Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

2.2: Cultural Studies in the Field of Psychology

  • Page ID
    12181
  • Since the 1990s, a number of general books on psychology and culture have been available (e.g., Brislin, 2000; Lonner & Malpass, 1994; Matsumoto, 1994, 1997; Matsumoto & Juang, 2004; Okun, Fried, & Okun, 1999; Price & Crapo, 2002; Segall et al., 1990). Although all of these books address topics such as the “self” and person-perception, and other various aspects of personality, only a few of them devote an actual chapter or section to the topic of personality itself (Matsumoto & Juang, 2004; Price & Crapo, 2002; Segall et al., 1990), and in each case the topics are fairly specific. There is, however, some older literature on the relationships between culture, society, and personality. We will examine that research in the second part of this section. First, let us examine some of the general principles of incorporating cross-cultural perspectives into the study of personality.

    The Challenges of Cultural Research

    The first problem faced by those who are interested in the study of culture and personality is the question: what exactly is to be studied? At the most basic level, there are two types of research. Cross-cultural research typically refers to either parallel studies being conducted in different cultures, or similar concepts being studied in different cultures. In contrast, intercultural research is the study of individuals of different cultures interacting with one another (Brislin, 2000; Matsumoto & Juang, 2004; Segall et al., 1990). As you will see in later chapters, some personality theorists consider interpersonal relationships to be the only true domain for studying individual personality. While most of the research done in psychology has been cross-cultural, as the world becomes more and more of a global community the opportunity for, and importance of, intercultural research is rapidly expanding.

    Another fundamental problem with the study of culture is our attention to it, or rather, the lack of attention we pay to something that is so deeply ingrained in our daily lives. Richard Brislin suggests the following exercise: write down three answers for someone from a different culture who asks “What should I know about your culture so that we can understand each other better?” (pg. 10; Brislin, 2000). Because we simply take our cultural influences for granted, it proves quite difficult for us to think that they need to be identified or explained. For example, freedom of speech is a cherished right in America. Consequently, we often speak our minds. If I am upset about some new college policy, I might say very negative things about the administration of our college, even about particular administrators. It does not mean I intend to be disrespectful, or that I dislike those individuals, or that I won’t say positive things about them when I agree with the next new policy. It is simply an expression of one of the great freedoms in our society: the right to speak out. However, someone from a different culture, particularly a collectivist culture, might be shocked at my apparent disrespect toward my “superiors.”

    The next important issue is the difference between emic and etic tasks or behaviors. Simply put, emic tasks are those that are familiar to the members of a given culture, whereas etic tasks are common to all cultures. In an elegantly simple, yet revealing study, Irwin, Schafer, & Feiden (1974) demonstrated these phenomena in two cultures: American undergraduates and Mano rice farmers (from Liberia). The American college students were consistently better at performing the Wisconsin Card Sort, a well-known psychological test measuring cognitive reasoning skills, which relies on geometric shapes and color. The Mano farmers, however, were consistently better at sorting different categories of rice. Thus, the ability to sort items into categories appears to be an etic task (most likely common to all humans, regardless of culture), whereas the more specific abilities to sort by geometry and color (common to American college students) or type of rice grain (common to Mano farmers in Liberia) is an emic task that requires familiarity. Thus, if we made a judgment about the Mano farmers’ cognitive abilities based on the Wisconsin Card Sort, we would clearly be making a mistake in comparing them to Americans, due to the unfamiliarity of the particular task.

    Another important aspect of cross-cultural research, which may involve applying our understanding of etics and emics, is the issue of equivalence. Is a concept being studied actually equivalent in different cultures? In other words, does a concept mean the same thing in different cultures, is the comparison valid? For example, an etic related to intelligence is the ability to solve problems. So how might we compare different cultural groups? Would the speed with which they solve a problem make sense as a measure of intelligence? Such an answer would be emic, and therefore valid, in America (where we typically value independence and competition). However, among the Baganda of Uganda, slow and careful thought is the emic. Among the Chi-Chewa of Zambia, the emic is responsibility to the community, i.e., solving the problem in order to best get along with other people. Thus, the speed at which people solve problems is conceptually equivalent, since it is the way in which people in each culture identify those individuals who are considered intelligent (Brislin, 2000). However, we cannot compare the actual speed of reporting a solution to others, as this is viewed quite differently in each culture.

    One particular type of equivalence that raises a very interesting problem is that of translation equivalence. Psychologists often want to use tests developed in their own language with people of a different culture who speak a different language. Translating a test from one language to another can be a difficult task. The best way to assess translation equivalence is through back translation. In this procedure, one person translates the test, or survey, into the foreign language, and then a different person translates the foreign language test back into the original language. The original test can then be compared to the back translated test to see how closely they are worded. Ideally they would be identical, but this is seldom the case. To give you a simple example, when I was in graduate school, we had a student from Taiwan join our research group. One day I asked her to translate my last name, Kelland, into a Chinese character. When she had done that, I asked her how she would translate that particular Chinese character into English for someone who was not Chinese. She translated the character as Kwang. Despite the first letter, I hardly consider Kwang to be a reasonable translation of Kelland, but she didn’t seem to think of this as much of a problem (perhaps revealing another cultural difference!). When the process of back translation is used successfully, which may involve working back and forth with the translations, it has the effect of decentering the test from the original language. Specifically, that means that the test should be free of any culturally emic references or aspects that interfere with the translation equivalence of the different versions of the test (Brislin, 2000; Matsumoto & Juang, 2004).

    While the list of issues pertaining to cross-cultural research goes on, let’s consider just two more specific issues: cultural flexibility and cultural response sets. Cultural flexibility refers to how individuals are willing to change, or adapt, in situations in which they know there are cultural differences. For example, American businesspeople can stand about 15 minutes of small talk before getting down to business. Their Japanese counterparts, in contrast, consider it important to get to know their business partners, and they are comfortable with hours of conversation about a variety of topics. This would, of course, be an important consideration for anyone studying the relationship between individual personality and success in business situations in this intercultural setting. Cultural response sets refer to how a given culture typically responds. If a given culture is more reserved, and they are asked to rate the importance of some value in comparison to how a more open culture rates that value, a difference in the rating may reflect the cultural difference in responding, rather than the degree to which people in each culture value the variable being measured (Brislin, 2000; Matsumoto & Juang, 2004).

    Finally, in light of these challenges, it may be particularly important to conduct cross-cultural validation studies. Rather than testing hypotheses about specific cultural differences, cross-cultural validation studies are used to examine whether a psychological construct that was identified in one culture is meaningful and equivalent in another culture (Brislin, 2000; Matsumoto & Juang, 2004). For example, as we will see in Chapter 7, Erik Erikson did not feel confident in proposing his eight stages of development (the psychosocial crises) until he had confirmed his observations in two separate Native American tribes. He was able to gain the trust of these groups, and thus able to closely observe their child-rearing practices, thanks to the anthropologists who introduced him to the tribes they had been studying for a long time.

    Anthropologists have done much more for psychology than merely introducing some psychologists to cultural issues and unique cultural groups. Some of them have had their own interests in personality. Many anthropologists, as well as some psychologists, have relied on ethnographies to report detailed information on the customs, rituals, traditions, beliefs, and the general way of daily life of a given group. They typically immerse themselves in the culture, living for an extended period of time with the group being studied (this helps get past the anxiety of being observed or any lack of cultural flexibility). Comparing the ethnographies of different groups can help guide cross-cultural psychologists in determining the likelihood that their cross-cultural studies are valid (Matsumoto & Juang, 2004; Segall et al., 1990).

    Discussion Question: Translating psychological tests into different languages is often a problem for cross-cultural psychologists. Americans have a reputation for only knowing English, whereas people in other countries often speak more than one language. Do you know a foreign language well enough to actually communicate with someone in another country? How important do you think it is to learn another language as part of understanding their culture?