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Cross-Cultural Psychology

A subfield of psychology concerned with observing human behavior in contrasting cultures.

Studies in this discipline attempt to expand the compass of psychological research beyond the few highly industrialized nations on which it has traditionally focused. While definitions of what constitutes a culture vary widely, most experts concur that "culture" involves patterns of behavior, symbols, and values. The prominent anthropologist Clifford Geertz has described culture as "… a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life."

While cross-cultural psychology and anthropology often overlap, both disciplines tend to focus on different aspects of a culture. For example, many issues of interest to psychologists are not addressed by anthropologists, who have their own concerns traditionally, including such topics as kinship, land distribution, and ritual. When anthropologists do concentrate on areas of psychology, they focus on activities whereby data can be collected through direct observation, such as the age of children at weaning or child rearing practices. However, there is no significant body of anthropological data on many of the more abstract questions commonly addressed by psychologists, such as cultural conceptions of intelligence.

Cross-cultural research can yield important information on many topics of interest to psychologists. In one of the best known studies, researchers found evidence that human perceptual processes develop differently depending on what types of shapes and angles people are exposed to daily in their environment. People living in countries such as the United States with many buildings containing 90-degree angles are susceptible to different optical illusions than those in rural African villages, where such buildings are not the norm. Cross-cultural studies have also discovered that the symptoms of most psychological disorders vary from one culture to another, and has led to a reconsideration of what constitutes normal human sexuality. For example, homosexuality, long considered pathological behavior in the United States, is approved of in other cultures and is even encouraged in some as a normal sexual outlet before marriage.

Collection of cross-cultural data can also shed new light on standard psychological theories. In the 1920s, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski observed that young boys living in the Trobriand islands exhibited the type of hostility that Sigmund Freud had described in his formulation of the Oedipus complex, only it was directed not at their fathers but at a maternal uncle who was assigned the role of family disciplinarian. This observation posed a challenge to Freud's oedipal theory by raising the possibility that boys' tense relations with their fathers at a certain period in their lives may be a reaction to discipline rather than a manifestation of sexual jealousy. The questions raised by Malinowski's observation demonstrate a particularly valuable type of contribution that cross-cultural research can make to psychology. Psychological research often confounds, or merges, two variables in a situation in this case, the boy's anger toward his father and the father's sexual role in relation to the mother. A cross-cultural perspective can untangle such confounded variables when it finds them occurring separately in other cultures—e.g., the disciplinarian (the uncle), and the mother's lover (the father), as two separate persons.

Cross-cultural psychology may also be practiced within a given society by studying the contrasts between its dominant culture and subcultures. A subculture—defined as a group of people whose experiences differ from those of the majority culture—may be constituted in different ways. Often, it is an ethnic, racial, or religious group. Any group that develops its own customs, norms, and jargon may be considered a subculture, however, including such deviant groups as drug or gang subcultures. A prominent area of intersection between psychological inquiry and subcultures within the United States has been the issue of cultural bias in testing. Today, testing experts assert that there is no evidence for bias across race or social class in "standardized" intelligence and achievement tests. However, children whose primary language is not English should be tested in their primary language.

Further Reading

Barnouw, Victor. Culture and Personality. 4th ed. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1985.

Bock, Philip K. Rethinking Psychological Anthropology: Continuity and Change in the Study of Human Action. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1988.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaBranches of Psychology