July 10, 2014


Clash! How to Thrive in a Multicultural World. By Hazel Rose Markus, Ph.D., and Alana Conner, Ph.D. Plume. $17.

     One of the many intriguing elements of recent 20-year retrospectives on the murder trial of O.J. Simpson was the statement by some blacks that even though they knew Simpson was guilty, they nevertheless celebrated his acquittal because it made them feel that something had been thrown back in the face of white justice, which had treated blacks so unfairly for so long. Other people could be forgiven for finding this reaction bizarre, if not monstrous: a murderer escapes punishment, and that is a good thing for everyone who shares his skin color? But this is precisely the sort of multicultural issue that makes modern life seem so eternally, increasingly complicated, with minefields in just about every social, business, governmental and religious context. Stanford Ph.D.’s Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner tackle this sort of complexity (not the O.J. Simpson one specifically, but plenty of others) in Clash! How to Thrive in a Multicultural World, which – as its title implies – is intended not merely to analyze a situation but to show readers how to handle it. The descriptive portion of the book turns almost entirely on the authors’ identification of what they call two “styles of self,” the independent (“individual, unique, influencing, free, equal [yet great!]”) and the interdependent (“relational, similar, adjusting, rooted, ranked”). Of course, each person is a blend of independent and interdependent elements, but the point made by Markus and Conner is that one approach or the other tends to dominate in people’s overall worldview and in specific elements of their lives. And it is the clash of dominations that translates into larger clashes among races, religions, political viewpoints and more.

     Clash! is about as wide-ranging as it is possible for a book of this sort to be, examining issues of gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic factors, U.S. regional cultures, faith, the workplace, and the global North and South. Extensively researched (and rather unnecessarily prone to talking in academic jargon, as if doing so helps to communicate the seriousness of the material), the book makes assertions that would seem to be overstated opinions if they were not so meticulously backed up: “Men are more aggressive,” for example, and “women more often display an interdependent self.” In fact, some of these assertions will make readers uncomfortable, precisely because they sound like clichés and therefore seem to encourage biased thinking. But a cliché becomes one largely because of the kernel of truth at its core, and Markus and Conner offer plenty of studies that show those truth kernels in the center of a great deal of thinking. They state, to cite one example among many, that “the business world is home to more independent selves…[while] the nonprofit and government sectors hone more interdependent  culture cycles.”

     Seeing the entire world, including each individual within it, in independent/interdependent terms is, of course, a vast oversimplification. But like many such ways of simplifying a complex subject (think of Freud’s concept of the id, ego and superego, for example), the descriptive approach of Markus and Conner can be valuable if it leads to prescriptive recommendations that produce benefits to individuals, groups, society at large, or all of the above. Here the authors make a number of suggestions that sound very good indeed but would, in the real world, be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to put into practice. On the personal level of race, for example, they say that “making a friend of another race…is a great way for individuals to break down racial and ethnic barriers” and that “educating ourselves about race, ethnicity, and discrimination is another way to keep the conversation flowing.” Their backup for these statements, though, comes from studies done under controlled conditions, using carefully chosen subjects (white and Latino college students brought together by researchers, for example); implementing the notions in everyday life is another matter. In terms of becoming better educated about race, the authors approvingly cite performance artist damali ayo (who does not capitalize her name) for her recommendation that whites acknowledge “very real present-day racism” and “notice where those practices continue and where you participate in them.” Endorsement by these Stanford professors is all well and good, but on what basis, for what reasons, would they expect whites to accept racism they may genuinely not see and then admit themselves complicit in it? Similarly, Markus and Conner say clashes among business, nonprofit and government groups can be overcome: “For their part, businesses need to brush up on the basics of interdependence and focus more on their relationships, both with their partners and within their organizational walls,” while for nonprofits, “a strong dose of independence could help them speak up for themselves and their beneficiaries,” and governments “need more independence to take risks, tolerate failure, and reward innovation.”

     In Utopia, all this would be reasonable – all this and more, for there is a lot of it in Clash! What Markus and Conner overlook, however, is the extent to which – within their own model – conflicts among institutions are bound to be perpetuated because of the relationship between independence and interdependence of the people who, collectively, make up those institutions. In other words, people with a strong streak of independence and risk tolerance are far more likely to go into business than into government, while those seeking safety, interdependence and few of the risks that inevitably accompany attempts at innovation are far more likely to seek out government work. Thus, even within the model that Markus and Conner themselves propound, their proposed solutions fall short, and indeed must fall short to the extent that the model itself is accurate.

     This does not mean that readers can do nothing but despair while reading this book or have no choice but to assume that everything in modern life is doomed forever to Clash! It does mean, however, that the careful and well-thought-out analysis by Markus and Conner is far more valuable than the recommendations the authors make about implementing solutions based on their findings. Clash! is worth reading for its analysis and perspective on multiple issues of modern life, both great and small; but readers seeking to improve communications (their own, their businesses’, their religion’s, etc.) will have to find more-practical ways to do so than those offered by Markus and Conner with so much good will and so much naïveté.

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