What is Fair? A Cultural Perspective

What is Fair? A Cultural Perspective

In the excellent post below, Cheryl Ann MacDonald details three concepts central to the idea of fairness (make sure you watch the video!). I wanted to elaborate on some of the cultural variations of fairness.


Psychology Professor Jessica Sommerville’s research is intriguing. She looks at how babies react to fairness issues when they notice someone is the same “race” as them (http://goo.gl/HyR1HF). Children will gravitate towards people who look like them, even if others have exhibited more equitable sharing behaviour. I see this shows how children learn to associate pro-social behaviour with people who remind them of their caregivers. To put it another way, babies learn to see the behaviour of people like themselves as being fair, even if they see outsiders being more fair and equal. This goes to the heart of positive stereotypes (“our” group is really kind!), and learned bias (“our” group is more fair than others).

There was also great New York Times article by Professor Paul Bloom on how babies learn about morality (http://goo.gl/SKCtVB). He’s argued that babies are “hard-wired” to be moral, but of course socialisation matters. We know this because different cultures look at ideas of fairness in very distinct ways. Let’s start by looking at interpersonal ideas of what it means to be “fair.”

Cultural Variations

In Western nations, a 50-50 split is idealised as fair, where the fairest outcome is one where I get the same amount as you. In other societies, however, fairness is acted out differently. Anthropologist turned psychologist Joe Henrich studied how strangers divide $100 between them. In his experiments, one person makes a monetary offer and the other person can refuse it if they think the amount is too low. If they refuse, however, neither person gets any money. So most Americans tend to favour an even split; but if given a low offer, they are also more likely to reject the amount altogether to punish the other person.

Other societies find this whole notion odd and more readily take a small amount rather than punish someone else for being selfish (http://goo.gl/o6ZWRV).  

The idea of fair meaning an “equal” share also varies when we look at societal practices.


At the social level, Western democratic values about fairness are different than, say, Scandinavian social democracies. In Western societies, “negative solidarity” is a better way to describe cultural norms about fairness. For example, this is why we see public debates about public spending, such as the routine complaint in the UK: “why should public sector workers have better pensions than private sector workers?” (http://goo.gl/WRrKTd

Extending this logic, some people feel that social welfare programs, affirmative action laws and other similar services which support disadvantaged groups are unfair. For example: “Why should tax-payers help the poor? We work hard for our money! They should work harder to get what they need!”

The Western notion of fairness feeds into the cultural myth of meritocracy. This is the idea that if we work hard, we all have an equal chance of enjoying fair outcomes. This view, of course, denies the reality of what sociologists call life chances. These are social benefits and disadvantages that we’re born into by virtue of our socio-economic background.

Institutional disadvantages maintain inequality. We don’t all start off from the same point, so the idea that we should all be treated fairly is hard to achieve without social intervention.

This is something we should teach children when we tell them about fairness.

#sociology   #psychology   #anthropology   #socialscience  

Originally shared by Cheryl Ann MacDonald

The Concept of Fairness

For centuries, all leading philosophers and social thinkers have pursued  the concept of fairness that has never gone out of fashion.

In recent years, science joins the engagement; the conquest for fairness has greatly expanded, enveloping disciplines conventionally considered marginal for the topic, including, psychology, sociology, biology, neuroscience, anthropology, and economics.

Three distinct concepts of fairness

〓  Fairness as social justice. People have accountability to one another, and the more one has, the more society demands from that person to sacrifice for the common good. Responsibility and compassion plays a role in the calculation.

 〓  Fairness as being a personal freedom. People get what they deserve. If someone works vigorously, he or she will have success and receiving nothing if it is not earned.

〓 Fairness as being an equal opportunity of outcome. Everything is equal, for example, everyone pays the same price for an entrance to the museum. No one has more than another.

Dr. Sarah Brosnan of Georgia State Neuroscience Institute for the last decade studied behavioral responses to equal versus unequal reward primates.

This research explains how brown capuchin monkeys became angry and agitated refusing to perform a task when another received a perceived superior reward for that same task. Her thoughts are that Human sense of fairness evolved to favor long-term cooperation For the entire study http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140918141151.htm

This entertaining video by Frans de Waal explains moral behavior in animals. Two Monkeys Were Paid Unequally: Excerpt from Frans de Waal’s TED Talk

In 25 minutes, I’ll be co-hosting a discussion with Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe for STEM Women on G+.

In 25 minutes, I’ll be co-hosting a discussion with Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe for STEM Women on G+. We interview physical anthropologist Erin Kane who has recently returned from doing fieldwork in Cote d’Ivoire where she was studying monkey behaviour. She’ll tell us about her research and her inspired career path as a woman scientist. 

We’ll also talk about a recent study that finds 59% of anthropologists face sexual harassment in the field. Women are three times at risk, and over half of the harassment comes from senior researchers on junior women. Erin will talk about how we might increase women’s safety in the field. So much to talk about! You can leave your questions on the event page below or live tweet  @STEMWomen using #stemwomen 

The video will be available on YouTube right after the event!

#socialscience   #anthropology   #stemwomen   #stem  

Originally shared by STEM Women on G+

Join us for a STEM Women HOA as we speak to  Erin Kane on her career as a primatologist. Erin is a graduate student in physical anthropology who recently returned to Ohio after an extended field trip. She will talk to us about her recent experiences in the field working with Diana monkeys, her exciting career path as a woman in STEM, what inspires her, and why supporting women in STEM is important. 

This HOA will be hosted by Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe  and Dr Zuleyka Zevallos   and you can tune in on Sunday May 25th at 4.30 PM Central/ 10.30PM UK. The hangout will be available for viewing on our YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/stemwomen) after the event.

Sustainable Growth is a Human Right

This post focuses on a 2013 United Nations  report on population trends to 2050. Our planet will be home to 9.3 billion people by then, which raises various ecological, humanitarian and sustainable planning issues. The UN argues that sustainable growth is a matter of human rights.

Continue reading Sustainable Growth is a Human Right

Colonialist Categorisation of ‘Tribes’

Stylised drawing of a Tausug family standing in front of their home in black and white

The concept of a “tribe” reflects how some Indigenous groups think of themselves in some parts of the world. At the same time, this term has also been used by researchers (such as anthropologists and sociologists) as well as state forces who wish to categorise groups into ethnic hierarchies that reflect colonialist ideas. Western governments rely on the label ‘tribe’ to classify groups unfamiliar to them, especially during political conflicts. In its latter use, when the term is imposed rather than fitting the subjective reality of individuals, this classification can be problematic. My post focuses only on the latter categorisation not on Indigenous or other people who identify with a tribe.

When the term “tribe” is imposed, especially during times of political conflict, war and colonisation, it is often muddled up with notions of culture, language, religion and ethnic identity. The notion of tribe hides these overlapping but distinct social relations. It makes social groups seem as if they fit into neat groups, but in reality, the imposed concept of tribes has led to many policy problems.

Let’s take a look at the complex identities of the Tausug and how the notion of ‘tribe,’ as imposed by Spanish and American colonialists, at different points in time, is problematic. Continue reading Colonialist Categorisation of ‘Tribes’

Gender and the Study of Scientists at Sea

I started watching this 2012 UK documentary series a couple of nights a go, Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey. It was an interesting look at the Earth’s orbit as well as extreme weather patterns. I especially enjoyed seeing a science show hosted by women. Co-presenter Dr Helen Czerski discussed science with great passion. Reading more about Czerski’s research led to other interesting projects about women in science, science education and social scientists who study other scientists at sea. 

Continue reading Gender and the Study of Scientists at Sea

Memory, Time and Habitus

On Google+, M. Laura Moazedi shared a post on the connection between memory and movement. She discusses chronesthesia, the process by which we ‘travel through time mentally.’ Aging and mental illness have an impact on our sensory perception and memories associated with the past and present. In a healthy state, remembering the past affects our bodily movements and sense of space. How might this link with the sociological concept of habitus?

Continue reading Memory, Time and Habitus

Hangout with Scientists on Google Plus

Want to learn more about what other scientists on Google+ are doing? Check out the Science Engager Circle on our Science on Google+ community. I curate the social science stream! Read an interesting and lively discussion about different research projects and the types of Googel Hangouts people are interested in as part of our community. You can still contribute to the conversation by telling us about your research. If you’re a scientist, add your name to our database to be included in discipline-specific circles that are shared by our community.

Sexual Harassment in Anthropology

A preliminary survey of 98 women and 23 male anthropologists finds 30% have been verbally abused whilst carrying out field work. A further 63% of women and 39% of men have faced sexualised comments in the field and 21% of women have been physically harassed – mostly by senior researchers in their field team. The study is being extended as more field researchers come forward and share their stories.

One of the study’s researchers, Professor Kathryn Clancy, says that as more people complete the survey, it is apparent that sexual abuse in the field is more common, but women researchers do not speak up fearing the consequences on their academic careers:

“Taken together, these factors result in a particularly vulnerable population of victims and witnesses powerless to intervene. As a discipline, we need to recognize and remedy that an appreciable non-zero number of our junior colleagues, particularly women, are having to endure harassment and a hostile work environment in order to be scientists.”

Divorce, Parenting and Drug Use

This is the worst use of science I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. Oxford ethicist Brian Earp argues that couples should use the drug ecstasy to help protect the “adult pair bond” for the sake of their children. He incorrectly draws upon anthropology and evolution to make his case. Encouraging open debate about drug use and questioning the deviance and stigma attached to it is aligned with anthropology and social science principles in general. However, arguing that ecstasy is the answer to parenting and relationship problems is highly problematic.

Social science has shown that parents divorcing is not detrimental to children per se – the psychological damage is a result of parents adopting poor conflict resolution strategies. Pamela Kinner published a robust review of the literature and she conducted studies of divorced children which shows this is the case. Read Kinner’s Australian research: