Emphasis on 'culture' in psychology fuels stereotypes, scholar says

In the current issue of the influential journal Human Development, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, challenges his colleagues to reconsider popular ideas about the role of culture in human development.

Contemporary scholarship is rife with broad, distorted generalizations about "culture" that play into stereotypes and threaten to obscure the powerful influences that individuality, resistance, and power play in development, said psychology professor Per Gjerde, who contributed the invited lead article to the journal's issue focused on "The Study of Diversity: Human Development in Culture."

"Psychologists often speak about the power of culture as an independent variable, but they fail to pay attention to the power structures that frame culture," said Gjerde. "Class differences are typically neglected and the perspective of subordinate groups is therefore overlooked."

Much of the trouble stems from the use of nations as proxies for cultural units, said Gjerde. Notions of culture are linked to national boundaries and geographical areas, like "East" and "West," fueling generalizations about "American individualism" and "Asian collectivism," said Gjerde.

Despite the permeability of borders and the pace of globalization, many scholars in psychology assign groups different styles of cognition and even personality traits, and references to "Easterners" and "Westerners" are common in scholarly and popular literature, observed Gjerde.

Although nations function as "powerful identity symbols," Gjerde calls for the study of human diversity and complexity in a manner that values individuality and the ability to transcend one's culture.

"The emphasis on diversity is welcome, but people are not exchangeable carbon copies," he said. "It is counterproductive to generalize about human development across nations and continents. If you don't take the individual into account, you run the risk--paradoxically--of creating a new set of stereotypes."

Confusing culture and nationality also obscures important racial and ethnic differences. "To equate the Chinese with the Han people marginalizes approximately 100 million people, and to speak about 'Japanese culture' obscures the fact that Japan is a multiethnic society," said Gjerde. "It fails to give voice to ethnic and other oppressed groups within Japan."

Born in Norway and married to a Japanese woman, Gjerde has studied human development in Japan, Thailand, and the United States. Much of contemporary scholarship about culture in psychology is ahistorical and insufficiently interdisciplinary to advance understanding of the human experience, he said.

"I have been bothered by these broad generalizations for some time, but they are catching on," he said. "I am afraid this approach is promoting a disregard for heterogeneity and is minimizing the role of the individual."

Gjerde is critical of the fieldwork that forms the basis for most notions of culture, saying it has been conducted in "limited and bounded social contexts" and that the fixation on groups has obscured the exploration of variation and complexity within and between human beings.

But the dualistic, or "us-them," view of the world has received powerful endorsements, sometimes in the form of research funds from influential organizations.

"People want to generalize because it makes it easier to understand the world, so they come up with cultural labels like collectivist and individualist, which give us an illusion that the world is easily understandable," said Gjerde. "But these ideas have amazing staying power."

Writing that "different social regularities indubitably exist," Gjerde emphasizes the difficulty of interpreting the meaning of such differences. Describing street scenes in Bangkok and Tokyo, he says people in Bangkok look and smile at others much more often than in Tokyo, where eye contact is generally avoided among strangers. Concluding, however, that Japanese are shyer than Thai would be "inane."

Gjerde recommends shifting the focus from groups to individuals and mapping the areas where human experience overlaps, and where it does not. Through observation, in-depth interviews, and the study of variability within groups, Gjerde believes researchers could learn about things like degrees of interdependence, which would be more credible and of greater value than sweeping statements about group differences.

Gjerde's model would take a more interdisciplinary approach to the study of culture, incorporating the writings of anthropology and other fields, and it would consider the influence of power, coercion, and class differences on individual psychological development. He also questions the premise that culture is passed on in a straightforward and passive manner from adults to children. "The assumption is that children acquire skills, values, and behaviors by participating in the adult world, but children today are not passive receptors," he said. "Their resistance to dominant adult cultural practices is a crucial--but often overlooked--component of their experience. It is noteworthy that most cultural psychologists shy away from studying conflict, resistance, and disharmony."

"Culture as ideology is relevant in the study of human development, but the question is how strong and how uniform that influence is, especially in this era of globalization when we're subject to a multitude of influences," said Gjerde. "Culture has a place, but it also has to be put in its place."


Editor's Note: Per Gjerde may be reached at (831) 459-3148 or via e-mail at gjerde@ucsc.edu.