Culture Definition

Culture can be generally defined as an interrelated set of values, tools, and practices that is shared among a group of people who possess a common social identity. More simply, culture is the sum total of our worldviews or of our ways of living. Cultural world-views affect a range of psychological processes, including perceptual, cognitive, personality, and social processes, but are thought to most strongly influence social psychological processes.

Background and History of Culture Research

For much of the 20th century, there was scant research and publishing on the subject of culture and behavior in the general psychological literature. Some of the more notable exceptions are seen in the work of Wilhelm Wundt, Lev Vygotsky, and Frederic Bartlett. One influential finding on cultural effects was made by Marshall Segall in the 1960s, who, along with his colleagues, found that Africans and Westerners varied in their susceptibility to certain visual illusions, theoretically because of their differential exposure to built environments and wide vistas. Apart from such isolated cases of research, however, much of the early academic study of the behavioral effects of culture can be drawn from the work of social anthropologists.

CultureSince 1970, social psychologists have paid significant attention to the effects of culture on behavior. This growth was due, in part, to the increased level of intercultural interaction and its associated challenges that occurred with the rapid expansion in global communication, economies, and migration in the intervening period. Advances in social psychological theory and research methodology also facilitated more interest in the study of culture. As a result, knowledge about culture and behavior increased significantly in the latter half of the 20th century, principally through the work of social psychologists like Harry Triandis, Geert Hofstede, Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, Shalom Schwartz, and Richard Nisbett, among others.

Current Approaches and Knowledge

Many contemporary social psychologists who investigate the effects of culture do so by comparing national cultures to determine universal and culture-specific patterns of behavior. Cross-cultural research is conducted primarily from the sociocognitive perspective and focuses on the cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes or cultural knowledge that distinguishes the behavior of people with different national backgrounds.

One prominent tool employed by cross-cultural researchers is to classify nations by their relative support for individualism or collectivism. Individualism is a set of values, beliefs, and attitudes that emphasize the importance of people pursuing their individual goals and behavior. Collectivism is manifest in values, beliefs, and attitudes that emphasize the importance of people following group goals and group norms for behavior. Research has shown North American, Western European, and Australian cultures to be relatively individualistic, while Japanese and Chinese cultures are comparatively collectivistic.

Individualistic and collectivistic cultures encourage people to adopt a certain set of interrelated values, beliefs, and perceptions of the self and the group. A person exposed to an individualistic culture is more likely to value personal autonomy, freedom of expression, and self-enhancement than is a person from a collectivistic culture, who would contrastingly be more likely to value obedience, tradition, and group enhancement. In addition, individualistic cultures encourage people to adopt an independent self-view or distinguish the self from others, whereas people in collectivistic cultures view themselves as more interdependent or connected to others. As a consequence, the individual and the group are perceived as the more prominent agent in behavior in individualistic and collectivistic cultures, respectively.

The distinction made between individualistic and collectivistic cultures helps explain a range of behaviors. Research has shown that North Americans attribute behavior to individual volition or internal dispositions. Chinese, on the other hand, attribute behavior to the influence of a person’s primary reference groups or other factors external to the individual, such as situational influences. It has also been shown that the preference for maintaining harmonious interpersonal and intragroup communication patterns is much stronger in collectivistic than individualistic cultures. Individualism and collectivism are even manifested in language practices with Westerners more prone to use first person pronouns (e.g., I, me) than are people from collectivistic cultures.

While the classification of nations according to broad constructs such as individualism and collectivism is a powerful tool in cross-cultural psychology, our understanding of cultural knowledge is not limited to this extent. Nations have been shown to vary on other distinct systems of cultural values, such as the level of universalism, security, or power they promote. Moreover, groups within nations (e.g., states, regions, organizations) and groups that transcend national boundaries (youth, arts, religious groups) exhibit their own distinct cultural knowledge.

Cultural knowledge is thought to have evolved to meet a range of significant social and basic emotional needs. On one level, cultural values and practices give order and structure to the social world, be it to nations, societies, or groups. At another level, culture fulfills the individual emotional need for belonging, and the need for purpose and meaning to existence. Recent work by Jeff Greenberg and his colleagues also highlights that cultural worldviews fulfill the need for self-esteem: Self-esteem is derived from being seen to have successfully performed culturally valued behaviors.

The range of social and emotional needs that cultural worldviews meet helps explains why people are prone to show strong allegiance to their culture and their cultural group. Indeed, research has shown that raising existential anxiety among people leads them to strongly endorse their cultural values and beliefs and derogate, or distance themselves from, culturally different values or others.

Culture Research Implications

Knowledge about culture and behavior from the view of social psychology has been successfully applied in various settings to solve a range of problems. These problems have included those that arise with intercultural communication and negotiation, the acculturation experience of immigrants, the contrasting ways people label and treat health concerns and psychological disorders, and the management of multinational organizations. More generally, intercultural understanding has been shown to reduce prejudice and intergroup conflict and promote harmonious relations and exchange between social groups.


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