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Methodological and Conceptual Issues in Cross-Cultural Research

Methodological and Conceptual Issues in Cross-Cultural Research

Culture exerts a notable impact on virtually every aspect of one’s behavior, thought, and attitude. Curiously, though, psychologists lost sight of this proposition for much of the twentieth century. This chapter will identify some of the issues that the current generation of psychologists has rediscovered as being critical in researching and understanding the wide variety of human psychological experience.

Several issues merit attention here. First, psychologists will benefit by understanding the degree to which psychological responses reflect tendencies that are universal as opposed to particular to a given culture. Psychologists have concluded in some cases that they identified universals, but upon closer examination, the certainty has faded.

Second, one’s Weltanschauung clearly drives one’s thought processes. Of specific attention has been the difference in perspective as a function of whether one’s origins are within a collectivistic or individualistic culture. Again, what seemed to have been relatively clear distinctions have blurred as psychologists have moved from the level of culture to the level of the individual. A third important element in cultural research involves the very pattern of thought processes in people of different cultures. What is obvious and apparent to one is foreign to another.

Fourth, methodological issues per se have turned out to be of importance in understanding psychological processes. New techniques like neural imaging appear to affect even basic processes that one might assume are impervious to culture. Furthermore, on a larger level, how one categorizes participants from different cultures is a thorny issue that remains unsolved. Finally, ethical issues involved in research lurk in unexpected ways. What might be ethical according to one set of standards may not be in another.

Researchers have identified these various issues, but it would be premature to claim that they have achieved resolution. The discipline has made notable progress, but as with any complex area, more questions remain than have been answered with certainty.

Historical Elements

Cross-cultural research in psychology is growing in scope and quantity, but it has had only a short history. Consequently, psychology is still grappling with fundamental methodological and conceptual issues pertaining to culturally relevant research. PsycINFO© indicates only 12 articles in peer-reviewed journals with a descriptor of cross-cultural research through 1959. In contrast, in 2008, there were 95 peer-reviewed articles listed. Naturally, a single descriptor represents only a minute slice of relevant research, but this datum reveals the trend.

Social researchers used to know that behaviors differed across cultures and that those behaviors were mediated by cultural factors. As Linton (1945) noted, “personalities, cultures and societies are all configurations in which the patterning and organization of the whole is more important than any of the component parts” (p. 2). But for a number of decades, many psychologists forgot this fact. During the heyday of behaviorism, it seemed that there was little need to attend to culture for two important reasons.

First, animals did not have cultures, so researchers studying rats (which themselves were white) did not have to consider this construct. Second, if behaviors resulted from reinforcement contingencies, researchers may have reasoned that they needed only to understand reward and punishment, and culture would not have been particularly germane in many cases.

Even among users of projective tests like the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), there was some belief that cultural background may not have played a role in responses. For instance, Riess, Schwartz, and Cottingham (1950) administered the TAT to Black and White participants and recorded the lengths of participants’ responses; the results revealed that the length of utterances did not relate to race. This reliance on the quite objective and measurable number of words uttered was characteristic of the behavioral approach. Interestingly, the researchers did not attend to the content of those responses.

The lack of attention to culture belies the awareness by earlier psychological researchers and by anthropologists that studying culture was an intrinsic part of studying people. Current students of culture would undoubtedly disagree with some interpretations of differences, but the important issue here is that the researchers recognized the importance of those differences. For example, Tylor (1889) attributed differences across cultures through the perspective of Herbert Spencer’s model of cultural evolution, with Western “races” at the pinnacle. However, Thomas’s (1937) ideas anticipated current thoughts about differences in culture leading to different behaviors; he did not accord different status to what others called the “higher” and “lower” races.

By the 1930s, psychology had adopted a tone that resembles today’s. For example, Herskovits (1935) dismissed the notion that African cultures (of which there were many) were primitive or savage. Rather, he noted that strong family ties, strong adherence to governmental and legal principles, and established religions characterized African cultures of that era. He also distinguished the cultures of Black people in Africa and North America, noting that cultures change as people from one culture come into contact with people from another.

Revisions in the ideas about people of non-Western or of southern and eastern European descent in the 1930s seem to have resulted from the influx of a new type of psychologist. Psychology became populated with people from a wide range of ethnicities, particularly Jewish psychologists, who may have been more sensitized to the different life experiences of minorities, and therefore more aware of the cultural factors that eventuate in particular behaviors (Samelson, 1978).

The current focus in psychology on the importance of culture in affecting behavior may similarly result from the influx of a different set of ethnic minorities. Between 1996 and 2004, there was an increase in doctoral degrees among American minorities of 16.6%, an increase in master’s level degrees of 90.8%, and an increase in bachelor’s degrees of 36% (American Psychological Association, 2008). In addition, as an organization, the American Psychological Association (APA) has focused on the internationalization of the discipline, as evidenced by its 2008 Education Leadership Conference that focused on international connections in psychology.

The current cultural climate in psychology will pave the way for changes in two important aspects of research—the way psychologists conduct their research and the way they interpret their results. Just as understanding the relation between culture and behavior is complex, so must be the way psychologists develop research questions, identify appropriate methodologies, and interpret their data.

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