The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s WEIRD paradigm shift

In a country where ethnic differences and institutional alliances have dictated loyalties and national policies for decades, Pakistan is rapidly cultivating an ideological paradigm that has the ability to put the nation on a starkly different trajectory than it is now. Since its establishment, Pakistan has fostered a sociocentric culture – one that emphasizes the ...

Clive Rose/Getty Images
Clive Rose/Getty Images

In a country where ethnic differences and institutional alliances have dictated loyalties and national policies for decades, Pakistan is rapidly cultivating an ideological paradigm that has the ability to put the nation on a starkly different trajectory than it is now.

Since its establishment, Pakistan has fostered a sociocentric culture – one that emphasizes the role of community and groupthink, and encourages its members to act in a way that is best for the community or institution they belong to. It is no surprise then that Pakistanis have deep ethnic allegiances that spill over into politics. Ethnic groups, political parties, and even political institutions, as we have seen with the military and more recently with the Supreme Court, require a deeply imbedded sociocentric approach from all of its members.

On the polar end of a sociocentric perspective of society is the individualistic viewpoint – people examine issues and make moral decisions based on what is best for the individual and individual rights and liberties, and not necessarily that of the group. Individualism is much more common amongst people who can be classified as W.E.I.R.D – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – a recently coined term to classify a distinct group of people.

While Pakistan is firmly a sociocentric nation, there are a growing number of Pakistanis who fall into the WEIRD classification, and more importantly, they are being provided the platform to better propagate their views. This is undoubtedly a minor shift, but it has the ability to impact Pakistani politics and policy in significant ways.       

At the center of this shift are an increasing number of western educated liberals who find themselves contributing to the national dialogue for a host of issues, thanks to an emerging, robust media.  Browsing through the Opinion pages of Pakistan’s leading national publications, the Express Tribune, Dawn, and The News International, amongst others, one will find no shortage of liberal viewpoints from a very educated, nearly WEIRD pool of authors – perspectives that are not representative of the population at large, and come from writers who have backgrounds that are not indicative of that of the average Pakistani.  

A more ubiquitous media presence, coupled with greater access to information mediums such as televisions and Internet, has contributed to a stronger dissemination of these progressive views. As Pakistan’s Internet users approaches 20% of the population, a 66% increase in just four years, and television viewing continues to rise, educated, progressive intellectuals have been able to draw attention to small, yet meaningful issues that display the changing attitudes in the country. This past January, the outrage over Maya Khan and her "Vigil-Aunties," a group of women who swarmed a public park to confront unmarried couples on live TV, exemplified the potential Pakistan’s media has in mobilizing and creating outcry over practices that damage individual autonomy. It is not hard to imagine a time recently where such practices may have gone overlooked in Pakistan by the masses.

The rise of a liberal media in Pakistan is a significant trend in the country’s ideological development. Individuals like Mir Ibrahim Rahman, the former Goldman Sachs Investment Banker and Harvard educated founder of GeoTV, have created a landscape that, while still nascent, has recently become formidable. Despite its other travails, the democracy that has remained in the country over the past five years has allowed the media to become a more impressive institution capable of catalyzing a paradigm shift in the country.

The proliferation of highly Western media publications is a case in point. Hello! Magazine, a weekly celebrity news publication, a concept that has thus far been foreign in Pakistan, began circulation earlier this year. While condemned by some segments of the population, such publications, along with the views they espouse are becoming more palatable and accessible. Liberal publications and a progressive, ubiquitous, and more accessible media can slowly chip away at sociocentric perspectives that have been steadfast in the country.

But not all WEIRD Pakistanis find themselves channeling the media as their primary vehicle for progress. Members of civil society, like Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch who was educated at Oxford, businessmen such as Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi, who has served as the President of the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce-USA, and the hoard of Western-educated employees of companies like the Acumen Fund, have a much more subtle way of spreading a philosophy that is starkly different from the sociocentric approach that Pakistanis are accustomed to.

The infiltration of such individuals into the world of Pakistan’s civil society and political institutions will be critical for any robust change. Pakistani politics is too dominated by ethnic loyalties, dynastic politics, and institutional obsessions. This has damaged and regressed the country in the past, and continues to be one of its main deterrents from progress and stability.

Any national paradigm shift will be gradual, and reliable polls investigating changes in social attitudes in Pakistan have yet to be undertaken, but signs of such a shift are already present in Pakistan’s media and politics.  While Imran Khan is far from being classified as a liberal, he does champion many of the perspectives that one would find in a WEIRD individual. He has called for an end to political parties being dominated by families, and instead establishing a norm of party leadership being selected on merit, not kin; he has advocated for an end to cultural segregation in the country’s politics as well, and instead sees himself as a representative of all Pakistanis – a much disparate stance than the current major political parties who are all known to be supported by specific ethnic groups.

In espousing such viewpoints, Imran Khan has digressed from the sociocentric model of politics that parties in Pakistan have followed for decades.  Having spent many of his formative years in England, which included an Oxford education and a marriage to a Briton, it is not surprising that Imran Khan views politics in acutely different terms than is the sociocentric norm. 

While this a slow developing trajectory for Pakistan, successful integration of a progressive, individualistic, equality-based framework can help the country become a more politically inclusive nation. Political inclusiveness and true equality will in turn create a more stable Pakistan. The shift being catalyzed by the WEIRD members of Pakistan’s society seeks to change the fundamental foundation of how the country’s political and economic policies function. Such changes may be slow and subtle today, but are promising for the future.

Aziz Nayani is a student and writer whose research interests focus on South Asian culture and political institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @AzizNayani.

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