we would measure its success by its ability to predict results. A theory for predicting Kenyan behaviour was never my intention. And by presenting it here as if that’s what it was, I was bound to cause offence, especially among Kenyans who would thereby be likened to experimental creatures whose behaviour could be predicted like so many cellular automata when subjected to the superior intellect of a doctor of, what was it again? Sociology? Uh-huh. Theoretical computer science. What it was about, really, was making sense of the bewildering behaviour that I encounter here through experience and anecdote.

Still, I make no apology for it. Not even for how I presented it. Since no offence was intended, any taken might reflect a willingness on the part of the offended to interpret my words cruelly. If I were spiteful I might call that bad attitude. One thing that six years of studying subjectivity in software design has taught me is that there are many different ways of looking at everything. Here comes another one:

Following my invitation for some of my readers with experience of East Asian countries to talk to me about Face and how it may be preserved, lost threatened, etc., nothing much happened. One good and wise Chinese friend wrote to me privately and declined to answer the question on the excellent basis that she feels she doesn’t have an adequate and fare explanation and she fears that allowing people to make their own judgements based on inadequate information might be harmful. A subtle and kind warning to me, perhaps, about the dangers of making theories based on anecdotes supported by generalisation and exaggeration; one that I intend to completely ignore.

Having been thus declined, I decided that I would gather some intelligence on the subject of Face myself using the timelessly unreliable and scientifically uncredited method of searching on Google. I found out, from sources such as, that cultures where Face is important are sometimes known as High Context and those where it is less important, as Low Context and thus a society may be classified according to its position on a context scale. There are numerous qualifications to this approach along the lines that you can’t, really, put a society in a fixed point on the scale because any one might exhibit both high and low Context characteristics when observed at different scales or in different aspects. So seeking to position my host culture with respect to such a scale might me just as divisive as making up my own ‘theories’. The benefit of the approach, however, is that it provides another way to think about the issues and, possibly, to explain the otherwise bewildering.

Context, in this context, seems to mean the people who surround and interact with the individual and the relationships among them. This includes how the individual is viewed including their place in a social hierarchy, which we might call status. 😛

In low context societies the freedom of the individual is a core value and political and social ethics are often built around the notion of equality. Such societies are also known as individualistic.

In high context societies collective interests are valued over those of the individual and political and social ethics are often built around traditions and social consensus. Such societies are also known as collectivist.

Collectivist societies encourage consensus and opinions may be acquired or influenced by membership of groups such as families, clans, tribes or companies. Maintaining harmony is valued and consequently communication may be subtle and indirect. Verbal communication may be accompanied by non-verbal cues or ritual and direct confrontations, such as might arise from contradictory opinions, is avoided. This is sometimes called high-context communication.

Individualistic societies encourage one to form and own opinions. Voicing opinions, even controversial ones, is admired as a sign of strength and honesty. Consequently communication tends to be direct and matter-of-fact, contradictions and disagreements may occur and are considered educational. This is sometimes called low-context communication.

The two kinds of society are also said to differ in the moral forces that affect behaviour: personal guilt in individualistic ones, public shame in collectivist ones. Humiliation in front of one’s group seems to be, in an abstract sense, what comprises loosing face.

So it seems likely that my host culture is a high-context one whereas my native one is low-context. One website I found published numerical results of surveys carried out in various parts of the world that attempt to position various cultures in a number of dimensions including the individual ? collectivist one. Unfortunately, it seems that there is more money available to fund such research in Europe and East Asia than in East Africa. Remember that the main customers of this sort of intelligence are those who want to become effective international negotiators; maybe there are more and more important deals to clinch in China at the moment than there are in Kenya.

I’ve collected some of the data by squinting at little graphs on web pages — I bet you have to pay big bucks to get the full results ? and present them here, all figures approximate and uncalibrated:

Axis World Average UK E. Africa*
Power Distance 52 30 64
Uncertainty Avoidance 60 30 52
Individualism 40 85 27
Long Term Outlook 42 20 20
Masculinity 48 61 41

*E. Africa figures were gathered in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethopia and Zambia.

I’m not fully sure what this tells us apart from that there are differences and the Individualism axis has the greatest difference. According to how I read these numbers, the figures for the Masculinity axis mean that those East African countries are more feminine than the UK. Reading again the summary of differences between masculine and feminine I recognise ways in which this is true and also ways in which it is completely false.

Here are what some of the other dimensions signify:

Power Distance measures the spread in levels of power between the powerful and powerless in society. The larger the distance, the more such differences are expected and considered normal.

Uncertainty Avoidance measures the tendency of people to avoid contradictory or inconclusive situations. High uncertainty avoidance can lead to people making stuff up and believing it if they don’t know the answer. It also makes societies resistant to change and new ideas.

Long Term Outlook measures the tendancy of a society to value tradition. Lower values here can indicate more flexibility to accept change and higher values more tendancy to cling to tradition.


  1. Munuve Says:

    Thank you for your response and this new entry(Status Quo). To answer your question, yes I am in the US currently working as a research scientist in advancement of military medicine as a contractor with the US Dept. of Defense here in Washington DC. My experience in teaching was a short one including at a small computer college in Tala(I doubt it still exists) while going to Univ. of Nairobi’s Veterinary School.
    I must comment you for documenting your observations there: That is something I was too lazy to do when I came to this country in 2001. Curiosity in other cultures(although the USA does not exactly have a universal one) plus prior exposure through western education and mass media helped me acclimatise quickly. I still miss Nguluni and do come home frequently for holidays.
    I don’t take (or think we onbehalf of your host society in Tala or Kenya in general) offense in you trying to explain the bewildering behavior. Additionally, I sincerely hope that our/my contribution or remarks do not inhibit you from expressing your feelings and/or opinions here(your blog). I trust that if you were spiteful, you would have found a better location to volunteer. Afterall, the fatique from dealing with what one dislikes/hates daily is not exactly fun or something we actively seek.
    I chose the phrase "exchange experiences" because, like you, I don’t think most NGOs in Kenya do much to improve the problematic areas they address. That is not to say they don’t intend to or that they don’t try. Analysis of their overall approach, challenges on the ground and evaluation of their perfomance is a digression and probably another day’s discussion.
    To apply your literature search findings in modern Kenya, I would say both contexts(individualistic and collectivist) apply in pockets across the country depending on where you are where the key determinant is how "modernised" they are. The Maasai lad in rural Kajiado herding cattle (that are owned collectively by the clan or extended family) is in a different context from Kamau who is running a posho mill that he owns in Tala or the Kenyan Indian in Kisumu.

  2. Mark Says:

    Thanks for that quick comment and for those answers. What’s millitary medicine? My mind moves from M*A*S*H to germ warfare.

    As you have pointed out, nowhere really has a universal culture. And there are different aspects from which we may view each individual. Kamau may have a more self-centred view of his personal aseets than the massai lad, but his social behaviour might still be moderated by a desire to meet the expectations of his own extended family. He might return home regularly to visit his family, he might avoid voicing opinions that contradict those of this father. I can see the possibility of a larger difference between him and Mark, the Lowestoft lad, who left home at 18 to study IT at a polytechnic and whose most frequent visits home were to deal withe the logistics of arranging for his sick mother to go into a nursing home.

    I don’t think we really have mucy to learn from those fitures, gathered from many countries. But I have found it interesting that such scales exist and they provide me with fresh mental apparatus for dealing with my day-to-day experiences here.

    Its a shame you’ve not documented your own process of adaptation to a different culture as I’d be very pleased to hear stories of it.

    I agree that the approaches of NGOs and their effectiveness would be a good topic for another discussion. But I don’t know where to start. My experiences of them are very sketchy (Though I have a few juicy anecdotes).

  3. Munuve Says:

    Thanks. Military medicine simple means conventional medicine modified to fit the war/battlefield challenges. Its mostly trauma and hemorrhagic shock problems.
    I like your humor there(comparing the Maasai and yourself). Talking of which, why do you/your people send their aged relatives to nursing homes? How do the "victims" feel about that? My Mum would certainly feel rejected.
    I was actually planning on documenting my american experiences by writing a book or sorts( I now think a blog like this would have been a good way to keep notes) but when I looked closely, alot of those same observations and responses have already been documented in books by other people.

  4. Mark Says:

    I mentioned the nursing home deliberately because I have heard, many times, both from Kenyans and other Africans make the observation that the habbit of some western cultures to put their elderly relatives into care is somewhere between uncaring and barbaric. This is, I suspect, precisely the kind of bewilderment I have been talking about but seen from the other side. It seems odd when seen from the perspective of a culture where it would be unthinkable. I suspect that for those from such a culture it is hard to see any justification for it. But the justification is based on different values; different benefits are weighed differently due to those different value systems. This stuff runs deep which is why I struggle so much with it.

    In a culture where the young are reveared for their strength, vigor and capacity for forward thikning (as opposed to one where the old are reveared for their wisdom and authority), where the needs of the individual outweigh those of the family, and where financial situations allow for monitory (though not emotional) support to be provided by financial instruments such as annuities and insurance policies (as opposed to one where lower cashflow makes such instruments unaffordable) the necessary institutions (nursing homes) develop to fulfill a need that simply would not exist in the ‘alternative’ culture I have hinted at.

    I don’t intend this as a justification. I am talking about these things making any kind of sense, rather than their being "right" or "good". As to "why" we do it, the best I can offer is that we do it because it makes sense (remember that that sense is not objective, it is the result of weighing options by a certain value system). While I imagine my mum might have felt deeply sad and afraid that she had enterd a stage of life where she could not care for herself and there was nobody at home who could offer that care either, I doubt if she actually resented me and my siblings for choosing to provide that necessary care in the way we did.

    I think that until I started to travel I could hardly conceive that such different value systems could even exist. Until then it would have been impossible for me to make sense of behaviour where issues or personal status and relationships are placed over efficiency and utiility.

    Even now I still spit and swear with rage sometimes at the BBC World Service "I love Africa" competition entries. Someone says "I love Africa because blah blah blah" and I shout at my radio "That’s because you are a narrow minded biggot" (That’s just how I get my kicks :laugh: ). These competition entries are, necessarily, personal and subjective. Some of them come from people who have moved away from their continent and who pine for what it has to offer that their new host countries do no. Others, however, seem never to have seen beyond the the next hill and they rejoice in their parochial peculiarity.

    Slowly, however, I am developing a model of an alternative value set. One that could have developed in a high context society. Though it is not mine, like a set of overalls provided by an employer, I can slip it on now and then and it keeps me safe from some of the shit that might stick to me otherwise.

  5. Munuve Says:

    I agree totally. Alot of people that want to visit have a very romantisized view of Africa in general. That can be said of Africans who want to come here or Britain. To say the obvious, travelling is education in itself. Depending on perspective(I am not trying to get into the relativism paradigm) people are the same everywhere yet so different. I notice from your next entry, that you are counting(or not) the remaining days; hopefully Tala/Kenya has not turned to be intolerable. Then again, I do have days like that when I just want to be in Nguluni. Have a fabulous weekend and continue to put up observations and interpretations un-inhibited however controversial. They make good discussion. That way we learn from one another.

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