Ethnopsychology refers to cultural or "folk" models of subjectivity, particularly as applied to the interpretation of social action. It also refers to the comparative, anthropological study of such models as used in particular languages and cultures. Whereas the fields of psychology and philosophy have both given concerted attention to folk theories of the mind (see FOLK PSYCHOLOGY and THEORY OF MIND), the hallmark of anthropological studies has been the empirical study of commonsense psychologies in comparative perspective (Heelas and Lock 1981; White and Kirkpatrick 1985; see also CULTURAL PSYCHOLOGY).

A growing body of ethnographic work has established that (1) people everywhere think and talk in ordinary language about subjective states and personal qualities (D'Andrade 1987), that (2) cultures vary in the conceptual elaboration and sociocultural importance of such concepts, and that (3) determining conceptual universals in this domain is made difficult by problems of translation, interpretation and representation. So, for example, studies of complex emotion concepts such as Ilongot liget (roughly, "anger") or Japanese amae ("dependent love") have produced extended debates about issues of meaning and representation (see Rosaldo 1980 and Doi 1973, respectively, for extended analyses of these terms).

Beginning in the early 1950s, at about the same time that social psychologists were examining English-language folk psychology (Heider 1958), A. I. Hallowell called for the comparative study of "ethnopsychology," by which he meant "concepts of self, of human nature, of motivation, of personality" (1967: 79). With the advent of COGNITIVE ANTHROPOLOGY and the development of lexical techniques for the semantic analysis of terminological domains such as color, kinship, or botany, anthropologists initially approached ethnopsychology in much the same way as other areas of ethno- or "folk" knowledge, as an essentially cognitive system that could be studied as a set of interrelated categories and propositions. The semantic theories that informed this work derived largely from the study of referential meaning, analyzed in terms of category structures and distinctive features or dimensions (see D'Andrade 1995; Quinn and Holland 1987 for historical overviews).

The two types of psychological vocabulary most frequently studied with lexical methods are personality and emotion. In both cases, comparative research has sought linguistic evidence for cognitive and psychological universals. Studies of personality terms in both English (Schneider 1973) and non-Western languages (e.g., Shweder and Bourne 1982) indicate that two or three dimensions of interpersonal meaning, particularly "solidarity" and "power," structure person concepts across cultures (White 1980). Similarly, studies of emotion vocabularies have found complex patterns of convergence interpreted as evidence for a small number of basic or universal affects (Gerber 1985; Romney, Moore, and Rusch 1997). Claims for universal emotion categories, however, are often complicated by detailed accounts of the relevance of culture-specific models for emotional understanding (Lutz 1988; Heider 1991).

The search for linguistic correlates of basic emotions is motivated by robust findings of biological invariance in facial expressions associated with five or six discrete emotions, often labeled with the English language terms "anger," "disgust," "fear," "happiness," "surprise," and "shame" (Ekman 1992). Inspired by research on COLOR CATEGORIZATION that shows color lexicons everywhere to be structured according to a small set of prototypic categories, numerous authors have speculated that prototype models may be an effective means of representing emotion concepts as internally structured categories (Gerber 1985; Russell 1991) or scenarios (Lakoff and Kövecses 1987).

Lexical studies of an entire corpus of terms extracted from linguistic and social context generally produce highly abstract results. Analyses focusing on the conceptualization of emotion in ordinary language have identified more complex cultural or propositional networks of meaning associated with key emotion terms (e.g., Rosaldo 1980). In particular, analyses of METAPHOR show that metaphorical associations play a central role in the elaboration of cultural models of emotion. Emotion metaphors often acquire their significance by linking together other metaphors pertaining to the conceptualization of bodies, persons, and minds. So, for example, the English language expression "He is about to explode" obtains its meaning in relation to such metaphorical propositions as anger is heat and the body is a container for emotions (Lakoff and Kövecses 1987).

Both comparative and developmental studies show that implicit models of emotion frequently take the form of event schemas in which feelings and other psychological states mediate antecedent events and behavioral responses (Harris 1989; Lutz 1988). The most systematic framework developed for the analysis of emotion language is that of linguist Anna Wierzbicka (1992), who has proposed a metalanguage capable of representing the meanings of emotion words in terms of a limited number of semantic primitives. In this approach, scriptlike understandings of emotion are represented as a string of propositions forming prototypic event schemas. Application of this framework has clarified a number of debates about the nature of emotional meaning in specific languages and cultures (White 1992).

The relevance of prototype schemas for emotional understanding follows from the wider salience of narrative as an organizing principle in ethnopsychological thought generally (Bruner 1990; Johnson 1993). Among the many types of narrative used to represent and communicate social experience, "life stories" appear to be an especially salient genre across cultures (Linde 1993; Ochs and Capps 1996; Peacock and Holland 1993). There is, however, some evidence that Euro-American cultures tend to "package" experience in the form of individualized life stories more than many non-Western cultures that do not value or elaborate individual self-narrative.

Research on talk about personal experience in ordinary social contexts indicates that self-reports are often interactively produced by narrators and audiences intent on rendering experience in moral terms and on actively directing the course of social interaction (Miller et al. 1990). This line of sociolinguistic research has identified the importance of sociocultural institutions for analyzing the pragmatic force of psychological talk in context. Ethnographic research in small-scale societies finds that verbal representations of the thoughts and feelings of others are likely to carry considerable moral weight and may be limited to specific, culturally defined occasions.

By raising interpretive questions, the comparative perspective has drawn attention to the constructed nature of commonsense psychologies, noting that concepts of emotion, person, and so forth generally derive their significance from wider systems of cultural meaning and value. The comparative approach of ethnopsychological research focuses attention back on psychological theory itself, noting ways in which English language constructs and paradigms are constrained by implicit cultural concepts of person. The major theme in this line of criticism is that the values and ideology of Euro-American individualism systematically influence a range of psychological concepts, including personality (White 1992), emotion (Markus and Kitayama 1991), and moral reasoning (Shweder 1990).

As is often the case for comparative research, ethnopsychological studies raise questions about the validity of the domain under study, of "psychology" as a basis for cross-cultural interpretation. As working concepts of psychology are adjusted for purposes of comparison, the boundaries between ethnopsychology, NAIVE SOCIOLOGY, and FOLK BIOLOGY, among other areas, are likely to be remapped as psychology's metalanguage comes to terms with the diversity of psychological forms and practices worldwide.

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Additional links

-- Geoffrey White


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