The Problem With Pew, Part 2

June 27, 2012  5 Comments

(This post is a follow-up to the one that I wrote last week in response to the Pew study on Asian Americans. My last post was written more from a personal standpoint, while this one is more ideological.  For those who are familiar with Asian American culture, you probably understand a lot of these sentiments.  For those who are not, this is a good primer of sorts.  As I start this post, I realize that I am engaging in a lot of generalizations below.  Generalizations tend to be false…except mine, which are all true and accurate, haha.)

So, there’s this, a comprehensive study on Asian Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center. You can read the detailed report as I did, but in short, the study reveals what many people already thought they knew: that Asians value education, family, and hard work more so than the average American.  The response from the Asian American community has been pretty sharp, accusing the Pew group of re-inforcing the myth that Asians are the model minority.  I find that criticism a little puzzling – I really don’t have a problem if because of my race, people assume that I am hard-working and value family highly.  Surely that’s better than the opposite.

No, the problem that I have with the Pew study is not so much with the results but the study itself, and how it fails to take into account  critical aspects of the Asian American culture that inherently defy assessment through traditional western means, like polls and anonymous interviews.

For example, Asians are far more prone to speak in accordance with their corporate values than their individual realities.  Asian societies, until very recently, were culturally and ideologically homogeneous, with a greater degree of shared values than you would see in a Western context.  Conformity and consistency within a community is valued as much as, or perhaps even more than, individual sentiment.

And what this means is that Asians will commonly provide answers that conform to those shared values, rather than their individual opinion on a topic.  This may seem really foreign to the Western mentality, with its plethora of values and high emphasis on individual expression, characteristics that make polls a viable way of gauging opinion and perception.  But when you are a dealing with cultures that do not take into account only their individual sentiments, but their collective one as well, of course you will find results that seem to reflect greater numbers of people sharing the same sentiments, i.e. a lot of people saying that they value family highly.  It’s a shared value, which is not as common in the States.

Another critical dynamic in the Asian culture that defies simplistic assessment is that of generations.  Westerners tend to view generations by the decade in which a person is born, i.e. Baby Boomers, Gen X, or whatever crazy monikers people develop.  But generationalism for Asians, and for immigrants, is not measured so much by when you were born as much as where you were born.  You see, immigrants do not name their generations, but number them.  If a person immigrated to the United States as an adult, they are considered a 1st generation immigrant.  If a person is born in the United States, a child of that immigrant, they are considered a 2nd generation immigrant.  And if a person immigrated at a younger age and had significant exposure to both cultures, they are called 1.5 generation (at least, that’s what Koreans call it).

Now, why this is relevant to the Pew study is that as you can imagine, different generations of Asian immigrants, although racially and ethnically identical, will often have completely contrasting views when it comes to race and their relationship with larger society.  A first generation immigrant’s experience with American culture and other races will be very different from that of a second generation immigrant, who grew up with proficiency in English and familiarity with American culture and values.  To think that two people, just by virtue of their country of origin, would have identical social values is a huge assumption that reflects ignorance of the rapid cultural changes that take place in immigration.  Any study of Asian American values must be organized not simply by country of origin, but time of arrival.

A perfect example of this is that blasted little paragraph in the study about Korean American shop owners in black communities, and the antagonistic dynamic between them.  I’m not denying such a dynamic exists, but it was based on the fact that 1st generation Koreans, because of their very limited education and language skills, had very few opportunities to find employment with companies, and so tried to make a living in the only places they could afford to have a store, which was in the hood.  And if you stick a Korean immigrant who just recently emerged from a third world environment into an African American urban context, and you’re going to get misunderstandings.  Bad ones.

But the fact of the matter is that not many 2nd generations Koreans are following in their parents’ footsteps.  They are proficient in English, have an education, and are choosing to pursue other opportunities besides store ownership.  Even if they did, their cultural experiences in the States give them a radically different basis from which they will interact with the cultures around them.  So yes, perhaps a clash between 1st generation Korean immigrants and African-Americans was inevitable.  But between 2nd generation Koreans and African-Americans?  A totally different story.  But the Pew study paints the situation with a mile-wide brush, grouping all Koreans together by virtue of the fact that at one point, they came from Korea – and hey, that should be enough to understand those people, right?

Get out of here.

Thirdly, polls don’t really work well in Shame and Honor based cultures.  Many Asian cultures are shame and/or honor based, meaning that shame has historically played an important role in propagating certain values, promoting community and conformity.  This means that if you ask an Asian person how much they value family, of course they will say very very highly, because that is the answer that they are supposed to give, the right answer, the honorable one.  Now to be frank, this answer may not be the truth that they uphold in their day to day life – they may not spend very much time with their family at all, or cheat on their spouse, just like any person in any family.  But they will still answer that family is highly important to them because to say anything else would be shameful, and incorrect.  And even in a private and guarded environment such as a poll or anonymous phone call, you will still find Asians providing answers that maintain appearances.  I often find myself doing that.

Now, some people might see this as a form of deceit, and question why someone would give an ideal answer rather than a truthful one.  And I don’t really have a justification for such a mentality, other than that this is the way that Asian culture developed and was propagated while the West was still in its cultural infancy.  It’s one of my least favorite aspects of Korean culture, especially as a minister of grace.  But I would say for the record that there are equally paradoxical dynamics in any other culture as well, Western included.  No culture is free of idiosyncrasies and blind spots, many of them quite severe.

So these are just some of the dynamics that make it difficult, if not impossible, to correctly ascertain the collective beliefs and values of the Asian community through traditional western means, i.e. studies, questionnaires, polls, etc.  But here’s where my major beef lies: Western academics have long fostered the assumption that their tools of study are purely scientific and so can be applied to all situations and contexts, being founded upon universal mathematical and scientific principles.  One need only to look at the final pages of the Pew report to see that perception is important to the study, with its mathematical formulas and calculated ranges of error.  But as I kind of point out above, any endeavor that involves culture, perception, and truth is anything but mathematical or clear cut.

But that illusion of scientific rigor that the Pew study, and others like it, tries to maintain creates another illusion in turn, that the results garnered in the study are scientific as well, ironclad, calculated with mathematical precision, and should be interpreted as such.  It is at this point that these results no longer measure beliefs as much as they create and perpetuate them.  People read the study with a lax mentality, thinking, “It was in the Pew study, so it has to be true!  After all, it’s Pew!  I don’t know what Pew is, but it sure sounds reputable.”  It has to be true that all Asians value these things, it has to be true that Koreans have a negative perception of their relationships with blacks, because someone applied a math formula to the results.  To those who read such a study with an uncritical mind, which is nearly all of us, the results become truth.  Studies like this do not simply measure perceptions – they create them.

And here’s where everyone should be freaked out, whether Asian or not.  Nearly every culture possesses a dynamic that makes broad assessment difficult, if not a downright impossibility: Asian, African American, Latino, you name it.  This is in the very nature of culture itself.  But that does not stop academic groups from using their superficially precise tools to measure the immeasurable, and then broadcasting the odd results that they gather.  So be wary, because these studies may not just be imprecisely studying your community, but worse – labeling it, even foisting upon it values calculated by the well-intentioned and well-educated, but ultimately ignorant.

No thank you, Pew – I think your study’s attempt to use phone calls to accurately assess the culture of millions of people going back hundreds of years is pretty laughable.  But worse, I resent your attempt to publicize those “results” as facts, when they are not.  



Husband and Father of 4. Pastor of Peace Fellowship Church in Washington D.C. Aspiring Writer, Former Musician

5 responses to The Problem With Pew, Part 2

  1. Pastor Peter,
    This is a great post, and I think this crossed my mind in college every time I had to look up polls, reach a conclusion, and write a paper. I also think many Asian-Americans probably feel this way, but aren’t able to articulate this sentiment or consciousness as well as you have. Keep up the great writing, and I hope all is well!

    • thank you janice! i don’t think this will stop college students from using the study as a reference in papers though…

  2. Peter, I recently stumbled upon your site and read a lot of the things you wrote. In regards to racism, I think a lot of it is just people reacting to some perceived notion of loss. Like their going to loss their jobs or home or career or even identity. Having discussed this with a group of HS students, I’ve picked up on a few things. Asians in general feel like they have to conform to a standard in order to succeed. Like if they don’t act a certain way or dress or do what everyone else is doing..etc. White students are less concerned with being replaced, but rather a “shadow” of a person they don’t know. For example, Christianity in Korea. Some of the “other” Asian kids find it an amusing topic of arguments. While the white or black students don’t understand why it has become so mainstream in Korea, but no where else in Asia.

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