Monday, May 19, 2014

Wheat and industrialization?

Food historian Rachel Laudan has a nice blog post on a recent article from Science, "Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture", by T. Talhelm, X. Zhang, S. Oishi, C. Shimin, D. Duan, X. Lan, and S. Kitayama. (This kind of work is a close relative of "legal origins" scholarship.) To me Laudan's critiques are a good example of how good humanities thinking is critically valuable in this age of supposed reverence for numbers and the social sciences (a claim which could use some historicizing itself). The article's abstract explains:
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. 
After making the point that recent scholarship in many fields casts doubt on supposed different ways of thinking in the East and West, Laudan goes on to question these categories:
File:Woman harvesting wheat, Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh, India ggia version.jpg
Woman harvesting wheat,
Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh, India
West and East seem incredibly problematic categories.  The authors tend to use the West as a synonym for Europe (and, I presume, European settlement colonies such as the US, Canada, and Australasia, though whether the former Iberian empires would count as western is not addressed). Japan and Korea, both with modern economies, remain according to the psychologists more holistic than might be expected.
India, with a similar wheat/rice split is mentioned as a possible test case.
And the Middle East, a wheat area, is left unmentioned.
Laudan goes on to raise some additional questions about the article's commentator's claim that “wheat farming may contribute to explaining the origins . . . of the industrial revolution”:
What about millets and maize in China? Not to mention root crops? What about the fact that China was on a par with the West until the late eighteenth century?  What about the fact that its most economically dynamic area was the lower Yangtze Valley in rice country. What about the industrialization of Japan that was more or less simultaneous with the West?  And when Japan was still relying heavily on root crops in farming? What about the other Western staple crops (mentioned in passing as being barley similar to wheat).  What about maize in the industrializing United States? What about Asian Americans?

1 comment:

  1. Good points. And what about maize and potatoes in pre-Columbian Americas? Is the industrial revolution the only significant cultural advance explained by the availability of storable staple foods? Is there something unique about industrialization vs. other developments that led to urbanity, division of labor, etc. in preindustrial societies?