The Psychology of Culture

On the evolutionary, contemporary and universal dimensions of culture and identifying the main research areas in cultural psychology

The term culture would mean the entire gamut of activities, beliefs, lifestyle, habits, rituals, arts, ethics and behavioral patterns of a society. Yet despite the wide definition of culture, the elements of culture being too varied and divergent, it is not easy to provide a relationship between culture and psychology. There are two common ways by which the relationship between psychology and culture is studied, through intra-cultural psychology or behavioral patterns within a particular society and intercultural psychology or behavior and psychological characteristics between societies.

Intra-cultural psychology seeks to understand the cultural basis of behavior by studying the peculiarities of a society, its rules and norms and shows how traditions shape or influence the collective psyche of the people within the society. However in psychology this is simply considered as ‘cultural psychology’ a straightforward term denoting the study of cultural traditions and their effects on the psychology of people. This sort of categorization may be misleading as it tends to see cultures as fundamentally different units and highlights differences rather than similarities. Cross-cultural psychology focuses on finding universal patterns of behavior or beliefs that are common among people of all cultures and this is what has been described here as ‘inter-cultural’ psychology. The terms ‘intra-cultural’ and ‘inter-cultural’ psychology would be more conducive to finding a psychology that shows convergent patterns of cultural behavior among people across societies.

The psychology of culture requires further development in the areas of defining culture and in finding cultural roots that would highlight collective psyche or universal patterns of behavior. Humans are finally united by common emotions and psyche and this broader cultural psychology has been promoted by Carl Gustav Jung who focused his studies on the importance of deriving or understanding the collective unconscious with those elements or archetypes that are carried from one generation to another.

Culture has been defined as the accumulated experiences of a society as a whole that has been socially transmitted so the collective unconscious in Jungian terms would serve as a repository of cultural imprints that shape human behavior right from childhood. The three predominant schools of cultural psychology have been identified as having activity, symbolic or individualistic approach (Carl Ratner explains this well). The activity approach highlights social activities of a group, the symbolic approach defines culture as shared meanings and concepts or symbols. The individualistic approach highlights the interaction of the individual with society and through this, individuals construct their personal culture. But I would downplay the personal aspect of culture and suggest culture as mainly a group phenomenon akin to individual conformity in society so apart from activity and symbolism, culture should be defined by its beliefs, values and ethics. Culture is finally about shared activities, shared symbolisms and shared belief systems.

The story of the birth of human culture would be closely related to the story of human evolution as with the formation of tribes, humans learned and adapted to group behavior. Man was born alone but became a social animal primarily due to survival needs and the development of culture is thus rooted in man’s own needs for security, safety and survival. Humans follow rules, norms, traditions of a society simply ‘to live’ and culture is about conformity. So the psychology of culture is also the psychology of conformity and even the non conformist in a way conforms to certain basic social and cultural rules and traditions.

As ‘culture’ represents a broad spectrum of human activity, cultural psychology should involve the study of:

  1. Evolutionary and historical patterns of human behavior, closely related to anthropology
  2. Contemporary social trends (for example: celebrity culture, workplace culture, globalization) closely related to sociology, and
  3. The intra-cultural and inter-cultural patterns of behavior to recognize the universal elements in human cognition, emotion and perception

Thus there seems to be three dimensions to the study of culture in psychology – the evolutionary, the contemporary and the universal. The evolutionary and historical dimension of cultural psychology would have to be largely explained in terms of Jungian psychology whereas social psychology becomes an integral part of the contemporary dimension. The universal dimension for the study of cultural psychology uses behavioral patterns or cognitive psychology to gauge at how people are programmed to behave in certain situations and whether these behavioral patterns are common across cultures and if not, whether there are only culture specific behaviors.

Psychologists have claimed that there are certain culture specific behaviors and certain universal behavioral patterns among humans and it is important to understand whether it is possible to delineate behaviors that are culture specific or intra-cultural and those that are universal or inter-cultural. If such an attempt is made, then it is possible to say that ethics and values, legal structures, lifestyle, activities, rituals and beliefs can widely vary between cultures and these elements represent intra cultural similarities and inter cultural differences. Yet certain attitudes and worldviews or opinions, emotions and perception, as also basic human traits of say intelligence or imagination are not culture specific and may have intra-cultural differences and inter-cultural similarities. For example emotions and emotional expressions are common across all cultures so we all cry when we are sad and laugh when we are happy. We also have common attitudes and opinions such as supportive views towards honesty and we universally detest crime. This is however the universal behavior found across cultures although there may still be variations. The strong intra-cultural beliefs and attitudes that are not universal are usually related to customs rather than emotions, for example attitudes towards marriage and courtship, vary widely between cultures or even dining table manners differ between cultures.

Thus human emotions and expressions and behavior motivated by such emotions tend to be universal or inter-cultural and customs/traditions and human behavior motivated by customs tend to be intra-cultural or culture specific. Cultures in today’s world are largely shaped by religious belief systems, political and social or economic systems and that is why culture seems to be almost inflexible in it roots as seen in rigid religious structures of society, although the changing cultural patterns are manifested in political and economic systems. If we provide an agenda for cultural psychology, the future research areas in the psychology of culture should involve

  1. Definition of culture – describing and identifying the concepts and structures of culture and answering what exactly constitutes culture
  2. Identifying different dimensions of culture as they relate to cultural psychology – and studying the evolutionary, contemporary and universal aspects of culture
  3. Expanding research in the current schools of cultural psychology on activity, symbolism and belief systems as well as considering individual or personal approaches in cultural psychology
  4. Establishing the relationships between culture and anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis and human cognition and emotions.
  5. Recognizing similarities in human emotions and expressions that are the basis of universal cultural elements and identifying differences in customs and practices