Cultural Psychology: Definition & Challenges

Instructor: David White
Cultural psychology is an exciting new sub-field of psychology that offers alternative explanations for how identities and cultures interact. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines the field and explore some of the theories that are contributing to an expanded understanding of psychology.

What Is Cultural Psychology?

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Do you see someone that appears attractive or normal? Does your reflection meet your perceptions of adequate, or do you see someone that does not meet cultural standards of beauty? If your answer is 'yes,' then you probably feel good about yourself or have a healthy self-esteem, but if your answer is 'no,' you may feel badly about yourself. Either way, this scenario demonstrates how much your emotions are tied to your society and culture.

Cultural psychology is a branch of psychology that is focused on how our emotions and behaviors are influenced by or rooted in our individual cultures. The fundamental belief in cultural psychology is that not only do human beings shape their cultures, but that cultures also shape human beings.

Consider my example above about how your emotions and self-image are tied to cultural standards and expectations. In every culture, there are particular standards for what the consensus believes is and is not beautiful. In this case, people have established a cultural standard, but that cultural standard is also influencing and affecting how people think and feel about themselves.

Because of the cultural component, cultural psychology is considered an interdisciplinary study, which is a field that draws from more than one area to form its methodologies and theories. In this case, cultural psychology draws from psychology, anthropology, and sociology, among others, to better understand how people are both shapers of and shaped by their individual cultures.

Because it draws from many different disciplines, cultural psychology is considered an interdisciplinary field.

Why Study Cultural Psychology?

Until relatively recently, psychology addressed issues of behavior and emotional response as though they were developed exclusively through an internal process. This is what is sometimes referred to as the fundamental attribution error. Cultural psychology, on the other hand, might not disagree with something being an inherent trait or related to some internal process, but they would likely first consider what types of external influences or forces might be shaping a person.

For example, decades ago people would have analyzed various kinds of body modifications - like a forked tongue, face tattoos, or subdermal implants - as being a deviant behavior rooted in a person's psyche or perception of their self-worth. Through the lens of cultural psychology, however, there may emerge a different explanation for self-mutilation or modification, such as a cultural ritual, rite of passage, or being a part of a sub-culture where such things are fashionable.

Cultural psychology may offer an explanation for what is often considered strange behavior, like self-mutilation or subdermal implants.

Broadly, cultural psychology offers a new set of potential tools and models for exploring the development of a person's psyche. Rather than refute the assertions of traditional psychology, it can provide a more nuanced understanding of why people behave in a certain way, which will promote better communication and understanding of diversity.

Cultures and Selves

In recent years, psychologist Hazel Rose Markus has developed a model for explaining the interaction between self and culture, which she calls 'the mutual constitution between cultures and selves.'

In this model, Markus demonstrates that there are four layers that interact to comprise a person's identity that are rooted deeply in culture. Regarding self-perception, Markus asserted that how a person views themselves and their contributions to society are often shaped by what their particular culture views as most valuable. This can be explained by juxtaposing the American response that the individual was 'energetic' or 'hard working,' with the Japanese response in which people saw themselves as socially obligated or polite. In this example, each is defining their sense of self based on characteristics that are culturally specific.

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