Cultural Perspectives on Social Psychology Research Paper

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During much of its past, psychology represented a culturally grounded enterprise that took into account the constitutive role of cultural meanings and practices in human development. Yet, as recent historical accounts make clear (Jahoda, 1993), this attention to culture was muted during the twentieth century, with psychology dominated by an idealized physicalscience model of explanation. This has given rise to the enigma that psychologists find it “difficult to keep culture in mind,” noted by Cole (1996):

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On the one hand, it is generally agreed that the need and ability to live in the human medium of culture is one of the central characteristics of human beings. On the other hand, it is difficult for many academic psychologists to assign culture more than a secondary, often superficial role in the constitution of our mental life. (p. 1)

From this type of perspective, which dominates the field, culture is seen as at most affecting the display of individual psychological processes, but not as impacting qualitatively on their form.

However, although culture thus remains in a peripheral role in the contemporary discipline, recent years have seen a reemergence of interest in cultural approaches and an increased recognition of their importance to psychological theory. As reflected in the interdisciplinary perspective of cultural psychology (e.g., Cole, 1990; Greenfield, 1997; J. G. Miller, 1997; Shweder, 1990), culture and psychology are coming to be understood as mutually constitutive processes. It is recognized that human development occurs in historically grounded social environments that are structured by cultural meanings and practices. Cultural meanings and practices are themselves understood to be dependent on the subjectivity of communities of intentional agents. By affecting individuals’ understandings and intentions, cultural meanings and practices, in turn, are recognized to have a qualitative impact on the development of psychological phenomena and to be integral to the formulation of basic psychological theory.

The goal of this research paper is to highlight some of the insights for understanding personality and social psychology that emerge from a consideration of the cultural grounding of psychological processes. The first section of the paper considers factors that have contributed to the downplaying of culture in mainstream social psychology and the assumptions that guided some of the earliest research in the traditions of cross-cultural psychology. In the second section, consideration is given to key conceptual developments underlying cultural psychology, recent empirical findings that illustrate the existence of cultural variation in basic social psychological processes, and challenges for future theory and research. In conclusion, consideration is given to the multiple contributions of a cultural perspective in psychology.

Approaches to Culture in Mainstream Social Psychology and in Early Cross-Cultural Psychology

The present section provides an overview of shifts in the role accorded to culture in psychological theory over time, and it outlines some of the changing conceptual understandings and disciplinary practices that are affecting these shifts. The first section considers factors that are contributing to the tendency to assign cultural considerations a relatively peripheral role both in social psychology and more generally in the larger discipline. The second section provides an overview of some of the earliest traditions of cultural research in social psychology, highlighting respects in which this research, although groundbreaking in many respects, did not seriously challenge this tendency to downplay the importance of culture in psychology. Finally, attention turns to the core assumptions of cultural psychology, assumptions that highlight the need to accord culture a more integral role in basic psychological theory.

Downplaying of Culture in Mainstream Social Psychology

Signs of the peripheral theoretical role accorded to cultural considerations in social psychology may be seen in its being downplayed in major social psychological publications. Textbooks typically either leave the construct of culture theoretically undefined, treat it as the same as the objective environment or social ecology, or approach it in an eclectic way that lacks conceptual clarity. Likewise, basic theory tends to be presented without any reference to cultural considerations. Culture is treated merely as a factor that influences the universality of certain psychological effects but not as a process that must be taken into account to explain the form of basic psychological phenomena. One example of such a stance can be found in Higgins and Kruglanski’s (1996) recent handbook on basic principles of social psychology: The only citations for culture in the index—with only one exception—refer to pages within the single chapter on cultural psychology by Markus, Kitayama, and Heiman (1996), rather than to any of the other 27 chapters of the volume. In the following discussion, we argue that this downplaying of culture in social psychology reflects to a great degree the tendency to conceptualize situations in culturefree terms, the embrace of an idealized natural-science model of explanation, and the default assumption of cultural homogeneity that dominates the field.

Culture-Free Approach to Situations

A key contribution of social psychology—if not its signature explanatory feature—is its recognition of the power of situations to impact behavior. Such a stance is reflected, for example, in a series of classic studies; salient examples include the Milgram conformity experiment, which demonstrated that to conform with the orders of an experimenter, individuals were willing to inflict a harmful electric shock on a learner (Milgram, 1963), as well as the prison experiment of Zimbardo and his colleagues (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973), which demonstrated that individuals who had been thrust into the role relationships of guards and prisoners in a simulated prison behaved in ways that reflected these positions, with the guards behaving abusively and the prisoners becoming passive. It also may be seen in recent lines of inquiry on such topics as individuals’ limited conscious access to their cognitive processes, priming effects, and the mere exposure effect (Bargh, 1996; Bornstein, Kale, & Cornell, 1990; Zimbardo, Banks, Haney, & Jaffe, 1973). Social psychological work of this type has shown that contexts affect behavior in ways that do not depend on conscious mediation and that may even violate individuals’conscious expectations and motivational inclinations.

Supplementing this focus on the power of situations to affect behavior, it has also been documented that individual differences influence the meaning accorded to situations. This attention to individual differences is evident not only in work on personality processes but also in the attention given to cognitive and motivational schemas as sources of individual variability in behavior. Individual difference dimensions, however, typically are accorded a secondary role to situational influences within social psychological theory. They are believed to affect the display of certain basic psychological dimensions, but they are not often implicated in normative models of psychological phenomena. To give a representative example of such a stance, the theory of communal and exchange relationships has been forwarded to distinguish qualitatively between relationships that are based on need versus those based on exchange considerations (Mills & Clark, 1982). In this model, individual differences are invoked only in a descriptive sense (i.e., to distinguish between persons who are more or less likely to adopt each type of orientation) and not in a theoretical sense (that is, to identify distinctive approaches to relationships beyond those specified in the original conceptual model).

The crucial point is that the approach to situations that dominates social psychological inquiry treats contexts as presenting one most veridical structure that can be known through inductive or deductive information processing. No consideration is given to the possibility that culture is necessarily implicated in the definition of situations or that cultural presuppositions constitute prerequisites of what is considered objective knowledge. It is assumed that variability in judgment arises from differences in the information available to individuals or from differences in their informationprocessing abilities, resulting in certain judgments’ being more or less cognitively adequate or veridical than others (Nisbett & Ross, 1980). Evidence that individuals from different cultural backgrounds maintain contrasting systems of belief, value, or meaning—and that they interpret situations in contrasting ways—tends to be assimilated to an individualdifference dimension. It is viewed as implying that individual differences in attitudes, understandings, or available information may relate to cultural group membership, but not as implying that there is a need to give any independent weight to cultural meanings and practices per se in explanation.

In maintaining the present realist approach to situations and in adopting explanatory frameworks focused on factors in the situation and in the person, cultural considerations are downplayed in theoretical importance. It is assumed that cultural information may substitute for or shortcut individual information processing: The individual comes to learn about the world indirectly through acquiring the knowledge disseminated in the culture. As such, culture is viewed as providing information redundant with that which individuals could obtain by themselves through direct cognitive processing. Wells (1981), for example, maintains that enculturation processes are nonessential to individual knowledge acquisition:

It is difficult for anyone who has raised a child to deny the pervasive influence of socialized processing that surely surfaces as causal schemata originate through secondary sources such as parents . . . Even though socialized processing may be an important determinant of knowledge about causal forces at one level, it nevertheless begs the question. How is it that the parents knew an answer? The issue is circular. That is precisely the reason that one must consider a more basic factor–namely original processing. (p. 313)

From the present type of perspective, cultural knowledge is seen as necessary neither to account for the nature of individual knowledge nor to evaluate its adequacy.

Natural Science Ideals of Explanation

The tendency to downplay the importance of culture in social psychological theory also derives from the field’s embrace of an idealized physical-science model of explanation. Although social psychology makes use of multiple normative models of scientific inquiry, it has typically treated physical science models of scientific inquiry as the ideal approach. This has affected both the goals and methods of inquiry in ways that have tended to marginalize cultural approaches.

In terms of explanatory goals, the foremost aim of psychological explanation has been to identify universal laws of behavior. Adopting the criteria of parsimony and of predictive power as the hallmarks of a successful explanation, psychological inquiry has been conceptualized as involving the identification of deep structural explanatory mechanisms that (it is assumed) underlie overt behavior. Higgins and Kruglanski (1996) outline this vision for social psychological inquiry:

A discovery of lawful principles governing a realm of phenomena is a fundamental objective of scientific research . . . A useful scientific analysis needs to probe beneath the surface. In other words, it needs to get away from the ‘phenotypic’manifestations and strive to unearth the ‘genotypes’ that may lurk beneath. . . . We believe in the scientific pursuit of the nonobvious. But less in the sense of uncovering new and surprising phenomena than in the sense of probing beneath surface similarities and differences to discover deep underlying structures. (p. vii)

From this perspective, the assumption is made that fundamental psychological processes are timeless, ahistorical, and culturally invariant, with the principles of explanation in the social sciences no different from those in the natural or physical sciences.

From the present physical-science view of explanation, cultural considerations tend to be regarded as noise; they are consequently held constant in order to focus on identifying underlying processes. Malpass (1988) articulates this type of position:

Cultural differences are trivial because they are at the wrong level of abstraction, and stand as ‘medium’ rather than ‘thing’ in relation to the objects of study. The readily observable differences among cultural groups are probably superficial, and represent little if any differences at the level of psychological processes. (p. 31)

According to this perspective, an explanation that identifies a process as dependent on culturally specific assumptions is regarded as deficient. To discover that a phenomenon is culturally bound is to suggest that the phenomenon has not as yet been fully understood and that it is not yet possible to formulate a universal explanatory theory that achieves the desired goals of being both parsimonious and highly general.

Another consequence of the present physical-science model of explanation is that social psychology has tended to privilege laboratory-based methods of inquiry and to be dismissive of what is perceived to be the inherent lack of methodological control of cultural research. Skepticism surrounds the issue of whether sufficient comparability can be achieved in assessments made in different cultural contexts to permit valid cross-cultural comparisons. Equally serious concerns are raised that methodological weaknesses are inherent in the qualitative methods that are frequently involved in assessment of cultural meanings and practices. In particular, because such measures are at times based on analyses undertaken by single ethnographers or similar methods, measures used in cultural assessment are seen as characterized by limited reliability and validity, as well as by heavy reliance on interpretive techniques.

It is notable that the adoption within social psychology of a physical-science ideal of explanation also promotes disciplinary insularity. Although there is considerable openness to the integration of biologically based conceptual models and methodologies—a trend seen in the growing interest in neuroscience—there is little or no interest in integrating the theoretical insights and empirical findings from other social science fields, such as anthropology. Rather, the body of knowledge developed within anthropology becomes difficult for social psychologists to assimilate. Thus, for example, psychologists typically treat the findings of anthropological research as merely descriptive or anecdotal, with little attention even given to such findings as a source of hypotheses that might be subject to further testing through controlled social psychological procedures. A situation is then created in which the findings of cultural variability in human behavior (which have been widely documented within anthropology) as well as anthropological tools of interpretive methodological inquiry tend to be given little or no attention in social psychological inquiry.

Default Assumption of Cultural Heterogeneity

Finally, the downplaying of the importance of cultural considerations in social psychology also stems from the tendency to assume a universalistic cultural context in recruitment of research participants and in formulation of research questions. This type of stance has led to skewed population sampling in research. As critics (Reid, 1994) have charged, the field has proceeded as though the cultural context for human development is homogeneous; consequently, research has adopted stances that treat middle-class European-American research populations as the default or unmarked subject of research:

Culture . . . has been assumed to be homogenous, that is, based on a standard set of values and expectations primarily held by White and middle-class populations. . . . For example, in developmental psychology, children means White children (McLoyd, 1990); in psychology of women, women generally refers to White women (Reid, 1988). When we mean other than White, it is specified. (p. 525)

In this regard, slightly over a decade ago, it was observed that fewer than 10% of all hypothesis testing research undertaken in social psychology involved samples drawn from two or more cultures (Pepitone & Triandis, 1987). Likewise, a review conducted of more than 14,000 empirical articles in psychology published between 1970 and 1989 yielded fewer than 4% centering on African Americans (Graham, 1992).

However, it is not only these skewed sampling practices but also the resulting skewed knowledge base brought to bear in inquiry that contributes to the downplaying of the importance of cultural considerations. Commonly, research hypotheses are based on investigators’ translations of observations from their own experiences into testable research hypotheses. In doing this, however, researchers from non–middle-class European-American backgrounds frequently find themselves having to suppress intuitions or concerns that arise from their own cultural experiences. As reflected in the following account by a leading indigenous Chinese psychologist (Yang, 1997), the present type of stance may give rise to a certain sense of alienation among individuals who do not share the socalled mainstream cultural assumptions that presently dominate the field:

I found the reason why doing Westernized psychological research with Chinese subjects was no longer satisfying or rewarding to me. When an American psychologist, for example, was engaged in research, he or she could spontaneously let his or her American cultural and philosophical orientations and ways of thinking be freely and effectively reflected in choosing a research question, defining a concept, constructing a theory and designing a method. On the other hand, when a Chinese psychologist in Taiwan was conducting research, his or her strong training by overlearning the knowledge and methodology of American psychology tended to prevent his or her Chinese values, ideas, concepts and ways of thinking from being adequately reflected in the successive stages of the research process. (p. 65)

It has been suggested, in this regard, that to broaden psychological inquiry to be sensitive to aspects of self emphasized in Chinese culture, greater attention would need to be paid to such presently understudied concerns as filial piety, impression management, relationship harmony, and protection of face (Hsu, 1963, 1985; Yang, 1988; Yang & Ho, 1988). Taking issues of this type into account, researchers of moral development, for example, have challenged the Kohlbergian claim that a concern with human rights fully captures the end point of moral development (Kohlberg, 1969, 1971); such researchers have uncovered evidence to suggest that within Chinese cultural populations, the end point of moral development places greater emphasis on Ch’ing (human affection or sentiment) as well as on the Confucian value of jen (love, human-heartedness, benevolence, and sympathy; Ma, 1988, 1989).

As a consequence of its tendency to privilege considerations emphasized in European-American cultural contexts, psychology in many cases has focused on research concerns that have a somewhat parochial character, as Moscovici (1972) has argued in appraising the contributions of social psychology:

…The real advance made by American social psychology was . . . in the fact that it took for its theme of research and for the content of its theories the issues of its own society. Its merit was as much in its techniques as in translating the problems of American society into sociopsychological terms and in making them an object of scientific inquiry. (p. 19)

In proceeding with a set of concepts that are based on a relatively narrow set of cultural experiences, psychological research then has tended to formulate theories and research questionsthatlackadequateculturalinclusivenessandinstead are based on the experiences of highly select populations.


Despite its concern with social aspects of experience and with units of analysis, such as groups, that are larger than individuals, social psychological inquiry has tended to downplay cultural factors. This downplaying, as we have seen, reflects in part the field’s tendency to give weight both to situational and individual difference considerations, while according no independent explanatory force to cultural factors. Equally, it reflects the field’s embrace of natural-science models of explanation, which emphasize generality as the hallmark of a successful explanation and controlled experimentation as the most adequate approach to scientific inquiry. Finally, in both its sampling practices and in its consideration of research questions, social psychology has privileged a middle-class European-American outlook that gives only limited attention to the perspectives and concerns of diverse cultural and subcultural populations.

Early Research in Cross-Cultural Psychology

Although cultural considerations have tended to be accorded little importance in social psychological theory, there exists a long-standing tradition of research in cross-cultural psychology that has consistently focused attention on them. The scope of work in cross-cultural psychology is reflected in the vast body of empirical research that has been conducted. Empirical work from this perspective is extensive enough to fill the six-volume first edition of the Handbook of CrossCultural Psychology (Triandis & Lambert, 1980), as well as numerous textbooks and review chapters (e.g., Berry, Poortinga, Segall, & Dasen, 1992; Brislin, 1983).

Research in cross-cultural psychology shares many of the conceptual presuppositions of mainstream psychology— which explains, at least in part, why it has not fundamentally posedachallengetothemainstreamdiscipline(seediscussion in Shweder, 1990; J. G. Miller, 2001a). These assumptions involve a view of culture as an independent variable affecting psychological processes understood as a dependent variable. From such a perspective, culture is seen as affecting the display or level of development of psychological processes, but not their basic form—a stance similar to the assumption in mainstream social psychology that culture has no impact on fundamental psychological phenomena. Research in crosscultural psychology also assumes an adaptive approach to culture that is consonant with the view of the environment emphasized in mainstream psychology. Naturally occurring ecological environments are viewed as presenting objective affordances and constraints to which both individual behavior and cultural forms are adapted.

A major thrust of work in cross-cultural psychology has been to test the universality of psychological theories under conditions in which there is greater environmental variation than is present in the cultural context in which the theories were originally formulated. Brief consideration of early cross-cultural research in the traditions of culture and personality, culture and cognition, and individualism-collectivism highlights both the groundbreaking nature of this work as well as the limited extent to which it challenges the core theoretical presuppositions of the mainstream discipline.

Culture and Personality

The research tradition of culture and personality constituted an interdisciplinary perspective that generated great interest and inspired extensive research throughout the middle years of the twentieth century (e.g., LeVine, 1973; Shweder, 1979a, 1979b; Wallace, 1961; J. W. Whiting & Child, 1953; B. B. Whiting & Whiting, 1975). Although many of the classic assumptions of this perspective were subject to challenge, and although interest in this viewpoint diminished after the 1980s, work in culture and personality has served as an important foundation for later work on culture and the development of self.

Some of the earliest work in the tradition of culture and personality adopted a critical case methodology to test the generality of psychological theories. For example, in a classic example of this type of approach, Malinowski tested the universality of the Oedipus complex against case materials from the Trobriand Islands (1959). In contrast to the Freudian assumption that the father is both the disciplinarian and the mother’s lover, in this society, the mother’s brother, rather than the father, assumed the role of disciplinarian. Based on his analysis, Malinowski concluded that there was no evidence for the occurrence of the Oedipus complex under these societal conditions. Likewise, in another early example of this type of approach, Margaret Mead provided evidence that adolescence does not invariably involve the patterns of psychosocial conflict that are observed in Western populations and that were once assumed in psychological theory to be universal (1928, 1939).

Later work in culture and personality developed models that portrayed culture as an amalgam of parts that conformed to the dominant pattern of individual personality possessed by members of the culture. Such an assumption may be seen reflected, for example, in the stance adopted by Benedict as she portrayed culture and personality as highly integrated entities: “A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action” (1932, p. 42). Applying this model to an analysis of Japan, Benedict (1946) traced broad consistencies that characterized Japanese values, social institutions, national policy, and interpersonal relations. Similar types of assumptions characterized the nationalcharacter studies that were conducted—research that frequently involved studying culture at a distance by relying on sources such as literature, art, and history (Adorno, FrenkelBrunswick, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950; Gorer, 1955; Gorer & Rickman, 1962). For example, in examining why Nazism was embraced in Germany, researchers identified an assumed “authoritarian” personality that they maintained was characteristic of the German psyche and that they saw as contributing to the emphasis on obedience to authority observed in Germany under Nazi rule (Fromm, 1941).

Still a third thrust of work in culture and personality forwarded a personality–integration-of-culture model (Kardiner, 1945; B. B. Whiting & Whiting, 1975). From this viewpoint, individual personality structure was regarded as adapted to cultural meanings and practices that in turn were regarded as adapted to the demands of particular ecological settings. It was assumed from this perspective that individuals come over time to be socialized to behave in ways that fit what is regarded as the dominant psychological orientation of adults in the culture. As reflected in research that made use of the ethnographic reports compiled in the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF; J. W. Whiting & Child, 1953), studies empirically tested assumed causal relationships between features of the natural ecology, modes of social organization, child socialization, and expressive aspects of culture, such as religious beliefs. In a groundbreaking program of research that stands as one of the most influential contributions of this school of thought, the Six Culture study tested these relations in an investigation that involved conducting behavioral observations of parenting and child behavior in everyday contexts in a worldwide sampling of cultures (J. W. Whiting & Child, 1975). As one example of the many findings from the Six Culture project, it was demonstrated that cultures with rich natural ecologies give rise to societies with complex social structures, which, in turn, lead to the development of egoistic personality dispositions among members of the cultures and to cultural meanings and practices that emphasize competitiveness.

In terms of criticisms, research in the tradition of culture and personality was subject to challenge in terms of the theories of personality and of culture that it embodied (Shweder, 1979a, 1979b). Concerns were raised regarding the determinism of treating culture merely as a concomitant of individual personality, as well as regarding what was viewed as its overly socialized conception of the person—a conception that treated the individual as merely passively conforming to prevailing norms. Additionally, it was argued that work in culture and personality overestimated the thematic nature of cultural forms, as well as failed to take into account the limited longitudinal stability and cross-situational consistency of personality. For example, evidence suggested that what had been interpreted as a difference in personality between cultural populations in fact could be explained in normative terms—as individuals responding to the behavioral expectations of different everyday cultural settings (Shweder, 1975). Thus, the observation was later made that one of the most important influences of culture on individual development is that it provides contrasting socialization experiences rather than affects individual personalities. For example, the degree to which children in different cultures emphasize competitive versus cooperative behavior appears closely linked to whether children spend their days in the competitive atmosphere of formal school settings versus the more prosocial atmosphere of sibling caregiving activities (B. B. Whiting & Edwards, 1988).

In terms of enduring contributions, work on culture and personality succeeded in highlighting the importance of understanding the mutual influence of ecological, psychological, and cultural processes. Methodologically rich, research in this tradition not only demonstrated the importance of integrating both ethnographic and quantitative approaches in psychological investigation, but also called attention to the value of observing behavior in naturalistic contexts and of capturing the dynamics of everyday cultural activities and practices (e.g., Ford, 1967; Honigmann, 1954; LeVine, 1973; Spindler, 1980; Spiro, 1958, 1965, 1982; Wallace, 1961; J. W. Whiting & Child, 1953; B. B. Whiting & Whiting, 1975).

However, although the study of culture and personality left a rich and highly influential legacy with many investigators associated with this tradition at the forefront of contemporary work in cultural psychology, work in culture and personality did not directly move into the issues of culture and basic psychological theory that are being addressed in contemporary research in cultural psychology. Rather, most work in culture and personality assumed psychological universalism or what theorists have characterized as the “postulate of psychic unity” (e.g., Shweder, 1990). Personality theories were treated as having universal validity and thus as applicable in unchanged form in diverse cultural populations. Little consideration was given to respects in which these theories (e.g., psychoanalysis) might themselves be culturally bound.


Work on individualism-collectivism represents one of the most influential and long-standing traditions of research in cross-cultural psychology. Associated particularly with the early theoretical work of investigators such as Hofstede and Triandis (Hofstede, 1980; Triandis, 1972, 1980, 1988), this perspective has been applied to explain variation in a wide range of behavioral domains on a worldwide scale. Thus, the constructs of individualism-collectivism have been invoked in explaining such diverse phenomena as values (Hofstede, 1980; S. H. Schwartz, 1994), cognitive differentiation (Witkin & Berry, 1975), and modernity (Inkeles, 1974). Embracing the explanatory goals of predictive power and parsimony as well as the quantitative methodological approaches of the mainstream discipline, the primary focus of work on individualism-collectivism has been to forward a universal framework that predicts the nature of both cultural forms and individual psychological experience.

Individualism and collectivism are conceptualized as syndromes of beliefs and attitudes that distinguish different cultural populations. Collectivism is seen as encompassing such core ideas as an emphasis on the views, needs, and goals of one’s in-group as having priority over one’s own personal views, needs, and goals, and a readiness to cooperate with in-group members. In contrast, individualism is seen as entailing such core ideas as that of individuals as ends in themselves who should realize their own selves and cultivate their own judgment. In collectivist cultures, in-groups are assumed to influence a broad range of behaviors, with individuals experiencing pressure to conform to in-group norms or leave the groups. In contrast, in individualistic cultures, in-groups are seen as providing only limited norms, with individuals readily able to enter and exit in-groups: The relationship of individuals with their in-groups is of limited intensity.

Further distinctions are made in this broad dichotomy to capture dimensions of variation between different individualistic and collectivist cultures (e.g., Triandis, 1989, 1996). Thus, for example, cultures are seen as differing in terms of which in-groups are important (e.g., family vs. country), the particular collectivist values emphasized (e.g., harmony vs. dignity), and the ease with which individuals can join ingroups and deviate from their norms (e.g., tightness vs. looseness of norms; Triandis, 1988). In addition to the global constructs of individualism-collectivism, additional constructs are invoked to explain individual differences. Thus, the constructs of idiocentrism and allocentrism have been proposed as the psychological manifestations at the level of individual self-definitions, beliefs, and attitudes of individualism and collectivism. It is assumed that individuals in all cultures maintain both idiocentric and allocentric aspects of their selves. Cultural differences at the psychological level, then, are seen as reflecting the differential sampling of idiocentric as compared with allocentric features of self in diverse sociocultural contexts (Triandis, 1990, 1996).

In terms of explaining the cultural syndromes of individualism and collectivism, research has shown that factors such as affluence, exposure to mass media, modernization, mobility, movement from rural to urban settings, and industrialization are linked to societal shifts from collectivism toward individualism. In turn, a wide range of psychological consequences are seen as linked to such shifts, with individualism, as compared with collectivism, associated with such outcomes as higher self-esteem and subjective well-being (e.g., Diener & Diener, 1995; Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995), values such as being curious and broad-minded as compared with emphasizing family security and respect for tradition (S. H. Schwartz, 1994), as well as direct and frank communication styles, as compared with relatively indirect communication styles that emphasize context and concern for the feelings of the other (Gudykunst, Yoon, & Nishida, 1987; Kim, Sharkey, & Singelis, 1994; Triandis, 1994).

Theprototypicalresearchconductedbyinvestigatorsinthe tradition of individualism-collectivism involves multiculture survey or questionnaire research.This work is concerned with developing ecological models of culture that can be invoked to explain the distribution of individualism-collectivism and of related psychological characteristics on a worldwide scale (for review, e.g., see Berry et al., 1992).

In recent years, researchers have shown increased interest in the constructs of individualism and collectivism as a consequence of these constructs being linked to the distinction drawn by Markus and Kitayama (1991) between independent versus interdependent modes of self-construal. In introducing the contrast between independent versus interdependent modes of self-construal, Markus and Kitayama did not adopt all of the assumptions of the individualism-collectivism framework as developed by early cross-cultural psychologists. In contrast to such theorists, for example, they were concerned with the cultural psychological agenda of identifying insights for basic psychological theory of cultural variation (e.g., identifying new culturally based forms of motivation), rather than with the cross-cultural agenda of applying existing psychological theories in diverse cultural contexts (e.g., identifying cultural variation in the emphasis placed on internal vs. external locus of control, as specified by Rotter’s framework). They tended to eschew the use of scale measures of individualism-collectivism; they also did not draw some of the global contrasts made within much work within this framework, such as devaluation of the self in collectivism or of relationships in individualism (see discussion in Kitayama, in press; J. G. Miller, 2002). However, in part as a reflection of the interest in the distinction between independent versus interdependent self-construals introduced by Markus and Kitayama (1991), the number of investigators concerned with individualism and collectivism has grown in recent years, with many investigators drawing on this framework to further the cultural psychological agenda of broadening basic psychological theory (e.g., Greenfield & Cocking, 1994; Greenfield & Suzuki, 1998), and other investigators in social psychology drawing on the framework to further the original agenda of theorists such as Triandis to develop a universal, ecologically based framework to explain psychological variation on a worldwide scale (e.g., Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmeier, 2002).

In terms of criticisms, the tradition of cross-cultural research on individualism is limited in its emphasis on testing the generality of existing psychological theories in diverse cultural contexts, and in its inattention to examining the degree to which such theories themselves may be culturally bound and take somewhat contrasting forms in different cultural contexts. This stance represents perhaps the most central reason that mainstream psychologists have tended to view the findings of research on individualism-collectivism as primarily descriptive in nature rather than to view them as contributing to basic psychological theory (e.g., Shweder, 1990). The framework of individualism-collectivism has also been subject to criticism for its global view of culture: Much work in this tradition fails to account for subtleties in cultural meanings and practices, and it has also been criticized for the somewhat stereotypical nature of its portrayal of these two cultural systems (e.g., Dien, 1999). Thus, for example, as numerous theorists have noted (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991; J. G. Miller, 1994, 2002; Rothbaum, Pott, Azuma, Miyake, & Weisz, 2000), much work on individualism-collectivism has failed to recognize that concerns with self have importance in collectivist cultures rather than only in individualistic cultures—although they may take somewhat contrasting forms in the two cultural contexts, just as concerns with relationships have importance but may take different forms in the two cultural contexts. Finally, methodological criticisms have been directed at the widespread use of attitudinal scale measuresinworkinthistradition(e.g.,Kitayama,2002),withtheorists noting the many problems associated with the limited ability of individuals to report on the orientations emphasized in their culture and with the inattention to everyday cultural practices, artifacts, and routines that has characterized much work in this tradition with its reliance on attitudinal indexes of culture.

The individualism-collectivism framework has made major and enduring contributions to understanding culture and society in ecological terms. Work in this tradition has been of great value in providing insight into processes of modernization and cultural change, and it has assisted in modeling how both factors in the physical environment and social structural considerations affect psychological outcomes. The broad framework of individualism-collectivism has also proven useful heuristically as a source of initial research hypotheses, with this distinction embraced—at least in a limited way—not only by investigators concerned with the more universalistic agenda of cross-cultural psychology, but also by some theorists identified more explicitly with cultural psychology (e.g., Greenfield & Suzuki, 1998).

Culture and Cognitive Development

Early work on culture and cognitive development was theoretically diverse and international in character, drawing on Piagetian as well as Vygotskiian viewpoints among others. Within Piagetian viewpoints, cross-cultural research was undertaken to test the presumed universality of cognitive developmental theory (Dasen, 1972; Dasen & Heron, 1981). This work involved administering standard Piagetian cognitive tests in different cultures after translating the tests and making minor modifications to ensure their ecological validity. Likewise, in the domain of moral development, Kohlbergian measures of moral judgment were administered in a large number of cultural settings after only minor changes in research protocols were made, such as substituting local names for those originally in the text (e.g., Edwards, 1986; Kohlberg, 1969; Snarey, 1985). The findings on Piagetian tasks suggested that in certain African settings, cognitive development proceeds at a slower rate than that observed in Geneva, with the highest level of formal operations generally not obtained. Likewise, cross-cultural Kohlbergian research indicated that populations not exposed to higher levels of education do not reach the highest (postconventional) stage of moral judgment. Results of this type were generally interpreted as reflecting the cognitive richness of the environment that resulted in more advanced cognitive development in certain cultures over others. They were also interpreted as supporting the universality of cognitive developmental theory. It was concluded that culture is nonessential in development, in that the sequence and end point of developmental change are culturally invariant (e.g., Piaget, 1973).

Inspired by Vygotsky and other Soviet investigators (e.g., Vygotsky, 1929, 1934/1987; 1978; Luria, 1928, 1976), theorists in the early sociocultural tradition of cross-cultural research on cognitive development proceeded by undertaking experiments in diverse cultural settings. However, in contrast to cognitive developmental viewpoints, they assumed that cognitive development has a formative influence on the emergence of basic psychological processes. Rather than viewing development as proceeding independently of cultural learning, cultural learning was assumed to be necessary for development to proceed. Vygotskiian theory and related sociocultural approaches emphasized the importance of tool use in extending cognitive capacities. From this perspective, cultural transmission was assumed to be essential, with cognitive development involving the internalization of the tools provided by the culture.Among the key cultural tools assumed to transform minds were literacy and formal schooling, through their assumed effects of providing individuals exposure to abstract symbolic resources and giving rise to modes of reasoning that are relatively decontextualized and not directly tied to practical activity (e.g., Goody, 1968). In viewing cultural processes as a source of patterning of thought, work in the sociocultural tradition shared many assumptions with and may be considered part of cultural psychology. However, at least in its early years, research in this tradition focused on establishing the universality of basic cognitive processes; this linked it closely to other contemporary traditions of cross-cultural cognitive developmental research.

The earliest traditions of cross-cultural experimental research undertaken by sociocultural theorists resembled those of Piagetian researchers in both their methods and their findings. After making only minor modifications, experimental tests were administered to diverse cultural populations. These populations were selected to provide a contrast in the cultural processes thought to influence cognitive development, such as literacy and schooling (e.g., Bruner, Olver, & Greenfield, 1966; Cole, Gay, Glick, & Sharp, 1971). Results revealed that individuals who were illiterate or who lacked formal education scored lower in cognitive development, failing to show such features as abstract conceptual development or propositional reasoning, which appeared as end points of cognitive development in Western industrialized contexts. Such findings supported a “primitive versus modern mind” interpretation of cultural differences, in which it was assumed that the cognitive development of certain populations remains arrested at lower developmental levels. This type of argument may be seen, for example, in the conclusion drawn by Greenfield and Bruner (1969) in drawing links between such observed cross-cultural differences and related differences found in research contrasting cognition among mainstream and minority communities within the United States:

…As Werner (1948) pointed out, ‘development among primitive people is characterized on the one hand by precocity and, on the other, by a relatively early arrest of the process of intellectual growth.’ His remark is telling with respect to the difference we find between school children and those who have not been to school. The latter stabilize earlier and do not go on to new levels of operation. The same ‘early arrest’ characterizes the differences between ‘culturally deprived’ and other American children.

…Some environments ‘push’ cognitive growth better, earlier, and longer than others. . . . Less demanding societies—less demanding intellectually—do not produce so much symbolic embedding and elaboration of first ways of looking and thinking. (p. 654)

From this perspective, the impact of culture on thought was assumed to be highly general, with individuals fully internalizing the tools provided by their culture and that resulting in generalized cultural differences in modes of thought.

Later experimental research in the sociocultural tradition challenged these early conclusions about global differences in thought and about the transformative impact of cultural tools on minds. Programs of cross-cultural research were undertaken that focused on unpacking the complex cognitive processes that are tapped in standard cognitive tests and in assessing these components under diverse circumstances (Cole & Scribner, 1974). Thus, for example, rather than using the multiple objects that tended to be employed in Piagetian seriation tasks, with their extensive memory demands, researchers employed fewer objects in memory procedures. Also, processes such as memory were assessed in the context of socially meaningful material, such as stories, rather than merely in decontextualized ways, such as through the presentation of words. These and similar modifications showed that cognitive performance varied depending on features of the task situation and that cultural differences did not remain stable. For example, in experimental research, it was shown that whereas Liberian schoolchildren are superior to unschooled Mano rice farmers in abstract classification of geometric shapes, the farmers tended to display more abstract levels of classification than shown by the school children on a ricesorting task (Irwin & McLaughlin, 1970).

Notably, in this early tradition, experimental research focused on isolating the impact on thought of literacy and schooling, as two of the dimensions believed to be most influential in affecting cognitive development. In one landmark program of such research, Scribner an dCole (1981) conducted research among the Vai tribal community as a way of assessing the impact of literacy on thought independently of the effects of schooling.Whereas in most societies, literacy covaries with schooling, among the Vai certain individuals became literate through working as priests without attending school. Results of the Scribner and Cole (1981) investigation revealed that literacy had no independent impact on thought beyond the effects of schooling. In turn, the many programs of research focused on evaluating the cognitive consequences of schooling revealed that formal schooling enhanced performance on tests of cognitive achievement, but suggested that they had highly limited generality in everyday domains of thought outside of school contexts (Sharp, Cole, & Lave, 1979).

In sum, early research on culture and cognition set a strong foundation for contemporary cognitive work in cultural psychology. Whereas its early findings suggested that culture had the effect of arresting the rate of cognitive development or the highest levels of cognitive development attained, this finding became qualified as conclusions pointed to the need for a more contextually based view of cognition. The early image of global cultural differences in thought, linked to an image of a primitive versus modern mind, gave way to a view of common basic cognitive competencies.

Early work on culture and thought left many significant legacies that remain influential in the field. There was a recognition of the need to treat cognition as contextually dependent rather than highly global. Equally, it was demonstrated that experimental tasks do not provide pure measures of cognitive ability. Rather, research revealed that greater cognitive competence tends to be evident when individuals respond to experimental tasks that are more motivationally engaging or when individuals are observed interacting in the contexts of everyday activities. However, at least in its early period, a strong agenda had not yet been developed for cultural psychology. As the anthropologist T. Schwartz (1981) once commented, work in this tradition arrived at a conclusion of universal cognitive competencies that, although it represented a welcome advance from the early emphasis on global cultural differences in thought, seemed to be proving something that was already assumed by many anthropologists who held a view of individuals as competent in fulfilling the cognitive demands of their culture. The field had not yet reached the point of articulating a positive agenda of characterizing how culture affected cognition. It was this kind of stance that emerged as sociocultural work, and work on culture and cognition began to turn more explicitly to cultural psychology.


In sum, early research in cross-cultural psychology laid important groundwork for contemporary research in the newly reemerging framework of cultural psychology. In terms of major empirical findings, this early work challenged the idea that cultural differences map onto personality differences of individual members of a culture, and pointed instead to the role of normative practices in underlying observed differences in individual behavior. It also challenged claims of global differences in cognitive capacity linked to modernizing influences, and instead identified modernizing influences as having localized effects on cognitive capacities. It is important to note, however, that although in many respects it was a precursor to much contemporary work in cultural psychology, early work in these traditions of cross-cultural psychology tended to remain in a relatively peripheral role in the discipline and not to impact fundamentally on psychological theory. Thus, in particular, work on culture and personality never challenged the universality of psychological theories themselves, such as psychoanalysis, but merely applied them in understanding levels of personality development or display of assumed personality traits in different cultures. Equally, work on individualism and collectivism was concerned with developing parameters that affected the level of development of particularly psychological attributes, but not the nature of the attributes themselves. Thus, for example, the prediction was made that self-esteem would be emphasized more in individualistic than in collectivist cultures (e.g., Triandis, 1989), but culture was not assumed to affect qualitatively the nature of self-processes or the relevance of selfesteem as a dimension of self in different cultural contexts (e.g., Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999). Finally, early comparative research in the sociocultural tradition approached cognitive processes as culturally dependent, but (at least in these earlier years) tended not to go beyond a contextually based view of cognition and claims of universal cognitive competencies in its implications for psychological theory. In the next section, consideration is given to some of the theoretical insights that underlay the turn from these earlier traditions of cultural research to a more explicit cultural psychological stance.

Insights and Challenges of Cultural Psychology

Cultural psychology represents an eclectic interdisciplinary perspective that has many roots. In many (but not all) cases, investigators associated with some of these traditions of research in cross-cultural psychology moved toward a cultural psychological outlook in response to the perceived limitations of some of the conceptual frameworks and goals of their earlier research. Thus, for example, many leading investigators associated with culture and personality, such as individuals who worked on the Six Culture project (B. B. Whiting & Whiting, 1975), as well as those associated with early work in the Vygotskiian tradition on culture and thought, are at the forefront of contemporary work in cultural psychology. Equally, however, research in cultural psychology has drawn from disciplinary perspectives outside psychology. Thus, within psychological and cognitive anthropology, many investigators moved in a cultural psychological direction both from a concern that some of the early theories of culture and personality were parochial and needed to be formulated in more culturally grounded terms and from a sense that to understand culture requires attention to psychological and not merely anthropological considerations (e.g., Lutz & White, 1986; T. Schwartz, White, & Lutz, 1992; Shore, 1996; Strauss & Quinn, 1997). Thus, for example, arguments were made that to avoid an oversocialized conception of the person as merely passively conforming to cultural expectations required taking into account the subjectivity of intentional agents (e.g., Strauss, 1992). Equally, in another major research tradition, interest developed in cultural work within sociolinguistics. Thus, in work on language learning, it was recognized that individuals come to acquire not only the code of their language but also the meaning systems of their culture through everyday language use (e.g., Heath, 1983; P. Miller, 1986; Ochs & Schieffelin, 1984). Likewise, it came to be understood that everyday discourse contexts serve as a key context of cultural transmission.

Key Conceptual Premises

The perspective of cultural psychology is defined conceptually by its view of culture and psychology as mutually constitutivephenomena.Fromthisperspective,culturalprocesses are seen as presupposing the existence of communities of intentional agents who contribute meanings and form to cultural beliefs, values, and practices. Equally, psychological functioning is seen as dependent on cultural mediation, as individuals participate in and come to acquire as well as create and transform the shared meaning systems of the cultural communities in which they participate. It is this monistic assumption of psychological and cultural processes as mutually dependent—not the type of methodology adopted—that is central to cultural psychology. Thus, for example, whether an approach employs qualitative versus quantitative methods or comparative versus single cultural analysis does not mark whether the approach may be considered as within the tradition of cultural as compared with cross-cultural psychology.

Active Contribution of Meanings to Experience

A core assumption underlying cultural psychology is linked to the insight of the Cognitive Revolution regarding the importance of meanings in mediating behavior (Bruner, 1990). It came to be understood that individuals go beyond the information given as they contribute meanings to experience, with these meanings in turn influencing individuals’ affective, cognitive, and behavioral reactions. The cultural implications of this cognitive shift were not appreciated immediately within psychology. Rather, as Bruner (1990) observes in presenting a brief history of the field, there was a tendency for many years to emphasize the autonomous self-construction of knowledge—independently of cultural transmission. The cultural implications of the Cognitive Revolution were also not apparent for many years because of the ascendance of information-processing accounts of cognition, which stress the automatic processing of information rather than the more active and creative processes of meaningmaking. Nonetheless, although this image of an active constructivist agent for many years was not linked with cultural viewpoints, it formed an important theoretical basis for cultural psychology. The recognition that an act of interpretation mediates between the stimulus and the response established a theoretical basis upon which investigators could draw as they began to appreciate the cultural aspects of meanings and these meanings’impact on thought and behavior.

Symbolic Views of Culture

The development within anthropology of symbolic views of culture (Geertz, 1973; Sahlins, 1976; Shweder & LeVine, 1984) also contributed to the emergence of cultural psychology in that it highlighted the need to go beyond the prevailing tendency to treat culture merely in ecological terms as an aspect of the objective environment. Ecological views of culture are critically important in calling attention to the adaptive implications of features of the context (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). However, they also are limited in treating the context exclusively in objective terms, as presenting affordances and constraints that are functional in nature. In such frameworks, which have tended to be adopted in both mainstream and cross-cultural psychology, culture is seen as nonessential to interpretation or construction of reality. In contrast, within symbolic approaches, cultural systems are understood as bearing an indeterminate or open relationship to objective constraints rather than being fully determined by objective adaptive contingencies. Within symbolic approaches to culture, it is recognized that cultural meanings serve not merely to represent reality, as in knowledge systems, or to assume a directive function, as in systems of social norms. Rather, they are seen as also assuming constitutive or reality-creating roles. In this latter role, cultural meanings serve to create social realities, whose existence rests partly on these cultural definitions (Shweder, 1984). This includes not only cases in which culturally based social definitions are integral to establishing particular social institutions and practices (e.g., marriage, graduation, etc.) but also cases in which such definitions form a key role in creating psychological realities. Thus, it is increasingly recognized that aspects of psychological functioning (e.g., emotions) depend, in part, for their existence on cultural distinctions embodied in natural language categories, discourse, and everyday practices. For example, the Japanese emotional experience of amae (Doi, 1973; Yamaguchi, 2001) presupposes not only the concepts reflected in this label but also norms and practices that support and promote it. As an emotional state, amae involves a positive feeling of depending on another’s benevolence. At the level of social practices, amae is evident not only in caregiver-child interactions in early infancy (Doi, 1973, 1992), but also in the everyday interactions of adults, who are able to presume that their inappropriate behavior will be accepted by their counterparts in close relationships (Yamaguchi, 2001).

The significance of a symbolic view of culture for the development of cultural psychology was in its complementing the attention to meaning-making heralded by the cognitive revolution. It became clear that not only were meanings in part socially constructed and publicly based, but they also could not be purely derived merely by inductive or deductive processing of objective information. Culture, then, in this way became an additional essential factor in psychological explanation, beyond merely a focus on objective features of the context and subjective features of the person.

Incompleteness Thesis

Finally, and most critically, the theoretical grounding of cultural psychology emerged from the realization of the necessary role of culture in completion of the self, an insight that has been termed the incompleteness thesis (Geertz, 1973; T. Schwartz, 1992). This stance does not assume the absence of innate capacities or downplay the impact of biological influences as a source of patterning of individual psychological processes. However, without making the assumption that psychological development is totally open in direction, with no biological influences either on its initial patterning or on its subsequent developmental course, this stance calls attention to the essential role of culture in the emergence of higher-order psychological processes. Individuals are viewed not only as developing in culturally specific environments and utilizing culturally specific tools, but also as carrying with them, in their language and meanings systems, culturally based assumptions through which they interpret experience. Although there has been a tendency within psychology to treat this culturally specific input as noise that should be filtered out or controlled in order to uncover basic features of psychological functioning, the present considerations suggest that it is omnipresent and cannot be held constant or eliminated. Rather, it is understood that the culturally specific meanings and practices that are essential for the emergence of higher-order psychological processes invariably introduce a certain cultural-historical specificity to psychological functioning, as Geertz (1973) once noted:

We are . . . incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture—and not through culture in general but through highly particular forms of it. (p. 49)

From the present perspective, it is assumed that whereas an involuntary response may proceed without cultural mediation, culture is necessary for the emergence of higher-order psychological processes. Wertsch (1995) articulates this point:

Cultural, institutional, and historical forces are ‘imported’ into individuals’ actions by virtue of using cultural tools, on the one hand, and sociocultural settings are created and recreated through individuals’use of mediational means, on the other. The resulting picture is one in which, because of the role cultural tools play in mediated action, it is virtually impossible for us to act in a way that is not socioculturally situated. Nearly all human action is mediated action, the only exceptions being found perhaps at very early stages of ontogenesis and in natural responses such as reacting involuntarily to an unexpected loud noise. (p. 160)

Thus, for example, whereas involuntary physiological reactions may be elicited by situational events, whether they become interpreted and experienced in emotional terms depends in part on such input as culturally based theories regarding the nature, causes, and consequences of emotions, cultural routines for responding to emotions, natural language categories for defining emotions, and a range of other sociocultural processes.

This assumption of the interdependence of psychological and cultural processes represents the central idea of cultural psychology. Notably, the term cultural psychology was selected by theorists to convey this central insight that psychological processes need to be understood as always grounded in particular socio-cultural-historical contexts that influence their form and patterning, just as cultural communities depend for their existence on particular communities of intentional agents. The present considerations then lead to the expectation that qualitative differences in modes of psychological functioning will be observed among individuals from cultural communities characterized by contrasting selfrelated sociocultural meanings and practices.


Among the key conceptual insights giving rise to cultural psychology were the emergence of a view of the individual as actively contributing meanings to experience and an understanding of culture as a symbolic system of meanings and practices that cannot be explained exclusively in functional terms as mapping onto objective adaptive constraints. Crucial to the field’s development was that it also came to be recognized that higher-order psychological processes depend for their emergence on individuals’ participation in particular sociocultural contexts, and thus that culture is fundamental to the development of self.

Select Overview of Empirical Research in Cultural Psychology

The present section examines representative examples of empirical studies that embody this core insight regarding the cultural grounding of psychological processes, an insight that is central to the many traditions of work in cultural psychology (e.g., Cole, 1990, 1996; Markus et al., 1996; J. G. Miller, 1997; Shweder, 1990; Shweder et al., 1998). Although the overview presented here is necessarily highly selective and incomplete, it serves to illustrate ways in which cultural research is offering new process explanations of psychological phenomena as well as identifying fundamental variability in the forms that psychological processes assume.

Sociocultural Traditions of Research

The discussion here makes reference to findings from a diverse range of related viewpoints that have derived from the work of such major cultural theorists as Vygotsky (1978, 1981a, 1981b), Leontiev (1979a, 1979b), Luria (1979, 1981), Bakhtin (1986), and Bourdieu (1977) among others; their work is reflected in the many contemporary traditions of research in sociocultural psychology (e.g., Cole, 1988, 1990; Rogoff, 1990; Valsiner, 1988, 1989; Wertsch, 1979, 1991). Central to theoretical work within this tradition is an emphasis on the mediated nature of cognition. Human behavior is seen as dependent on cultural tools or on other mediational means, with language recognized as one of the most central of these cultural supports. Embodying a broad lens, sociocultural approaches focus on understanding human activity at phylogenetic, historical, ontogenetic, and microgenetic levels, with cultural practices and activities viewed in terms of their place in larger sociopolitical contexts.

Considerable research in this area focuses on documenting how interaction with cultural tools and participation in everyday cultural activities leads to powerful domainspecific changes in thought. In work on everyday cognition (see review in Schliemann, Carraher, & Ceci, 1997), it has been shown, in fact, that everyday experiences can produce changes that represent an advance on those produced by schooling. For example, Scribner (1984) documented that individuals who work as preloaders in a milk factory and have less formal education than do white-collar workers are able to solve a simulated loading task more rapidly than do white-collar workers through using a more efficient perceptual solution strategy as contrasted with a slower enumerative approach. Likewise, in a growing body of research on expertise, it has been revealed, for example, that compared with novice adult chess players, child chess experts use more complex clustering strategies in organization and retrieval of chess information; they are also more proficient in their memory for chess pieces (Chi, Glaser, & Farr, 1998). Similar effects have equally been shown to occur in the solving of math problems among expert versus novice abacus users (Stigler, 1984).

It is important to note that sociocultural research is also providing new process models of the nature of everyday cognition. For example, recent research on situated cognition has challenged the view of learning as a distinct activity or as an end in itself set off from daily life and has emphasized its embeddedness in everyday activities and social contexts (Lave, 1988, 1993; Lave & Wenger, 1991). Research has revealed, for example, that in contrast to the forms of instruction that occur in formal school settings, learning in everyday situations is more oriented toward practical problems. In part as a result, individuals tend to be more motivationally involved in tasks and spontaneously to search for and generate more flexible task solutions in everyday situations than they do in formal school contexts.

Sociocultural research is also offering new answers to long-standing questions in psychological development. For example, work by Cole and his colleagues (Cole & Engestroem, 1995) has offered a novel process explanation of one of the central theoretical problems of cognitive development and language learning—explaining how individuals can obtain a more powerful conceptual structure if they do not already in some way possess that structure, or how qualitative and not merely quantitative developmental change may occur. In research conducted on the teaching of reading, it has been demonstrated that a range of mediational means, such as simplified reading materials, expert guidance, and so on, are available in everyday socialization contexts that support learning to read. Thus, it is noted that many of the structures entailed in the achievement of competence in reading exist between persons before they appear as individual competencies that may be manifest without this level of cultural support. Equally, in another example, evidence has been obtained to suggest that changes in children’s forms of social participation explain some of the marked advances in cognitive and social functioning that have been linked to the 5- to 7-year-old age shift among the schooled populations that have been subject to most study by cognitive developmental psychologists (Rogoff, 1996).

Cultural Social Psychological Traditions of Cognitive Research

Cultural social psychological work on cognition has a more recent history, tracing its origins most directly to early challenges to the universality of certain well-established attributional phenomena. It is giving rise to a rapidly growing experimental literature that points to qualitative cultural variation in basic modes of cognitive processing.

In some of the early groundbreaking work in this tradition, Shweder and Bourne (1984) challenged the completeness of contemporary social psychological theories of social attribution. It was documented that, as compared with EuropeanAmericans, Oriyan Hindu Indians place significantly greater emphasis in person description on actions versus abstract traits, with their person descriptions more frequently making reference to the context. Thus, for example, their investigation revealed that whereas European-Americans are more likely to describe a friend by saying she is friendly, Oriyan Indians are more likely to describe the friend by saying she brings cakes to my family on festival days. This type of cultural difference, it was observed, was not explicable in terms of the types of objective ecological or individual psychological factors that had been emphasized in previous studies, such as variation in schooling, literacy, socioeconomic status, linguistic resources, or capacities for abstract thought. Rather, the results appeared explicable only when taking into account cultural factors. In particular, the trends were demonstrated to reflect the contrasting cultural conceptions of the person and related sociocultural practices emphasized in Hindu Indian versus European-American cultural communities.

Subsequent cross-cultural developmental research on social attribution demonstrated that these types of cultural considerations give rise to cultural variation in the paths and endpoints of development (J. G. Miller, 1984, 1987). It was documented that whereas European-American children show an age increase in their reference to traits (e.g., she is aggressive) but no age-related change in their reference to contextual considerations, Hindu Indian children show an age increase in their Bibliography: to the social context (e.g., there are bad relations between our families) but no age increase in their Bibliography: to traits. More recently, this type of work has been further extended to understanding the development of individuals’ conceptions of mind, with cultural work calling into question claims that theory of mind understandings develop spontaneously toward an end point of trait psychology—and providing evidence that they proceed in directions that reflect the contrasting epistemological assumptions of local cultural communities (Lillard, 1998).

In other lines of work on social attribution and cognition, culturally based social psychological research is calling into question the universality of various attributional and cognitive tendencies long assumed to be basic to all psychological functioning, such as motives to maintain self-consistency or to emphasize dispositional over situational information. Thus, for example, it has been demonstrated that Japanese college students tend to maintain weaker beliefs in attitude-behavior consistency than do Australian college students (Kashima, Siegal, Tanaka, & Kashima, 1992), while being less prone than are Canadian college students to show cognitive dissonance biases—that is, tendencies to distort social perceptions to make them more congruent with behavior (Heine & Lehman, 1997). Also, relative to European-Americans, various East Asian populations have been documented to display greater sensitivity to situational information in object perception and less vulnerability to the fundamental attributional error (Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, 2000), a tendency to treat behaviors as correspondent with dispositions.

New lines of research in this area are also linking cultural views of the self and related cultural practices to variation in fundamental styles of cognitive processing, such as tendencies to privilege analytic versus dialectical epistemological stances. In one illustration of such a cultural difference, experimental research has demonstrated that American undergraduates tend to treat information in a polarized manner, as seen in their considering scientific evidence as more plausible when it is presented alone rather than in conjunction with contradictory information (Peng & Nisbett, 1999). In contrast, Chinese undergraduates tend to process information in ways that involve greater acceptance of opposing viewpoints, as seen in their considering scientific evidence as more plausible when it is presented in conjunction with contradictory information rather than alone. Work of this type calls into question the primacy of analytic modes of thought in work in cognitive science, highlighting the salience of fundamentally different styles of cognitive processing in various East Asian cultural populations.


In the area of the self-concept, psychological research is challenging the long-standing assumption that individuals spontaneously engage in self-maintenance strategies that are oriented toward self-enhancement, and that self-esteem is universally fundamental to psychological well-being. Open-ended attributional research on self-description, for example, has documented that whereas the open-ended selfdescriptions of American adults emphasize positive attributes (Herzog, Franks, Markus, & Holmberg, 1998), those of Japanese adults emphasize either weakness or the absence of negative self-characteristics (e.g., I’m poor at math, I’m not selfish). Research has also documented that whereas the scores of Americans on measures of self-esteem tend to be higher than the scale midpoints—an indication of a tendency toward self-enhancement—those of Japanese persons tend to be at or slightly below the scale midpoint, an indication of a tendency to view the self as similar to others (Diener & Diener, 1995).

One of the most far-reaching implications of this type of research is that it calls into question the centrality of selfesteem in psychological functioning in various collectivist cultural communities, and it suggests that other types of selfprocesses may be more central in everyday adaptation in such contexts. In this regard, cross-national survey research has shown that self-esteem is more closely associated with life satisfaction in individualist than in collectivist cultures (Diener & Diener, 1995). In contrast, it is documented that a concern with maintaining relationship harmony shows a stronger relationship with life satisfaction in collectivist than in individualist cultures (Gabrenya & Hwang, 1996). These contrasting patterns of interrelationship are further documented to distinguish everyday socialization practices and to have important adaptive consequences. Thus, for example, Chinese as well as Japanese mothers tend to be more selfcritical of their children’s academic performance than are American mothers (Crystal & Stevenson, 1991), with this stance implicated in the tendencies of Chinese and Japanese versus American mothers to place greater emphasis on their children’s expending effort toward self-improvement and having children who show superior levels of academic achievement (Stevenson & Lee, 1990).

Cultural research on the self is also challenging basic psychological theory in the domain of self-consistency. Social psychological theory has long assumed that individuals are inherently motivated to maintain a consistent view of the self and that such consistency is integral to psychological wellbeing. This stance is evident not only in classic theories of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), but also in more recent work on attribution. For example, work on self-verification has shown that individuals tend to prefer information that is consistent rather than inconsistent about themselves (Swann, Wenzlaff, Krull, & Pelham, 1992), as well as that autobiographical memories are structured in ways that preserve a consistent sense of self (Ross, 1989). Equally, work on psychological health has suggested that having an integrated and consistent view of self has adaptive value (Jourard, 1965; Suh, 2000).

A growing body of attributional research in Asian cultures, however, is suggesting that in these cultures the self tends to be experienced as more fluid than is typically observed in U.S. populations, with sensitivity to context valued. Work on self-description has demonstrated, for example, that the self-descriptions of Japanese but not of Americans tend to vary as a function of the presence of others (Kanagawa, Cross, & Markus, 2001). Likewise, experimental research has documented that cognitive dissonance effects tend not to be observed among Japanese as compared with Canadian populations (Heine & Lehman, 1997; Heine & Morikawa, 2000), and that consistency across situations shows a much weaker relationship to psychological well-being among Korean as compared with American populations (Suh, 2000).


Emotions provide a particularly challenging area for cultural research because they are phenomena that involve not merely perceptions but also behavioral action tendencies and somatic reactions. They thus entail a biological grounding even as they also involve essential cultural components. Notably, as suggested in the following discussion, culture affects the expression of emotions and their form, as well as their role in mental health outcomes.

One important influence of cultural processes on emotion occurs in the degree of an emotion’s elaboration or suppression. It has been documented that cultural meanings and practices affect the degree to which particular emotions are hypercognized (in the sense that they are highly differentiated and implicated in many everyday cultural concepts and practices) versus hypocognized (in that there is little cognitive or behavioral elaboration of them; Levy, 1984). Even universal emotions, it has been observed, play contrasting roles in individual experience in different cultural settings. For example, whereas in all cultures both socially engaged feelings (e.g., friendliness, connection) and socially disengaged feelings (e.g., pride, feelings of superiority) may exist, among the Japanese only socially engaged feelings are linked with general positive feelings, whereas among Americans both types of emotions have positive links (Kitayama, Markus, & Kurokawa, 2000).

Cross-cultural differences have also been observed in emotion categories as well as in individuals’ appraisals of emotions. Thus, variation in emotion concepts has been documented not only in the case of culturally specific categories of emotion, such as the concept of amae among the Japanese (Russell & Yik, 1996; Wierzbicka, 1992), but also among such assumed basic emotions as anger and sadness (Russell, 1991, 1994). It has been shown that Turkish adults make systematically different appraisals of common emotional experiences than do Dutch adults, whose cultural background is more individualist (Mesquita, 2001). Thus, as compared with Dutch adults’ appraisals, Turkish adults tend to categorize emotions as more grounded in assessments of social worth, as more reflective of reality than of the inner subjective states of the individual, and aslocatedmorewithintheself-otherrelationshipthanconfined within the subjectivity of the individual.

Notably, work on culture and emotions is also providing evidence of the open relationship that exists between physiological and somatic reactions and emotional experiences. For example, research has revealed that although Minangkabu and American men show the same patterns of autonomic nervous system arousal to voluntary posing of prototypical emotion facial expressions, they differ in their emotional experiences (Levenson, Ekman, Heider, & Friesen, 1992). Whereas the Americans tend to interpret their arousal in this type of situation in emotional terms, Minangkabu tend not to experience an emotion in such cases, because it violates their culturally based assumptions that social relations constitute an essential element in emotional experience.

Finally, important cultural influences on the mental health consequences of affective arousal are also being documented. For example, various somatic experiences—such as fatigue, loss of appetite, or agitation—that are given a psychological interpretation as emotions by European-Americans tend not to be interpreted in emotional terms but rather as purely physiological events among individuals from various Asian, SouthAmerican, andAfrican cultural backgrounds (Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, & Park, 1997). It is notable that such events tend to be explained as originating in problems of interpersonal relationships, thus requiring some form of nonpsychological form of intervention for their amelioration (Rosaldo, 1984; White, 1994).


Whereas early cross-cultural research was informed exclusively by existing theoretical models, such as Rotter’s framework of internal versus external locus of control (Rotter, 1966), recent work is suggesting that motivation may assume socially shared forms. This kind of focus, for example, is reflected in the construct of secondary control, which has been identified among Japanese populations, in which individuals are seen as demonstrating agency via striving to adjust to situational demands (Morling, 2000; Morling, Kitayama, & Miyamoto, 2000; Weisz et al., 1984). Equally, work in India has also pointed to the existence of joint forms of control, in which the agent and the family or other social group are experienced as together agentic in bringing forth certain outcomes (Sinha, 1990).

In another related area of work on motivation, research is highlighting the positive affective associations linked with fulfillment of role-related responsibilities. This type of documentation notably challenges what has been the assumption informing much psychological theory—that behavior is experienced as most agentic when it is freely chosen rather than socially constrained and that social expectations are invariably experienced as impositions on individual freedom of choice. For example, behavioral research on intrinsic motivation has documented that Asian-American children experience higher intrinsic motivation for an anagrams task that has been selected for them by their mothers than for one that they have freely chosen (Iyengar & Lepper, 1999). In contrast, it is shown that European-American children experience greater intrinsic motivation when they have selected such a task for themselves.

Further support for this view that agency is compatible with meeting role expectations may be seen in attributional research, which has documented that Indian adults indicate that they would want to help as much and derive as much satisfaction in helping when acting to fulfill norms of reciprocity as when acting in the absence of such normative expectations (J. G. Miller & Bersoff, 1994). Such a trend contrasts with that observed among Americans, who assume that greater satisfaction is associated with more freely chosen helping. These kinds of results challenge prevailing models of communal relationships, which assume that a concern with obligation detracts from a concern with being responsive to the others’ needs (Mills & Clark, 1982). They also challenge models of self-determination, which assume that internalization involves a greater sense of perceived autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Rather, it appears that in certain collectivist cultures individuals may experience their behavior as demanded by role requirements, while also experiencing themselves as strongly endorsing, choosing to engage in, and deriving satisfaction from the behavior.

In turn, work in the area of morality, relationships, and attachment highlights the need to expand current conceptualizations of motivation. For example, research in the domain of morality with both Hindu Indian populations (Shweder, Mahapatra, & Miller, 1990) as well as with orthodox religious communities within the United States (Jensen, 1997) has documented forms of morality based on concerns with divinity that are not encompassed in existing psychological theories of morality, with their exclusive stress on issues of justice, individual rights, and community (e.g., Kohlberg, 1971; Turiel, 1983). Furthermore, work on moralities of community have documented the highly individualistic cultural assumptions that inform Gilligan’s morality of caring framework (Gilligan, 1982), with its emphasis on the voluntaristic nature of interpersonal commitments. Cross-cultural work conducted on the morality of caring among Hindu Indian populations and cross-cultural work conducted utilizing Kohlbergian methodology have uncovered the existence of forms of duty-based moralities of caring that although fully moral in character, differ qualitatively in key respects from those explained within Gilligan’s framework (J. G. Miller, 1994, 2001b; Snarey & Keljo, 1991).

In terms of relationship research, a growing cross-cultural literature on attachment is suggesting that some of the observed variation in distribution of secure versus nonsecure forms of attachment arises at least in part from contrasting cultural values related to attachment, rather than from certain cultural subgroups’ having less adaptive styles of attachment than others. For example, research conducted among Puerto Rican families suggests that some of the greater tendency of children to show highly dependent forms of attachment reflects the contrasting meanings that they place on interdependent behavior (Harwood, Miller, & Irizarry, 1995). Thus, an analysis of open-ended responses of mothers revealed that compared with European-American mothers, Puerto Rican mothers viewed dependent behavior relatively positively as evidence of the child’s relatedness to the mother. Suggesting that present dimensions of attachment may not be fully capturing salient concerns for Puerto Rican mothers, this work further demonstrated that Puerto Rican mothers spontaneously emphasized other concerns—such as display of respect and of tranquility—that are not tapped by present attachment formulations.

In other research, recent work on attachment among Japanese populations highlights the greater emphasis on indulgence of the infant’s dependency and on affectively based rather than informationally oriented communication in Japanese versus American families (Rothbaum, Weisz, Pott, Miyake, & Morelli, 2000). In contrast to the predictions of attachment theory, however, such forms of parenting are not linked with maladaptive outcomes; rather, these parenting styles have positive adaptive implications, in fitting in with the cultural value placed on amae, an orientation that involves presuming upon another’s dependency and plays an important role in close relationships throughout the life cycle. Such research has pointed out that the common finding that Japanese attachment more frequently takes what are considered as insecure or overly dependent forms reflects biases in present conceptions of attachment, which fail to take into account the concerns with interdependence in the Japanese context. Furthermore, it is noted that methodologically, the attachment research paradigm presents a separation context that is much rarer and thus much more stressful for Japanese than forAmerican infants. Equally, it is suggested that (rather than treat the individual as the unit of attachment) to fully capture Japanese attachment-related concerns would require treating the individual-caregiver unit rather than the individual alone as the object of attachment assessment, with a focus on how well individuals can anticipate each other’s responses.


Work in cultural psychology is not only documenting cultural variability in psychological outcomes, but is also focused on uncovering respects in which this variation has theoretical implications in pointing to the implicit cultural underpinnings of existing psychological effects, as well as respects in which psychological theory needs to be conceptually expanded to account for culturally diverse modes of psychological functioning. We have seen specifically that cultural work is highlighting the culturally mediated nature of cognition through individuals’ participation in everyday cultural practices and use of culturally specific tools; such work has also uncovered the existence of contrasting culturally based cognitive styles, as well as extensive cultural variation in basic psychological processes involving the self, emotions, and motivation.


Whereas there has been a dramatic increase in interest in cultural research in recent years, there nonetheless remains a sense in which cultural perspectives remain in a marginal position in the discipline. This may be seen in the stance adopted for cultural considerations most frequently—to be treated in a diversity sense, as relevant in explaining exceptions from what are assumed to be the general or default patterns—and for psychological theory and psychological generalizations commonly to be formulated without reference to cultural considerations. Concerns have also been raised about the quality of existing cultural research. In this regard, for example, criticisms have been made of the predictive power of recent work in social psychology based on the individualism-collectivism paradigm (e.g., Oyserman et al., 2002; Matsumoto, 1999). Charges have also been made that at least some contemporary cultural research is somewhat simplistic, if not stereotypical, and fails to capture the subtlety of particular cultural outlooks or to forward sophisticated contextually sensitive accounts of psychological functioning (J. G. Miller, 2002). Consideration here is given to ways to overcome some of these limitations and of how to further the promise and potential of cultural psychology to broaden and enrich basic psychological theory.

Process-Oriented Views of Culture

Social psychological traditions of cultural research in particular have been influenced by the views of culture held in the tradition of individualism-collectivism. This link has occurred largely because of the tremendous influence of the distinction introduced by Markus and Kitayama (1991) between interdependent versus independent self-construals. As introduced, this distinction embodied a set of dichotomous contrasts that were presented as characterizing a wide range of cultures, with the independent view of self characteristic of North American as well as many Western European cultural populations and the interdependent view of self characteristic of manyAsian andAfrican cultures. Thus, for example, whereas the independent self was defined as “separate from social context, bounded, unitary, stable, and focused on internal private features (abilities, thoughts, feelings)”, the interdependent self wasdefined in polar opposite waysas “connected with social context, flexible, variable, and focused on external public features (status, roles, relationships)” (Markus & Kitayama, 1991, p. 230).

When presenting this global dichotomy, Markus and Kitayama (1991) cautioned about drawing direct links between the type of general cultural schemas that they were identifying and individual self-representations. In this regard, for example, they noted respects in which individual selfconcepts reflect a range of factors, including “gender, race, religion, social class, and one’s particular social and developmental history” (p. 230). They also stressed that both independent and interdependent orientations toward self are found in all societies, although these orientations take somewhat culturally specific forms. However, many social psychological investigators adopted the independent-interdependent self distinction in a nonnuanced manner that has ended up being somewhat stereotypical and simplistic in its characterization of culture and overly global in its views of how culture influences psychological phenomena.

Variation Between and Within Cultural Communities

In future research, it is critical to attend to the variation within different collectivist and individualist cultures and to the frequent overlap between cultural groups. Also, greater attention needs to be given to variation within culture that may be linked to social class, ethnicity, and experiences of discrimination or oppression.

In this regard, recent cultural research that has focused on varieties of individualism and collectivism has been valuable in that it points to psychological consequences linked to such variation. For example, research has suggested that Japanese individuals tend to approach social relations by focusing on the peer group, whereas Chinese individuals tend to adopt more of an authority-directed stance (Dien, 1999). It has also been documented that regional variation occurs in forms of individualism within the United States, such as the concerns with a culture of honor found in southern and western parts of the United States (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996). Notably, sociolinguistic and ethnographic research has also documented that within lower-class and working-class communities within the United States, there tends to be what has been characterized as a “hard defensive” type of individualism, which stresses adoption of abilities to cope in harsh everyday environments, in contrast with the “soft” individualism, which stresses the cultivation of individual uniqueness and gratification within middle-class contexts (Kusserow, 1999).

Attention to Cultural Practices

A limitation of current work on culture has also been the tendency to conceptualize culture purely in ideational terms. This type of stance is reflected in the reliance on scale measures of individualism-collectivism that have tended to portray cultures as systems of value orientations. Current conceptualizations have also been problematic in treating cultural meanings as individual-difference attitudinal or personality variables—a stance that fails to recognize the multiple motives and personality factors that may be satisfied by given cultural practices, resulting in the lack of a one-to-one relationship between personality and culture.

In future research, it is important to recognize the complexity of cultural meanings. This means acknowledging culture not merely as knowledge about experience or as norms but also as constitutive propositions that serve to define and create social realities. It is equally critical to view cultural meanings as embodied in material artifacts, social institutions, and cultural tools, as well as expressed and communicated in everyday activities and practices. It is important that this type of stance is being recognized in the recent emphasis on the construct of cultural “selfways” or “custom complexes” that treat culture as including ideational and processoriented elements that are mutually supportive (Greenfield, 1997; Markus, Mullally, & Kitayama, 1997; Shweder et al., 1998). It is important that the present type of concern also expands current understandings of culture in highlighting the frequently implicit and covert nature of cultural meanings, with many cultural commitments experienced by agents as facets of nature rather than of culture per se—a stance that contributes to their motivational force for individuals.

Finally, in future research, there is a need to integrate both symbolic and ecological views of culture. Symbolic views call attention to the arbitrary nature of cultural meanings and the extent to which they rest on nonrational commitments, rather than purely on functional considerations of utility. In turn, ecological approaches call attention to the material aspects of sociocultural systems, pointing to the need to take into account material constraints, resources, and issues of power and control in understanding sociocultural processes. In this regard, it is important to understand respects in which cultural and ecological effects are mutually influential. Thus, for example, research has shown not only that Puerto Rican mothers differ qualitatively in their views of attachment from European-American mothers, but also that both common and culturally specific effects of social class are observed in each case (Harwood et al., 1995).

Culturally Nuanced Models of Cultural Influences

One of the limitations of existing views of cultural influences on psychological processes has been the tendency to treat cultural differences as mapping onto personality differences. Ironically, this was one of the problematic aspects of early work in the tradition of culture and personality. As noted earlier, theorists criticized this work as presenting an overly socialized conception of the person as merely conforming to existing social norms and requirements. It also was criticized for positing an isomorphism between personality and individual motivation, and for failing to recognize the open-ended relationship between them. Notably, another problematic aspect of contemporary treatment of cultural influences has been the tendency to view cultural influences on psychological processes as highly generalized rather than as contextually dependent. This also appears related to a tendency to adopt a dispositional view of cultural effects as giving rise to global orientations that generalize across contexts or as uniform and noncontextually mediated forms of perceptual biases.

To develop more nuanced views of cultural influences on psychological functioning, it is critical, then, to attend both to individual differences and to cultural influences rather than to assume that individual differences map directly onto cultural differences. This involves recognizing the variation in individual attitudinal and personality measures within culture. It also involves taking into account that culture frequently has its impact on psychological processes through affecting individuals’ participation in normative contexts—with their varied normative requirements—rather than through affecting enduring psychological individual-difference variables.

Notably, to develop contextually sensitive views of cultural influences on psychological functioning requires taking into account the variation observed across contexts. Thus, for example, it cannot be assumed that because a concern with social relations and with a more interdependent view of self has been seen in collectivist cultures, individuals from collectivist cultures always give more weight to contextual effects than do individuals from individualist cultures. Rather, it must be recognized that culture influences the meanings given to contexts, and—depending on these meanings—there will be occasions in which individuals from collectivist cultures may show less variation in their judgments across contexts than do individuals from individualist cultures; or in some situations, observed cultural differences may even reverse (e.g., Cousins, 1989).

International and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Scholarship

In order to formulate approaches to culture that are dynamic and nuanced, it is essential for researchers to gain an understanding of the meanings and practices emphasized in the particular cultural communities in which they work. Such an understanding can be promoted through a range of processes, including collaboration with individuals from the culture, spending time in residence in the culture, learning the local language, or any combination of these. It is also likely that research that is informed by in-depth understandings of different cultural communities will become more common in psychology in the future. As the field becomes increasingly international and culturally diverse, investigators will be able to bring to their research cultural sensitivities and concerns contrasting with those presently dominating the discipline.

There is equally a need for future research on culture to become increasingly interdisciplinary, with investigators taking into account the conceptual and methodological insights of anthropological and sociolinguistic research traditions and avoiding the present insularity that results from ignoring or dismissing work from different disciplinary viewpoints. This neglect can yield findings considered to have relatively little importance from the perspective of the other traditions. However, given the overlap in concerns across these research traditions and given their contrasting strengths, greater interdisciplinary exchange can only serve to enhance progress in the field.


To enhance the quality of existing cultural research, it is important for investigators to go beyond dichotomous frameworks for understanding cultural differences, such as the global dimensions of individualism-collectivism. These types of frameworks fail to capture the complexity of individual cultural systems, portraying cultures in ways that are overly static, uniform, and isolated. Effort must be made to develop more nuanced views of culture through attending to everyday cultural activities and practices as well as to symbolic culture and ecological dimensions of contexts.Additionally, attention must be given both to individual differences and to cultural influences—the assumption should not be made that individual differences map directly onto cultural variation. Finally, the sensitivity of cultural research stands to be enhanced through researchers’working to gain a greater understanding of the specific cultural communities which they study.


In conclusion, the present examination of culture in social psychological theory highlights the importance of recognizing that culture is part of human experience and needs to be an explicit part of psychological theories that purport to predict, explain, and understand that experience. What work in culture aims to achieve, and what it has already accomplished in many respects, is more than to lead investigators to treat psychological findings and processes as limited in generality. Rather than leading to an extreme relativism that precludes comparison, work in this area holds the promise of leading to the formulation of models of human experience that are increasingly culturally inclusive. By calling attention to the cultural meanings and practices that form the implicit context for existing psychological effects, and by broadening present conceptions of the possibilities of human psychological functioning, work in cultural psychology is contributing new constructs, research questions, and theoretical insights to expand and enrich basic psychological theory.


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