Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cities that are not "WEIRD"

Chicago: a WEIRD city
Much of what psychologists know about human behavior comes from experiments on college campuses. Any anthropologist will tell you that this is a very biased sample of members of the human species. Yet psychologists went along making grand generalizations about human behavior and thought on the basis of their narrow sample of U.S. undergraduates. Two years ago, anthropologist Joseph Heinrich and two colleagues published a critique of this practice (Henrich et al 2010a). They also published a brief opinion piece in the journal Nature (Henrich et al. 2010b). They note that:

"People from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) societies--and particularly American undergraduates--are some of the most psychologically unusual people on Earth" (Henrich et al 2010b: 29)

The overall thrust of their critique is that psychologists should take a wider perspective and carry out their experiments and other research on diverse peoples and cultures around the world. See also a nice post about their research by Greg Downey in the excellent blog, Neuroanthropology.

Henrich, Joseph, Stephen J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan
2010a    The Weirdest People in the World? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33:61-135.

Henrich, Jospeh, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan
2010b    Most People are not WEIRD. Nature 466:29.

So what about cities? Can one make broad generalizations about cities and urbanism after looking only a WEIRD cities? That is, cities in Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies. This  is just what many scholars tried to do in the twentieth century. Sociologist Louis Wirth, for example, published many WEIRD generalizations about cities and urban life (based mainly on Chicago) that anthropologists who worked in other countries spent decades disproving. See my earlier posts on defining cities and on spatial and social order for discussions of Wirth.

This blog is dedicated to expanding our perspectives on cities. If we want to know about urbanism, we need to look at cities across time and throughout the world. It is fine to study and pay attention to WEIRD cities like Chicago. Don't get me wrong - I've lived in Chicago, and it is a fantastic city. It has great neighborhoods, pink flamingos, and the best scholarly book about an American City. But it is a Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic city, a WEIRD city, and not all cities are like it.

Chicago is certainly part of the Wide Urban World, but so is Jakarta, Teotihuacan, Uruk, Cahokia, Chang'an, and hundreds of other cities around the world and throughout history. Now that my sabbatical is over and my lab and office have been moved to another building, its time to get back to blogging about the Wide Urban World.