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Cultural psychology: epistemology and ontology: alternative paradigms in global psychology

What this chapter will teach you

  • • What is cultural psychology?
  • • Are culture and mind really so distinct?
  • • What is ecological validity?
  • • What is situated research?
  • • How can we evaluate cultural psychology?

Challenging cross-culturalism

Chapter 3 introduced the dominant approach in the field of global psychology - cross-cultural psychology. In relation to culture and psychology, as in the discipline as a whole (where behaviourists, humanists and psychoanalysts disagree in perpetuity), not everyone subscribes to the same paradigm. In other words, there is more than one view about the discipline’s proper subject matter (ontology) and the best method for studying it (epistemology). All of which spawns continual debates. True, cross-cultural psychology has a coherent position in these debates, and many researchers agree with it. Yet there are those who dissent. This chapter is devoted to the views of one approach that represents many of these dissenters. It provides a space for their critiques, and for an alternative, perhaps complementary, view about how culture and psychology should be researched.


Paradigm. View about the discipline's proper subject matter and the best method for studying it.

Cultural psychology. A paradigm in global psychology that challenges the consensus that research should focus on culturally universal behaviour and experience.

Life space. The

states of affairs, persons, objects and behaviours that form everyday contexts.

Ecological psychology. The study of the relationship between people and their multiple (physical and social) environments.

Ecological validity.

The degree to which research findings have relevance in the outside world.

Cultural psychology

Imagine yourself in a room full of psychologists whose primary focus is to research cultural issues in psychology. Let’s say you ask them to form a line, with all those who prefer to carry out culture-comparative research to your left, and all of those who favour research oriented towards in-depth study of one culture, to your right. After some positioning you will soon see mostly cross-cultural psychologists gathering leftwards, while the right-hand end of the line will be populated by advocates of cultural psychology. Cultural psychology was once called the heretical alternative to the cross-cultural approach (Shweder, 1991). It is a paradigm in global psychology which challenges the consensus that research should focus on culturally universals in behaviour and experience. It is an alternative approach to the dominant, mainstream paradigm of cross-culturalism. To help gain an understanding this approach, it is useful to appreciate two key themes that are foundational to cultural psychology.

Theme 1: mutually constitutive minds and cultures

For cultural psychology, the existence of underlying psychic structures that all humans share (psychic unity, see Chapter 3) is rejected. Advocates of this approach assert that the human mind is inseparable from the cultural settings we inhabit, and therefore the mind is not a discrete entity (see Figure 4.1). Rather, it is only brought into being by our involvement in external, cultural worlds (Geertz, 1973; Ellis & Stam, 2015). It is thus inseparable from culture. In other words, we can say that cultural psychology is an approach to global psychology which seeks to

talk about culture and psyche so that neither is by nature intrinsic

or extrinsic to the other.

(Shweder, 1991, p. 100)

As an original advocate of the approach, Shweder (1991) distinguishes cultural psychology from close disciplinary neighbours such as general psychology, cross-cultural psychology (see Chapter 3) and psychological anthropology (see Chapter 1). As we learned in previous chapters, cross-cultural psychology proposes the existence of an inner, universal psyche, which we have referred to as psychic unity. Contrastingly, cultural psychology rejects the notion of a common, interior psychic space, which is separate from the life space: states of affairs, persons, objects and behaviours that form everyday contexts. Rather, culture and mind are regarded as inseparable. Another way of articulating this that they ‘make each other up’ (Shweder, 1991). Mind is dependent on culture, culture dependent on mind. Another way of expressing this is to say that culture and mind are mutually constitutive (see Figure 4.1).

Cultures in the mind

Figure 4.1 Cultures in the mind: culture and mind are mutually constitutive

Theme 2: the ecological, diverse mind

Cultural psychology can be regarded as an antidote to cross-culturalism, with the objective of studying neither humans nor cultures discretely. Rather, cultural psychology engages with diverse ways of life (cultures), mentalities (minds) and symbolic states, as interrelated entities (Shweder, 1991, Ellis & Stam, 2015). Hence, another key theme underlying cultural psychology is its portrayal of the human subject as being relationally immersed in his or her surroundings. This is in contrast to cross-cultural psychology’s portrayal of the human as a discrete individual, albeit one who may be influenced by cultural factors (Kirschner & Martin, 2010). Cultural psychologists regard humans as indiscrete entities who are inseparable from their cultural context. Accordingly, the self emerges from its relatedness with others through collective traditions, social and kin relations and in relation to its status in society. According to this relational view, cultural psychologists study the human mind as it manifests itself in the life space, in relation to everyday cultural practices, meanings and traditions. This immersive approach, also sometimes known as ecological psychology, urges psychologists to concentrate on how people operate in the context of their everyday lives, rather than on their inner psychological processes. As Brunswik (1943) put it, a truly ecological psychology should analyse situations that are

carefully drawn from the universe of the requirements a person happens to face in his commerce with the physical and social environments.

(Brunswik, 1943, p. 263)

It follows that if the human mind is a cultured phenomenon, it is also a diverse one, which is experienced differently in different places. For example, if we are studying concepts such as wellbeing, non-verbal communication or marriage as ones whose meanings are embedded in everyday cultural practices, we would expect them to look, feel and be experienced differently in different locations. Therefore, knowledge gathered by cultural psychologists is regarded through the lens of culture itself, and cannot be claimed as universal. Instead, it is regarded as situated knowledge, gathered in the context of relational practices (Magnusson & Marecek, 2012). In other words ‘scientific inquiry itself is regarded as a historically situated, social practice’ (Ellis & Stam, 2015: p. 303).


1. Can you suggest one difference between a cultural and a cross-cultural psychology!

The two key, related themes outlined above are central to the theoretical approach that has become known as cultural psychology. This approach emerged, fully formed, in the 1990s, but was rooted in historical developments that will now be outlined.

The historical emergence of cultural psychology

The need fora critical paradigm in the field of culture and psychology, to counter cross-cultural psychology, has its roots in the work of one of the founding figures of the discipline. Wilhelm Wundt (1897) identified a need for a dual approach to psychology, involving laboratory experiments or direct observational work, as well as non-experimental, naturalistic methods for engaging with more elusive thought processes. Wundt considered higher mental phenomena to be beyond the scope of experimental psychology (Ellis & Stam, 2015). His proposed Volkerpsychologie promised to incorporate naturalistic, ethnographic methods that would seek to explore behaviour in the context of culture and history. As it transpired, Wundt’s Volkerpsychologie was to remain an impulse that would never fully be realised. For much of the twentieth century, psychology instead focused on searching for universal laws in human behaviour, often using abstract cognitive modelling as a means of doing so. As part of this trend, which seemingly had little space for a person-centred, sociocultural psychology (Shweder, 2007), the concept of culture featured largely as a variable, residing externally to the person. The variable of culture was mainly reserved, during this time, for use in the cross-cultural, culture comparative research that we learned about in the previous chapter. Nevertheless, the impulse for a more culturally engaged psychology persisted. The roots of what we now know as cultural psychology were to be strengthened in the work of others who, in the mid-twentieth century, railed against the controlled, artificial environment of the laboratory and instead sought to study behaviour in everyday settings (ecologically). Kurt Lewin (1936) and Egon Brunswik (1943) lobbied for a methodological shift in the gaze of the discipline, from the experimental laboratory towards more naturalistic research settings. They urged the discipline to see itself not as the study of the human mind or internal psyche, but of the relationship between people and their multiple (physical and social) environments; their ecologies (Cole, 1998).

Brunswik’s dissatisfaction with mainstream psychology stemmed from what he saw as the narrow applicability of its experimental findings. For Brunswik the artificial assessment context in experimental psychology yields findings that lack ecological validity (see Figure 4.2). This is because behaviours that are assessed experimentally represent only a fraction of the ecological context (behaviour as whole). Indeed, they may even lie outside the normal behavioural repertoire altogether. He argued that laboratory research places participants in a range of scenarios that are out of touch with the states of affairs, persons, objects and behaviours that form everyday contexts; known as life space (Lewin, 1936). To illustrate this argument, he distinguished between ecological and assessment contexts for human behaviour (see Figure 4.2). Where assessment contexts are rather artificial, the degree to which research findings have relevance in the outside world is compromised. This critique suggests that psychological research as a whole often lacks ecological validity and should draw on behaviour from more culturally diverse, naturalistic contexts.

From these historical antecedents, a fully formed cultural psychology, standing on the shoulders of early twentieth century thinkers such as Wundt and Brunswik, manifested itself in the 1990s. At this time, the need for an approach to culture and psychology that rejected the existence of a fixed, discrete, interior mind-space, was articulated through the emergence of a manifesto for cultural psychology, which would aspire to

Contexts for human behaviour

Figure 4.2 Contexts for human behaviour (Brunswik, 1943) be what Cole (1998) termed, in his influential book of that time, a ‘once and future discipline’ (see Cole, 1998). Around this time, Shweder and Sullivan (1993) also set out the aims of cultural psychology, calling for a critical questioning of the concept of psychic unity, that central building block of mainstream cross-cultural psychology. As well as critiquing the universalist ontological stance of the study of culture and psychology by questioning the need for the separation of mind from culture, Shweder and Sullivan set out methodological aims of the new cultural psychology (Ellis & Stam, 2015). This proposed epistemological stance is distinguishable from that of mainstream psychology and cross-cultural psychology (see Table 4.1), and rests on the inseparable nature of mind and culture. In rejecting individualistic approaches to the self, cultural psychologists instead conducted research according to the premise that psychological processes necessarily unfold with and between others, in naturalistic settings (Ellis & Stam, 2015). Bound into this epistemological premise is the proposition that humans actively create meaning from social relations. They actively choose ways of living and construct meaning from everyday practices.

Cultural psychology is geared towards collecting knowledge that is situated in everyday life. Cultural researchers are not in the business of seeking to affect or change behaviour. Rather, they seek to understand how psychological phenomena occur and develop in context. It is to the methodological ramifications of these aspirations that we now turn.

Methods in cultural psychology; an emic, rather than etic, epistemology

Cultural psychology illustrates that there are many ways to conduct global research. Some are more open to accusations of ethnocentrism


Distinguishing cross-cultural psychology and cultural psychology

Cross-cultural Psychology

Cultural Psychology

Regards humans as individually constituvted, autonomous agents with psychic unity, sharing a universal human nature that is discoverable using scientific methods

Psychological phenomena emerge from cultural meanings and traditions, and are inseparable from culture

Scientific methods, such as culture- comparative research, can be used to measure human behaviour and discover universally valid truths

Absolute truths about human life are not discoverable, but we can try to understand how varieties of perception and action are possible

Culture-comparative methods serve as tools for collecting objective empirical data

Researchers do not claim universal knowledge, but can produce situated knowledge


Two concepts borrowed from linguistics


The approach to linguistics that investigates the universal properties of spoken sound


Linguists who are interested in the sounds that all spoken languages share


The approach to linguistics that investigates spoken sounds that are particular to certain languages


Linguists who are interested in unique qualities of particular languages

than others are. The approach of cultural psychology can be considered with the aid of two concepts borrowed from the field of linguistics: phonetics and phonemics. These concepts have long been seen as analogous to two alternative approaches to carrying out research across cultures; the so-called etic and emic approaches (Pike, 1967). Distinctions between the etic and emic approaches are summarised as a key concept (Berry, 1989).

Etic research aims to highlight universal of human behaviour and experience, just as phoneticists strive for linguistic universal. The emphasis is on uncovering what all humans have in common by looking for universals in behaviour across cultural circumstances. Comparisons between behaviour in different cultures are subsequently made (Pawlik & Rosenzweig, 2000). This approach is allied to the cross-cultural, replication research method (see Chapter 3). It generally involves taking existing theories out into the cross-cultural field of study for testing.

Meanwhile emic research aims to highlight the distinctiveness of human behaviour and experience as it manifests itself in different cultural settings, which is aligned to cultural psychology. Rather than searching for cultural universals, this approach is more ‘grounded’ in particular cultural locations. Emic researchers immerse themselves in the ways and manners of the cultural group they are studying, adopting the attitude of the ‘responsive tourist’. They strive to create research scenarios that are meaningful within the cultures being studied (Pawlik & Rosenzweig, 2000). So instead of asking whether a particular behaviour is universal across Belgium, Brazil and Bangladesh, emic research would look at an aspect of behaviour that is peculiar to Belgium, or Brazil, or Bangladesh. This would then be studied in detail, in situ. The need to replicate, generalise or compare behaviour across cultures is resisted by the emic researcher.

Etic researchers ...

  • decide what to study and how to analyse it before arriving in the field
  • apply and compare their research findings globally
  • analyse behaviour using established theories and data collection methods brought in from outside
  • begin gathering data as soon as they arrive in the field.

An example from the annals of cross-cultural psychology

Ainsworth et al.’s (1978) Strange Situation experimental scenario investigates the incidence of secure!insecure parent-toddler attachments. The original experimental scenario (as well as the original criteria for designating securelinsecure attachment) was used to compare attachments in 32 nations (van Ijzendoorn, 1995). This enabled researchers to ask Are secure parent-toddler attachments culturally universal?

Ernie researchers ...

  • select their subject matter and instruments for analysis once the research is in progress.
  • apply their findings to the field where they were gathered
  • use tools for analysis that are informed by ‘local knowledge’, often in collaboration with indigenous researchers
  • begin to collect data only when they’re familiar with the local culture.

An example from the annals of cultural psychology

Collaborating with indigenous researchers, Manson et al. (1985) studied ‘heartbrokenness’ among North American Hopi Indians. Extended analysis of local meaning systems enabled Manson et al. to ask Do Hopis have their own unique illness categories to refer to depressive experiences'? Can local knowledge be used to design a meaningful diagnostic instrument to identify these experiences'?

The etic-emic distinction highlights the tendency of etic research in global psychology to take questions and methods that were ‘born in the USA’ and apply them in other parts of the world without taking account of indigenous meanings and methods. Differences between etic and emic orientations reflect those between cross-cultural and cultural psychology. The latter opts for immersion in the novel environment. But in reality the distinctions between etic and emic research are often not so clear- cut. Indeed, many research projects begin with an etic outlook, only to become more emic in time. Behaviour in the field may initially be viewed through the eyes of an outsider, using an outsider’s instruments and devices for analysis. Yet once a researcher is acquainted with a cultural setting s/he responds to novel circumstances by looking at phenomena ‘through the eyes’ of the indigenous culture (Berry et al., 2011).

This transition involves modifying concepts and methods in the light of local knowledge, gained from experience in the field, perhaps in collaboration with indigenous researchers. In effect, the research adapts to the new cultural circumstance, arguably becoming less ethnocentric into the bargain. This strategy enables the researcher to avoid imposing concepts and methods from the researcher’s own cultural setting into the cross-cultural field of study - an imposition known as the imposed etic.

Berry (1989) sets out three steps that guide the global researcher from an initial, imposed etic phase to a more responsive form of cross-cultural


Three steps from imposed etic to derived etic

STEP 1. The imposed etic

The global researcher adopts a ‘transport and test’ approach to investigating behaviour across cultures. Theories, concepts and methods used for investigation are imported from Culture A into Culture B. For example, in researching ‘intelligence’, definitions of what this is and how it is measured are imported from Culture A and used, unchanged, to test participants in Culture B.

STEP 2. From the etic to the emic

Knowledge and experience gained in the field are used to adapt imported theories, concepts and methods to cultural circumstances. Efforts are made to ensure that the concepts being studied have equivalent meaning and function in Cultures A and B. Also, the researcher tries to ensure that the methods used in the study make sense in both cultural settings. For example, it is noted that definitions of ‘intelligent behaviour’ vary from one place to another. In Culture A it may refer to cognitive agility while in Culture В it may also include interpersonal awareness. An extended stay in the field helps to produce an understanding of local definitions and the development of intelligence tests that are familiar and user-friendly for local participants.

STEP 3. The derived etic

The researcher selects 'shared concepts' from Cultures A and В with the intention of drawing conclusions about universal human behaviour and experience. These can then be applied more globally. For example, aspects of intelligence that are shared or comparable in Cultures A and В are identified. This might aid the development of a universal concept of intelligence, derived from the influence of both cultures, rather than simply being imposed by one culture onto another. This concept of intelligence might then be used and further adapted elsewhere.


Etic research.

Research that aims to highlight uni- versals of human behaviour and experience.

Emic research.

Research that aims to highlight distinctiveness of human behaviour and experience as it manifests itself in different cultural settings.

Imposed etic.

Imposing concepts and methods from the researcher’s own cultural setting into the cross-cultural field of study.

engagement, as shown in the key concept: Three steps from imposed etic to derived etic’. He sets out a strategy that derives at least some of its impetus from the culture being studied.

The etic-emic distinction highlights differing approaches to global research. More specifically, the journey from imposed to derived etic is designed to right an ethnocentric wrong that often sees concepts and methods shipped, wholesale, into the research field. Yet while adapting concepts and methods to new cultural settings is a useful strategy for reducing ethnocentrism, the etic-emic model does have its limitations.

Limitations of the etic-emic model

  • 1 Derived etics are hard to establish. Finding concepts and methods with equivalent meaning and function across cultural settings is not always a realistic option. Unearthing concepts (such as intelligence or schizophrenia) that are robust enough to translate across diverse meaning systems often proves elusive.
  • 2 Even derived etics are too generalised. While deriving concepts and methods in part from the cultural groups being studied does show a desire to reduce ethnocentrism, ultimately the aim of the ‘derived etic’ is to produce a generalised concept or test that is then applicable across various cultures. For example, a definition of intelligence might be derived, following research in various locations, which can then be tested elsewhere. Arguably though, the establishment of generalised, quantifiable phenomena, however ‘culture-fair’, should not be the aim of global research. Instead, more interpretive, qualitative, non-standardised methods for generalised behaviour in unique cultural contexts should take precedence (Berry et al., 2011).
  • 3 Derived etics still begin life as imposed etics. Modifying original concepts and methods to the nuances of different cultures may be admirable, yet the process still originates with research questions that began life elsewhere. Rather than trying to make an originally imposed research question equally meaningful for different cultural groups, perhaps the best way to rid global psychology of culture bias would be to begin the research process by formulating research questions from diverse cultural settings. Such an approach prompts an examination of the indigenous psychology movement, where ideas for research and the methods for exploring them originate in diverse worlds.

Qualitative, naturalistic research in cultural psychology

The word qualitative implies an emphasis on ... processes and meanings that are not experimentally examined or measured in terms of quantity. Qualitative researchers stress the socially constructed nature of reality ... and the situational constraints that shape inquiry. Such researchers emphasise the value-laden nature of inquiry. They seek answers to questions that stress how social experience is created and given meaning.

Denzin and Lincoln (2000, p. 8)

Methodologically, cultural psychology pursues a naturalistic agenda. It is primarily concerned with studying humans in situ, as they operate naturally in diverse cultural settings. Remember, the aim is to see how the human mind reveals itself in everyday (ecologically valid) situations. Therefore, ‘situating’ research in a participant’s life space is a defining methodological trait of cultural psychology. It reflects the will of the researcher to engage with participants’ own representations of their worlds (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Demetry, 2013). In practice this often means creating research scenarios in areas of occupational or domestic expertise that are inseparable from participants’ own universe of meanings. For example, research questions that emerge from research in cultural psychology have included:

  • • How do Liberian apprentice tailors develop arithmetical problemsolving during their ‘on the job’ training? (Lave, 1977)
  • • How do restaurant workers organise their understandings of time and space during their everyday working practices? (Demetry, 2013)

Besides being naturalistic, research with a cultural psychology orientation has several other defining characteristics. For example, to tends to be qualitative, non-comparative and interpretive.

It is qualitative because researchers strive for detailed understanding of how participants make sense of the persons, objects and behaviours that form their everyday contexts (life space). Participants’ own meanings and interpretations are sought, so measured behavioural responses are much lower on the agenda. Large-scale quantitative testing is eschewed in favour of interview, case study and participant observational data collection methods.

It is non-comparative since the meanings and value systems of those who inhabit single cultural groups are studied in depth (Stevens & Gielen, 2007). This is distinct from making cross-cultural comparisons of psychological phenomena across several cultures (Berry et al., 2011). You could say that cultural psychology operates within, rather than across, cultures. This non-comparative tendency reflects the shared methodological roots of cultural psychology and cultural anthropology, wherein ethnographic methods are employed to study single cultural groups extensively and longitudinally.

It is interpretive since the beliefs and values of participants and researchers are incorporated into the data. Researchers do not consider themselves to be involved in a search for objective truths. This reflects cultural psychology’s affiliation to the philosophy of social constructivism, which espouses the view that there is no such thing as a knowable objective truth or reality since all truth is generated in cultural contexts (Lincoln & Guba, 2000). In other words, all knowledge is seen as reflecting partial values and diverse meanings.


Social constructivism. The view that there is no such thing as a knowable objective truth or reality since all truth is generated in cultural contexts.


Ethnography: a

method for collecting data for descriptive purposes, focusing on a particular culture or setting.

In seeking to explore the mind in everyday life, through the everyday practices of participants’ life-worlds, cultural psychologists employ research methods that are modelled on everyday practice. This requires researchers to engage in the daily routines of participants, using research methods that can be described as ethnographic, or relating to the method of ethnography, which will now be explored further.

Ethnography in cultural psychology

The term ethnography was coined by the linguist August Ludwig von Schlozer in 1777 (Chisholm, 1911) and the method was subsequently adopted by cultural anthropologists. Whilst not widespread in the field of psychology as a whole, some global psychologists have adapted the ethnographic method and claim their own distinct fieldwork tradition (Munroe & Munroe, 1986; Wacquant, 2011; Stevenson, 2014). Yet whichever field the researcher comes from, doing ethnography effectively is a considerable personal commitment since it involves leaving behind the comfort and security of one’s own cultural circumstances.

The fieldworker as sojourner experiences acculturation, and may also experience acculturative stress in which self-doubt, loss of motivation, depression and other problems may become great enough to hinder the work.

(Berry et al., 2011, p. 234)

For the anthropologist Sir Raymond Firth, ethnographic research

attempts to understand, by close and direct contact, how a living community works and what the beliefs, norms and values by which it lives are.

(Firth, 1972, p. 10)

Yet often global psychologists are less concerned with understanding entire living communities. They tend to use fieldwork as a means of gathering data about how a selected issue or variable figures in the lives of a community. Psychological research questions posed by ethnographic work include the following:

  • Do distinct styles of remembering predominate among the Swazi of East Africa? (Bartlett, 1932)
  • How does communal child-rearing among the Central African Efe reflect the norms of that cultural group? (Tronick & Morelli, 1992)
  • How do female body-builders develop a sense of identity through their embodied practice? (Bunsell, 2013)?

Doing ethnography involves actively observing and taking part in the behaviours and experiences that are being studied. As a practice it is has been described as a ‘deeply contextual, enabling a rich, in-depth understanding of communities’ (Case et al., 2014). Fieldwork is based predominantly around participant observation. Ideally, behaviours and experiences that are studied by ethnographers barely depart from the way people routinely act and feel (Banister et al., 1997; Thomas, 2017). As participants in the social transactions acted out with and around them, ethnographers don’t just observe life objectively. They interpret it with subjectivity. Indeed, the ethnographic art of writing accounts of research that combine participation, reportage and interpretation has been termed ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973).

Researchers who opt for the ethnographic method face several practical questions. For example, the fieldworker must decide how embedded s/he wants (or is able) to become. Though involvement is central, over involvement may lead to a situation in which the behaviours being studied ‘become soon so familiar they escape notice’ (Malinowski, cited in Stocking, 1983, p. 100). Here are a few more of the pressing questions faced by ethnographers in the field.

Questions of proximity

Unlike researchers who use other methods, ethnographers surrender the opportunity of retreating from the research scenario after a long day. Individual researchers must decide about their preferred degree of spatial segregation. Too little can be a personal strain; too much may yield superficial data.

Questions of collaboration

Ethnographers constantly re-examine their relationships with representatives from the groups they are studying. They need to ask themselves who stands to benefit from this project? For emically oriented cultural psychologists, indigenous groups are involved in advising ethnographers on data collection methods and in devising research questions.

Questions of ethics

  • Deception. It has been known for fieldworkers to gain entry into cultural groups for study purposes without fully divulging their aims. In one notorious example, allegations of deception were levelled at Napoleon Chagnon’s work with the Brazilian Yanomami (Tierney, 2001). He is accused of covertly precipitating a measles epidemic in order to test his theory about the Yanomami’s unique genetic resistance to the disease.
  • Debriefing. Doing ethnography may be conditional on host populations receiving reports on the findings. This may compromise the content of such reports. This again relates to the question of who the project is supposed to benefit in the first place.


Located experiment. An experimental method in which research questions and testing procedures are modelled on participants' everyday practices.

Ethical codes. All psychological researchers tend to follow a preset code of conduct, laid down by their professional body. Interestingly, though, in the case of ethnography, since the idea is to gain entry into the beliefs, norms and value systems of another cultural group, the researcher may question the desirability of sticking to moral codes brought in from outside.

Fieldwork is a combination of methods (observing, interviewing, experimenting, surveying) which yields an ongoing record of observations, events and conversations. The resulting fieldnotes typically include three broad varieties of recorded data (Munroe & Munroe, 1986; Thomas, 2017).

  • Census data involve building a demographic profile of the region or group being studied. They include details about the number of households, first languages spoken and occupations.
  • Context data are more interpretive, less factual. They reveal the local meanings of a culture, its manners, norms, the characteristics of its key institutions. They may include insider knowledge about gender roles, kinship practices and social taboos.
  • Variable-related data are the most focused of the data types. They relate directly to the variable that is the subject matter for the study.

Increasingly, psychologists researching culture are being drawn towards ethnography, especially in community-oriented research contexts. Arguably, just as ethnography itself has crossed disciplinary boundaries from anthropology into psychology, more and more community psychologists are becoming community ethnographers (Case et al., 2014).

Whilst ethnographic work is being developed by psychologists (Greiffenhagen & Sharrock, 2008; Bunsell, 2013; Esposito, 2017), there are relatively few classic ethnographies to grace the archives of global psychology. This reminds us that the method itself remains more anthropological than psychological. Even so, for those who are keen to explore the terrain between the two disciplines, ethnographies can uniquely contribute to our understanding of living cultures, as seen through the eyes of an active participant.

As well as the use of the long-term ethnographic method for data collection, some cultural psychologists have developed a methodological approach which requires less of a time commitment, though retains that aspiration of engaging with participants’ life-worlds.

The located experiment: research modelled on everyday practice

When collecting naturalistic, qualitative data, researchers are effectively ‘out of control’. In other words, they relinquish overall control of their research, and are to an extent participant and context-led. Studies in cultural psychology often arise from the everyday activities of participants, not the researcher’s theoretical interests or data collection preferences (Cole, 1998). They are moulded to the immediate environment of the participants (Stevens & Gielen, 2007). For example, if you are investigating problem-solving among waitresses in a short-order restaurant (Stevens, 1990), or experiences of migrants in detention centres (Esposito, 2017), you aim to situate your research in the participant life space. In short, you take your research into the field rather than lifting the participants out of context and into a laboratory.

Methodologically, situated research can take a variety of forms. Methods enabling the researcher to embed themselves in the life space of the people being studied are the instruments of choice for the cultural psychologist. They favour qualitative methods that barely disturb the life space and tune in to participants’ interpretations of their world. Favoured options include ethnographies (see above), open-ended interviews and longitudinal case studies.

Another innovative research method which played an important part in the narrative of cultural psychology in the twentieth century is the located experiment (Lave, 1977; Cole, 1998). This is an experimental method in which research questions and testing procedures are modelled on participants’ everyday practices. This is emic manifestation of the mainstream psychology experiment is perhaps written about less explicitly in the twenty-first century, though it is featured here as it was an important methodological manifestation in the development of cultural psychology.

Located experiments feature psychological testing, analyses of performance on prescribed tasks - all the trappings of mainstream experimental research, yet with the key difference that they are derived following efforts to understand the everyday practice of the participants. They are designed with local knowledge about the attitudes, abilities and beliefs of participants about their own universe. As participants are studied in situ, the researcher can claim to be investigating the mind in its everyday context (a central philosophical tenet of cultural psychology, remember). The following example displays the theoretical and methodological principles that typify located experiments.

Do we learn to communicate by writing letters?

Scribner and Cole (1981) studied the acquisition of literacy among children from the Liberian Vai culture. They distinguished between school literacy and Vai literacy, which has its own written form and is largely acquired outside school. Combining experimental and ethnographic methods Scribner and Cole compared the role of these two systems of literacy in hastening cognitive development. They modelled their research on key aspects of everyday Vai life, such as letter writing, which is central to daily Vai communication. In one scenario a popular Vai board game was used to test the effectiveness of Vai literacy in aiding communication and problem-solving. Participants who were Vai-literate - and those who were not - had to learn the game’s rules, then explain them to someone else, either face to face or by letter. Vai literates fared especially well on this task. Scribner and Cole ascribed this partly to the way the practice of letter writing had prepared them for communicating difficult ideas.

Research with a cultural psychology orientation demands to be seen in the contexts inhabited by participants. As an approach to research it is grounded in everyday practice, so no two research designs are the same. As explorers of culture and psychology, cultural psychologists are known for their understanding of ‘the interdependence of the individual with the social, the material, and the historical, and by their view of people as active meaning makers and world makers’ (Markus & Hamedani, 2007, p. 7). Like their forerunners, Wundt and Shweder, cultural psychologists are generally in opposition to understandings of culture as a set of internal traits, external norms or predetermined groups of people (Ellis & Stam, 2015). Rather, they are in the business of studying ‘how psychological processes may be implicitly and explicitly shaped by the worlds, contexts, or cultural systems that people inhabit’ (Ellis & Stam, 2015, p. 11). All of this is a far cry from the cross-cultural idea of replicating predesigned studies to test established theories in numerous cultural settings. Yet it has been argued that cultural psychology and cross-cultural psychology can form a complementary axis for researching global psychology (Berry et al„ 2011). Others have downplayed the contribution of cultural psychology, stressing instead its limitations.

Limitations of cultural psychology

Having reviewed the role of cultural psychology as a relativist approach to the study of cultural issues in psychology, a counterpart to cross- culturalism, we will now present some of the proposed limitations of the approach.

  • 1 Unhelpful relativism. Perhaps the most common criticism of cultural psychology highlights the relativism that forms its basis. Since this is a paradigm that strives towards a detailed understanding of the meanings of events within particular cultures, little hope is offered for establishing culturally universal knowledge about human behaviour and experience. Rather, a series of seemingly disparate culturally relative findings will inevitably emerge. From a cross-cultural, univer- salist viewpoint, all of this undermines the gathering of data that can be generalised or compared across cultural groups (Berry et al., 2011, Ellis & Stam, 2015).
  • 2 Interpretive validity. Cultural psychology’s roots in ecological psychology bolster its claims to a level of ecological validity that cannot necessarily be matched by cross-cultural research. However, questions remain about the paradigm’s interpretive validity (Greenfield, 1997). In other words, since the subjective meanings of researchers are acknowledged as part and parcel of the data, assurances as to their verifiability cannot be given. After all, a constructivist approach does not allow for the acknowledgement of data as veri- fiably true. Nevertheless, in such circumstances the cross-checking of researchers’ interpretations (with each other and with participants who have contributed to the study) can improve interpretive validity (Lincoln & Guba, 2000).
  • 3 Gaining entry. Research undertaken from the cultural psychology orientation aspires to being devised in the light of local knowledge. To become well-informed a researcher might consult secondary sources (books and other resources that have already been written) about a cultural group, carry out preliminary ethnographies, or consult with representatives of the participant group. Yet however meticulous their groundwork, there is no guarantee that it will bear fruit and provide reliable grounds for claiming entry into a community. After all, secondary sources may be unreliable and collaborators may be unrepresentative of their group.


  • 1. How do ethnographies differ from located experiments?
  • 2. Cultural psychologists regard the values and beliefs of participants and researchers as part of the data that emerge from the studies they conduct. Which of these terms cannot be used to describe this approach?

a. Interpretive

b. Constructivist

c. Objective

4 Distinctiveness. Whilst acknowledging the emic approach of cultural psychology as valuable, some have questioned the requirement for a distinct, named paradigm. Arguably, for all its qualities, whatever cultural psychology offers could be incorporated into a broader understanding of cross-culturalism. Ellis and Stam (2015) have asked whether it is time for cultural psychologists to move from a resolutely relativist position to one which simultaneously acknowledges the value of culture-comparative research and universal aspects of human behaviour. It may be that this limitation can also be viewed as a strength, since it also demonstrates the willingness of cross-cultural, culture-comparative researchers to recognise, in a conciliatory manner, the contribution of cultural psychology. Perhaps then, the future is less conflicted, more collaborative.


This chapter has introduced us to the counterpoint to cross- cultural psychology. Cultural psychology exemplifies a global approach in which data is collected from within the life worlds of participants, using qualitative, often ethnographic methods. Here we have seen the historical antecedents of cultural psychology, its contemporary manifestations. We have also become acquainted with its critics.


Match up the definitions on the right with the terms on the left (see p. 206 for answers)


  • • Case, A., Todd, N. & Krai, M. (2014) Ethnography in community psychology: promises and tensions. American Journal of Community Psychology, September; 54(1-2): 60-71. doi:10.1007/s10464-014-9648-0.
  • • Chisholm, H. ed. (1911) Schlozer, August Ludwig von. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 24 (11th ed, pp. 342-343). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • • Cole, M. (2000) Cultural Psychology. London: Harvard University Press.
  • • Ellis, B. & Stam, H. (2015) Crisis? What crisis? Cross-cultural psychology’s appropriation of cultural psychology. Culture & Psychology, 21(3): 293-317.
  • • Kirschner, S.R. & Martin, J. (2010) An introduction and an invitation. In S.R. Kirschner & J. Martin (eds.), The Sociocultural Turn in Psychology: The Contextual Emergence of the Mind and Se/f (pp. 1-27). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • • Magnusson, E. & Marecek, J. (2012) Gender and Culture in Psychology: Theories and Practices. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • • Markus, H.R. & Hamedani, M.G. (2007) Sociocultural psychology: The dynamic inter-dependence among self systems and social systems.

In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (eds.), Handbook of Cultural Psychology (pp. 3-39). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

  • • Martin-Baro, I. (1994) Writings fora Liberation Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • • Prilleltensky, I. & Nelson, G. (2002) Doing Psychology Critically. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • • Shweder, R. (1991) Thinking through Cultures. London: Harvard University Press.
  • • Wundt, W. (1897) Outlines in Psychology. Leipzig: W. Engelmann; New York: G.E. Stechert.

Critical, community 5 and indigenous psychologies

What this chapter will teach you

  • • What is critical psychology?
  • • What is critical community psychology?
  • • Where does most published psychological research originate from?
  • • Where do psychology's practitioners predominantly practise?
  • • What is the indigenous psychology movement?
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