A good woman in Africa

Marbury reports on the reaction of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to a question asked by a university student in Kinshasa about her husband’s opinion on some issue.  She appears to have taken umbrage at being asked for Bill’s opinion, as if she would have  no opinions of her own.
If the questioner were an Australian journalist (Norman Gunston, say*), then she would have been correct to take offence. But the questioner was Congolese, and the question could have been asked sincerely.  Perhaps no aspect of African culture is more distinct from contemporary, post-Protestant, western culture than the relationship between individuals and families.  In traditional African society, individuals would not normally have their own opinions; rather, they would defer to the group opinion of the extended family to which they belong.  These family opinions are reached in different ways, in some cases by discussion among the adults until a consensus emerges, in other cases by diktak by the most powerful family member (who may not necessarily be the eldest male).   The means of reaching shared opinions differ from one society to another, from one family to another, and even, within a single family, from one occasion to another.  In short, the locus of decision-making is not an individual but a group.  Traditional Catholic culture has more in common with this idea than our post-Protestant western culture because in Catholic belief, it is the Church, as a whole, that mediates communications between Man and God, and which is the recipient of Christian grace.  Protestants allowed each person to speak to God him or herself directly, thus promoting (or perhaps examplifying or accompanying) the trend to individualism that has been a feature of western life these last two centuries or so.
This fact of African life has implications for anyone doing market research or opinion polling in Africa, since the standard method used for random variation of respondents within households in sample surveys (the so-called Kish Grid) does not work.  People speaking to sample surveyers, if they are willing to speak, want to give their family’s opinion not their own (if indeed, the concept of “their own opinion” makes any sense to them), and usually they want the designated household spokesperson to do the speaking. Depending on the specific culture, this designated person might be the eldest male, or it might be the youngest child, or the person with the most formal education.   I know this from my own experience doing market research surveys in Southern Africa, and I wrote about this experience for an anthropology journal.   Similarly, there are important implications for anyone designing and executing marketing campaigns or public health information campaigns in Africa, and perhaps elsewhere in the world (eg, Latin America).
On balance, I think Mrs Clinton should probably not have taken personal offence at the question.  But the fact that she did take umbrage points to the very profound cultural difference at play here.
* At a US press conference given to announce a movie about Watergate, Norman Gunston asked if the film would have any 18.5 minute gaps in it, as Nixon’s secret Oval Office tapes did, and whether former President Nixon would receive complimentary tickets to the film.
P. J. McBurney [1988]: On transferring statistical techniques across cultures: the Kish Grid. Current Anthropology, 29 (2): 323-5.

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