Science, Social Science, and Pseudoscience of Diet/Culture Thesis

Eminent food historian Rachel Laudan alerted me recently to the existence of new scholarship, cultural psychology, giving support to the idea that different basic grains gave rise to different cultures which have measurable effects at the individual level: “Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture.” The research is intriguing for its attempted rigor: From a quantitative social science perspective, they did everything right.

Cross-cultural psychologists have mostly contrasted East Asia with the West. However, this study shows that there are major psychological differences within China. We propose that a history of farming rice makes cultures more interdependent, whereas farming wheat makes cultures more independent, and these agricultural legacies continue to affect people in the modern world. We tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites and found that rice-growing southern China is more interdependent and holistic-thinking than the wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, we tested people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border and found differences that were just as large. We also find that modernization and pathogen prevalence theories do not fit the data.

There’s a problem here, though, that scientists and statisticians refer to as “prior plausibility”: it’s not enough that you can create an experiment to test for a difference, but there has to be a good reason to create the experiment in the first place. If there isn’t, then the concept of “statistically significant correlation” becomes meaningless. This is Bayesian statistics, as I understand it.

As Rachel Laudan and her commenters point out, there are good historical reasons to believe that many wheat-cultivating cultures were at least as collective-minded as rice-growing cultures are presumed to be; similarly, there’s plenty of research pointing out the individualistic and profit-oriented elements of early modern Japanese and Chinese peasant societies.

The upside of this is that it finally spurred me to pick up Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time which is often cited in these discussions. As I said on twitter, I’ve been reluctant largely because citations to it seemed mostly to be used to bolster arguments like those above: that something fundamental about rice cultivation — usually the collectivist village, as imagined in modernity — is the heart or essence of Japanese Civilization since forever, etc. What I found, as most of you know, is a fairly satisfying and subtle discussion of the way in which symbols work in cultures, with a “side dish” of historical skepticism about the actual role of rice and of agriculture. The way in which the discourse of Japan as made up of rice cultivating rural communities has obscured many elements of change over time, including the diversity of rural production, hunter-gatherer traditions, non-agricultural commoners, and the value of mobility and urbanization in modernity.1

In fact, it seems like most of the citations to Rice as Self that I’ve seen over the last ten years have been very weak ones: Ohnuki-Tierney doesn’t support the “rice creates culture” argument (at least not here; this is 20-year old scholarship, and she’s been busy since then) and I strongly suspect that the evidence doesn’t, either.

  1. I’ll admit, anthropological semiotics still feels very circular to me: the chicken-egg problem of cultural re/production, activity/agency never feels quite resolved or quite grounded.  

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  1. As an aside: I’d love to see this argument updated. Graeber’s Debt, WW Farris’s Japan to 1600 and Hanley’s Everyday Things in Premodern Japan come immediately to mind. But that may be my historian’s fixation with actual physicality and process rather than meaning.

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