I recently heard about a young man who majored in philosophy in college complaining about the materialism of the young ladies in his West Asian ethnic group here in Southern California. As I've mentioned before, mercantile minorities from West Asia are becoming ever more numerous in SoCal. They tend to be economically successful but, as the philosophy major suggested, a little boring and depressing in the narrow range in which they strive to show off their success: fancy cars, fancy decor, fancy clothes, fancy jewelry.
In contrast, easy as it is make fun of the tastes of the whiterpeople on StuffWhitePeopleLike.com, whiterpeople really do help push the envelope in their struggle for status. If somebody with more money than sense buys a $10,000 high-performance kayak, well, they are helping fund the progress of kayak technology.
Consider quintessential whiterperson Ed Begley Jr., the actor and solar-power buff whom The Simpsons portrayed driving a nonpolluting car powered solely by his "own sense of self-satisfaction." Yet, as Begley's neighbor Jerry Pournelle pointed out to me once when we were walking past Begley's house, the actor's over-investment in currently economically inefficient solar panels does provide seed capital for companies trying to invent more efficient forms of solar energy.
Anyway, I have a theory about why West Asian materialism runs in such narrow ruts. If you are Ed Begley, you want to impress other people who share your tastes and values, so you socialize primarily with other environmental fanatics who will be impressed that your house is off the power grid. But if you are from a West Asian group, there's much pressure on you to socialize mostly within your extended family and their in-laws and in-laws' in-laws. And because extended families are pretty average on average, specialized interests don't cut much ice. Instead, the common denominators are the surest road to approbation.
You just bought a state-of-the-art kayak? Ho-hum. Sure, your kayak-nut friends will be wowed, but your family? Yawn. In contrast, your cousin Aram just bought the most expensive BMW. Now, that's something that everybody in the family can be floored by!
I haven't thought about it too hard, but I think this might explain something about why nuclear family societies have tended to be more creative and dynamic than extended family societies.
A reader in Turkey comments:
BTW Steve, I think one of your commentors is right on the money when he says that intra-extended-family status fight probably cannot reach the same intensity as the inter-individual status competition in the West because the status positions are more or less fixed within extended families; that extended families follow their investment patterns to compete in status with other extended families. This is very true (from personal experience).
Which kinda takes us back to the first square that for individualistic (whiterpeople, or whiter-than-thou) status fights to emerge, we need a very homogenous, national demography so that extended-family competition subsides or doesn't yield as much status as it does in mixed-ethny environments. (Looking into this "inflection point" may yield something: when does extended-family competition in an ethnically homogenous environment reach the point of diminishing returns?)