The study of Cultural Psychology has its early beginnings in the study of National Psychology, which, in the nineteenth century referred to characterizing the psychological make-up of nations and distinctive populations of people. Such studies, though, cannot be complete without presenting a clear definition of what culture is. Consequently, there has been an abundance of interpretations of the word, what it stands for, its dynamics, and what its essence is.
From Sir Edward Tylor’s elaborate definition in 1871 that “culture is the complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and many other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”, to Wilhelm Wundt’s brief illustration in the early 1900s that “culture refers to shared norms and customs or shared mentalities”, the definition of culture has been evolving. As recently as 1984, Roy D’Andrade defined culture as “learned systems of meanings, communicated by means of natural language and other symbol systems, having representational, directive, and affective functions, and capable of creating cultural entities and particular senses of reality”. While Kirmayer argued in 2006 that culture encompasses the systems of knowledge and practice – sustained by cognitive models, interpersonal interactions, and social institutions – that provide individuals with conceptual tools for self-positioning. These are but a few of the definitions that cultural psychologists and anthropologists and sociologists have provided to define culture. One thing stands out, though, as we study the evolution of such definitions: the old ones reflect an understanding of culture as an isolated entity that is less dynamic and fluid, more geographically based, and internally homogenous. On the other hand, modern definitions are influenced by globalization and technological advancements, which mean that no population lives in isolation from its surroundings. The modern times have made people’s norms, values, practices, ideas, morals, and even habitats more dynamic than ever. This is reflected in Lawrence Kirmayer’s call for cultural psychologists “to concentrate on situated practice and interactional procedures as the way to sustain any analytically useful notion of culture”.
Therefore, cultural psychology has to integrate the effects of globalization and interconnected cultures and peoples into its study. At the same time, we have to be aware of the fact that these studies of different cultures and psyches are mostly (and until recently exclusively) performed by researchers from one culture (Western culture), who started by studying their own communities, and expanded their studies to cultures of the East. It is admittedly simplistic to divide cultures into two camps, West vs. East. This is demonstrated by studies that have shown heterogeneity within the same country. Indeed, as early as 1887, Tönnies made the distinction between the study of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). Data collected in urban, large-scale, high-tech, heterogeneous, and permeable Gesellschaft environments differ significantly from data collected from rural, small-scale, low-tech, homogeneous Gemeinschaft environments even within the boundaries of the same country.
This adds a new level of complexity to the study of cultural psychology. But in essence, cultural psychology is understood to be the “comparative study of the way culture and the psyche make each other up… it is the study of the distinctive mentalities of particular peoples” (Shweder, 2003). More importantly, though, cultural psychology has opened the door to the study of the relationship between culture and psychological processes and how culture becomes an integral part of cognitive, social, and moral development.
Culture and the Self
The most striking and interesting development in the study of cultural psychology is the understanding of the self in the context of culture. How we define the self affects how we act and function in the community. It also governs how we make decisions that ultimately define the society and events around us. The divergent view of the self between Eastern cultures and Western cultures has been demonstrated and discussed by cultural psychologists and culminated in a study by Markus and Kitayama stating that divergent construals of the self reflect cultural differences between populations.
While reading Markus & Kitayama and Steven Heine, one wonders about the possibility (or impossibility) of convergence of these two contradicting construals of the self into one heterogeneous view. My impression is that there is no gray area that allows one to view oneself as an independent being withing and interdependent community. Similarly, an interdependent individual could not possibly survive in a community that values individualism without alienating people. There is no continuum along a spectrum where dependence is on one end and interdependence on the other. These seem to be two distinct, non-converging entities. Heine highlights this dilemma when he discusses studies investigating self-awareness and definitions of the self in different cultures. On one end of the spectrum there are individuals who view themselves in the context of an unchanging role to perform in the community, and on the other end lies the view of oneself as an entity by itself with unchanging traits and “talents”. What is stunning, though, is the research showing that such divergent views are observed early in life, in kindergarten children. This is the extent to which culture affects and shapes us.
Who Am I?
This begs the question: are we essentially a product of where we are born, and who we interact with? To what extent can we form an identity that is “true” (if that ever exists, and what is truth at this point?)? Does that mean that our true self is nothing but a fluid concept that has no meaning outside the context of where we come from? One cannot dissociate oneself from one’s community and society, in order to understand who he/she is, except if we are to claim that cultures that foster interdependence are comprised of individuals who do not know who they really are. That is not necessarily true, though, because we all know people who cannot be disconnected from their communities for extended periods of time. They cannot abandon their view of themselves as performing a “role”, and if they try to perform similar roles in their new Western environment it ultimately alienates them from their surroundings. The claim that technology and globalization have bridged cultures is definitely true and undeniable. Yet, it is through these same technologies that individuals separated from their communities are “finding themselves” by staying connected to their original communities. This suggests that there might be a tendency in every one of us to get closer to our true selves that goes beyond the cultures and communities we surround ourselves with.
Does this mean that, to discover who you truly are, you should disconnect from your society and your surroundings and check if you yearn to your old web of family and community ties? And if you live in an individualistic society, should you move to a close-knit community and discover if your true call is in an interdependent community? These are questions that I look forward to gaining some insight into going forward.