Cross-Cultural Psychology

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

Studies in cross-cultural psychology attempt to expand the compass of 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. Prominent American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926–2006) 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.”

Cross-cultural psychology often overlaps with anthropology, which is the study of human cultures throughout history. Both disciplines, however, tend to focus on different aspects of a culture. Anthropologists have many traditional interests, including such topics as kinship, land distribution, and ritual. When they 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. In contrast, psychologists commonly address more abstract questions, such as common cultural conceptions of intelligence or religion, or universal social values.

Cross-cultural research can yield important information on many topics of interest to psychologists. In a well-known study (Robbins 1957), 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 industrialized countries, where many buildings contain 90-degree angles, are susceptible to different optical illusions than those in rural African villages, where such buildings are not the norm. Crosscultural studies have also discovered that the symptoms of most psychological disorders vary from one culture to another. Some of these findings have led to a reconsideration of what constitutes normal human sexuality. For example, while homosexuality was long considered pathological behavior in the United States, other cultures have not only accepted but also approved—and in some cases even encouraged—homosexuality as a normal sexual outlet before marriage.

Cross-cultural studies are wide-ranging, and may delve into many topics. A very small sampling of research in 2013 reveals the following variety:

VOICES FOR MENTAL HEALTH (2011)

This primary source contains information excerpt from WHO Voices for Mental Health. It is a personal reflection upon mental illness in the Maori culture.

The way my experience was viewed by my whanau (extended family) was very, very different from the way it was viewed by the psychiatrists and the nurses. What people call mental illness is what we call wairangi or poorangi (derogatory terms for “madness” ), which means existing in another worldly way. A psychiatrist from Switzerland will believe I'm hearing voices and have schizophrenic tendencies, but to a Maori I'm hearing my tupuna (ancestor) talk to me.

The whanau better understood what was happening for me than I knew myself, and they guided me through a process of kaupapa (subject) Maori healing. All my life I had been raised in the Pakeha (people of European ancestry) way and only had token involvement as a Maori. I was totally out of balance.

The key question mywhanau asked mewas, “Whatwere you doing when this first happened?” No one in the mental health services had really asked me that question.

I need to be kept safe and looked after by the whanau where I go through that process. Other tangata whaiora (people seeking wellness) are better off finding their healing and recovery outside their whanau, because of stuff that may be going on there. That's a choice.

There were some staff and some people in the mainstream services who were helpful. But they were definitely in the minority. There are more options now and it is helpful for Maori to have access to kaupapa (subject) Maori services.

After a while I was lucky enough to be around people who had survived trauma and distress. I would look at them and think ‘Well, you're OK, your living your life, you have a family,’ and that gave me some hope.There wasn't a lot of hope in the messages I got through the hospital, ‘Take these pills, this is a chronic illness, there is no hope of recovery, just accept it and exist’.

It was very healing when we tangata whaiora (people seeking wellness) had waiata (song), mirimiri (massage), foot massage, korero (talking), went on van trips and collected kai moana (seafood) and cooked it for ourselves. But that was generated amongst ourselves.

I'm happy. I'm a very, very different person to the one I was seven years ago. Everything is kei te pai (it is okay). I reconnected with what it is to be Maori. I choose not to take medication. I tend more to be into homeopathics, meditation, herbs, vitamins, swimming, walking, karakia (praying). If I do feel I need help, I'll choose who I want to korero (talking) with.

SOURCE: “Voices for Mental Health” WHO, 2011.

The questions raised by Malinowski's observation demonstrate just one example of the valuable type of contribution that cross-cultural research can make to psychology. Indeed, psychological research often confounds, or merges, two variables in a situation. A cross-cultural perspective can untangle such confounded variables when it finds them occurring separately in other cultures (e.g., the uncle and father as two separate persons: the disciplinarian and the mother‘s lover, respectively).

Psychologists may also practice cross-cultural psychology within a given society by studying the contrasts between its dominant culture and subcultures. A subculture, which is 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, but any group that develops its own customs, norms, and jargon may be considered a subculture, including such deviant groups as drug or gang subcultures.

KEY TERMS

Anthropology—
The study of human culture throughout history.
Culture—
A pattern of meanings, behavior, symbols, and values.
Oedipus complex—
Developed by Sigmund Freud, it is unconscious emotions and ideas stemming from a child's desire to have sexual relations with the parent of the opposite sex, as well as some jealousies toward the other parent because of these desires.
Subculture—
A group of people whose experiences differ from those of the majority culture.

Researchers have focused on a wide range of other topics in the discipline of cross-cultural psychology. They have illuminated similarities and differences among cultures in developed and undeveloped countries, as well as provided insights into the evolution of those similarities and differences within diverse cultures, therefore providing a clearer perception of the dynamic human cultures of the world.

Resources

BOOKS

Berry, John W., et al. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Research and Applications, 3rd ed. Cambridge, MA:Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Heine, Steven J. Cultural Psychology. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

Krumov, Krum. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Why Culture Matters, Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2013.

Shiraev, Eric B., and David Levy. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Critical Thinking and Contemporary Applications, 5th ed. New York: Routledge, 2013.

PERIODICALS

Aknin, Lara B., et al. “Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104, no. 4 (April 2013): 635–652.

Allport, G. W., and T. F. Pettigrew. “Cultural Influence on the Perception of Movement: The Trapezoidal Illusion Among Zulu.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 55 (1957): 104–113.

De Castella, Krista, Don Byrne, and Martin Covington. “Unmotivated or Motivated to Fail? A Cross-Cultural Study of Achievement Motivation, Fear of Failure, and Student Disengagement.” Journal of Educational Psychology 105, no. 3 (August 2013): 861–880.

Pentina, Iryna, Lixuan Zhang, and Oksana Basmanova. “Antecedents and Consequences of Trust in a Social Media Brand: A Cross-Cultural Study of Twitter.” Computers in Human Behavior 29, no. 4 (July 2013): 1546–1555.

WEBSITES

Study.com, “Cultural Bias in Testing: Examples & Definition.” http://study.com/academy/lesson/cultural-biasin-testing-examples-definition-quiz.html (accessed August 25, 2015).

University of Toledo, “Cross-Cultural Psychology.” http://psychology.utoledo.edu/showpage.asp?name=SCIRL_home (accessed August 25, 2015).

ORGANIZATIONS

Institute for International & Cross-Cultural Psychology, St. Francis College, 180 Remsen St., Brooklyn, NY, 11201, (718) 489-5386, http://www.sfc.edu .

International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, 150 W. University Blvd., School of Psychology, Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, FL, 32901, (321) 674-8104, http://www.iaccp.org/ .

Society for Cross-Cultural Research, societyforcrosscultur alresearch@yahoo.com, http://www.sccr.org/ .