I started on Richard E. Nisbett’s “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why” with scepticism, because attempts to generalise “Asians” or “Westerners” oftentimes result in essentialised representations of both groups of persons, which is contrary to their heterogeneity (more precisely too, it should be noted, that most of the examples are of East Asians – Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans – and Americans). Nisbett, does acknowledge in his preface that “the cultures and subcultures of the East differ as dramatically from one another as do those of the West”, but that is unlikely to appease many who may disagree with his thesis that “Easterners and Westerners have fundamentally different ways of seeing themselves and the social world” (and also, that “the social organisation and practices of modern Asians resemble those of the ancient Chinese and [those] of modern Europeans resemble those of the ancient Greeks”).
Even so, few would disagree that these two groups are likely to display some observed differences: “In fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world, in the focus of attention, in the skills necessary to perceive relationships and to discern objects in a complex environment, in the character of causal attribution, in the tendency to organise the world categorically or relationally, and in the inclination to use rules”. At times, however, it feels like the writer stared with concepts or conclusions in mind – primarily that of the presumed dichotomy between the “East” and the “West”, over other socio-economic or demographic dimensions – before pulling different evidence or running different experiments to prove these concepts or conclusions. In this vein, explanations for the observed differences in the first two chapters are less convincing, and between chapters three and seven the surveys and experiments could have been evaluated more rigorously.
In the final chapter, Nisbett answers the “so what?” question, though the attempt is a little garbled. There might have been broader implications for philosophy and social or cultural psychology, yet if so these insights are likely to be lost on the average reader, like myself. From the poorly supported assertion that “very different systems of perception and thought exist[,] and have existed for thousands of years” in the beginning, to the seemingly obvious speculation or conclusion that cultures will eventually converge and that “East and West may contribute to a blended world where social and cognitive aspects of both regions are represented but transformed”, “The Geography of Thought” was unfortunately, for me, a disappointing read.