Saturday, October 04, 2008

Hard-Wired (by Phila)

A new paper in the Journal of Health Organisation and Management allegedly explains "why your boss is white, middle-class and a show-off."
Prehistoric behaviours, such as male domination, protecting what is perceived as their "turf" and ostracising those who do not agree with the group is more commonplace in everyday work situations than many of us want to accept, according to the research which was carried out in hospitals.

"This tribal culture is similar to what we would have seen in hunter gather bands on the savannah in southern Africa," says the author of the paper, Professor Jeffrey Braithwaite, from UNSW's Institute for Health Innovation.
And that, gentlemen, is why your boss is white, middle-class, and a show-off.

Braithwaite goes on to explain the mechanisms at work:
"Groups were territorial in the past because it helped them survive. If you weren't in a tight band, you didn't get to pass on your genes," he says. "Such tribalism is not necessary in the same way now, yet we still have those characteristics because they have evolved over two million years.

"It's a surprise just how hard-wired this behaviour is," says Professor Braithwaite.
I could make the usual objections to using a hypothesis about the past as evidence for a hypothesis about the present -- and vice versa -- but I'd rather focus on the title of this press release. By themselves, neither tribalism nor territoriality nor male dominance can explain why "your boss" is white or middle class; the process by which a specific group comes to dominate others is more complex than that, obviously. And in human societies, part of that process has to do with what can be presented as fact by means of scientific authority.

With that in mind, note that the phrase "your boss is white" communicates a number of assumptions about this journal's readers as well as their bosses (while saying very little about the actual content of a paper whose author casually compares African tribal culture to modern, multiracial healthcare facilities).

If you're going to boil our problems down to tribalism, you should probably acknowledge the role of tribalism in constructing the "objective" vantage point from which you seek to explain other people's actions. Which might mean looking a little more closely at how the racial and economic logic of domination can persist in something as simple as the title of an academic press release (to say nothing of the extent to which words like "hard-wired" and "necessary" work to perpetuate and disguise the domination you hoped to dissect).

Braithwaite says that "we need to stop being simplistic and realise that changing behaviours and encouraging teamwork is much harder than we think." No doubt. But I'm not sure that comparing white social and economic dominance to African tribalism, and then explaining both in terms of reproductive fitness, is the way to go about it. Certain inequalities may have had their origin in prehistoric conditions, but centuries of religion and philosophy and art and science have aimed at justifying and eternalizing them. The failure to be conscious at all times of this tradition is anything but objective.