Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Geography of Bliss

I wanted to throw this book in a lake (unfortunately, it's a library book). At times it was funny, sure, and it was kind of interesting. But I couldn't get over its shortcomings and so I didn't finish it (maybe you think that makes me unqualified to form an opinion of it, but I don't). First off, a real gripe I have with this these pop science (I use science loosely here, because I couldn't think of another way to describe the genre) books is that they never seem to have a bibliography, or always cite their sources. I mean, the author is no researcher, but still he quotes a whole lot of other works, which it would be nice if he had collected them at the back (and not, dare I say, too hard). In addition, he showed moments of extreme cultural insensitivity. Clearly, the question "are you happy" is not always an appropriate one to ask. Take when he was in Qatar. He even knew it was an inappropriate question, but asked it anyway.

Weiner is also ridiculously ethnocentric. When he talks about culture, he is referring to the American definition of 'high culture', not the definition that you should be using when doing cross-cultural research. The claim that Qatar has no culture is absurd! There is no place without a culture. Sure, it might not have its own arts, literature, music, etc., but those things are not equivalent to culture. He criticizes, ridicules even, parts of some of the cultures he visits. For instance, he sees the Bhutanese use of phalluses as an apotropaic symbol (they ward off evil spirits) and makes fun of it. This would be uncalled for and really offensive even if it was a uniquely Bhutanese custom. But no, he doesn't seem to realize that the use of the phallus to ward off evil is fairly common, and dates back at least as far as the ancient Romans.

Finally, Weiner expects to know all there is to know about a culture's view of happiness by going for a week or two and talking to a few people. This is completely outrageous and presumptious. You can't come to such broad conclusions after a week as a tourist. Basically, thanks to my being an anthropology major, I could not take anymore of this. So, I urge you to be suspicious while reading this book. If you can enjoy it, by all means, do. But don't believe that it's necessarily very true.

I, for my part, am going back to fiction.

Grade: F

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