Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dangerously early guesses and questions about The Triple Package

Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom author, is back with a new book, co-written by her husband. And it looks like it will be unintentionally racist and blissfully unaware of social theory.

The Triple Package comes out next month, but it's easy enough to get a sense of its argument. Some "cultural groups" are more successful than other cultural groups, and this has to do with three values - a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control - that those successful cultures share. The specific groups, they revealed in an interview with Yahoo, are Mormons, Cuban exiles, Nigerian Americans, Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, American Jews, Iranian Americans and Lebanese Americans.

Now, since it isn't out until February, I obviously haven't read it. And I don't know that I will ever read it. Because it sounds plain dumb. But, rather than claim to know what it's done wrong, I'll ask some questions that are prompted by what I have seen:
  1. Who came up with the eight "cultural groups", and how? The categories they've defined throw up some red flags. Some of her "cultural groups" are defined by religion, others by political status or country of origin, but categorical ambiguity isn't, itself, necessarily problematic - it's realistic, because that's how we self-identify. But I wonder whether the members of the groups would identify first as "Mormon" or "Lebanese", or about the particular contexts within which they'd do so. And with this kind of work, it is hilariously easy to create a homogenous group where none exists, to group people together based on your perception of their similarity, rather than on their own perception. Neither of the authors are trained sociologists, so it'd be interesting to see whether their methodology accounts for those sorts or risks.
  2. What role in their success do you attribute to American society? I don't see any indication that they're accounting for American society as a whole, much less the dominant ideologies that define success. Even if we concede, for argument's sake, that the American socio-economic system rewards these three values, the orientation feels wrong - why look at who is successful, rather than those systemic features that enable their success?
  3. That is, what about capitalism and racism? Or, put another way, you can't do this analysis without explicitly addressing the roles that capital and race (that is, whiteness) play. I don't see any mention of either of those things in the blurb on the site. For instance, your proximity to whiteness matters - there's a reason that the two white groups (alright, "Jewish Americans" are a bit more complicated than that, but I'm trying to be concise) aren't defined by their geography or nationality - it's because race matters, and the white groups aren't marked by visual difference from the American norm. Which is to say, I think it's difficult to argue that the same thing is happening to and within these groups.
  4. How is this disproving the existence of the model minority? The blurb on the site says that successful immigrant groups become less successful over time, and this disproves the model minority theory. But this looks like a misunderstanding of what a model minority is and does. The model minority is not a person or people so much as a function within in a society. It describes minority figures or groups whose success legitimates the system ("If a schlub like me can make it, anyone can...") and its unequal treatment of populations within that society ("...which means you just didn't try hard enough, you leech."). And it actually makes sense that a given group would lose their model minority status and another gain it - because that function doesn't belong on any one minority, and it'll shift. Chinese Americans have existed for 200 years; they've only been model minorities for the past few decades.
  5. When looking at immigrant communities, how did you avoid selection bias? I think there's probably a pretty simple explanation for why some of these groups are, on the whole, disproportionately successful. The blurb notes that Nigerian immigrants have a lot of PhDs, which strikes me as pretty common sense, given how immigration works. There's a selection bias at work: only the best are allowed to come to the country, so we'd expect them to do well. (And we'd expect their kids to regress to the mean.)

Ironically, I get the sense that this book, while claiming to disprove the model minority, is actually telling us what a model minority is, and who fits that definition, right now. Which would make it kind of useful, right?

Again, haven't read the book, and probably won't unless someone gives it to me and I'm struck by a mood. But, then, everything I've seen has me thinking that it probably isn't worth my time. Or yours.

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