In this post we’ll continue the theme from last week’s post, delving into the social psychology of U.S. American “peachiness” — the relative shallowness of many U.S. American social ties.
In 1971, anthropologist Francis Hsu published the intimidatingly titled “Psychosocial Homeostasis and Jen: Conceptual Tools for Advancing Psychological Anthropology” (American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 73, No. 1, pp. 23-44). In the essay he sketches out a model for understanding differences between the psychologies of Chinese people and Westerners.
He uses this image (p. 25) to make his point:
Think of the diagram as representing different “spheres” of one’s psychological and social life, all the way from the deepest, most hidden unconscious processes, all the way out to the entire world. Hsu places special emphasis on Layer 3:
The need for Layer 3 is literally as important as his requirement for food, water and air. This is what basically gives the individual his sense of well being. Sudden loss of inhabitants in Layer 3 may be so traumatic as to lead to aimlessness and to suicide. (p. 29)
Hsu goes on to claim that through the development of intimate family ties, the Chinese have an abundance of Layer 3 companions, leading to “psychosocial homeostasis” — a state of relative stability and contentment.
He contrasts this with Westerners, whom he sees as having few people in their Layer 3. Instead, most Westerners have a relatively rich Layer 1 and Layer 2, and they will recruit people into their Layer 3. The problem is that these relationships are naturally unstable; as a result, Westerners have difficulty populating their Layer 3, leading to a general lack of psychosocial homeostasis. Hsu claims many effects of this, including the Western need to conquer.
While the claims may be a bit grandiose, I’ve found this a useful framework. What I like most about Hsu’s model is that it adds depth to a phenomenon that many people observed as a frequent cultural behavior — in this case a U.S. American cultural behavior.
It also goes beyond a typical division of “East” and “West” into “collectivist” and “individualist.” It’s not just that “Chinese are group-minded.” It’s more nuanced than that, and Hsu shows us how. The model also seems to explain a number of Chinese behaviors that I found confusing when I first arrived in China. I could never understand why, for instance, nobody seemed to do anything alone. Didn’t they value their personal time? And why wouldn’t they leave me alone when I was shooting baskets late in the evening? I deduced that for the Chinese, “alone” meant “lonely.”
I also wonder how these differences might be handled by first-generation Chinese-Americans and other multicultural individuals.
The kind of awareness that Hsu’s research gives us is crucial in order for us to succeed in unfamiliar cultural environments. Specifically for U.S. Americans, we can understand our “peachiness” in the context of other, different ways of organizing ourselves socially. This, in turn, can help us work more effectively across our differences.