Cultural Psychology

The most basic assumption of cultural psychology can be traced back to the eighteenth-century German romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who proposed that "to be a member of a group is to think and act in a certain way, in the light of particular goals, values, pictures of the world; and to think and act so is to belong to a group" (Berlin 1976: 195). During the past twenty-five years there has been a major renewal of interest in cultural psychology, primarily among anthropologists (D'Andrade 1995; Geertz 1973; Kleinman 1986; Levy 1973; Shore 1996; Shweder 1991; Shweder and LeVine 1984; White and Kirkpatrick 1985), psychologists (Bruner 1990; Cole 1996; Goodnow, Miller, and Kessel 1995; Kitayama and Markus 1994; Markus and Kitayama 1991; Miller 1984; Nisbett and Cohen 1995; Russell 1991; Yang forthcoming) and linguists (Goddard 1997; Wierzbicka 1992a), although relevant work has been done by philosophers as well (Harre 1986; MacIntyre 1981; Taylor 1989). The contemporary field of cultural psychology is concerned, as was Herder, with both the psychological foundations of cultural communities and the cultural foundations of mind. It is concerned with the way culture and psyche make each other up, over the history of the group and over the life course of the individual.

The word "cultural" in the phrase "cultural psychology" refers to local or community-specific conceptions of what is true, good, beautiful, and efficient ("goals, values and pictures of the world") that are socially inherited, made manifest in the speech, laws, and customary practices of members of some self-monitoring group, and which serve to mark a distinction between different ways of life (the Amish way of life, the way of life of Hindu Brahmans in rural India, the way of life of secular urban middle-class Americans).

A community's cultural conception of things will usually include some vision of the proper ends of life; of proper values; of proper ways to speak; of proper ways to discipline children; of proper educational goals; of proper ways to determine kinship connections and obligations; of proper gender and authority relations within the family; of proper foods to eat; of proper attitudes toward labor and work, sexuality and the body, and members of other groups whose beliefs and practices differ from one's own; of proper ways to think about salvation; and so forth.

A community's cultural conception of things will also usually include some received, favored, or privileged "resolution" to a series of universal, scientifically undecidable, and hence existential questions. These are questions with respect to which "answers" must be given for the sake of social coordination and cooperation, whether or not they are logically or ultimately solvable by human beings, questions such as "What is me and what is not me?", "What is male and what is female?", "How should the burdens and benefits of life be fairly distributed?", "Are there community interests or cultural rights that take precedence over the freedoms (of speech, conscience, association, choice) associated with individual rights?" and "When in the life of a fetus or child does social personhood begin?" Locally favored and socially inherited "answers" to such questions are expressed and made manifest (and are thus discernible) in the speech, laws, and customary practices of members of any self-monitoring group. In sum, local conceptions of the true, the good, the beautiful, the efficient, plus discretionary "answers" to cognitively undecidable existential questions, all made apparent in and through practice, is what the word "cultural" in "cultural psychology" is all about.

The word "psychology" in the phrase "cultural psychology" refers broadly to mental functions, such as perceiving, categorizing, reasoning, remembering, feeling, wanting, choosing, valuing, and communicating. What defines a function as a "mental" function per se (over and above, or in contrast to a "physical" function) has something to do with the capacity of the human mind to grasp ideas, to do things for reasons or with a purpose in mind, to be conscious of alternatives and aware of the content or meaning of its own experience. This is one reason that "mental" states are sometimes referred to as "intentional" or "symbolic" states. Cultural psychology is the study of those intentional and symbolic states of individuals (a belief in a reincarnating soul, a desire to purify one's soul and protect it from pollutions of various kinds) that are part and parcel of a particular cultural conception of things made manifest in, and acquired by means of involvement with, the speech, laws and customary practices of some group.

It has been noted by Clifford Geertz, and by others interested in lived realities, that "one does not speak language; one speaks a language." Similarly, one does not categorize; one categorizes something. One does not want; one wants something. On the assumption that what you think about can be decisive for how you think, the focus of cultural psychology has been on content-laden variations in human mentalities rather than on the abstract common denominators of the human mind. Cultural psychologists want to know why Tahitians or Chinese react to "loss" with an experience of headaches and back pains rather than with the experience of "sadness" so common in the Euro-American cultural region (Levy 1973; Kleinman 1986). They seek to document population-level variations in the emotions that are salient or basic in the language and feelings of different peoples around the world (Kitayama and Markus 1994; Russell 1991; Shweder 1993; Wierzbicka 1992a). They aim to understand why Southern American males react more violently to insult than Northern American males (Nisbett and Cohen 1996) and why members of sociocentric subcultures perceive, classify, and moralize about the world differently than do members of individualistic subcultures (Markus and Kitayama 1991; Triandis 1989; Shweder 1991).

It is precisely because cultural psychology is the study of the content-laden intentional/symbolic states of human beings that cultural psychology should be thought of as the study of peoples (such as Trobriand Islanders or Chinese Mandarins), not people (in general or in the abstract). The psychological subject matter definitive of cultural psychology thus consists of those aspects of the mental functioning of individuals that have been ontogenetically activated and historically reproduced by means of some particular cultural conception of things, and by virtue of participation in, observation of, and reflection on the activities and practices of a particular group. This definition of research in cultural psychology sets it in contrast (although not necessarily in opposition) to research in general psychology, where the search is for points of uniformity in the psychological functioning of people around the world. Without denying the existence of some empirically manifest psychological uniformities across all human beings, the focus in cultural psychology is on differences in the way members of different cultural communities perceive, categorize, remember, feel, want, choose, evaluate, and communicate. The focus is on psychological differences that can be traced to variations in communally salient "goals, values, and pictures of the world."

Cultural psychology is thus the study of the way the human mind can be transformed, given shape and definition, and made functional in a number of different ways that are not uniformly distributed across cultural communities around the world. "Universalism without the uniformity" is one of the slogans cultural psychologists sometimes use to talk about "psychic unity," and about themselves.

See also

Additional links

-- Richard A. Shweder


Berlin, I. (1976). Vico and Herder. London: Hogarth.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cole, M. (1996). Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

D'Andrade, R. (1995). The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Goddard, C. (1997). Contrastive semantics and cultural psychology: "Surprise" in Malay and English. Culture and Psychology 2:153-181.

Goodnow, J., P. Miller, and F. Kessel. (1995). Cultural practices as contexts for development. In New Directions for Child Development. Vol. 67. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Harre, R. (1986). The Social Construction of Emotions. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kitayama, S., and H. Markus, Eds. (1994). Emotion and Culture: Empirical Studies of Mutual Influence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Kleinman, A. (1986). Social Origins of Distress and Disease. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Levy, R. (1973). Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Markus, H., and S. Kitayama. (1991). Culture and the self: implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review 98:224-253.

Miller, J. (1984). Culture and the development of everyday social explanation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 46:961-978.

Nisbett, R., and D. Cohen. (1995). The Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Russell, J. (1991). Culture and the categorization of emotions. Psychological Bulletin 110:426-450.

Shore. B. (1996). Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture and the Problem of Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shweder, R. (1991). Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shweder, R. (1993). The cultural psychology of the emotions. In M. Lewis and J. Haviland, Eds., Handbook of Emotions. New York: Guilford.

Shweder, R., and R. LeVine. (1984). Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self and Emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Triandis, H. (1989). The self and social behavior in differing cultural contexts. Psychological Review 93:506-520.

Wierzbicka, A. (1992a). Talking about emotions: semantics, culture and cognition. Cognition and Emotion 6:285-319.

White, G., and J. Kirkpatrick, Eds. (1985). Person, Self and Experience: Exploring Pacific Ethnopsychologies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Yang, K.-S. (1997). Indigenizing westernized Chinese psychology. In M. Bond, Ed., Working at the Interface of Culture: Twenty Lives in Social Science. London: Routledge.

Further Readings

Fiske, A. (1992). The Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of Social Relations. New York: Free Press.

Jessor, R., A. Colby, and R. Shweder, Eds. (1996). Ethnography and Human Development: Context and Meaning in Social Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kakar, S. (1978). The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kakar, S. (1996). The Colors of Violence: Cultural Identities, Religion and Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lebra, T. (1992). Culture, Self and Communication. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lucy, J. (1992). Grammatical Categories and Cognition: A Case Study of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lutz, C., and White, G. (1986). The anthropology of emotions. Annual Review of Anthropology 15:405-436.

MacIntyre, A. (1981). After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Markus, H., S. Kitayama, and R. Heiman. (1998). Culture and "basic" psychological principles. In E. T. Higgins and A. W. Kruglanski, Eds., Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles. New York: Guilford.

Miller, J. (1994). Cultural psychology: bridging disciplinary boundaries in understanding the cultural grounding of self. In P. Bock, Ed., Handbook of Psychological Anthropology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Much, N. (1995). Cultural psychology. In J. Smith, R. Harre, and L. van Langenhove, Eds., Rethinking Psychology. London: Sage.

Shweder, R. (1998). Welcome to Middle Age! (And Other Cultural Fictions.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shweder, R., J. Goodnow, G. Hatano, R. LeVine, H. Markus, and P. Miller. (1997). The cultural psychology of development: one mind, many mentalities. In W. Damon, Ed., Handbook of Child Psychology, vol. 1: Theoretical Models of Human Development. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Shweder, R., and M. Sullivan. (1993). Cultural psychology: who needs it? Annual Review of Psychology 44:497-523.

Stigler, J., R. Shweder, and G. Herdt. (1990). Cultural Psychology: Essays on Comparative Human Development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wierzbicka, A. (1992). Defining emotion concepts. Cognitive Science 16:539-581.

Wierzbicka, A. (1993). A conceptual basis for cultural psychology. Ethos: Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology 21:205-231