February 17, 2008

Extended families and materialism

I recently heard about a young man who majored in philosophy in college complaining about the materialism of the young ladies in his West Asian ethnic group here in Southern California. As I've mentioned before, mercantile minorities from West Asia are becoming ever more numerous in SoCal. They tend to be economically successful but, as the philosophy major suggested, a little boring and depressing in the narrow range in which they strive to show off their success: fancy cars, fancy decor, fancy clothes, fancy jewelry.

In contrast, easy as it is make fun of the tastes of the whiterpeople on StuffWhitePeopleLike.com, whiterpeople really do help push the envelope in their struggle for status. If somebody with more money than sense buys a $10,000 high-performance kayak, well, they are helping fund the progress of kayak technology.

Consider quintessential whiterperson Ed Begley Jr., the actor and solar-power buff whom The Simpsons portrayed driving a nonpolluting car powered solely by his "own sense of self-satisfaction." Yet, as Begley's neighbor Jerry Pournelle pointed out to me once when we were walking past Begley's house, the actor's over-investment in currently economically inefficient solar panels does provide seed capital for companies trying to invent more efficient forms of solar energy.

Anyway, I have a theory about why West Asian materialism runs in such narrow ruts. If you are Ed Begley, you want to impress other people who share your tastes and values, so you socialize primarily with other environmental fanatics who will be impressed that your house is off the power grid. But if you are from a West Asian group, there's much pressure on you to socialize mostly within your extended family and their in-laws and in-laws' in-laws. And because extended families are pretty average on average, specialized interests don't cut much ice. Instead, the common denominators are the surest road to approbation.

You just bought a state-of-the-art kayak? Ho-hum. Sure, your kayak-nut friends will be wowed, but your family? Yawn. In contrast, your cousin Aram just bought the most expensive BMW. Now, that's something that everybody in the family can be floored by!

I haven't thought about it too hard, but I think this might explain something about why nuclear family societies have tended to be more creative and dynamic than extended family societies.

A reader in Turkey comments:

BTW Steve, I think one of your commentors is right on the money when he says that intra-extended-family status fight probably cannot reach the same intensity as the inter-individual status competition in the West because the status positions are more or less fixed within extended families; that extended families follow their investment patterns to compete in status with other extended families. This is very true (from personal experience).

Which kinda takes us back to the first square that for individualistic (whiterpeople, or whiter-than-thou) status fights to emerge, we need a very homogenous, national demography so that extended-family competition subsides or doesn't yield as much status as it does in mixed-ethny environments. (Looking into this "inflection point" may yield something: when does extended-family competition in an ethnically homogenous environment reach the point of diminishing returns?)

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Have you seen Begley's show on HGTV? Hilarious. Particularly his battles with his wife over ugly gadgets he fusses around with.

I think Begley is more a gadget freak that uses ecology to justify his habit.

Ron Guhname said...

The idea that the white world is whites competing against other whites is the kind of insight you won't find anywhere but here, but as someone with a chain of command above me that goes Asian, black, and black again, it doesn't really resonate.

michael farris said...

I'd say that the extended family dynamic is not primarily about impressing your own extended families where status is usually fixed by questions of seniority. Extended families are interested in impressing other extended families.

The kayak is neither a fungible asset for the group nor a signal for other extended families that lets them know how respectable and powerful your group is (and how careful they need to be around you).

guest007 said...


I think you need to look at the cultures of the ethnic subgroups. Some of them come from countries that do not have a banking system like the U.S. and do not have the stock markets/financial markets that the U.S. does.

Whitepeople also like to invest and turn their knowledge of investments/finance into a status show (like wines, kayaks, hiking boots).

However, if you come from a cultures where American style banking does not exist, mutual funds cannot be purchase, and there is not a fidelity store from in every business district, then you put your money into things such as cars, cash, jewelry, electronics, clothes. They are tangible. They do not depend upon the honesty of others, and they do not violate any religious edicts on usury.

Anonymous said...

What's funny as hell is watching whitepeoples' obsession with taste and design collide with West Asian materialism here in Southern California, usually when an Iranian family tears down its mid-century ranch house to build some "Persian palace" monstrosity of marble, mirrors, and decorative columns that oozes over every square inch of the lot. Whitepeople cultural sensitivity pretty much goes out the window in the face of that. Of course, Iranian Jews, Armenians, and Lebanese aren't Syrian Jews-- their kids embrace American culture eagerly. The smarter ones go off to college and acculturate into slightly swarthy whitepeople, while the dumber ones turn into...Kim Kardashian and Sam Lutfi.

Leonard said...

Steve, when you write "whiterpeople really do help push the envelope in their struggle for status", it seems you are buying into whiterpeople thinking. Yes, it's true that $10k kayaks fund kayak-tech envelope pushing. Um... so what? People buying clothes and cars etc push those technologies. Why are kayaks a better thing to push development of than cars? Only a whiterperson would think that there's a clear answer there.

On the larger point, I think you may be on to something, but let me bring up the confounding variable of wealth. I suggest that wealth is the cause of whiterpeople's choice to give up on more mundane status symbols. Coming out of a culture that is much closer to real poverty than ours has been since, oh, 1945 or so, many foreigners still care more about the kind of things we did back then.

VG said...

Nice to see we've come up with a new term - whiterpeople. long overdue, that was.

agnostic said...

Does anyone else have the hunch that Whiterpeople tend to be more from Northern than Southern Europe? For one thing, many of the pretensions catalogued at SWPL are customary in Southern Europe (coffee, good food, good architecture, etc.). This makes it more likely that a Northerner will affect an interest in such things -- and the site is careful to portray every Whiterperson as a pale redhead.

Extended families also play a pretty big role in Southern Europe, and sure enough they also like flashy things.

But they're also important in innovating in the arts and sciences, both at home and where they immigrated to during the 20th C.

I think the major cause of flashiness is how much the locals value good looks in a partner, which is known to correlate highly with pathogen load. Innovation is probably caused by something else, so that these two things are independent as far as mechanism goes, but they may correlate through their relationship to latitude.

Anonymous said...

It's a matter of taste. If my relative told me they spent a huge chunk of money on a fancy car or other flashy item, I would think they are a moron. At least you can use a kayak.

I have an old advice book on business etiquette from the 1960's-70's. It advises that when meeting with Italian clients, always dress in a finely tailored suit, because they will notice if any of the "lines" are wrong or unseemly. When meeting with an Irish client, do not dress up too much or they will think you are putting on airs.

For me, the older American or Puritan sensibility works. Things should be functional and nice looking, but that is enough. Real personal quality comes in more subtle forms, like integrity, wisdom, humor, and so on.

Anonymous said...

Define West Asian.

schtomper said...

Speaking as the only Western-raised person in an Asian family, and who is constantly dismayed at my cousins' lack of taste in everything, I have to disagree with your statement about extended families being the cause. Big clannish style families consider themselves a single entity and don't really compete internally. They are more likely to compete with other families - just like how nuclear families in America try to keep up with the Joneses.

No, ethnics are horribly flashy because they're nouveau. They have recently risen from stricken poverty and flashiness is a great way to distinguish themselves from those yet to rise. Maybe after a few generations of consistent wealth, they will find more subtle ways to jostle for status. More likely, they will simply adopt Western standards of status and always remain a couple of decades behind.

bonzo said...

I think the idea that "whiterpeople" are of northern European descent* is taken for granted here.
The stereotypes of Italian or Greek people are closer to those of the "West Asians" described here, although relatively few Greeks or Italians still fit those stereotypes.

*To be specific, WASP, Scandinavian, or German more than Irish, Scots-Irish, or Slavic.

jaakkeli said...

agnostic: For one thing, many of the pretensions catalogued at SWPL are customary in Southern Europe (coffee, good food, good architecture, etc.).

Uh... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_coffee_consumption_per_capita

Top coffee drinkers:

1. Finland
2. Aruba
3. Iceland
4. Norway
5. Denmark
6. Sweden

Coffee is definitely more customary in northern Europe than anywhere else and much of it does actually come from a sort of a status competition: coffee used to be really expensive here, so offering it to guests was a sign of status; once coffee became expected on all visits, you HAD to have coffee to offer even if you were half-starving, because otherwise the guests would realize that you're poor. The governments tried to fight this with prohibitions and everything and nothing worked.

Of course, by now it's not a real way of showing off, so the local whiterpeople have those exotic blends and brews and trendy cafes. Not to mention expensive fair trade coffee.

As for architecture, they may have had some in southern Europe once, back when they hadn't invented Christianity yet. Is there some difference today? (It seems to be a universal rule that as a society gets wealthier, its buildings converge towards an universal bland-ugliness. Maybe it's a whiterpeople thing on a societal level. "We can spend millions on getting a famous architect to deliver us another monstrosity that any kid could've drawn!" Just like modern art.)

Anonymous said...

"Does anyone else have the hunch that Whiterpeople tend to be more from Northern than Southern Europe? For one thing, many of the pretensions catalogued at SWPL are customary in Southern Europe (coffee, good food, good architecture, etc.)."

This reminds me of a line from Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. It's been years since I read it, but there was a WASP character (Willie Keith's mother?) who thought listening to Italian operas was a sign of refinement and culture -- unless, of course, you were Italian.

- Fred

Anonymous said...

You don't like the materialistic asians buying high status cars? So white folks recycle and buy Prius, black folk play the inner city urban thug, Steve plays the independent thinker. WTF is wrong with allowing prople to persue the values they wish? Of course anyone can attack the values if they harm others, involve slavery or injustice, etc. But someone who earns a high salary and spends it as they wish, even if on, horrors, consumer goods, . . . Who in their right mind could allow that?

michael farris said...


High levels of coffee consumption are also associated with low levels of uncertainty avoidance (see the work of Geert Hofstede).

His idea is that there's less stress in such societies and people are more likely to need external stimulation. So rather than a cup or two in the morning, people drink coffee (or tea or some other caffeine carrier) by the potfull.

High levels of uncertainty avoidance are associated with increased alcohol consumption (for stress relief) when cultures with low uncertainty avoidance levels drink heavily it's more likely to prime the emotional pump (it allows the drinker to express emotions that would normally not be expressed).

Finland has significantly higher levels of alcohol consumption than the rest of Scandinavia (and the highest levels of uncertainty avoidance).

Stan said...

A more important topic is the extended family's effect on a person's mental health compared to people growing in nuclear families or single parent families. There seem to be fewer cases of deranged gunmen going on shooting rampages among first generation west asians.

michael farris said...

Well the extended family is (as far as I can tell) the default model of human organization which is why it's found all over the world with what amount to small local adaptations.

When politicians, religious leaders etc bemoan the weakening of family values, it's not the the nuclear family they should be aspiring to but the nuclear family they should be pointing to as an example of the breakdown of family values.

Extended families (for all their faults, which are not small in number) are very stable.
Nuclear families are pretty rare on the ground and the model appears to be inherently unstable. Once a society makes the break from extended families the nuclear family is not the logical next step, but a transition phase into ever smaller and more autonomous social units.