The Case of the Octopus and the Shrimp: How Humanities and Social Sciences Came Together over East Asian Relations

News Date: 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Author: 

Mirabella McDowell

Content: 

As a humanities major, the idea of attending a seminar comparing the economies of South Korea and Taiwan was a bit daunting.  I feared I would be confused by business terminology and complex governmental models.

But Tun-jen Cheng, a scholar of government at the College of William and Mary, proved me wrong as he seamlessly interlaced political science, culture, and economics in a keynote address titled “Disaggregating the East Asian Developmental State Model: Are South Korea and Taiwan Siamese Twins or Kissing Cousins?”

The talk, in early October, was part of the 2017 Distinguished Speaker Series run by the Taiwan and Asia Program, and served as an excellent example of how social sciences – or even hard sciences - cannot help but intermingle and interact with the humanities and arts. I found myself unexpectedly following many of Professor Cheng’s key points with ease, and soon began reflecting on how culture, history, and business all worked together to construct his argument.

Professor Cheng outlined Taiwan and South Korea’s policy choices, illustrating the differences between the respective industrial models the two countries had used, all the while making links to culture and identity. He wrapped up with a simple metaphor for the two successful economies that playfully referenced East Asian culture.

 “Whatever model you prefer doesn’t much matter,” he said. “The Taiwanese and Korean models are like octopus and shrimp – both are equally tasty.”  It was a closing statement that prompted bouts of laughter and applause from a crowded room in UCSB’s Ellison Hall.

In a brief interview after the lecture, Professor Cheng emphasized how pleased he was to see students and faculty at UCSB “taking Taiwan studies so seriously.”

 “So often, all eyes are on China only,” he noted. “But putting Taiwan in comparison is important in underscoring the differences [among East Asian countries].”

The Professor’s remarks reinforced my conclusion that every area of focus in his talk – business models, cultural dissimilarities, policy shifts over time, and more – work together to build the identity of each East Asian nation. He offered students a nuanced perspective on distinctive cultures.  And his observations are a prime example of how knowledge from every field combines and collides in the modern world.

I had walked in that day wondering whether the social sciences and humanities were rivaling opponents or merely misunderstood friends. I left Professor Cheng’s lecture newly convinced that the humanities and social sciences, though seemingly opposites, needed each other for an informed analysis of East Asian relations.

The seminar offered a glimpse into several different departments here at UCSB— the Center for Taiwan Studies, the East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies Center, and the Political Science Center — that I may have otherwise shied away from. It demonstrated to me that events put on by students and faculty in the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts have much to offer to students across all academic fields—much more than simply how to read literature or write essays.

The sciences, social sciences, and humanities, as disparate as they may seem, prove not to be so separate after all. As they interact and intermix, they enrich each other, and each makes the other more dynamic, more cogent, and more enlightened.

In fact, to borrow from Professor Cheng’s lighthearted comparison between South Korea and Taiwan, the humanities and social sciences, too, are much like “octopus and shrimp” – equally, and undeniably “tasty.”

Mirabella McDowell is an English major from San Diego who is graduating in December 2017.