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Different cultural universes

Cultural and personal values inevitably influence perceptions, and ideas that might seem neutral on the surface but often contain disguised normative assumptions. There is of course a whole tradition of critical developmental psychology that has challenged or deconstructed many developmental concepts (Burman, 2007). We know that breast-feeding is natural for example, at least in the sense that human mothers are biologically primed to do it. However the term "natural" is a complex concept, which can be used in a value-laden way; would we say, for example, that not breast-feeding is "unnatural"? The very use of concepts such as "natural", as well as of "development", as used in developmental psychology, can risk assuming that there are universally expected and desired outcomes.

One of the problems I intend to pose in this paper is how we can grapple with what seems like an insoluble problem. We cannot escape our cultural heritage and personal beliefs, and yet also cannot give up the struggle to find a way of not letting these be an excuse for being critical of other ways of bringing up children. I often wonder with what emotional tones and hues might a twenty-first century observation student describe a baby brought up with a tough Truby King regime (King, 1937) who was rarely picked up, or an infant in mid-nineteenth century France who was sent away from home to a wet-nurse, a practice that was very common. Indeed, what would we say of a mother of a two-year-old who lets her new and frail baby die, knowing that she can only keep alive some of her children. This was an issue that confronted the anthropologist Scheper-Hughes (1992) who studied Brazilian shantytowns with extremely high infant mortality rates. Here some babies are labelled as "fighters" and receive more attention, and these generally are the ones who survive. Scheper-Hughes was so upset by the way these mothers withdrew from babies who were deemed unlikely to survive that she tried to help, only to be criticised by mothers whose value system led then to respond caringly only to the more hardy and demanding survivors. This is an extreme form of the kind of moral and emotional challenges observers, and indeed therapists, constantly face.

In infant observations we often aim to be in touch with, rather than defend against, a difficult emotional experience, such as a baby's loss of the breast. However, we can also defend against, the difficult idea that other ways of bringing up babies are not wrong, but simply alternative ways, even if the two ways of bringing up babies are incommensurable. Heidi Keller has undertaken fascinating cross-cultural studies, comparing for example Nso mothers (from rural areas in the Cameroons) with German mother-infant pairs. She has shown videos to mothers in one culture of interactions between mothers and babies in another culture and asked them to respond. As one typical example, Nso mothers watching videos of German mothers trying to comfort their children without breast-feeding could barely believe what they saw, and several wondered if German mothers were forbidden to hold their babies, even questioning whether they were really watching the actual mothers. They were similarly aghast when shown videos of German infants sleeping alone. The Nso mothers offered to go to Germany to teach these women how to be "proper mothers"! By the same token, in many cultures it is also common for mothers to indulge in quite rigorous bodily stimulation and massage. German mothers watching such practices on video suggested that these mothers were being intrusive and insensitive in not matching the infant's own tempo.

These various beliefs have arisen from different cultural universes. While it may be possible in theory for Nso and German mothers to eventually find a way of accepting each other's ways, their initial appalled and bewildered reactions suggested incommensurable disagreements and resulted in judgments of the other party's parenting practices. This is maybe unsurprising, and is not dissimilar to the kind of judgments that we often experience in infant observations.

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