Cultural Psychology

Cultural psychology is an interdisciplinary extension of general psychology regarding those psychological processes which are inherently organized by culture. As a discipline, cultural psychology relates to cultural anthropology, sociology, semiotics, language philosophy, and cultural studies. Within psychology, cultural psychology relates to cross-cultural, social, developmental, and cognitive issues.

Systemic Focus of Cultural Psychology

Cultural PsychologyCultural psychology is a heterogeneous class of perspectives which share an interest in explaining how human psychological functions are culturally constituted through various forms of relations between persons and their social contexts. Different trends in cultural psychology can be contrasted to cross-cultural psychology. Cultural psychology looks for systemic explanation, attempting to include in the explanatory system the notion of culture or its derivates (meaning, semiotic mediating devices, folk models, social representations). For such systemic analysis, direct empirical comparisons between different societies are useful but not necessary. In contrast, cross-cultural psychology is largely concerned with the empirical investigation of differences between societies across a broad spectrum of psychological topics and exemplified by different psychological methods.

History of Cultural Psychology

Cultural psychology antedates experimental psychology (1879), the first professorship in folk psychology (Volkerpsychologie) having been established in 1860 at the University of Bern, Switzerland. In general, cultural psychology is rooted in the nineteenth-century German Volkerpsychologie tradition (Moritz Lazarus, Heyman Steinthai, Hermann Paul, Wilhelm Wundt), as well as on the language philosophy of Wilhelm von Humboldt. In parallel. it is based on the semiotics of Charles San­ders Peirce in the United States, and in the action theory of Pierre Janet in France.

In the first half of the twentieth century, cultural psychology relates to the sociology of Georg Simmel and Emile Durkheim, the anthropology of Richard Thurnwald and Lucien Levy-Bruhl, the genetic logic of James Mark Baldwin, John Dewey’s pragmatism, and the social psychology of George Herbert Mead. Freder­ick Bartlett’s constructionist look at folk stories in the 1920s in England, and Muzafer Sherif’s analyses of construction of social norms, have laid the foundation for understanding the ways in which people recon­struct the social stimulus world, The cultural-historical theory of Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria in Russia (Vygotsky & Luria, 1930/1993, 1930/1994), the communication theory of Karl Buhler in Germany and Wil­liam Stern’s personalistic psychology, are further roots for the contemporary reappearance of cultural psychology.

Contemporary Directions in Cultural Psychology

Cultural PsychologyVersions of cultural psychology differ from one another in the definition of the role of the person in the cultural-psychological analysis. The person is either denied as a unity and human psychological processes are viewed as merged with the cultural context (e.g., directions that emphasize appropriation of social input), or the person is viewed as an autonomous agent, who is nevertheless interdependent with the social environment.

Ernst E. Boesch’s Symbolic Action Theory

Boesch (1991) has developed a system of cultural psychology that integrates concepts from the developmental constructionism of Jean Piaget and Pierre Janet with basic psychoanalytic insights, in clearly personological ways. Working between Germany and Thailand since the mid-1950s, his theory includes a basic focus on complex psychological phenomena (e.g., aesthetic objects) which a person experiences through personal generalized symbols (fantasms) which are based on socially available myth stories. His focus on the symbolic nature of action allows for analysis of the ways in which persons move from myths to actions via personally relevant fantasms. Boesch’s focus is in many ways parallel to the explanation of conduct through the notion of social representation of French social psychologist Serge Moscovici, yet it builds new concepts of a personal-subjective kind (e.g.. Heimweh or longing for home).

Lutz H. Eckensberger’s Action Theory

A direct descendant of Boesch’s symbolic action theory that was developed in Saarbrucken, Eckensberger’s action theory builds on Boesch’s work in a number of ways. Originally formulated within the cross-cultural psychology perspective, Eckensberger has moved on to construct a dynamic theoretical perspective of cultural psychology of human action and thinking (Eckensberger, 1990). The emphasis on persons’ goal-directed actions and their emerging reflexive abstraction are the cornerstone of Eck­ensberger’s cultural view of mental processes. Boesch’s agency notion is carefully retained, and it is seen to both construct “action barriers” and negotiate those in the domain of action and reflexive abstraction. By concentrating on the emergence of higher levels of actions in the mental sphere, Eckensberger manages to solve the complex problem of integration of intentionality into his theoretical scheme.

Gananath Obeyesekere’s (1990) “Work of Culture”

Building on the basis of Freudian psychoanalysis and the cultural phenomena of South Asian societies, Obeyesekere has demonstrated how persons organize their personal life course through meanings-based participation in cultural rituals, and how human conduct is overdetermined by meanings. Obeyesekere’s version of symbolic anthropology is close to Boesch’s theoretical system in its ideas.

Hubert Hermans’s (1995) Dialogic Self Theory

Based on the notion of traditional research on motivation, and on the dialogical approaches of Martin Buber and Mikhail Bakhtin, Hermans has formulated a view of the self which builds upon the relationship between different meanings (or “voices”) that take different forms (e.g.. those of agreement. disagreement). His theory of dialogical self is connected with phenomena of psychotherapy, and with his valuation theory (Her­mans & Kempen, 1993), in conjunction with a measurement system for personal valuations.

Alfred Lang’s Semiotic-Ecological Approach

Uniting historical thinking about the human condition which begins with the work of Johann Gottfried Herder, Lang’s approach also links the semiotics of C. S. Peirce with a Lewinian focus on the personal sense of the life space (Lang, 1993). Taking from Kurt Lewin the notion of developmental lines, and linking up with Boesch’s symbolic action theory, Lang overcomes the dualism of the inner and outer psychological worlds by way of considering the constant process of movement of sign processes between the person and the world. This focus is similar to Dewey’s efforts to create models of dynamic relations between organism and environment.

Pablo del Rio’s Focus on the Dynamic Nature of Human Activity

Based on the analysis of human life environments, and on Vygotsky’s cultural-historical theory del Rio’s focus has led to the development of the notion of the zone of syncretic representation (ZSR) which allows the del Rio and Alvarez to conceptualize the dynamic nature of person-environment relations. There is continuous help from the external operators to the internal, and vice versa in a person’s relating to his or her culture. One can start an internal plan of action (“Want to do X”), which passes to another plan that is externally activated in the cultural space (“It is good to do Y”). Human actions are personal and freely initiated, but their organization is syncretic in the common ter­ritory of distributed operations of our internal-and-external mind (Del Rio & Alvarez, 1995). Del Rio em­phasizes the role of general idea complexes (similar to Boesch’s fantasms) in the organization of the person-environment relations.

Ivana Markova’s Dialogical Approach

This view integrates the cognitive and language functions in the process of analysis. Relying on the traditions of the Prague Linguistic Circle (Markova, 1992), Markova also brings the notion of Hegel’s dialectics home to the reality of analysis of dialogues (both inter- and intrapersonal). Within her analytic scheme, the concentration on the emergence of novelty in dialogue becomes highlighted. as she develops a three-step analytic unit (at time 1 two opposites, A and B are in a relationship that leads to the transformation of at least one of these into a novel form—e.g.. A becomes C—at time 2).

Michael Cole’s Work

Historically indebted to the thought of Alexander Luria, and through him to Lev Vygotsky, Cole’s version of cultural psychology emerges from his studies of cultural tools, paired with an explicit interest, in the historical nature of cultural processes (Cole. 1996). His theoretical construction is based on cultural practice theory. The problem of relationships between microgenetic (situationally emerging) and onto-genetic phenomena in human development is central to the cultural practice theory. The main mechanism by which culture and person are related is that of mutual interweaving. This interweaving reflects the general process in which the culture becomes individual and the individuals create their culture—the culture and cognition are mutually constituted.

Richard A. Shweder

His version of cultural psychology is based on his experiences with the moral reasoning of persons in Orissa, India. He has demonstrated the relevance of both the person and the social world for cultural organization of human conduct. His cultural psychology relates the intentional worlds of human cultural environments, with the actions, feelings, and thinking of intentional persons. Persons and their cultural worlds interpenetrate each other’s identities, and set the conditions for each other’s existence and development, while jointly undergoing change through social interaction (Shweder. 1990, p. 25).

James V. Wertsch

Dewey/Leontiev activity approaches underlie Wertsch’s version of cultural psychology along with the notion of semiotic mediation through “voices of the mind” (Wertsch, 1991), and Bakhtin’s emphasis on dialogicality, whereby the analysis of “voices” affords the treatment of the complexity of messages. The result is a consistent return to the study of ambivalences embedded in communicative messages—in the form of polyphony of voices or heteroglossia. Different “voices” can be seen in utterances in ways that “interanimate” or dominate each other in the act of speaking in situated activity contexts. Bakhtin’s legacy allows Wertsch to advance his theory of communication into the realm of conceptualizing processual relations between the components in a dialogue (i.e.. different “voices”). “Privileging” in relations between “voices” (i.e., the “foregrounding” of voice X while voice Y is simultaneously being “backgrounded”) is a central issue for Wertschian analysis. Wertsch is interested in society’s macrolevel dialogues (such as the dialogicality involved in school history textbooks, leading to different forms of national identity).

Barbara Rogoff’s Ethnography of Guided Participation

Rogoff’s focus is mostly ethnographical, which allows her to take into account the complexities of the culture-embedded mentality in action. Rogoff provides a solution to the problem of the context—it is the sociocultural activity which involves active participation of people in socially constituted practices (Rogoff, 1990, p. 14). Within that activity, persons are interacting on problem solving (rather than being involved in lengthy intrapersonal contemplations or soul searching). The active (but not always persistent) social guidance by others to the person is complemented by the person’s own constructive role in his or her own development. The person is always an active apprentice who participates in socially guided activity settings.

International Representation of Cultural Psychology

Cultural PsychologyCultural psychology is an international discipline. Apart from the directions described above, there are a number of others which focus on specific issues. In Britain, the promotion of discursive analysis (Edwards. 1997) by Michael Billig, Derek Edwards, Jonathan Pot­ter, and David Middleton at Loughborough University has carved out a new methodological road for some of cultural psychology. Russian transformations of the German focus on activity in the form of Alexei N. Leontiev’s activity theory have been instrumental in the advancement of activity-centered cultural psychology of Yrjo Engestrom in Finland. Different thought systems close to cultural psychology (but not necessarily labeled as such) can be found in Norway (Ragnar Rommetveit’s philosophy of communication), Estonia (Peeter Tulviste’s cultural-historical approach to human action). South Africa (Ronnie Miller’s semiotic approach), India (Veena Das’s cultural sociology), and Australia (Anna Wierzbicka’s efforts to build a universal semantics). Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological analysis of habitus has had an impact upon cultural psychology, and Serge Moscovici’s focus on social representations has been a basis for social psychologists’ tackling of complex cultural phenomena. An extension of the Bakhtin-Wertsch line of thought has provided a productive basis for research in the area of education in Brazil (Smolka, Goes, & Pino, 1995).

In the United States, cultural psychology emerged in the social sciences of the 1980s, largely in dialogue with cognitive science. The focus on internal mechanisms of cognition was replaced by calls to study human actions in culturally organized settings. Led by Markus, Kitayama, and others, William James’s analysis of the self has become a target of recent empirical analyses of the cultural organization of human selves. Jerome Bruner (1990) has suggested his approach to meaning making; Jaan Valsiner (1998) has focused on semiotic regulation of human conduct. Such semiotic regulation entails the use of signs as cultural regulators of conduct. Regulators operate by way of creating temporary constraints upon the flow of psychological processes. Human conduct is regulated redundantly, by way of action constraints and signs that operate as constraints on the meanings used to guide action.

Methodological Challenges in Cultural Psychology

Cultural psychology deals with psychological phenomena which cannot easily be studied by the use of standard psychological methods. The focus on meaningfulness of psychological phenomena in cultural psychology requires the construction of new methodology, which is slowly appearing in the 1990s (Ratner, 1997; Valsiner. 1998). Since cultural psychology deals with systemic. complex phenomena, its contemporary methodological innovation continues the traditions of holistic traditions of the past (Gestalt psychologie, Ganzheitspsychologie) and rules out the primacy of statistical techniques in inference making.

Cultural Psychology Bibliography:

  1. Boesch. E E. (1991). Symbolic action theory and cultural psychology. New York: Springer.
  2. Bruner. J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Cole. M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge. MA: Belknap/Harvard. University Press.
  4. Del Rio. P.. & Alvarez. A. (1995). Directivity: The cultural and educational construction of morality and agency. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 26. 4. 384-409.
  5. Eckensberger. L. H. (1990). From cross-cultural psychology to cultural psychology. The Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. 12, 37-52.
  6. Edwards. D. (1997). Discourse and cognition. London: Sage.
  7. Hermans, H. J. M. (1995). Voicing the self: From information processing to dialogical interchange. Psychological Bulletin. 119. 31-50.
  8. Hermans. H. J. M.. & Kempen. H. J. G. (1993). The dialogical self: Meaning as movement. San Diego. CA: Academic Press.
  9. Lang. A. (1993). Non-Cartesian artifacts in dwelling activities: Steps towards a semiotic ecology. Schweizerische Zeitschrift fur Psychologie. 52. 138-147.
  10. Markova. I. (1992). On the structure and dialogicity in Prague semiotics. In A. H. Wold (Ed.). The dialogic alternative: Towards a theory of language and mind (pp. 45-­63). Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.
  11. Obeyesekere. G. (1990). The work of culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  12. Ratner. C. (1997). Cultural psychology and qualitative methodology: Theoretical and empirical considerations. New York: Plenum.
  13. Rogoff. B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking. New York: Oxford University Press.
  14. Shweder. R. A. (1990). Cultural psychology—What is it? In J. W. Stigler. R. A. Shweder. & G. Herdt (Eds.). Cultural psychology (pp. 1-43). Cambridge. UK: Cambridge University Press.
  15. Smolka. A. L. B.. Goes. M. C ., & Pino. A. (1995). The con­stitution of the subject: A persistent question. In J. Wertsch & B. Rogoff (Eds.). Sociocultural studies of the mind. Cambridge. UK: Cambridge University Press.
  16. Valsiner. J. (1998). The guided mind. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.
  17. Vygotsky. L. S.. & Luria. A. R. (1993). Studies on the history of behavior: Ape, primitive. and child. Hillsdale. NJ: Erl­baum. (Original work published 1930)
  18. Vygotsky. L. S.. & Luria. A. R. (1994). Tool and symbol in child development. In R. van der Veer & J. Valsiner (Eds.). The Vygotsky reader (pp. 99-174). Oxford: Black-well. (Original work published 1930)
  19. Wertsch. J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.