Culture and its influence: exploring a key concept in global psychology
What this chapter will teach you
What do we talk about when we talk about culture?
Along with mind, normality and consciousness, culture is one of the most disputed words in your psychology glossary. The truth is that culture has no single agreed definition. Rather than striving for a once-and- for-all definition, to help gain a broader understanding of culture, let us look at how the word is used in everyday discourse (Eagleton, 2000; Berry et al., 2011; Matsumoto & Juang, 2016). As Figure 2.1 shows, it comes up in conversation under various guises. Seeing culture as art means recognising it as a creative force ‘emanating from people around us’. Yet to speak about culture as a distinct way of life refers to those aspects of the human-made part of our environment (norms, traditions,
Figure 2.1 Everyday ways of talking about 'culture'
architecture, art [Herskovits, 1948]) that distinguish one social group from another. Whatever culture is, then, it is certainly what renders one group different from others.
Short of striving for a single definition of culture, Berry et al. (2011) aid our understanding of the term by arguing that it is an idea that seeps into six areas of our lives. For them, when I talk about my culture I speak of my social group’s:
It is interesting to note how these six contexts for culture encompass elements of both ethnicity (shared identity) and race (biological ancestry), as they are described in Table 2.1. This highlights the overlapping nature of all these concepts. Part of the reason why it is so hard to see where culture ends and nation and ethnicity begin is that these labels refer to phenomena that are partly intangible and unobservable, such as feelings of belonging or ‘psychological dispositions of different groups’. Triandis (2002) acknowledges this when distinguishing between material and subjective aspects of culture. The former refers to the visible, shared characteristics of my group: how we dress, our defining technologies, our favourite cuisine. Subjective culture encompasses the invisible yet influential ideas and values that my social group deems sufficiently valuable to pass on to future generations (through a process known as cultural transmission). These may include moral codes, religious doctrines and social etiquette. According to this formulation, when most people in a social group (from a particular region or time period) share these material and subjective elements, we have what is known as a cultural group,
2-CULTURE AND ITS INFLUENCE 23
or culture. Such a group may or may not also share a national identity (Japanese culture), an ethnic identity (Latino culture) or even a particular occupation or interest (student culture, drug culture, counter-culture).
Lines denoting the limits of one culture and the beginning of another are invisible to the naked eye. They are not plotted on maps, like national boundaries. Furthermore, the precise meaning of culture is arguably more difficult to arrive at than is a definition of a nation. We can, though, agree that culture is a term that distinguishes between groups of people. Yet there are other terms that perform a similar function. ‘Nation’ and ‘ethnicity’ are labels that divide us into groups. This can be a little confusing, since such labels are frequently used interchangeably (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017). Nevertheless, as Table 2.1 shows, several writers have argued that when I use phrases like ‘my nation’, ‘my culture’ and ‘my ethnicity’, I am emphasising meaningfully distinct aspects of my identity. While there is a degree of overlap between these four labels, they all refer to a different piece of me.
We can see by now that as a conceptual tool for distinguishing between groups, culture is multifunctional. At a simple level it serves as a means of describing and categorising people. At a more complex level it is used to explain variations in behaviours in different places (Matsumoto & Juang, 2004). Just as the use of culture as a descriptive and explanatory device in psychology has a long tradition, so does the race to find a satisfactory definition of the word itself.
My culture, my nation, my ethnicity, my race
REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 5
In a literature review, Soudijn et al. (1990) found 128 different definitions of culture. Successive definitions down the years have grown more sophisticated - and longer. Inevitably, some of these definitions reflect various authors’ theoretical interpretations, with a number emphasising material, or behavioural aspects, and others more intangible, subjective ones. Rohner (1984) and Matsumoto and Juang (2016) can be counted among the latter (see Figure 2.2). For Rohner, culture amounts to shared meanings and interpretations of events, rather than the material actions, artefacts or ‘ways of life’ that figure in the definitions of (Segall et al., 1990; Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952). We can also see the importance of adaptation for some authors (Matsumoto & Juang, 2016), again emphasising the dynamism of the concept. Rohner’s has been termed a relational definition since it emphasises the shared spaces between people, rather than their material actions or products (Smith et al., 2006). It dwells on the ‘glue’ of ideas that binds us together, rather than on similarities in our behaviour patterns. This emphasis on ideas or intentions (meanings) rather than material actions (behaviour) is insightful since it acknowledges that in reality the two often diverge (LaPiere, 1934). Yet portraying culture as a community’s shared meanings alone, separate from what people actually do out there in the world, does rather underplay the role of attitudes and beliefs in predicting behaviour (Smith & Bond, 1998, Glanz et al., 2015). Jahoda (1984) uses a game-playing analogy to illustrate this criticism of Rohner. Fie suggests that while the rules of, say, basketball, don’t give an exact guide to how the game is played, they do provide a ‘probabilistic’ guide to what happens in play. Similarly, the idea of culture provides a useful, probabilistic guide to how we act in life’s field of play.
Whether we define it as predominantly meanings, actions or artefacts, culture represents something that is generated by certain groups who occupy a particular time, space, shared interest or occupation. However, not only are cultures generated by group members, as some of the definitions featured here show, they are also perpetuated by a process of transmission that ensures their survival. They are, in this sense, adaptive and self-perpetuating. It is to the processes of cultural transmission and perpetuation that we are about to turn. First, though, we might reflect that while we have no single, agreed definition of culture, the definitions we have do seem to point to half a dozen agreed characteristics of culture.
Figure 2.2 Culture a timeline
CHARACTERISTICS OF CULTURE
The dynamic process of cultural transmission
How does culture perpetuate itself? Or, to put it another way, by what means do cultures manage to survive? A glib one-word answer to both of these questions would be - ‘dynamically’. Dynamically because as any historian will tell you, though ‘attitudes, norms and behaviours’ may be passed down through generations, they change (or adapt) in the process. A twenty-first-century European may think and act similarly to a nineteenth-century European, but there are plenty of differences too. Matsumoto and Juang’s (2016) definition of culture captures this dynamism. It is also compatible with a widely held view that the dynamic process by which cultures perpetuate themselves is analogous to the way species adapt biologically to their environments (Berry et al., 2011). Several authors regard cultural and biological adaptation as parallel processes that exert a dual influence on human development and diversity (Berry et al., 2011; Matsumoto & Juang, 2017).
Dual influence: cultural and biological adaptation
The conceptual tool of dual influence offers a model for understanding two influences on who we are. It portrays biological and cultural influence as adaptive processes that are similar in some ways yet dissimilar in others. We can use dual influence to provide a bird’s-eye view of the role biology and culture play in the spread of human diversity through time and space. In a sentence, the idea of dual influence states that:
Biology and culture are similar in that they both work according to evolutionary principles of selection and adaptation, yet they differ in that instinct draws humans towards universality, while culture draws us towards diversity.
(see Table 2.2)
2-CULTURE AND ITS INFLUENCE 27
Biological and cultural influence: adaptive processes with similarities and differences
Furnished with this overview we can now give more detailed consideration to why some aspects of culture (ideas, norms and behaviours) survive as good adaptations, while others don’t. For example - Why did cities develop? Why do people in some regions fish for food? Why did the (Guatemalan) Xinca language die out? These are all questions about cultural transmission. Their answers reside in the diverse influences of several circumstantial variables (Segall et al., 1990; Berry et al„ 2011). It is generally accepted that in the case of certain biological predispositions to act (known as instincts), though they are present at birth, their expression in behaviour depends on circumstances that prevail to a greater or lesser extent out there in the world (known as circumstantial variables). Likewise, in the case of ideas, norms and behaviours that are created and maintained by cultural means, how they express themselves and which ones are selected will again depend on circumstantial variables. Some of these variables are naturally present in some cultural settings; others are human-made. They either inhibit or promote ideas, norms, behaviours and predispositions. Furthermore, they come in several varieties, including the following.
Thus, how instincts (say, aggression) are expressed in behaviour and how well certain ideas, norms and behaviours (go-karting, circumcision or monogamous marriage) survive and adapt in particular times or places depend on a combination of circumstances in the natural and political world, as well as on the actions of certain charismatic individuals or groups. Berry et al. (2011) represent these influences diagram- matically in their eco-cultural model (Figure 2.3). This is an overarching description of the complex process of cultural adaptation and transmission. It operates according to several key principles and concepts.
• Adaptation. Culture and biology are engaged in a dual process that increases the ‘fit’ between members of groups and their diverse environments. This process yields diversity in cultures, as well as sustainable biological responses to diverse ecologies. Certain behaviours and psychological characteristics are selected (by both individuals and populations) as best adaptations to changing environmental contexts (Buss, 1989).
Figure 2.3 The eco-cultural model of cultural transmission (based on Berry et al., 2011; Matsumoto & Juang, 2017)
• Bidirectionality. Several aspects of the model reflect what you might call two-way interactions (as opposed to one-way traffic). They are mutually influential, in other words. Ecological conditions affect - and are affected by-cultural and biological adaptations. For example, the way of life of a social group (hunting, fishing or logging) is influenced by its ecology, yet also influences its ecological circumstances (think of deforestation).
Another bidirectional dynamic is illustrated by feedback arrows ‘A’ and ‘B’ in Figure 2.3. The actions of individuals and groups can have agency over their ecological and socio-political circumstances (Berry et al., 2011). In other words, the model refrains from cultural determinism (the view that human behaviour is primarily shaped by cultural factors (Reber et al., 2009). Rather, it acknowledges that individuals are not passively shaped by their context, but also have a role in its formation.
• Transmission. The way biology, culture, ecology and socio-politics manifest themselves in human behaviour depends on a raft of supplementary concepts: genetics, socialisation, enculturation and acculturation. These can each be understood separately, though they are all vehicles of transmission.
о Genetics. Genetic information (predispositions to behave in certain adaptive ways) is passed from generation to generation from biological parents (known as vertical transmission).
о Socialisation. Norms, values, behaviours and other psychological characteristics are passed on via a variety of agencies (family, media, peers, church), often by formal instruction. This can operate vertically (biological parent -» child), though it also uses horizontal (peer -* peer) as well as oblique transmission - via non-related adults (My friend’s Dad taught me this), о Enculturation. This is a less formal version of socialisation. Individuals are ‘encultured’ as they adopt the norms, values and behaviours of their cultural group into their repertoires. As with socialisation, this can work horizontally, vertically or obliquely, о Acculturation. This is cultural transmission by contact with other groups. Direct or indirect interaction between people from different cultural groups (through travel, migration or exposure to the mass media) leads to the spreading and changing of attitudes and behaviours. This can be creative, producing new mixes of cultural forms (analogous to the emergence of reggae music out of disparate Jamaican, British and American musical styles [Bradley, 2000]). It can also be stressful, as in cases of forced migration from one culture to another (Al-lssa & Tousignant, 1997), or amongst international students (Akhtar & Kroner-Herwig, 2015).
The eco-cultural model juxtaposes biological and cultural adaptation as responses to new ecologies and other circumstantial variables. One question that arises from this is whether we therefore regard cultures - or indeed the human species as a biological entity - as getting better, or at least more sophisticated. It is debatable whether cultural and biological adaptations ought to be regarded as ‘improvements’ (Sahlins & Service, 1960; Hallpike, 1986). While the transition from fishing or hunting lifestyles to city-dwelling may be regarded as an adaptive response to circumstantial variables, the question of whether this amounts to an improvement is really a value judgement. Berry et al. (2011) distance themselves from those wishing to interpret their model as an explanation for ‘how cultures evolve into something more advanced’.
The eco-cultural model attempts to represent, theoretically and dia- grammatically, dynamic relationships between organisms and their environmental, biological and political contexts. It demonstrates the dual and inseparable influences of biology and culture as working evolutionary adaptations to circumstantial variables. It also reflects the mutually influential nature of our behaviour with our surroundings. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) attempting to represent so many facets of behaviour and diversity, the model arguably has some limitations.
Limitations of the eco-cultural model
1 Overarching models may overlook individual differences. Such an all- encompassing model is strong on advancing a top-down view of how cultural and biological adaptation is manifest in human behaviour and psychological characteristics. Yet such a generalised picture strug2-CULTURE AND ITS INFLUENCE 31
gles to explain why some members of cultural groups are more willing to adopt apparently adaptive cultural norms - norms which, after all, enable their cultural group to survive. Such differences in willingness perhaps need to be analysed at more of an individual level, rather than by using a top-down model.
REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 6
2 Some cultural groups are more tolerant of deviation than others. The eco-cultural model suggests that the actions of individuals or concerted groups can have an effect on the norms and values of their cultural group. Yet it stops short of explaining why different cultural groups are variously tolerant of deviation from their norms (Pelto, 1968). To put this another way, some cultures are more likely to embrace adaptations to new circumstances than others. As to why this is, again a closer analysis of the characteristics of different groups would be required.
Arguably, the limitations of the eco-cultural model are a consequence of its all-encompassing, ‘top- down’ nature. Yet the model does allow for the transformative effect that the actions of individuals and groups have. It illustrates not only how culture influences the behaviour of large groups of people at the population level, but also how people operating at an individual level can influence their cultural context. To conclude this chapter we will now further explore the distinction between so-called culture-level analyses of behaviour on one hand, and individual-level analyses on the other.
Culture and individual levels of analysis
Culture-level analyses. The actions and psychological characteristics of individuals are deemed to vary according to their membership of one cultural group or another.
A recurring debate in global psychology concerns the use of culture as a level for analysing behaviour. Specifically, the debate revolves around the validity of analysing actions at what has been termed the culture level, rather than at the individual level (Smith et al., 2006). To grasp how these two levels differ, consider one of the quirks of global psychology. Unlike most types of psychologist, global researchers often ask questions about how whole cultural (or national) groups differ from each other in relation to selected behaviours (Berry et al., 2011) - rather than asking about how individuals differ from each other on those same variables. In this regard they treat cultures as single, discrete sources of data, while the rest of psychology sees individuals as discrete units for yielding data (Smith et al., 2006). This is the key distinction between culture and individual levels of analysis.
Actually, Berry et al.’s (2011) eco-cultural model allows for such so- called culture-level analyses, wherein the actions and psychological characteristics of individuals are deemed to vary according to their membership of one cultural group or another. For example, individuals from one culture might act differently from those from another in a given situation due to the differing effects of enculturation and socialisation in those two cultures.
To illustrate the distinction between culture and individual analyses, let us examine the relationship between two frequently studied variables: wealth and happiness. Does the former bring the latter? This is a reasonable question that can be analysed at two levels. At the culture level, wherein culture, or perhaps nation, is the unit of analysis (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017) we might ask:
Do people from wealthy cultural groups (or nations) generally report higher levels of subjective well-being (happiness) than those from less wealthy nations?
A study that asks this question would typically compare respondents from two or more cultural groups and would yield interpretations that might be phrased in the form:
People from wealthier nations generally report higher levels of subjective well-being.
At the individual level, which if you think about it is the most common level of analysis in psychology as a whole (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017) we might ask:
Do wealthy individuals generally report higher levels of subjective well-being than less wealthy ones?
Research that poses this question would tend to take place within a cultural group, and would typically spawn interpretations such as:
Wealthier people are generally happier than people with low incomes.
Global, and especially cross-cultural (see Chapter 3), psychology frequently operates at the culture level of analysis. In a typical culture-level scenario, data are collected from samples of participants who are taken to represent certain regions, enabling conclusions to be made about the relationship between (1) cultural background and (2) psychological characteristics (e.g. North Americans are generally more individualistic in their attitudes than South Asians).
A key motivation for pitching analyses at the culture level is that it yields research findings that emphasise the influence of contextual (environmental, social, cultural) factors on our thoughts and behaviour. Conversely, individual-level analyses stress internal (genetic, personality, information-processing), or context-less, influences on behaviour (Smith et al., 2006). Culture-level analysis are generally popular as they enable the research infer comparisons between samples and populations from different cultural groups, on psychological variables, thus allowing to attribute differences to cultural or regional phenomena such as climate, population density, religiosity or affluence (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017).
Yet while they do allow for the considerable influence of context variables, are culture-level analyses wholly reliable explanations of behavioural differences? In other words, do they yield explanations that can be generalised to other levels of analysis (like the individual level)?
The reliability of culture-level analyses
Personal experience tells us that some people are more susceptible to the norms and values of their culture than others. In other words, the vicissitudes of socialisation and enculturation affect us to differing degrees. So, while membership of ‘my culture’ may partly explain why I act differently from you on certain behavioural measures (such as individualism, conformity, depth perception), common sense dictates that culture-level analyses can provide only some of the explanation for these differences.
Smith et al. (2006) raise a deeper concern about culture-level analyses. They argue that just because an interesting relationship between two variables emerges at the culture level, we shouldn’t assume it will hold true at the individual level. In other words, findings unearthed at the culture level don’t necessarily apply across the board.
To illustrate this, consider again the link between wealth and happiness. Culture-level research has suggested that they are indeed correlated. Participants from nations with relatively high average incomes have reported higher levels of subjective well-being (Diener et al., 1995, Veenhoven, 2012a, 2012b). Yet analysis of the same variables within cultural groups yields rather different findings. Particularly in richer nations, personal wealth shows up as a poor predictor of well-being (Oishi et al., 1999, Veenhoven, 2012a, 2012b).
A similar mismatch emerges in findings about the relationship between job satisfaction and individualistic attitudes. Culture-level analyses found that participants from nations that are categorised as individualistic (Hofstede, 1980) reported higher work satisfaction. Meanwhile in individual-level analyses, within specific cultural groups such as Hong Kong, attitudes of collectivism, not individualism, were predictive of work satisfaction (Hui et al., 1995). All this indicates that very often, findings gleaned at the cultural level are not supported when the same variables are analysed at the individual level.
The ecological fallacy
While there are plenty of examples of research findings that uncover consistent relationships between variables at the cultural and individual levels of analysis (Earley, 1993; Singelis et al., 1999), there is no reason to assume that this should always be the case (Smith et al., 2006). Therefore, we should beware of assuming that findings demonstrated at the culture level of analysis will be replicated in individuals within cultural
The assumption that findings which are demonstrated at the culture level of analysis will be replicated within cultural groups.
Parallel individual analysis. A strategy to ensure that concepts and variables which are used in culture-level analyses are meaningful to all the groups involved.
REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 7
Imagine you are planning to conduct some research across cultures, into the proposed relationship between subjective well-being (happiness) and 'freedom'. Outline what steps you might take to avoid the ecological fallacy.
groups. This kind of misguided assumption is known as the ecological fallacy (Hofstede, 1980), which is characterised by using ‘insight from one level of analysis to incorrectly draw inferences at other levels of analysis’ (van de Vijver et al., 2011, p. 163).
Psychological processes that are at play at individual and cultural levels may be comparable, but we cannot assume this to be the case. Van de Vijver et al. (2011) offer us an example to help us understand this, relating to the issue of caring for elderly family members. Using a culture-level of analysis, we might assume that in nations that are traditionally regarded as less individualistic (Hofstede, 1980), such as India or China, a greater willingness to care for elderly relatives would prevail than in more individualistic regions such as western Europe. However, the ecological fallacy would warn us not to assume this association to hold true at an individual level. Thus, we should not assume that differences observed at a culture-level to be down to individual-level differences in personality characteristics (Indian people are more altruistic or caring). The ecological fallacy warns us against over-generalising from cross-cultural research findings. It tells us that interesting findings about human behaviour are not always generalisable from one level of analysis to another.
However, by taking care when selecting variables to be studied, arguably, researchers can minimise the effect of the ecological fallacy (Smith et al., 2006). This can be done by ensuring that concepts and variables that are used in culture-level analyses are meaningful to all the groups involved. In other words, before doing culture-level analyses of particular variables (such as happiness, wealth or altruism) these can first be subjected to individual-level analyses within each cultural group, simply to ensure that they have comparable, replicable meanings. Schwartz et al. (2001) adopted such a strategy, calling it a parallel individual analysis. Respondents in over 70 nations were asked to rate 57 values (such as happiness, wealth and freedom) in terms of their importance in their own lives. In developing the Schwartz Value Survey, the idea was to isolate universal values that are meaningful across cultures.
The values used for the study were drawn from culturally diverse settings (Smith et al., 2006, Fischer et al., 2010). Within each national sample the degree to which each value correlated (or clustered) with
others was taken to indicate whether they
-^ had approximately equivalent meanings
across national groups. For example, if all representatives from all national groups repeatedly rated values x and у similarly, yet saw value z as diametrically opposed, their meanings were regarded as relatively stable and replicable.
In this ongoing research project 44 of the original 56 values have been shown to have relatively stable meanings across cultures (Schwartz et al., 2001, Fischer et al., 2001). Arguably, on the basis of this individual-level scaffolding exercise, these values have been ‘cleared for use’ in more valid culture-level analyses. Valid culture-level analyses of behaviour can thus arise out of parallel individual analyses, minimising the effect of the ecological fallacy.
Chapter 2 investigates the concept of culture in close detail. Definitions of culture abound, both colloquially and in academia. Various definitions are examined here, as well as distinctions between culture, nation, ethnicity and race. In a related debate we learn how culture, like biological inheritance, has a deep influence on the way we behave. The similarities between these ‘dual influences’ are also examined in detail here.
An ‘eco-cultural’ theory of cultural and biological inheritance is discussed, setting the influence of culture in an evolutionary context. This enables us to see how cultures, like individual organisms, are subject to the vicissitudes of evolution and adaptation. In other words, just as biological predispositions to behave in certain ways (instincts) are subject to Darwinian principles, so are the ideas and norms that separate cultural groups from one another.
We see how environmental and climatic variables also contribute to cultural diversity across the globe and perhaps go some way to explaining cultural diversity in human behaviour. The chapter culminates with an examination of how useful culture is as an explanation for differences in behaviour between individuals and groups, especially when we consider that some of us are more susceptible to the norms and influences of our culture than others.
REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 8
Match up the definitions on the right with the terms on the left (see p. 204 for answers)