Respect and Disrespect: Cultural and Developmental Origins. David W. Shwalb and Barbara J. Shwalb, (eds.) San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 2006. 93 pp
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Respect and Disrespect: Cultural and Developmental Origins. David W. Shwalb and Barbara J. Shwalb, (eds.) San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 2006. 93 pp. Reviewed in conjunction with Ethos 35.4 by: Robert Ausch, Adjunct Professor of Psychology, New York University. The problem of respect comes up often in contemporary society. Today one hears parents complain that their children no longer respect them, and they are often right, just watch a few episodes of the ABC hit Supernanny. In politics, commentators frequently cite the loss of respect for politicians, a case where a powerful cynicism is more commonly conveyed. Popular singers from genres as diverse as pop and hip hop are demanding respect. Given this, a study of the cultural and developmental origins of interpersonal regard and esteem could not be timelier. Accepting a premise of growing disrespect, Shwalb and Shwalb’s fascinating monograph seeks to understand the origins of and cultural variations of forms of respect. The monograph is composed of seven chapters: an introduction, conclusion and five distinct studies by Shwalb and Shwalb and others offering both cross-cultural and developmental perspectives on respectful interpersonal relations. In the introductory chapter written by Shwalb and Shwalb, the authors argue that respect is one of the key ingredients in positive social relationships as well as a vital foundation for just societies. Furthermore, because respectful children and adolescents tend to grow up to become respectful and tolerant adults, the question of the development of respectful relations becomes an important one. The volume’s cross-cultural approach is intended to ascertain whether the increasing visibility of disrespectful social relations in the U.S. might be more widespread. Chapters on the cultural variations of respect and disrespect are packed with interesting findings. In one by Harwood, Yalçinkaya, Citlak, and Leyendecker, the authors seek to investigate the concept of respect among Turkish and Puerto Rican migrant mothers in the U.S. The study consists of interviews of first and second generation Puerto Rican and Turkish mothers. In their review of previous literature, the authors identify “proper demeanor” or respeto as being a key factor in respectful interpersonal relations in Puerto Rican culture. This demeanor is context dependent. Being a respectful child looks different in schools and in the home and as well has a strong public dimension. In Turkish culture, in contrast, prior research suggests a strong generational component to respect. Older people are traditionally objects of respect while young children are typically indulged, violations of respectful dynamics forgiven. In their interviews, the authors find evidence for all of these claims but also discover some interesting differences between Puerto Rican and Turkish participants. Turkish mothers are more likely to see respect as essential to protecting family honor and to emphasize “proper” interpersonal behaviors when raising their children. Puerto Rican mothers placed greater emphasis on mutually respectful relationships rather than ones involving an authority figure. For second generation Turkish mothers, dimensions of respect increased in importance dramatically. The authors suggest this might be related to a greater sense of alienation from the dominant culture. Thus a more authoritarian conception of respect as opposed to a more egalitarian one might be a strategy of consolidating cultural unity in relation to perceptions of a hostile dominant culture.
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In another chapter by Sugie, Shwalb, and Shwalb changes in interpersonal relations expressed among adolescents in Japan are spotlighted. The authors note that because Japanese-style Confucian ethics encourage higher-status people to protect lower-status ones, in contrast to a more authority-based and distant respect, one finds a more emotionbased and proximal conception of respect. Relations of amae or dependency are designed to generate a kind of benign-protection from superiors. Thus even in unequal relationships, respect is a two-way street as higher status individuals must be responsible for their behavior to others. However, the authors discover, expressions of scorn are also becoming more widespread among Japanese youths, indicative of a broad cultural shift in what is acceptably expressed in interpersonal relations. Another interesting study by Cohn et al. examines respect in childhood peer relations, comparing U.S. born children with Chinese born children. The authors find that both populations agreed that one must be deserving of respect. There were interesting differences however. While U.S. born children tend to define respect in terms of reciprocity—“treat others as you wish to be treated”—Chinese born children tend to define respect in terms of admiration. Furthermore, Chinese born children tend to see respect as woven into the fabric of social relations as part of the social order. For U.S. born students, obedience is the means by which one shows respect to a teacher but for Chinese children respect requires doing your duty. In other words, for the Chinese born respectful relations are less about following orders and more about embodying appropriate social relations and fulfilling one’s role in life properly. These are provocative findings and I couldn’t help wishing the authors had followed up on what they might mean for theory. What stands out from all three of the studies mentioned is that with non-US born populations respectful relations have the effect of making sure that social relations go as prescribed while also providing a foundation for broader cultural values. With the U.S. born, in contrast, respectful relations have a more voluntarist quality. Furthermore, while most of the conceptions of respect described involve relative authority, this asymmetry in the case of the U.S. born seems more arbitrary while in the case of the non-U.S. born respect for authority is grounded in a set of complementary cultural roles and values. In Shwalb and Shwalb’s chapter on developmental issues, the authors explore the development of the concepts of respect and disrespect in early and middle childhood. The study draws on Jean Piaget’s (1932) view that the concept of respect develops from an earlier “unilateral” one based in compliance and authority to a more developmentally “advanced” one grounded in mutuality and egalitarianism. The authors seek to determine whether one can find such a “compliant” variant of respect that transforms into a more “egalitarian” one by interviewing kindergarten, first, and second grade students about whether certain described behaviors are respectful. They find, in contrast to what one would expect given Piaget’s presumptions, that few of the children describe fear of punishment as the impetus for respectful behavior. The authors suggest that Piaget’s view might have been correct several generations ago, but is no longer apt today. Interestingly, these findings are in tension with the previously mentioned study by Cohen et al. that found U.S. students indicated compliance is one means to demonstrate respect.
In either case, the problem with Shwalb and Shwalb’s conclusion is that it relies on too narrow a conception of compliance, and more importantly, as was the case with Piaget, misses the emotional dynamics that “compliance,” in variegated forms, implies. The authors of this study do suggest that respect has an affective component. Other authors also establish the importance of affect. The study on Japanese youths by Sugie, Shwalb, and Shwalb notes the importance of warmth in respectful interpersonal relations. Some others highlight affective states like pride, honor, and admiration in relations of respect and disrespect. Further investigation into issues of emotional life might have led to a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between compliance and respect. For instance, psychoanalytic theory has long recognized that “compliant” forms of respect originate in childhood conflicts around desire and aggression. These dynamics center on messages young people receive that acting on some desires and communicating certain feelings, particularly those revolving around aggression can lead to the loss of parental love and care. Part of “respect” for parents comes from recognition that children are dependent and fear losing parental love and protection. Such dependency can be frustrating, generating aggression, often acted out as children, on occasion, devalue or disrespect those from whom they seek love. This is what Mahler described as the “rapprochement crisis.” Because young children do not mention fear of punishment as a reason for respecting others, does not mean that they do not know that expressions of “respect” are entailed in remaining lovable and having needs met. It also does not mean that children don’t resent this. Respect may well be centered within ambivalent relations, making it a tenuous foundation for building just societies. One of the more provocative findings across the various studies is that U.S. born children’s behavioral expressions of respect for teachers centers on obedience and rulefollowing whereas Chinese born children become more studious to show respect. A thoughtful concluding essay by Jin Li tries to get at affective components of these findings by distinguishing between an “ought-respect” and an “affective-respect.” The former, Li argues, is strongly endorsed by Western societies where respect is a rightsbased moral principle with an impersonal yet voluntary quality. The latter, which some studies found in Chinese and Japanese born students, is context-specific, arises in response to good qualities of another, and does not necessarily require mutuality. My sense is that hierarchies of status contain the ambivalence and aggression that are part of respectful interpersonal relations while also maintaining broader cultural values. In other words, conscious experiences of aggression can be destabilizing to the self and one’s sense of place in the world. In the U.S. with its more voluntarist and egalitarian vision of respectful interpersonal relations, aggressive feelings may come easier to the fore, making disrespectful interpersonal dynamics a pressing issue for childhood development and visions of societal justice. REFERENCES CITED Piaget, Jean 1932 The Moral Judgment of the Child. Orlando: Haracourt.