Culture and Counseling

Culture consists of implicit and explicit patterns of behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols and their embodiments in artifacts. The essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and their attached values. Culture systems may be considered as products of action and conditioning elements of further action. A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn collected and analyzed several hundred definitions of culture and arrived at this definition, which the authors believed would be acceptable by most social scientists: Culture is one of the most important concepts in 20th-century social sciences. A reflective look at the way the concept of culture is used would be enlightening because different disciplines and schools of thoughts have their own definitions and there is no common understanding. In addition, understanding the issues of cultural unity and diversity has increasingly become relevant in our daily lives.

Historical Perspective

Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s definition represents a summary of what American anthropologists and social scientists would call culture in the 1940s and 1950s. In contrast with this definition, in the 1920s and 1930s, culture was simply defined as “the learned behavior.” However, Kroeber and Kluckhohn argued that although the concept of culture is based on the study of behavior and behavioral products, culture cannot be conceptualized as only the behavior or the investigation of behavior. Instead, part of culture consists of norms for or standards of behavior, and another part consists of ideologies justifying or rationalizing certain ways of behavior. Finally, every culture includes broad general principles of selectivity and ordering (“highest common factors”) about behavior.

Definitions of Culture

The word culture originates in Middle English (“a cultivated piece of land”) from the French word culture and from the Latin verb culturare (“to cultivate”). All versions of the word ultimately come from the early Latin colere (“to till or cultivate the ground”). A review of overarching themes and patterns in definitions of culture in various disciplines might be beneficial to our understanding of culture. Each theme has its own strengths and weaknesses, and there are inevitable overlapping and interpenetrating relationships between and among themes.

Seven types or themes of definitions of culture can be listed:

  1. Structure/pattern: Definitions that look at culture in terms of a system or framework of elements (e.g., ideas, behavior, symbols, or any combination of these or other elements)
  2. Function: Definitions that see culture as a tool for achieving some end
  3. Process: Definitions that focus on the ongoing social construction of culture
  4. Product: Definitions of culture in terms of artifacts (with or without deliberate symbolic intent)
  5. Refinement: Definitions that frame culture as a sense of individual or group cultivation to higher intellect or morality
  6. Power or ideology: Definitions that focus on group-based power (including postmodern and postcolonial definitions)
  7. Group membership: Definitions that speak of culture in terms of a place or group of people, or that focus on belonging to such a place or group.

Culture and Psychological Processes

Theories explaining culture from a perspective of psychological processes contribute to the understanding of the processes through which specific individuals’ actions and behaviors influence the actions and behaviors of others and become norms, customs, and rituals. They help to explain how the specific clusters of thoughts and action can become commonly shared among some populations but not others. Biological foundations, motivational systems, affective/emotional systems, cognitive/communication systems, and linguistic perspective will be presented as five of the examples of psychological theories.

According to the biological foundations approach, biological foundations of the cognitive mechanisms give rise to the aspects of culture. There are two perspectives that could be reviewed under the biological foundations approach: evolutionary and neurological. The evolutionary perspective suggests that human beings may be especially likely to communicate information that has affective content relevant to survival and reproduction. Consequently, knowledge structures that are suggestive of these affective states may be likely to become culturally shared.

The neurological foundation tradition emphasizes the coevolution of psychological and cultural phenomena. The main idea of coevolution is that human beings evolved to be cultural. Human beings are evolutionarily shaped and genetically predisposed to seize and make use of cultural resources available in their local environments. Another neurological foundation of culture is “plasticity.” Completely preprogrammed development is neither adaptive nor efficient. Instead, human ontogeny entails a built-in reliance on environmental patterns for species-typical development. This plasticity, or reliance on environmental patterns, provides a window for the cultural shaping of the human development. Another neurological foundation of culture, the notion of sensitive period, is defined as the ability to experience certain cultural patterns (e.g., tendencies of phoneme discrimination, visual perception, and culture-specific emotions) during a sensitive period of development. In other words, human beings are exposed to certain cultural patterns during a sensitive period of their development, and this early shaping of experience may make later shaping by other cultures more difficult.

According to the motivational systems approach, there is an existential need to make sense of big questions such as the meaning of life. Another motivational foundation is an epistemic need to make sense of day-to-day reality. Reality is often multiple and ambiguous, and people require culture, social influence with a historical and material dimension, to help define reality. A specific case of this need is observed in interpersonal communication, where people are motivated to engage in a micro-level form of cultural process, the production of common ground.

Terror management theory, an example of the motivational systems approach, proposes that culture emerged to serve as a psychological buffer against the existential anxiety that results from the awareness of our own mortality. Culture minimizes existential anxiety by providing a conception of the universe (cultural worldview) that fills the world with order, meaning, and permanence. Culture also provides a set of standards of valued behavior that, if satisfied, provides self-esteem to individuals. Culture acts as a buffer because many cultural beliefs and behaviors offer symbolic immortality (e.g., life after death, naming children after grandparents). In addition, culture provides a set of rules, standards, and principles according to which a person can be judged to be a socially acceptable or good person. One of the broad hypotheses that the terror management theory makes is that awareness of one’s own mortality leads to enhanced attempts to defend one’s own cultural worldview. For example, one study indicated that mortality salience increases derogation of alternative cultural worldviews and punishment of individuals who violate cultural rules.

The affective/emotional systems approach uses the affect/emotions as the foundation of culture. An affective foundation of culture is the concept of affective primacy, which is defined as direct, automatic shaping of moods, feelings, and preferences by everyday worlds. People are often likely to acquire affective charge of practices or artifacts unwittingly, in the process of engaging cultural worlds. For example, immersed in cultures where it is taboo to eat pork, people are likely to feel disgusted at the thought or scent of cooking pork products.

The cognitive/communication systems approach can be represented by Bibb Latane’s dynamic social impact theory (DSIT). This theory adopts a theory of social influence to explain how cultures develop and change over time. It assumes that people influence and are influenced by others through the process of communication, which is defined as any type of social exchange of information. DSIT posits that influence will occur whenever groups of people interact on social attributes. Three factors—strength, immediacy, and number—are the basis of social influence. Strength is defined as individual differences in supportiveness or persuasiveness. Some people are more attractive, richer, or more educated than others; consequently, these characteristics may lead them to have a stronger influence on others around them. Immediacy includes proximity in physical or social space. Finally, social impact depends on the number of other individuals who share a particular attitude. The more people who agree with our opinions, the less likely we will be able to change them. In short, people are more influenced by persuasive, close, and numerous others.

To explain the creation and continuation of culture, DSIT uses concepts of clustering and correlation to explain how cultures are formed and consolidation and continuing diversity to address temporal change in cultures. Clustering represents the fact that as people are influenced by those in their local area, pockets of shared opinions will form, leading to regional differences.

DSIT posits that communication will lead to spatial clustering of attributes. In other words, over time, people will be increasingly likely to share similar attitudes with those living close to them. A second prediction of DSIT is that attitudes that are originally unrelated across individuals within a group will become increasingly correlated over time. Finally, DSIT predicts that attributes will consolidate or decrease in diversity, as people influence each other over time. Although consolidation leads to majority influence and majority sizes will tend to increase, the diversity will continue to exist.

Finally, linguistic perspective links culture to static features of languages. Language determines each culture by representing reality in a particular manner. Thus, every language is a vast pattern system with culturally ordained forms and categories. Through language, human beings communicate, analyze nature, notice or neglect types of relationships and things, channel their reasoning, and build consciousness. This theory posits that use of language in human interaction may play an important role in the evolution and maintenance of cultural representations. The theory has four main assumptions:

  1. Language is a carrier of cultural meanings.
  2. Cultural meanings are evoked when language is used in interpersonal communication.
  3. The use of language in communication will increase the accessibility of existing shared representations in the culture. In addition, through communication, private idiosyncratic representations will be transformed into publicly shared representations, which in turn form the cognitive foundations of culture.
  4. Evolved and shared representations will then be encoded into the language and the cycle continues.

In sum, biological, motivational, affective/ emotional, cognitive, and linguistic theories contribute to the understanding of culture and help explain how specific clusters of thoughts and action can become commonly shared among some populations but not others. Next, concepts of cultural worldview and cultural values of several groups are discussed.

Cultural Values

Cultural values are characterized by dimensions considered important to members of a cultural group and which may subsequently guide their norms and behavior. Researchers have stated that the cultural values of a given cultural group guide the members of that group to find solutions to common human problems. Accordingly, it has been argued that an analysis of cultural values is necessary if the uniqueness of any cultural group is to be fully understood.

Differences in Cultural Values among Cultural Groups

Overall, many studies examining racial/ethnic groups compared with White culture in the United States report differences. In general, it has been found that racial/ethnic and immigrant groups are characterized by activity that places an emphasis on spontaneous self-expression of emotions, desires, and impulses; collateral social relationships or relationships whose individual goals are subordinate to group goals; and subjugation to nature and present time. In contrast, research demonstrates that White cultural groups are characterized by social relationships that are individualistic, view action and spontaneity as more important than self-control, strive for mastery over nature, and have a time orientation that is focused on the future.

Although racial/ethnic and immigrant groups may endorse similar value orientations, they attach different meanings to the same value orientations and may differ in why these value orientations are important to their particular cultural group. Researchers have begun to investigate the specific cultural values of racial/ethnic groups to gain a clearer understanding of the meanings of these values for different groups.


Among Asians there exist significant differences due to ethnicity, migration or generational status, assimilation, acculturation, religion, socioeconomic status, educational level, and political climate in their country of origin. Nonetheless, values common to many Asian cultural groups include an emphasis on harmony in relationships, emotional restraint, precedence of group interests over individual interests, importance of extended family, deference to authority, obedience to and respect for parents, emphasis on hard work, importance of fulfilling obligations, and a high value placed on education. In addition, families are often patriarchal, relationships among family members may be well defined, elders are often respected and cared for, and an individual’s behavior may reflect upon the entire family.

Researchers have identified six Asian cultural values: collectivism, conformity to norms, emotional self-control, family recognition through achievement, filial piety, and humility. Saving face is another cultural value, which is reflected in indirect communication styles being more desirable.

African Americans

African Americans’ sense of self and cultural traditions have been derived from various cultural and philosophical principles shared with West African tribes. Researchers also state that people of African ancestry continue to maintain cultural connections to these traditions. In addition, an African-centered world-view provides important information around which African Americans build their beliefs. These include the beliefs that there is a spiritual essence that permeates everything, everything in the world is interconnected with the principle of consubstantiation or the sense that everything within the universe is connected as a part of a whole, and that the collective is the most important element of existence. In addition, Afrocentricity also includes the beliefs that self-knowledge is assumed to be the foundation of all knowledge.

Moreover, African Americans value family, which includes not only blood relatives but also extended family and fictive kin. Other values include a spirit of coexistence, maintaining a strong connection to the church, education as a means of self-help, a present time orientation with less emphasis on particulars, harmony with nature, collateral relations with others, and communication patterns that include body movement, postures, gestures, and facial expressions in addition to verbal communication. Despite having experienced hardship, African Americans also demonstrate persistence, forgiveness, and resilience.

European Americans

European Americans consist of various cultural groups that descend from European countries. Among the cultural values that have been identified for European Americans is individualism, which stresses independence and autonomy. Additionally, researchers have identified an importance on productivity, rigid time orientation, and a focus on the nuclear family. For the most part, these cultural values differentiate this cultural group from others in that importance is placed on the individual rather than the group.


Diversity among Latino/a groups exists across geography, country of origin, race, class, traditions, acculturation, and historical and sociopolitical circumstances. However, some shared cultural values have been identified for Latinos/as; these include familismo, personalismo, simpatia, respeto, and the expression si Dios quiere (if it is God’s will). Familismo refers to strong family orientation in that Latinos/as value close relationships, cohesiveness and interdependence, and cooperation among family members.

The value of personalismo refers to valuing and building interpersonal relationships and the importance of warm, friendly, and personal relationships. This describes the orientation that Latinos/as have toward people rather than toward impersonal relationships. Simpatia also demonstrates this orientation that emphasizes harmonious interpersonal interactions. Respeto demonstrates the importance of interpersonal harmony, which governs all positive interpersonal relationships and dictates the appropriate deferential behavior toward others on the basis of age, socioeconomic position, sex, and authority status.

The expression si Dios quiere (if it is God’s will) describes the value of fatalism, which is an indication or form of acceptance that Latinos/as have no control over what God has willed. This value makes sense given that Latinos/as often make reference to their belief in higher powers as a way of making meaning.

Further, among Latinos/as cooperation is important, cultural pride is significant, family structure is hierarchical with deference to elders and males, and adherence to family roles is important. Latinos/as also believe in a holistic connection between the mind and body that permeates their health and illness beliefs. In addition, the church and faith play a significant role and shape Latino/a core beliefs such as the importance of sacrifice, service to others, and long suffering even in the face of adversity.

Native Americans

Despite the vast diversity among Native Americans, researchers have identified specific values among this cultural group. Among these values, a collectivist cultural value has been identified. Specifically, personal accomplishments are honored and supported if these accomplishments benefit the group. Similarly, it is believed that all things are connected and have purpose. In addition, the importance of spirituality is among the cultural values of Native Americans. In particular, Native Americans believe in a creator that is considered male and female and is in command of all the elements. Additionally, Native American cultural values come from a spirituality that emphasizes coexisting in harmony with nature. From this comes the cultural value of sharing, as all things belong to the Earth.

Native Americans also value elders because of the wisdom they have acquired. In addition, there is a respect for the past and the contributions of the ancestral spirits. Other cultural values include a focus on nonverbal communication, reciprocal relationships that emphasize cooperation, a preference for a fluid time orientation, and respect for tribal rituals.

Given that these cultural values are central for a particular cultural group, it offers many implications for their worldviews, how they interpret and perceive environments and situations, and how they make decisions. With the understanding of cultural values, the understanding of culture may become more advanced. Thus, in clarifying and defining cultural values we may have a better understanding of what culture means to specific groups.


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