The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass

The Department of Psychology


David Lackland Sam

"If anthropologists had not invented culture, then psychologists probably would have."

The link between culture and psychological science may be described as paradoxical, in the sense that it is both old and new. As far back as the 1860s, Wundt recognized and legitimized culture as a domain of inquiry in psychological science. In his 10-volume masterpiece, Volkerpsychologie, Wundt discussed topics like myth, language and customs, and suggested that changes in psychological processes occur as a result of interaction between the physical and the social contexts. However, up until the late 1960s, culture was marginalized and rendered virtually invisible in experimental and mainstream psychology. Taking sides with the natural sciences, experimental psychology opted for the laboratory as the site for its investigations while pursuing scientific goals and academic recognition. The empirical study of fundamental human behavioral processes involving observation under strict control and artificial conditions was accepted as the standard. This approach became the legitimized way of studying human behavior with the assumption that at a sufficiently high level of abstraction, the same level of mechanism existed everywhere. Thus, a vigorous search for a generalizable and replicable body of psychological knowledge, rooted in objectivity was given birth. At the same time, an acultural and decontextualized science of human behavior evolved. This [science] had no room for "culture" in view of its complexity and diffuseness.

As the world shrinks following improved communication, increased international migration, major refugee upheavals, and in general, increased inter-ethnic contacts, the shortcomings of an acultural and decontextualized psychology has become apparent. The inability of many psychological theories to account for behavioral expressions in certain cultural societies (e.g., cultural bound syndromes like Brain fag in West Africa, Amok in South Eastern Asia and Susto found among children dwelling in the Andes) can no longer be denied, thus acquiring modern psychology a description of being "culture-bound and culture-blind." This view concedes psychology as being "too" rooted in one society, and as not paying enough attention to other cultural societies and ethnic groups. The need to include culture in explaining psychological phenomena has become obvious, thus the view that psychologists probably would have invented the concept of culture if anthropologists had not done so may be correct. Nevertheless, culture has still not gained a full recognition within mainstream psychology.

The culture-boundness of psychology is the subject matter; its theoretical and empirical bases are deeply rooted in the Western culture, particularly the United States. Researchers here in the U.S. have over several decades taken for their research themes and theories issues relevant to their society -- using mainly Caucasians as their point of departure. For all intents and purposes, these may have little or no relevance for other cultural societies and ethnic groups. For instance, in an attempt to replicate [the research] in Israel, 30 of the more central issues in contemporary American social psychology, Amir and Sharon found contradictory results. Six of the studies were successfully replicated, four partially replicated, and 20 studies yielded quite different results. Such findings suggest that it may be inappropriate to make generalizations from psychological theories that have been developed entirely within one cultural society, and involve only one ethnic group.

Still, on the issue of culture boundness, it has been estimated that over 90% of all psychologists who have ever lived, and about 90% of the psychological literature are from the West. Nevertheless, the largest proportion of the world's population is from non-Western societies. The vast majority of all the psychological research and scholarship on humans has also used people from the "highly psychologized" world. This situation has humorously been portrayed by various writers. Guthrie, for instance, titled a book in which he laments over this situation as: "Even the Rat was White." Drawing an analogy from the book Tom Jones where Henry Fielding wrote:

    "When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion, and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England." Jahoda noted the following about psychology:

    "When I mention a psychological subject, I mean a subject from a western industrialized culture; and not only one from a western industrialized culture but an American; and not only an American, but a college student."

The culture-blindness of psychology stems from the fact that psychology has not significantly taken into account a great variety of factors like differences in value systems, and differences in ways of diagnosing diseases found in other cultures that influence the behavior of millions of other people. There exists several hundreds of cultures and ethnic groups in the world, suggesting that for a pan-human science of psychology, they all need to be considered. How is this feasible?

The point is not to suggest that modern psychology, as we know it, is useless, but to point out that any serious study of human psychology must include cultural and ethnic variation, together with the context in which people find themselves. To ignore these realities or to trivialize them is to contribute to science from a very limited scope. As much as contemporary psychology offers humanity a very important and interesting way to look at the world, it must expand its horizon and learn to consult all that is human, and in this case cultural.

To expand this horizon, and to achieve universal theories of human behavior, it is necessary to emancipate ourselves from the limitations we have placed on ourselves, i.e., the neglect of cultural variations. This could be possible if every form of human psychology includes the following three goals summarized as: transport and test; explore and discover; and integrate and generate. First, psychologists should seek to test the generality of existing psychological knowledge and theories in order to validate the universality of psychological theories. In order to do this, hypotheses are to be transported to other cultural settings so as to test their applicability in other groups of human beings. If, in the course of testing, contrary results are found, it should not suffice to conclude that the hypothesis does not apply in that society. It is the duty of the psychologist to go beyond such a failure to generalize and seek out the reasons for the failure, or find alternative ways in which the sought-after psychological phenomenon is expressed in the culture. In other words, they need to explore. It may turn out that the hypothesis is valid in the culture, but that should not prevent us from discovering novel ways that behavior is expressed in other societies. After exploring and discovering the limits of the hypothesis, these need to be integrated, in order to generate a universal psychological theory. This approach (working with all three goals) may be referred to as the cross-cultural psychology. To what extent are we willing to work with these goals?


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