Friday, 5 March 2010

Understanding three layers of a phenomenon

Brave New World (The Star)
4 March, 2010

To keep changing in a positive manner, we need to view social behaviour from the perspectives of the individual, national institutions and culture.


CHAIWAT Satha-Anand of Mahidol University in Thailand theorises that a societal phenomenon such as violence can be conceptualised in three layers: agent, structure and culture.
Agent is the individual perpetrator; structure is the institutional situation within which the act occurs, and culture is the societal norms that either condemn or condone such acts.
Only by studying all three layers does one come to a complete picture of the phenomenon in question. His study was focused on violence against children in Thailand, and how it appears to be in stark contrast to the perceived idea that the Thais are a peaceful society.
He states that of all the layers, the easiest variable to change is the agent. One can capture the perpetrator and punish him, thus removing him from the equation.
What is harder to change is structure; the laws and institutions that could have an encouraging effect on violent acts, for example, lenient punishments or corrupt judges. Still, it can be done with the requisite political will.
However, the most complex and difficult variable to consider is culture. It is an instinctive and ingrained feature of society which does not have a formalised shape (therefore making any change very hard), yet permeates thinking and attitude.
In his studies, Satha-Anand examines how, in some Thai myths, children are deemed to be property upon which great violence can be carried out for the greater good. Such myths, he suggests, are norm setting and create an attitude which may result in society not taking seriously enough the problem of violence against children.
For real change to occur, one must understand all three layers of a particular phenomenon. He does not suggest that only by fixing all three layers can society fix its problems; it is, after all, possible for a change in structure to have profound effects on agents and culture. But without understanding all three, the process will be flawed due to a lack of depth in understanding.
What I like about his theory is that it is applicable to all sorts of phenomenon, not just violence. Take, for example, corruption and racism.
As a lawyer, my tendency is, of course, to think more along the lines of structure. If there is a problem, lawyers tend to think along the lines of “can we improve the law, can we strengthen the institutions that enforce the law”. This has value but there is also a need to understand the mind-set behind the problem.
For example, I have said before that ultimately the Constitution is a document which has equality, liberty and liberal democracy as its aspiration and ideals. Yet, the way it has been interpreted by the courts appear to fly in the face of such aspirations.
Now, structurally, there appears nothing wrong with the Constitution itself. Neither is there, on the face of it, anything structurally wrong with the judiciary.
I realise the appointment of judges is a contentious issue, but it was not contentious before 1988; and the power of choice given to the executive exists in countries such as the United States without anyone questioning the independence of its Supreme Court.
The answer, therefore, must lie within the cultural milieu of the judges themselves. Ideals such as those I mentioned above do not seem to be part of their ethos any more.
Finding out why would be necessary to effect real change for, otherwise, even if there were a structural adjustment, it would do no good if the agents involved still have the cultural baggage of those from before.
This is, of course, a very narrow illustration. Broader issues can also be examined in the same way, and it is fascinating to look at these phenomenons through the prism of culture as a norm setting variable.
The legend of Hang Tuah is an interesting myth to study. The most renowned aspects of the legend revolve around machismo, fighting, and the concept of loyalty taken to the nth degree. And it is these elements of the legend that are most often alluded to in the behaviour of many in the country, politicians in particular.
But, as social commentator Farish Noor points out, that is only part of the story. The second half of the Hikayat Hang Tuah paints a very different picture of the man.
He is a diplomat, a pluralist, a linguist, and he is multicultural. How different would our situation be if these were the parts of the legend emphasised and these values, not the warlike blindly loyal narrative, had become our norms.
In conclusion, when studying the Malaysian condition, one has to bear in mind all three layers of analysis. And to keep changing in a positive manner, an understanding of all three is needed. All three can be changed.
As pointed out earlier, grappling with agents and structure is relatively simple. Culture, on the other hand, would require space for us to re-examine our norms and to discuss them openly.
In this way new norm setting can take place, either by the re-evaluation of old ones, or even the creation of new, more progressive ones.

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