The human psyche represents a complex constellation of activity that impacts how people perceive and respond to reality. Culture firmly impacts the human experience, and worldview is subsequently one of the most studied constructs in the field of cultural, cross-cultural, and multicultural psychology. Worldview has been defined as a person’s perception of his or her relationship with the world. More specifically, world-view is a by-product of the way in which a person is socialized to perceive, think, feel, and experience the world. It attempts to make sense of life experiences that might otherwise be construed as chaotic, random, and meaningless. Worldview articulates the basic philosophical assumptions, values, and beliefs underlying culture and is expressed through its various structural or institutional manifestations. Moreover, worldview is a by-product of culture that affects, and tends to determine, behavior.
The construct of worldview is one of the earliest cultural variables to be integrated into psychological research, theory, and practice. Worldview represents a unifying thread in the psychological literature that suggests practices to guide culturally competent research and psychotherapy with culturally diverse communities. In 1970, J. L. White wrote the first article—”Toward a Black Psychology”—that questioned the utility of applying mainstream psychology toward African Americans. This article, which was published in Ebony, argued that it was difficult—if not impossible—to understand the African American experience by using traditional psychological theories that were developed by European American psychologists to explain European American behavior. Implicit in this assertion was the position that world-view differences exist between these two groups and that a psychology that is rooted in Western philosophy could lead to conclusions that could be harmful in the scientific research, clinical diagnosis, and prescribed treatment of African Americans.
This investigation into the implications of world-view differences was advanced more broadly by D. W. Sue and his colleagues. In 1982, they published a position paper in The Counseling Psychologist. Ten years later (1992), Sue and his colleagues followed up with a call to the profession, which was published in the Journal of Counseling & Development. This body of work represented an initial step toward articulating a set of competencies that each culturally skilled psychologist should be able to wield in psychotherapy. Such competencies were organized along the dimensions of beliefs, knowledge, and skills. For the first time, the implications of worldview differences in psychotherapy were clearly delineated and therapist self-exploration was promoted. Two decades after the original position paper was published, in 2002, the American Psychological Association Council of Representatives adopted a set of guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice, and organizational change for psychologists. These guidelines noted that awareness of the research participant’s—or client’s—worldview is not sufficient to actualize cultural competence in research—or psychotherapy. Psychologists must also be aware of their own worldview and have the skills to work through worldview differences in research, training, and psychotherapy in a culturally sensitive and meaningful manner.
Conceptualization of Worldview
Contemporary debates about the construct of world-view are focused more on how it is conceptualized and less on its utility in the field of psychology. It is widely understood that the construct of worldview can be used to understand interpersonal dynamics in a therapeutic relationship. Furthermore, some counseling psychologists have argued that therapists who work with culturally different clients will increasingly be exposed to clients who exhibit different worldview orientations. To the extent that these views diverge, services may be viewed as unacceptable and unnecessary and may influence the underutilization of psychotherapy by various ethnic groups in our society. Given the mental health-related help-seeking disparities that plague such populations, several counseling psychologists have articulated a need for a comprehensive characterization of worldview that can be applied to psychological assessment and psychotherapy.
To date, there are two primary perspectives that are driving the evolving conceptualization of worldview. The most prominent perspective is an existential approach that is rooted in cultural anthropology. Alternatively, some psychologists have tried to provide a more comprehensive articulation of worldview by investigating the depths of culture through the interrogation of various dimensions of philosophy.
Traditionally, conceptions of worldview in psychology have been grounded in cultural anthropology. In 1961, F. R. Kluckhohn and F. L. Strodtbeck articulated an anthropological model of value orientations that focused on five existential categories: human nature (what is the character of human nature?), activity orientation (what is the modality of human activity?), social relationships (what is the modality of people’s relationships?), person-nature (what is the relationship of people to nature?), and time orientation (what is the temporal focus of human life?). Furthermore, each existential category was thought to vary among three potential options: human nature—bad, good and bad, or good; activity orientation—being, being in becoming, or doing; social relationships—lineal/hierarchical, collateral/mutual, or individualistic; person-nature— harmony, subjugation and control, or power of nature; and time orientation—past, present, or future.
Psychologists have used this model to conceptualize various dimensions of worldview orientations and have hypothesized that the beliefs and values along each dimension are shaped by the individual’s cultural context. It is important to note that researchers have also operationalized worldview according to other value dimensions such as justice beliefs, sense of coherence, and cultural attitudes. A value-based conceptualization of worldview was the basis of several assessment instruments, including the Value Orientations Questionnaire (Green & Haymes), the Value Orientations Scale (Szapocznik & colleagues), and the Scale to Assess World View (Ibrahim & Kahn). These scales were designed to be applied to psychological research and to improve cultural competence in psychotherapy. In 1991, R. T. Carter provided a comprehensive summary of worldview studies based on this existential values conceptualization. F. A. Ibrahim, G. Roysircar-Sodowski, and H. Ohnishi later updated this review in 2001. Readers may consult these summaries for more detail.
Conceptions of worldview in psychology have also been grounded in the discipline of philosophy. Psychologists such as W. C. Banks, L. James-Myers, K. K. K. Kambon, and W. A. Nobles argued that cultural phenomena—like worldview—could best be captured through the deep structure of culture. According to this conceptualization, worldview is organized into several philosophical constructs: cosmology—nature of the universe, epistemology—theory of knowledge, ontology—connection of psychological facts with reality, axiology—science of values, and teleology— theory that things act for an end purpose. This method of conceptualizing worldview encompasses the values-based approach, while adding a layer of complexity by including additional culturally influenced dimensions that have the capacity to deepen the breadth of the worldview literature.
Historically, the aforementioned philosophical constructs have been traced back to KMT (or Ancient Egypt) and the definitions of these constructs have been debated by philosophers such as G. Berkeley, R. Descartes, G. W. F. Hegel, M. Heidegger, D. Hume, I. Kant, J. Locke, K. Marx, and Plato, to name a few. In 2005, L. James-Myers and colleagues advanced the cosmology, epistemology, ontology, axiology, and teleology model for analyzing worldview systems. More specifically, they provided potential questions that could be used to gain insight into a person’s worldview orientation. Examples of such questions included (a) How was the universe created? (b) What powers animate life and gives it form? (c) What can be accepted as truth? (d) How is knowledge obtained and transmitted? (e) What is the nature of reality? (f) What exists in reality? (g) What are some values that can be used to guide human interactions? (h) What is the purpose of life?
Several behavioral scientists have used these philosophical dimensions of worldview to conceptualize the notion of self and consciousness for diverse ethic groups. Additionally, several categorizations have been illustrated to delineate differences and similarities between different ethnic groups along these philosophical dimensions of worldview. A philosophically based conceptualization of worldview was the basis of several assessment instruments, including the Worldview Scale (Baldwin & Hopkins) and the Worldview Analysis Scale (Obasi, Flores, & James-Myers).
Although there is a multitude of psychological literature addressing the implications that worldview differences may have in conducting culturally competent psychotherapy, psychologists have been less adamant in investigating this issue in the domain of research. Within the field of psychology broadly, complex formulations of cultural phenomena often are relegated to race-based stereotypes. Whereas there are various theoretical formulations that conjecture the existence of worldview differences among various ethnic groups, there is a dearth in the amount of empirical evidence to substantiate such claims. In part, this is due to conceptual incarceration where Western science dictates what epistemology and methodology are deemed credible for uncovering such ontological relationships. In light of the imposed etic (cultural universals) methodology that is often inherent in Western science, limitations in researching cultural deep thought become inevitable when epistemological and ontological relationships rooted in various non-Western worldview orientations come into conflict with research methods that are grounded in a Western worldview.
For various reasons, this has bearing on the lack of instruments that can be used to research such theoretical formulations. When race-based instruments represent the closest alternative, researchers interested in cultural phenomena are faced with the alternative of pounding a square construct into a round hole. Research on racial constructs—such as racism, racialism, stereotypes, and race-related stress—is very much needed to address the stimulus value that physical features might have on attitude formulation or well-being. However, a racial paradigm will have little to no utility when the researcher is interested in cultural factors that influence spiritual, psychological, and/or behavioral phenomena.
The measurement of worldview is crucial to advancing psychological theory, research, training, and practice. Specifically, worldview is an important cultural variable that has the capacity to effectively assess between- and within-group differences so that individuals can be understood within a broader ethno-cultural context. Scholars also have highlighted the importance of assessing the relationship of cultural factors (e.g., worldview, acculturation, cultural identity) to other psychological variables in research studies. Moreover, investigating the influence of a client’s worldview in both process and outcome variables in psychotherapy may provide important data regarding effective modes of psychotherapy for culturally diverse populations.
One characteristic of the culturally competent therapist is awareness of personal assumptions, values, and biases. An important dimension of therapist self-awareness includes understanding one’s own world-view and how worldview perspectives are shaped by the processes of enculturation and socialization. A worldview assessment instrument can serve as a tool for training programs in helping graduate students become more aware of the lens through which they perceive and interpret events around them. Furthermore, worldview assessment can help therapists understand the client’s perception of her or his presenting concerns. In addition to assisting in conceptualizing and assessing the problem, knowledge of the client’s worldview can also aid the therapist in establishing methods and goals for psychotherapy that are consistent with the client’s worldview and determining the roles the therapist might serve in the context of the therapeutic relationship.
Finally, worldview assessment is invaluable to psychological research. In 1995, A. J. Marsella and F. T. L. Leong identified several methodological problems that contribute to errors in validity in psychological research. Of importance to worldview assessment is the “error of commission.” In summary, this error describes conducting psychological research on diverse ethnic groups without regard of their world-view. Not having a valid worldview assessment tool would force the researcher to make stereotypical interferences (e.g., African Americans are spiritual and communalistic people), which were not assessed in the research study, to inform their results.
Moreover, uncovering empirical differences in world-view may serve as a catalyst toward deriving much needed research methods that are obligatory for culturally competent research to be actualized.
As a result of the increased focus within psychology on providing effective services to culturally diverse populations that is informed by the research literature, and the recognition that culturally competent therapists and ethically responsible practice necessitate the assessment of worldview, researchers, trainers, and therapists are in need of measurement tools to assess worldview. To date, there are a few instruments to assess worldview orientation that are used in the psychology literature: Scale to Assess World View (Ibrahim & Kahn), Worldview Scale (Baldwin & Hopkins), and the Worldview Analysis Scale (Obasi, Flores, & James-Myers).
Scale to Assess World View
The Scale to Assess World View consists of 45 items and was developed to assess individual and group beliefs, values, and assumptions regarding (a) views of human nature, (b) interpersonal relationships, (c) nature, (d) time, and (e) activity. Human nature is categorized as being either bad (3 items), good and bad (3 items), or good (3 items). The modality of an individual’s relationships is categorized as being lineal-hierarchical (3 items), collateral-mutual (3 items), or individualistic (3 items). The relationship of people to nature is categorized as being in harmony (3 items), subjugation to control (3 items), or power of nature (3 items). The temporal focus of human life is categorized into the past (3 items), present (3 items), or future (3 items). Finally, the modality of human activity is categorized as being (3 items), being-in-becoming (3 items), or doing (3 items). Each item is rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from strongly agree (5) to strongly disagree (1). Responses to each item are trichotomized into “no,” “neutral,” or “yes.” A factor analysis was conducted on the Scale to Assess World View and a four-factor solution was reported. These factors were named Optimistic, Traditional, Here and Now, and Pessimistic.
The Worldview Scale (WVS) consists of 37 items assessing three broad philosophical-conceptual orientations of African and European worldview: (1) orientation toward nature, (2) orientation toward the physical and the nonphysical/metaphysical realms, and (3) orientation toward other human beings. Additionally, items are included that assess the six bipolar conceptual components of harmony versus antagonism toward nature, spiritualism versus materialism, collectivism versus individualism, strong versus weak religious orientation, interdependence versus separateness, and humanism versus racism. Part I of the WVS consists of 24 items to which participants respond using a 4-point Likert scale ranging from strongly agree (4) to strongly disagree (1). In part I, 15 items are positively worded for the African worldview, and 9 items are positively worded for the European worldview. Part II consists of 9 items in a forced-choice format that alternates randomly from an African worldview response set to a European world-view response set. The WVS score is computed based on the total scale score; high scores correspond to an African worldview orientation, and low scores correspond to a European worldview orientation.
Worldview Analysis Scale
The Worldview Analysis Scale is a 55-item questionnaire based on the philosophical dimensions of cosmology, epistemology, ontology, axiology, and teleology. These philosophical dimensions serve as a theoretical framework to operationalize measurable dimensions of worldview, such as perceptions of the universe, spirituality, immortality, communalism, knowledge of self, reality, reason, and indigenous value systems. Individual perceptions of these dimensions exist in the fabric of culture and are believed to influence cognitions, decisions, and behaviors. Factor analysis confirmed a seven-factor structure that included Materialistic Universe, Tangible Realism, Communalism, Indigenous Values, Knowledge of Self, Spiritual Immortality, and Spiritualism. The Worldview Analysis Scale hypothesizes several assumptions with regard to worldview assessment.
- Worldview is a schema that is used to establish meaning consistent with a person’s cultural framework.
- Each culture possesses both universal and particular dimensions of worldview that are similar to and different from other cultures; thus, the measured dimensions should be able to differentiate between-group and within-group similarities and differences.
- Cultures are constantly in contact with other cultures. Through these interactions, dimensions of worldview can be either borrowed and transformed in a meaningful fashion or rejected altogether.
- Worldview is a construct that has the capacity to go beyond superficial race-based models to explore cultural phenomena.
Historically, the majority of people of color (African American, Asian American, Native American, Mexican American, etc.) residing in the United States in need of some type of psychological intervention do not seek professional psychological help for their personal dilemmas. Of those who seek therapeutic assistance, an estimated 50% or more prematurely discontinue treatment after the initial session. Factors cited as reasons for this premature termination include traditional psychological paradigms that reflect the worldview of the dominant culture, diagnosis and treatment by a culturally different therapist, differential expectations between clients and their therapists, and lack of resources and lack of availability of services.
People of color are more likely to rely on traditional support networks (e.g., relatives, spiritual advisors, community organizations, and friends) rather than professional psychological services. This growing body of scientific literature consistently identifies common implications (e.g., diagnosis and treatment of the culturally different, differential expectations, and lack of resources in culturally diverse communities) that the field of psychology must address to improve therapeutic practice with diverse groups. Furthermore, these studies hypothesized that factors such as worldview, values associated with the counseling process, and cultural differences between the counselor and client can negatively impact an individual’s willingness to seek professional psychological services.
In addition to the cross-cultural/multicultural discourse, it is imperative to look at the impact that worldview can have on designing empirically supported treatment modalities and training competent service providers to administer such interventions. Specifically, it is important to understand the factors that influence worldview and how differences are manifested between and within ethnic groups. For example, which dimensions of worldview predict counselor preferences, treatment modality preferences, conceptualizations of health, help-seeking attitudes and behaviors, and so on? Are culture-specific treatments needed to address worldview differences, or are adjustments to current treatment modalities sufficient? It is anticipated that the construct of worldview will continue to influence the future of psychotherapy while solid empirical evidence continues to accumulate in this area of research.
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- Sue, D. W. (1978). World views and counseling. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 56, 458-162.
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- White, J. L. (1970, August). Toward a Black psychology. Ebony, 25, 44-45, 48-50, 52.