Blog – Devoteeism: the sociological view

Fifty years ago, not having a perfect set of teeth was quite normal. That’s to say it was where I’m from, but in many countries it still is today. In the modern western world however, it’s meanwhile considered an accepted reason for feeling unhappy. In a few decades time, combined advancement of technology and medical care changed societal perception on bodily imperfection. Along with it, it changed individual self-perception of those having them. And having to miss a limb is in no way comparable to the dental imperfections I used as an example, the mechanism influencing perception of amputees is nonetheless the same.

It’s safe to say modern western society is characterised by a pretty dominant culture of ‘the perfect body’. An aestethic norm, that became dominant as a result of the above mentioned progress, which is science and economy based. And in varying degrees of explicitness it’s all over the place. Commercials, glossy magazines, movies, fashion; you name it and it will feature the model & mannequin babe or its silicone enhanced busty pendant women wise, and the zero fat & perfect sixpack hunk men wise.
Potentially this makes western culture the one most ‘aesthetically hostile’ – there are other, and differently rooted, mechanisms too – towards people not meeting that perfect body ideal. Phenomena like face and other lifts and the perceived importance of cosmetics could perhaps be called fairly innocent, body image related conditions like anorexia are definitely not. Yet, they all illustrate there’s powerful mechanisms at work that make people desire to be part of this cultural ideal. Consequently, those unable to meet that ideal will feel the aesthetic norm of this ideal press upon them, making them encounter issues of self-esteem, increasingly so with the culture becoming more dominant.

With respect to how amputees are perceived, the achievements of technology play an important part. Computerised prostheses are a great gain in helping to overcome an amputee’s limitations. Many a leg amputee uses a C-leg to walk the streets virtually ‘unnocticed’. But while this makes an invaluable aid for those using these achievements of modern technology, it will also influence how those not able, not choosing or unable to afford to use them are perceived.
We’re creatures of habit. We tend to implicitly assume everyone to look ‘normal’. What’s being considered normal is rooted in frequency of occurrence, and in the case of amputees this frequency is influenced by (prosthetic) technology. Happily, many amputees profit from that, it also makes the sight of visible amputation more rare. And the more rare it becomes, the more ‘abnormal’ it will be looked at, giving the achievements of prosthetic technology a self-propelled downside for those not making use of them.

The opposite of the above mentioned is illustrated by societies in which amputees are much more numerous. With 25,000 amputees, ‘land mine’ country Cambodia has the highest ratio per capita in the world. One in every 235 Cambodians is a landmine victim, making the sight of an amputee a vastly more frequent thing than it’s in other societies. With respect to what I’m trying to argue, it’s however also a much more normal thing.
Seeing an amputee will likely not even make the average Cambodian frown. And it sadly takes a lot of them to let it be so normal, it may influence the amount of stares so common in countries with a lower ‘amp-ratio’, as it may make amputees themselves less self-conscious of their adversity. Obviously, there’s quite a bit more to coping with amputation than how people are looking at you, this aspect will unlikely be irrelevant.

The example of Cambodia shows things are not the same all over the world. Meanwhile, visitors from 115 countries visited my blog. That’s a lot more than I’d ever hoped for, these 115 countries also represent a huge range of different societies and cultures, and that made me wonder something: would amputees be perceived differently in different societies and cultures?
Going into this question thoroughly is impossible. You’d need sociological studies to have some sort of comparison, and Google told me there aren’t any. So, these thoughts will be largely based on speculation. I did my best to make it somehow sensible speculation, but still.

What I also did is use visitor stats of my blog to try and draw some conclusions, the assumption being that frequency of devotees tells us something about societal perception of amputees. It’s a shaky assumption, I know, but this is a blog and not a scientific article. Apart from that, I really think there is a point in relating these. Devoteeism included, the internet has proven to be the perfectly anonymous and secret place for just about anything that’s being perceived as forbidden, likely making internet stats such as page views on a devotee blog a lot more revealing than classical survey methods like interviews and questionnaires.
So here we go, starting off with a few reflections.

Apart from perception related issues, there’s also general – call it cultural – acceptance of disability. And it’s often – but not always – related to religion. In many religions, love and care for the less fortunate plays a major part. It’s sometimes associated with the will of God – particularly by strict protestantism – it’s undeniably part of e.g. christian and islamic values to be understanding of and helpful to the disabled. At the same time however, the fatalist and predestined sides of religion tend to contribute to viewing disabled people as helpless, which, I think, has stood in the way of their emancipation, at least in many European cultures.

Islamic countries also demonstrate a very different religion related aspect, or rather one deriving from religion and state being intertwined. Here, amputation used to be part of traditional islam-based justice. Thieves had their hand chopped off in public, bringing shame upon them by making their crime forever visible for anyone. There were crimes for which getting caught equaled amputation of an entire limb too. Happily, this practice no longer exists in most islamic countries, it may well have caused a deep-rooted negative view on amputation that will not just have disappeared with the abandonment of the practice.

Apart from religion related aspect, there’s also general acceptance. Many Asian cultures are not very accepting of disability, considering disabled people the black sheep of the family, seeing them as a burden and – similarly to western cultures – as helpless people.

Throughout all this, there’s also the historic aspect. Countries with a war history will have increased numbers of (amputee) war veterans for quite a while afterwards, and the way they are perceived – sadly – relates to how the war ended. Vietnam veterans are a fairly recent example, in Europe, the older example of WW II veterans applies, particularly for Germany and Russia, the two countries number wise most involved in this massive conflict. But while Russia saw its disabled war veterans as heroes, German soldiers met a fate similar to Vietnam veterans.
I have no idea to what extend this inherits onto following generations, but there is an aspect in the visitor stats supporting this: on my blog, Germany and Austria, and USA to a lesser degree, are among the highest ranking countries in terms of number of views per capita.

We’re entering the field of statistics now, and it’s proverbially easy to lie with them. Two things statistically correlating does not mean they are causally related as well. Not necessarily. To give you an example: there are more storks in agricultural areas than there are in urban areas, as families in agriculatural areas have more children on average. So, numbers of storks and numbers of children correlate statistically. Using this to conclude new born babies are delivered by storks – as kids in many European countries are made to believe – is however wrong. I’m adding this to encourage you to take the following observations with a grain of salt. Having said this, I should also add I did my best to make the stats as reliable as possible.

In an earlier blog item – One month on – I already went into how to compare absolute numbers. In this case, they will be numbers of page views, since these are the only numbers specified by country in the back office that WordPress provides. The basic idea here is 100 views from China being less impressive than 100 from Monaco. China has a 1,3 billion population, whereas Monaco has a mere 37,000. You can make these stats more comparable by relating numbers of views to population size, say page views per million capita.

What you can also do – on aggregate – is to use population size to calculate ‘expected views’, the expectation of numbers based on all things being equal. So, if country X represents 10% of the total population of countries having visited the blog, you expect the all things equal assumption to result in country X accounting for an equal 10% of page views. Compare those with the actual views and you have a measure for over- or underrepresentation. Sum this by continent and this is what you get:

Table 1

Note that aggregate population is only calculated from countries having visited my blog. Nonetheless, there are huge differences per continent. North America scores almost 6 times the page views the aggregate population would lead to expect, whereas Asia and Africa score a mere 4 and 5% of what you’d expect population wise.

There’s another factor involved here though. Internet access is not equally spread. I looked up those stats for the countries that visited this blog. The measure here is numbers of people having internet access per 100 capita, and it ranges from a whopping 96,8 down to a very modest 2,9. Incidentally – and very surprising to me – that 96,8 is Bermuda, beit closely followed by a much less surprising 96,3 for Norway. Unsurprising is the 2,9 being Ethiopia, and other African Third World countries (Madagascar, Mali and Tanzania for this blog) give a similar picture. Oil producing and economically more developped Nigeria is on 42,7 though.
The next step is to correct the stats shown above for relative internet access. Then you get this:

Table 2

The effect of this ‘trick’ is shown in how column 5 differs from Table 1. While ratio’s for Europe and North America barely change because of high relative internet access, the correction makes Africa almost triple. That’s a substantial increase, in terms of vast underrepresentation, things really didn’t change that much. For Asia – with not that much higher an average internet access – it’s even a relatively modest 50% increase only.

So, the differences aren’t all that big if you correct for internet access. And there’s one thing really standing out in both tables: despite there being 115 countries visiting my blog, the vast majority of page views is coming from ‘western world’ countries: Europe, North America and Australia & New Zealand (Oceania). So, devoteeism is indeed all over the world, it’s not exactly evenly divided globally.

Specification by continent is a pretty cross cultural thing to do. A continent like Africa has islamic cultures in the north, traditional African cultures around the equator and south of that, as well as a number of relatively rich economies (e.g. Nigeria and South-Africa). Israel e.g. counts in with Asia, but is has a western culture. So, in an attempt to trace cultural influence on devoteesim, we could break up the aggregate stats by culture. And this is what you get then:

Table 3

Here we see how big cultural (and economic) impact is. While geographical Africa still manages 5% of expected views, countries with an African culture (and often a poorly developped economy) don’t get to more than 1% of expected views. And more in general, we’re still seeing African, Asian and islamic cultures rank lowest.
Corrected for internet access, the break down by culture shows interesting differences:

Table 4
IU/100 AVG is the aggregate average numbers of people with internet access per 100 capita.

Again, stats for western countries are largely the same. But look at African culture countries: that’s a twelve time increase. Islamic countries almost double. Asian cultures go up a little, but not much.
Again as well however, the grand picture remains the same, and by now we should be able to safely conclude that western (and slavic) culture is where devoteeism is found. So, provided our shaky assumption – that of numbers of devotees being indicative of societal perception of amputees – is correct, these figures corroborate this perception as being substantially more negative in non-western countries and cultures.

Of course, you could play on further with these figures. Within cultural categories, there’ll likely be vast differences. Japanese culture e.g. has lots of liking for the extreme, including the sexually extreme. Japan is also the Asian country with the highest view rate per million capita on this blog, even when corrected for high internet access rate (90,6).
There’ll be more, and if they’d make interesting observations, I will report them for sure. But meanwhile, you might well be fed up with figures. I do hope this number crunching raised a few thoughts though, and I’d appreciate comments, especially from non-western country based readers.

Last but most definitely not least, I want to thank Alicia for bringing up the thoughts that led to this approach in the number crunching, as well as for adding in a few important things I didn’t know. Her being half Asian provided insights from own experience I’d never have found otherwise, her being a sociologist having studied group perceptions and human behaviour provided a hard needed sounding board for many unstructured thoughts and suspicions, and her enthusiasm provided the stamina to finish an over averagely brainteasing piece of writing.



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