Cultural In Interpersonal Relationships Research Paper

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Interpersonal relationships refer to all kinds of social interactions. In the social sciences, and particularly in psychology, the positive side of interpersonal relation-ships has been studied under such rubrics as attachment, friendship, couple and marital relation-ships, close relationships, and social networks. The negative side of interpersonal relationships has been highlighted through studies of aggression, conflict, loneliness, alienation, and so forth. This research paper focuses on positive interactions and relationships.

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1. Commonalities And Differences Across Cultures

It has been universally documented that in every culture, human beings need other people from the cradle to the grave, because they are social by nature. Humans develop interpersonal relationships with multiple significant others, such as family members, friends, teachers, romantic partners, and respected persons throughout their lives. Moreover, research indicates that through interpersonal interactions, people receive emotional support, enjoy their lives, and learn. That is, it has been found that interpersonal relationships not only enhance the quality of life, but also are essential for human beings to maintain a basic level of functioning.

At the same time, it is widely observed that the nature of at least some interpersonal relationships varies with cultures and subcultures, because each culture in which people participate encourages and sometimes discourages certain social behaviors. For example, in some cultures, for instance, among modern, white, upper-middle-class males, articulating the need to have close relationships is suppressed; these men are encouraged to be emotionally independent of others. In this culture, in comparison with females, men are inhibited from expressing the need to have close relationships.

2. Attachment Relationships In Infancy

The onset of interpersonal relationships is clearly observed in the infant–caregiver affective bonds, that is, attachment relationships. Around the first birthday, infants everywhere are upset when they are separated from their primary caregiver, usually the mother. Bowlby (1969 1982), who proposed attachment theory, observed that many of the human infants’ behaviors are organized for maintaining proximity to a caregiver, and hypothesized as an evolutionary principle that infants are biologically predisposed to stay close to their mothers for survival. According to Bowlby and his colleagues, an attachment is a special type of affective bond with a specific person who is not interchangeable with anyone. Attachment theorists view an attachment as a highly evolved behavioral system that produces the felt-security state in the infant, that is, the belief that an attachment figure will efficiently respond if he or she asks for help.

The quality of attachment to the mother among infants and young toddlers is assessed by a series of episodes in a laboratory, known as the Strange-Situation procedure (Ainsworth et al. 1978). The basic rationale of this procedure is that the quality of attachment is observed when the infant is placed under mild stress. As the procedure was originally designed for mother–infant pairs from American white middle- class families based on their child-rearing practices, this mild stress is induced by encounters with an adult stranger and by being left alone in the unfamiliar laboratory. By the procedure, infants are classified into one of three main patterns of attachment: secure (B-type, 67 percent in the original sample); anxious avoidant (A-type, 21 percent); or anxious resistant (C-type, 12 percent).

This procedure, constructed in a particular society, has been applied without adaptation to a wide variety of cultures on almost every continent, and sheds a unique light on cultural diversity in child-care practices. Based on meta-analysis of 2,000 classifications in eight different countries, van IJzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988) identified samples whose ABC distributions were different from those reported by Ainsworth and others. These unexpected findings, all from outside North America, opened the door to further research aimed at understanding the differences.

For example, in Bielefeld, a city in northern Germany, a majority of toddlers were identified as A-type (52 percent), although they had no apparent psycho- pathological difficulties (Grossmann et al. 1985). In contrast, both in Sapporo, a city in northern Japan (Takahashi 1986), and in a traditional Israeli kibbutz (Sagi et al. 1985), a larger number of the toddlers were classified into C-type (32 and 34 percent, respectively) than in the original American sample. Takahashi (1990) pointed out that the appropriate level of stress in the procedure must vary with everyday child-care practices. That is, as the Japanese have long shared a belief that any stress for young children disturbs their healthy development, young children are virtually never left alone. In that culture, the procedure, especially the infant-alone episode, was so stressful that some of the Japanese children and also their mothers were pushed from B-type to C-type by the procedure. However, what triggered strong stress in kibbutz-reared toddlers was the appearance of a stranger. Sagi and his colleagues maintained that everyday kibbutz child-care practices that were very different from those of conventional families must have combined to produce the difference. The Grossmann et al. suggested that the toddlers in northern Germany were so strongly encouraged to be autonomous and discouraged from staying close to the mother that the children avoided interacting with the mother even in the experimental procedure.

3. Interpersonal Relationships In Lifespan Development

Attachment theorists have focused mainly on the dyadic affective relationships between infants and their primary figure, usually the mother. However, the relationships highlighted by the attachment are too limited to describe real-life experiences in interpersonal interactions, for at least the following two reasons (Takahashi and Sakamoto 2000).

First, it is often observed that, in every culture, humans from birth interact with not only the focal, attached figure, but also with other persons, such as the father, siblings, grandparents, and peers. It is well documented that through expansion of social arenas from family to other social institutions, i.e., day-care centers, schools, and workplaces, humans continuously expand and change their interpersonal relation-ships. Second, humans need others who fulfill different kinds of psychological functions, not only those crucial for survival, which have been focused on by attachment theorists, but also peripheral but enjoyable functions, such as receiving information and knowledge from, sharing experiences and emotions with, and giving nurture to, others. It may reasonably be assumed that human beings need multiple significant others concurrently, because it is difficult for even the most important figure to fulfill all of the psychological functions required by individuals.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that shows the differentiation of psychological functions among multiple significant others. The multiple interpersonal relationships are described under the rubrics of social networks, social support networks, or personal frame-works of social relationships.

Kahn and Antonucci (1980) asked their subjects to map important persons in their lives and to classify them into three concentric circles, because they had hypothesized a hierarchical social network based on the image of a convoy that surrounds a person over time. This hierarchical network questionnaire, applied to every culture, has universally revealed that people, from young children to elderly persons of both genders, designate about 10 figures in their convoy. Moreover, in every culture, the percentage of family members mapped in the inner circle is higher than that of nonfamily members, and the figures who are placed in the inner circle provide higher proportions of all kinds of support, such as confiding, reassurance, and caring, whereas figures in the outer circle lend mostly peripheral support. Until the end of life, human beings maintain their own convoys, although the size of the social network decreases and the main figure changes with age. These studies have successfully made a rough but clear sketch of the universal nature of social relationships consisting of multiple figures.

At the same time, there have been many studies that indicate that social contexts affect interpersonal behaviors and relationships. However, careful, methodological examinations are needed before we can accept that they reveal real cultural differences in interpersonal relationships. First, differences in cross-cultural research may reflect response styles more than the differences in human relationships across cultural groups. For example, contrary to popular notions of interdependence, it is reported that American people at every stage of life from adolescence to old age exhibit their affective needs towards others more strongly than do their Japanese counterparts (Takahashi and Ohara 1997). In Taiwan, people are more reluctant to describe interpersonal relationships positively to an investigator, a third person, than are their white American counterparts (Miller et al. 1997). Second, observed differences could be due to people’s different interpretations of terms and tasks. The concept of friend is a good illustration (Krappmann 1990). A cross-cultural comparison of friend relation-ships suggested that the connotation of the term ‘friend’ among Japanese elementary-school children was wider than that among German peers. The German children selectively nominated nine friends on average, whereas the Japanese students named most classmates as friends (mean 23), and refrained from excluding any agemates from their group of friends if they had no appropriate reasons to be excluded. This attitude towards agemates among the Japanese children was attributed to the culture in the schools, where children were trained to establish ‘nice’ relationships with all of their agemates.

To overcome these response biases, in a cross-cultural study between Japan and the USA, our group made relative comparisons between the two cultures. Instead of direct comparisons of the scores of each of five significant figures (i.e., mother; father; friend; romantic partner spouse; and child), distributions of the dominant figures (that is, those who were assigned the highest score by each individual) were compared between the cultures. Both commonalities and diversities emerged. In both countries, the parents were rarely assigned the dominant role from adolescence on; rather, a same-sex friend—and later a romantic partner—was consistently and highly rated. Also, in both cultures, parents rated their child very highly when the child was grown-up. However, the number of family-dominant participants was larger among the Japanese than their American counterparts.

4. Individualism vs. Collectivism

Social and behavioral scientists may be tempted to attribute the observed cultural variations in inter-personal relationships to more global cultural differences in values and/orientations, such as individualism vs. collectivism, or independence vs. interdependence (e.g., Markus and Kitayama 1991). In such a dichotomous framework, cultures in the West, typically in North America, are supposed to encourage people to be more independent of others than cultures in the East, typically in Japan. However, some researchers have questioned the validity of such a dichotomy. For example, Takano and Osaka (1999) reanalyzed 15 empirical studies performed in the framework of individualism vs. collectivism, and concluded that the research did not provide sufficient evidence for the dichotomous classifications of cultures.

5. Conclusion

Thus, cultural and subcultural comparisons that respect the native group’s perspective advance our understanding of not only differences among people’s social relationships, but also the universal nature of human beings and their social relationships with others. Moreover, longitudinal research within each culture will help our understanding of how social and historical factors cause changes in social relationships. Another important challenge for future researchers is to investigate social relationships beyond close and intimate others. Globalization highlights the growing necessity for research concerning positive social relationships with unfamiliar people.


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