Sunday, January 6, 2008

CP Snow's Two Cultures and Dating

CP Snow said that there are two cultures which divide Western culture: science versus humanities. While the division in Snow's book was between those who see science as objective versus culturally embedded, often people speak of the norms associated with the cultures: the scientific culture values pragmatism and objectivity, while the humanistic culture is more idealistic and romantic so doesn't privilege pragmatism above ideals. In what I am sure is an oversimplification and misapplication of precise philosophical terms: scientific culture is utilitarian and consequentialist; humanistic culture is deontological. The two cultures may differ in their use of language (even setting jargon aside) and decision-making process. All dichotomies are false, but some are useful, and I'll explore this one.

As some readers have noticed, I am definitely on the scientific side. (Of course, the trend towards interdisciplinary and quantitative work has suffused the academy, so there are now scientific folk even in the humanities, so this doesn't imply anything about my field.) Conversation has a certain ratio of sociability to information, and sometimes you just have to set aside the information and be happy to be talking. People who value conversation primarily for information exchange will email their conversation partner afterwards (sometimes even if they didn't like them!) if they find out a new fact; people who value conversation primarily as sociability wouldn't see the need unless they wanted an excuse to talk with the person afterwards. Valuing conversation as information exchange may not be intrinsically characteristic of the scientific culture, but the stress on information and facts does go along with it. Until 2 years ago, I thought conversation was primarily about information exchange. That sounds really funny, like I'm autistic; I'm actually pretty sociable, at least among geeks.

Humanists can value what they don't understand, while scientists want to know why something is useful before they value it.

From the outside, it can look pretty weird. My roommate and her boyfriend both attended a tech school, though one of them is no longer in a scientific field. They spend hours upon hours in intimate conversations on topics such as how thermostats work or their offices' computer systems, all while gazing lovingly into the other's eyes. They discuss people sometimes and they play with mutual friends' children together, but quite a lot of the time, they discuss these factual, concrete topics as if they were the most romantic in the world.

I've dated across the two cultures, and I know of many successful marriages across the cultures, but I think there is additional comfort with someone from the same side, and it's not about shared interest.

Lately I've been seeing a sociable science-type in a canonically geeky field. After the passive-aggressive guy who was a canonical humanist, it's such a relief to be with someone from the same side of the cultural gap. Many of the other people where I think there's serious potential are also on the same side of the cultural gap. I say that the reason for the comfort is culture rather than shared interest because --- unlike with my roommate --- science or math rarely comes up. I don't go to science museums, program computers, or talk about calculus in my spare time; it's kind of nice to be with someone where I suppose we could do these things, but it almost never happens. There's simply comfort in the shared culture; despite being what a commenter called overly-analytical, I can't even start to be more specific about why.


Tingel said...

Hmm several things here (would have commented previous posts too, but well now they're too old :).

First, as you notice yourself, your dichotomy is quite bold. By reading you, I thought you may be scientific, but it wasn't the only option - for instance, you could have been, say an analytical philosopher. Being quantitative or interdisciplinary isn't the only way to get a sharp, clear cut style. Besides, there are other possible "common grounds". Take someone working in business. Or an artist. Or someone making concrete, simple things (furniture, glass objects). You'll find different ways of thinking, as different as the two you mentioned.

Anyway. This common ground thing sounds true but it cannot be generalized that much. Some people (such as myself, so I'm not making this up :) often end up bored faster with someone who shares too much background. Actually, there are good and bad sides to it. Feeling somthing in common that goes without saying is good. But already knowing how, or what the partner thinks can quickly become an issue - as it sometimes happens in old couples knowing each other too well, but in a young couple... a "different ground" can create a freshness that does not have to be artificial nor temporary.

And there's another factor here : the fact that a "background" can have links with the way one person understands life in general. There are different degrees. Beeing a scientific (no attack here, I have a scientific education myself) doesn't give one any special angle by which he could understand life/the world/etc. A little more if one's in business (though I don't like this angle...). Usually more in the humanities. I'm not talking about assets and drawbacks here, just about the fact that knowing someone with a different background can open up your perspectives, on a daily basis. You'll be surprised, learn things maybe, see things with a different view. THat can also be completely unpleasant too, of course. But when it's not, I find it much richer, much nicer for a relationship. To be uncomfortable at least means not to be numb...

Ok I got a little carried away. Neutral conclusion : Each to his own.

JZ said...

Hi Tingel,

You're totally right about the substantial individual variation in traits and analysis. That's why I think that it's a question of culture. There's a lot of individual variation within the US and France, but many people still feel more comfortable in one country or the other, and prefer to marry someone from the same country. Of course, since I'm speaking in averages, there are exceptions.

My claim is that even though there may be lots of variation within the culture of "science" and the culture of "humanities", many people feel most comfortable in one of the two cultures and prefer to marry someone from the same culture. Of course, there are exceptions.

Tingel said...

Well I can agree to this as a general rule. The comparison with the culture (e.g. the country) is right - actually I also had this in mind when I wrote my previous comment.

Just to add something else : the fact that people tend to date more with someone of their own culture/background may mainly stem from the fact that it's the category they meet most of the time. Of course it's obvious for countries, but it still stands for the educational background : studies and research will have you meet people from your own field (own laboratory + seminars, conferences, etc.). For one who don't practice online dating (which I believe is still a majority of people :), these may be their major opportunities to meet people.

PS : "US and France" Is that a cool thing that one's country can be known so easily ? Hmm... but I don't like falses IP either so I guess I brought this on myself.

JZ said...

Funny. When I said "France", I was just thinking of a random country which was different from the US without trying to find any particular connection to anyone.

Tingel said...

Ok. Sorry for overinterpreting...

JZ said...

I thought it was neat. I'm not usually psychic.