One of the more subtle flaws in thinking that supports unproven alternative medical approaches is the notion best described by Edward Said in his book Orientalism. Though I don’t agree with Said’s post-modernist approach in general, I see great utility in the concepts labeled by the term “orientalism.” Essentially, this term refers to a process of mythologizing and idealizing non-Western cultures and projecting our own agenda onto them, rather than trying to objectively see and understand the complex, messy reality of such cultures. Said’s focus was the Middle East, but the same process applies to indigenous cultures throughout the world.

Sometimes, orientalism takes the form of obvious prejudice, such as reference to “ignorant savages” and the like. But more often, especially among the post-modern left wing intelligentsia which so often also advocates for alternative medical approaches as “equivalent ways of knowing” alongside science, the form orientalism takes is more sophisticated. It often involves an expression of admiration for the purity or simplicity of cultures not tainted by modern scientific or political ideas or other products of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in Europe. Non-Western cultures, and people, are sanitized and seen as exotic and not polluted by the moral or intellectual conflicts that decadent imperialist Western cultures suffer from.

This, of course, is ignorant and patronizing and merely another form of racism which ignores the fundamental commonalities of human beings and human cultures as well as the complexities and conflicts that characterize non-Western societies as much as our own. But it is difficult to convince the dedicated orientalist of this since their sense of admiration for the exotic seems to them like respect rather than simple patronizing psychological projection.

Cracked.com has an entertaining, but oddly sobering piece up today on the subject which pretty much says it all:

5 Examples of Americans Thinking Foreign People are Magic

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8 Responses to Orientalism

  1. v.t. says:

    I don’t know why I never knew what kombucha was. Now I wish I still had no idea.

    The author on that piece did a great job, and the captions for the images were priceless!

  2. Rita says:

    Well, being inclined to post-modernist thought myself and also pretty much left-wing, I’d like to put in a plea for us: I don’t think this sort of thinking “also advocates for alternative medical approaches as “equivalent ways of knowing” alongside science” so much as it alerts us to the impossibility of teasing out what we accept as truth from the cultural context which produced it and the language with which we frame it. This is not anti-science, still less pro-“alternatives”, it’s more a set of tools to understand somewhat how our language-based minds construct our world. Applying the concept of cognitive dissonance a bit more thoroughly, one could say.

  3. skeptvet says:

    Well, I’m with you on the left wing, and I flirted with Post-modernism as a lit major in college, so I understand there are varieties and nuances to the approach. The problem is that while cultural relativism has value in reducing the damage done by ethnocentrism and bigotry, the same relativism is sometimes applied to all epistemological endeavors. The far right wing says science cannot identify real truth if it conflicts with scripture (hence Creationism). Unfortunately, the extreme left in Academe will often say there is no real truth, only paradigms and constructs, which are purely cultural.

    This bleeds easily into the notion that the Enlightenment project of establishing truth through reason, and the scientific methods that arose from it, are merely one of many ways of understanding the world, and that any claim this way is superior is just a form of imperialism, patriarchy, or ethnocentrism. I realize this attitude is not synonymous with all post-modernist philosophy nor with liberal politics (as you and I exemplify), but it is all too common, and it is part of why the intellectual left has not done much to defend science and Enlightenment notions of the value of reason over faith from the “Republican War on Science” and other cultural assaults on them.

    I absolutely agree that scientists are embedded in a cultural mileu tat shapes their biases, and that the methods of science arose in a specific cultural and historical context that influenced their formation. However, I also believe there is a reality independant of human beliefs and opinions, and that this reality is knowable to at least a sufficient extent that it is worthwhile attempted, with care and humility, to distinguish true from false understandings of it. I also dispute the idea that science is an inherently Western epistemologgy that can be safely ignored when talking about Eastern or African or Indigenous American or other ways of understanding the universe.

    As I often point out, antibiotics cure bacterial infections regardless of one’s beliefs, so the understandings of biology that lead to their invention and use are not “merely” cultural constructs. Whatever the cultural influences on these understandings, they represent the truth about reality in a meaningful way. So to say that teasing out our cultural biases from the actual truth is an “impossibility,” as your statement could be read to say, strikes me as going too far. Individuals may not be able to step beyond their perspective, but the method as enacted by different people over time can, I believe, find real truths. Culture and language seem to me more to limit the questions we ask and the questions we don’t rather than ultimately block us from finding true answers.

    So while I don’t mean to paint PM with too broad a brush, I find that despite the appeal of some elements of it, it carries the weight of a lot of nonsense that stands in the way of scientific understanding of the physical universe. Anyway, a fascinating and deep/complex subject which I haven’t begun to even do justice to. I’d love to get into it in more detail if you like, and I’d be interested in more of your thoughts on the subject.

  4. Rita says:

    “it alerts us to the impossibility of teasing out what we accept as truth from the cultural context which produced it and the language with which we frame it.”

    “teasing out our cultural biases from the actual truth is an “impossibility,” as your statement could be read to say, strikes me as going too far.”

    Yes, I think “impossibility” is out of place in my sentence, since it’s not really a matter of what we can or can’t do about establishing truth as trying to trace the processes followed by the human mind in our attempts to frame up an enduring picture of external reality – or at least to accept that there ARE processes between us and reality. These processes are language/culture – they differ profoundly fom place to place and, equally importantly, from time to time. For example, Foucault’s genealogical work, which focussed on shifts around the understanding of a word or concept (“madness”; “sexuality”) over long historical periods gives us an insight into how what humans accept as reality is dialectically wrought by the play of interests (and power, of course) in society and is consequently subject to change and development as opposed to being “arrived at” as at a terminus. It is the negotiated, socially-constructed nature of “truth” (rather than its definitive – or otherwise – quality) that is of interest here, and how human society produces the identities available for us to define our “selves”.
    As you so truly say, antibiotics cure bacterial infections regardless of beliefs (although placebos and e.g. optimism can also have material effects, of course). The post-modernist would be more likely to question what we mean by e.g. “cure” in this situation, and how beliefs about quality of life, definitions of illness and so forth have come to have the form they currently hold in (say) our society. Of course, many postmodernists are concerned with the effects, beliefs and identities of imperialism etc. and how these effects have been produced, but it’s unpacking these processes rather than assessing truth values in alternative belief systems – which the postmodernist would hold to have been produced in the same way, of course, that is the focus.
    Almost everyone seems to agree that there IS an external reality, but postmodernists seem to me to hold a more impressionistic, collage-type picture of how we can apprehend it than the lineal, gradual-progress one of the logical positivists, and this is useful in the scientific process (Kuhn’s community-based model of science, for example) as well as in, say, a sociological analysis. Postmodern thinking re-grounds science continually in its nature as a social and discursive activity – surely a help rather than otherwise in aiming for objectivity (even if one is doubtful that objectivity can be gained!).
    It really is, as you say a fascinating and deep subject and all too easy to caricature: witness the spoof of a postmodernist study which was innocently accepted and lauded by a prestigious journal (I can look this up if you are interested and don’t have it). You have dealt with the abuses of postmodern thought, but these, as you say yourself, are far from everything. I find the disciplines which are emerging from this type of thinking – Critical Discourse Analysis, Foucauldian genealogies, Critical Psychology – very fruitful for thinking with and I’d be delighted to carry on this discussion, but I must admit to knowing very little about the literary-art-and-architecture aspects of postmodernism, so I’ll be sitting at your feet for the literary parts, as for the veterinary!
    Many thanks for the thought-provoking reply!

  5. skeptvet says:

    Well, I’m a couple decades past my Lit Crit days, so I’m sure what I think I know about all that is pretty out-of-date. I remember spending a lot of time looking at “texts” in the larger PM sense and seeking insight into the power structures and agendas revealed by close reading of the language of literature. Of course, this approach requires a framework or conceptual structure to apply, and I have the feeling, in retrospect, that it involved a lot of imposition and projection of our own political biases and assumptions on the material. Notions of patriarchy, and white male cultural hegemony were predominant, which seem a fairly predictable outgrowth of the cultural and political historical moment. Still, I found the idea of examining how our culturally constructed worldviews a simple, obvious, yet powerful anodyne to the normal triablism and arise ethnocentrism people engage in.

    And, as I said, there is no doubt that scientists as individuals exist in a cultural context, and that the institutions and processes of science are embedded in larger cultures which influence their behavior and structure. But I see some problems with some PM attitudes towards science.

    For one thing, arguing that all epistemology involves cultural and linguistic processes that mediate between physical reality and our concept of it is self-evident, yet it doesn’t necessarily help us to make the relationship between reality and paradigm closer or more faithful. That’s not even the purpose of the analysis (which seems, honestly, to be seen as an end in itself rather than a means to an understanding which is better or truer in some sense, which for example allows more accurate manipulation of reality such as treating diseases; there is, I’m afraid, a certain self-referrential, even narcissistic tendancy in PM theory). And if the same kinds of processes mediate the understandings that underly PM theory itself as intervene between reality and concept for everything else, then how can PM theory unpack other socially-constructed understandings without simply projecting its own underlying biases? It becomes a bit of a solipsistic Matryoshka doll in which the tendancy is to throw up one’s hands and say nothing is ever knowable in any real way. Perhaps not all PM theorists slide all the way down this slope, but I’ve met some who do, and it seems a risk inherent in the nature of the approach.

    And if, as you say, the PM theorist is more interested in what is meant by “cure” than whether or not a medicine effectively cures a disease, I can see that playing right into the hands of those who say the problem with scientific medicine is that it is too reductionistic, it treats symptoms not causes, or it creates an ultimately empty illusion of health by treating diseases without “enhancing life” is some grander sense. All of these have to be viewed as legitimate critiques from at least some cultural POV, yet they all ignore the salient differences between the efficacy of scientific medicine and other medical approaches–namely that scientific medicine is far more likley to effectively cure, prevent, or ameliorate diseases than its cultural competitors.

    As you said, it is easy to charicature PM, in my opinion because of the way many leading theorists torture language to the point of obfuscation. I am not even remotely qualified to provide a rigorous analysis of the consensus stance (if there is any such thing) of postmodernist theory on the question of alternative vs science-based medicine.

    Here is an interesting discussions on the subject with a few different points of veiw represented, though heavy on the supporters of Enlightenment rationalism:


    And here is a blatant smear of PM that I have to say I heard quite sympathetically: 🙂


  6. Rita says:

    That forum discussion is very good, thanks for the link. (Such a pity Lyotard’s name always makes me see a chap in tights!). What emerges from it, and from the discussion here, is that there is a lot of support for postmodern ideas, but that there seems to be a dread of “going too far”, or, as you say “playing right into the hands of” eg.alternative medicine types. I agree that the language used by a lot of postmodernists and their supporters is appalling in point of style and very difficult to hack one’s way through, but I think that’s something one has to live with, given the slipperiness of the concepts and the fact that we are trying, in this sort of exercise, to hoist ourselves up with our own bootstraps: using language to get behind language. I’ll take some examples from the sort of disciplines I mentioned in my last post to see if I can dispel the doubts.

    One of the salient ideas in postmodern linguistics as you doubtless know is that language is dynamic, never merely descriptive: it always seeks to effect something. Conversation Analysis, for example, minutely examines the way we do things with language in conversation, every pause, hesitation, choice of word and other nuance (it suffers, of course, from the exclusion of intangible clues) revealing with remarkable success (CA tends to favour quantitaive analytical methods) how people actively construct meaning within an exchange. (a good example of the usefulness of this technique was the study (Kitzinger & Frith 1999 “Just Say “No””) of how people “do” refusals, applied to campaigns against “date rape”, turning precisely around the difference between the bald meaning of a negative and the socially evolved way negatives must be negotiated.) One of the points which presumably raises the sense of threat which seems to pervade criticism of postmodern thinking seems to me to be the desire of, let’s say, some scientifically-minded people to hang on to the idea that they are “simply” using language to delineate reality, rather than using it to convince/refute (themselves amongst others) – using it as a constructive tool – and above all in the construction of their own identity. A good example here is the interesting study (“The Construction of ME”, Mary Horton-Salway 1998) of how ME patients construct their identity and understanding around this controversial illness . Postmodern linguists and others attribute a pragmatic nature to all language use (this, by analogy with communication in other species, would seem fair enough) and it’s this nature of communication, rather than effects of the cultural context, which has to be kept in mind when we read scientific texts, or engage in scientific dialogue: the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, exemplified by the work of Harry Collins, for example, does not seek to say “oh, he or she is only asserting X as a fact because he or she is Indonesian or an ex-colonialist or whatever”, still less “homeopathy and antibiotics are just different ways of talking about illness/cures”, but rather to unpack social and psychological factors and strategies in the production/acceptance of knowledge and the settling of controversies within the scientific community – accent on community.

    It’s probably true that “alt.med.” types interpret the findings of these and similar studies as a possible justification for their shenanigans – but then they do the same with quantum mechanics and for the same reasons: there is a pretty good possibility that readers or hearers will not have done their homework, be adrift in a sea of confusing terms (this is where the impenetrability of postmodernist texts needs cleaning up) and latch on to the apparent life-raft of someone who claims to be able to apply these esoteric doctrines for their benefit.

    “How can PM theory unpack other socially-constructed understandings without simply projecting its own underlying biases? “, you ask: this is a real problem which the postmodernist thought I’ve been dealing with is read to acknowledge: some studies go so far as to include a dialogue with a dissenting voice, or even write out the “matryoshka” processes you mention. I think it’s usually taken that once the problem is acknowledged, one can proceed with a reasonable hope of fruitfulness. (CA tends to stick to quantitative analytical methods for this very reason). I suppose one either finds this cogent or one doesn’t – I’ve been sufficiently impressed with the quality of the studies mentioned above, and others of the same or similar nature to find this approach worthwhile if not an absolute clincher.

    “They all (the critiques you list of scientific medicine) ignore the salient differences between the efficacy of scientific medicine and other medical approaches–namely that scientific medicine is far more likley to effectively cure, prevent, or ameliorate diseases than its cultural competitors.” I hope I’ve expanded enough on my really superficial comment in the other post about postmodern thinking being more interested in what is meant by a “cure”. What would have been better in the critique context would have been to say that, at least the disciplines I have mentioned here would see it as their business to examine how scientists are “doing” their science, how they deal strategically with controversies, how they are constructing their identities as scientists in their social contexts and so on. They would do the same with a homeopath or a chiropractor, the point being that people use the same linguistic and psychological terms to do their business, construct their identities and negotiate their relationships regardless of the truth content: there is an excellent study (Robin Wooffitt, “Researching Psychic Practitoners”) where the strategies of the psychic are examined from the point of view of the interactional sequence, which is interesting to this discussion in two ways – first it produces quite compelling evidence that the generally held surmises about the techniques of “cold reading” leave a lot to be desired and second, no position is ever taken on the truth/falsehood value of psychic readings. To quote from Wooffitt: “Regardless of the origin of the proposed knowledge, the way in which such claims are presented to the sitters, accepted and subsequently ratified as emanating from a paranormal source, is socially organised and collaboratively produced”

    This has been a very partial answer, of course – I’ve really only dealt with those parts of postmodern thought which have their application in the disciplines I’ve used as examples and, of course, there’s a whole world of postmodernism out there!

    Thanks again for the great references – I haven’t given full refs. for the stuff I’ve mentioned here, but can easily do so if you’re interested.

  7. skeptvet says:


    Great response, thanks!

    I don’t have much to disagree with there, since I do find the study of communicative behavior itself a fascinating and productive area. I suspect PM theory privileges language over other elements of communication a bit, but that is understandale. As an ethologist (before vet school) I tended to focus on chimpanzees and other species with rich non-verbal communication, so this gave me a perspective on how evolution shapes social relationships that’s a little different from the more language-centered approaches. But language itself is such a fascinating area, that I understand one can explore it extensively without running out of gems to unearth and mysteries to unravel.

    The only comment you made which raised some hackles was the evaluation of psychics from the PM point of view. This seems exemplary of the problem I have with PM in general. While the issue examined (how the parties involve negotiate an understanding of the significance of the encouter) is a legitimate and interesting subject, it seems irresponsible on some level to study such an interaction without taking a position on the fundamental claims that underlie it.

    I can think of no aspect to the phenomenon more salient and important than the veracity of the claims which underlie it. The negotiation between psychic and customer is predicated on the understanding that something real is happening, something paranormal and beyond mere theater. While such practitioners get a legal pass on responsibility for the advice they dispense by advertising their services as “entertainment,” the reality os that most customers continue to participate because they have accepted on some level that there is more to it than this. To me this is a kind of fraud, and there is real potential for harm.

    In my own work I have seen animals’ suffering prolonged and allowed to go without amelioration because animal communicators convinced the pet owners that they had intuited the animals’ own wishes and these contradicted which I would call a more reliable, objective evaluation of the pets’ condition.

    So to focus on the collaborative construction of an ultimately untrue belief seems to miss the point, like arguing about how many angels cand ance on a pin. I can see why it would be interesting, and even offer useful insight into how communication works, but it ignroes the elephant in the room that the collaboration is founded on a lie.

    Anyway, I certainly think you’re correct in saying that there is a lot of interesting and useful stuff in PM theory, but that its excesses and insularity, as well as its generally poor communication outside “the fold,” tend to turn some of us off to it. It is insteresting and instructive to hear from a skeptic knowledgeable and generally favorably predisposed to PM, since this is not a combination I have run into much before. Thanks for the great discussion!

  8. Rita says:

    I enjoyed it immensely – I’ll stick to my guns over the business of a lot of postmodern disciplines not being the establishment of truth values: but I’d certainly be in favour of people not hijacking complex ideas to buttress appalling scams like animal communication: in your professional situation this must be a nightmare.

    Many thanks to you!

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