Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology

pp 2039-2042


  • Aydan GulerceAffiliated withDepartment of Educational Sciences, Institute of Social Sciences, Bogaziçi University Email author 


Universalization is both a process of homogenization towards the utopic idea of universal unity and an obligation to the presupposition of universality. Universalization works as reification, in practice. Thus, as both a cause and an effect, it frequently is used interchangeably with the principle of universalism in psychology and in all areas of systematic study and everyday communications as well. Although universalization and universalism might appear similar at first sight (even like Siamese twins at times) and are closely related with other relevant concepts with the prefix uni-, such as human universals, unification, uniformity, universe, and so on, they are not identical. Universalization, for instance, could have been about the dissemination of different principles and ideals in psychological sciences such as pluralism, human diversity, particularity, multiverses, and so on, in principle. Thus, this fictive yet self-fulfilling process of unification is about making some ideal universally accepted, regardless of its content. It also needs to be thought of together with some other processes like internationalization and indigenization (see also globalization and localization) of modern psychological knowledge.

It is widely accepted that modern psychology is established in the historical time-place of the late nineteenth-century Western modernity. Modernity, as an epoch following the Middle Ages or feudalism (medieval heteronomy), produced its own set of institutions, discourses, and practices to legitimate its particular methods of disciplinary control (Foucault, 1977). Modernization called for various processes such as secularization, bureaucratization, rationalization, urbanization, industrialization, individualization, and so on, all of which together aimed to constitute the modern world. Psychology assumed a particular task and played a significant role towards constructing the modern subject to fit the new social order in the division of labor of modern scientific disciplinary taxonomy (Danziger, 1990; Rose, 1989, 1996).

Psychology developed in various intellectual directions, but all being in the Western geographical, social, philosophical, and religious soils. Despite some variations between its early schools of thought, psychology produced sociohistorically embedded knowledge. With all its locality, it has been ignorant of other psychological intelligibilities that have been “developing” in different parts of the world (Brock, 2006; Gergen, Gülerce, Misra, & Lock, 1996). Within a context of international power relations and given its universalistic foundations and scientific commitments, psychology spread towards the “less developed” countries at the “periphery” (the Third World) from this “developed center” (the First World) as a Euro-American enterprise in the modern World-System (Moghaddam, 1987; Wallerstein, 1999).

Psychology has not been quite secular either, in the sense that, from its very beginning, it kept the universalistic and individualistic aspirations of Christianity and its beliefs that “all men are predestined for salvation.” Implications in Western philosophy of Greco-Roman European superiority as a hidden design in nature and of being in charge of the emancipation of entire humanity have been examined (Derrida, 1998). It can be said that theological foundations have been replaced by the modern scientific method. Eurocentric knowledge has self-righteously assumed an additional mission to “civilize” non-Western civilizations.

There have been various controversies regarding psychology’s subject (or object) of study, its philosophical presumptions about human “nature” or “behavior,” and the proper scientific method throughout the twentieth century. However, the discipline has maintained a strong belief in universality as its scientific grounding. In other words, mainstream psychology neither changed its presupposition of universal uniformity nor challenged its search for pre-given human universals. Instead, in order to “discover” human universals, psychology rather “invented” or “renamed” various concepts, principles, justifications, and interpretations for the enormous invalid or partial empirical data it has produced.


Universalization in psychology is the reificatory process of homogenization towards a presumed psychological unity through the dissemination of psychological knowledge and institutionalized practices that are produced in a hegemonic Western center regardless of their form and content.


Human universals; universality; homogenization; diversity; cultural difference; universals; cultural imperialism; modernization; internationalization; globalization; psychologization; westernization

Traditional Debates

The debate on whether psychology is a Natur-, Geistes-, or Kultur-wissenshaft has been oscillating ever since its establishment as a modern discipline in Leipzig. Wundt had a need for two different psychologies: experimental psychology for the “lower” processes of sensation and perception and folk/collective psychology (Völkerpsychologie) for the “higher” processes of thinking and for products of human interaction, such as language, myth, and custom. Clearly, the natural science approach and the Darwinian influence have dominated modern psychology. Whenever some sensitivity to the discipline’s cultural blindness became an issue, Wundt’s folk psychology has been acknowledged as a predecessor. However, both of Wundt’s psychologies were equally culture-bound and ethnocentric, and they put the main emphasis on the identification of universal structures of the human mind like all other schools in psychology and psychoanalysis. Freud presupposed a developmental/evolutionary correspondence between the psychic life of the infants and the “primitive” peoples. Jung diverted from him with an interest in the collective unconscious and by questioning the secular divide between the truths of natural sciences, myth, and religion. They both, as with psychoanalysis and psychology in general, presupposed psychic unity.

Developmental theorists further naturalized human development. Traditionally, psychology conformed to the universalist, hierarchically determinist, teleological, racist, and individualist presumptions of the progression, emancipation, and salvation narratives of missionary Judeo-Christianity and the hegemonic discourse of Western modernity aimed at liberating the “savage” or the less privileged populations in our world. The influential developmental theory of Piaget that draws on an epistemic and universal child, for example, still paradoxically suffers from its superior position with its intrinsic univeralist, acontextual, ahistorical, Eurocentric, androcentric, and egocentric presuppositions.

Traditionally, all psychology has been univeralist, and the issue of universalization has not been an issue for recognition and debate. Particularly following World War II, various early schools of psychology in Europe have been overlooked as the Americanization of psychology became more visible. This was not just in the sense of geographical location of the produced knowledge but also the institutionalization, research interests, values, and the sociopolitical concerns that were distributed in the international community.

Critical Debates

Together with the shift of the knowledge center of psychology from Europe to the United States in parallel with other geopolitical changes in history and the establishment of various international institutions, internationalization of psychology gained a different pace and dimension. As the world’s new market for psychology has been created and expanded, it has been further monopolized by psychological products that were and are “made in USA.”

Psychological goods (e.g., concepts, tests, research methods, textbooks, associations, scientific meetings, journals, etc.) were and are predetermined towards human universality and are not “culture-free.” These “exports” enter to cultures, some of which have no equivalent words for some psychological concepts, including “psychology” itself. Psychologists or academics and professionals in other related fields in countries outside North America and Western Europe are not the only social actors involved in this “trade”; local “importers” belonging to the early “modernized,” Westernized, urbanized sections in their countries have taken part in the psychologization of their traditional populations.

Psychological knowledge has serious sampling, measurement, and other methodological problems. From its production to distribution, psychological knowledge involves a small, privileged group of people and excludes the much larger group as its users, the world population and their concerns. That is why universalization is frequently considered as cultural imperialism, hegemonization, and Westernization, as well as modernization, decolonization, and liberalization, depending on the local history of social transformations of a particular society and the ideological stance taken.

Cross-cultural psychology appeared as a subfield of psychology in early the 1970s in the climate of ideological protests of Vietnam War as Western(ized) psychology’s response to modern anthropology’s concept of “culture” and reports of ethnographic studies in exotic places. Cross-cultural psychologists recognized the necessity of making systematic comparisons themselves and collected numerous data from other parts of the world (Triandis et al., 1980). They are committed to search causal links between the individual behavior and the cultural context in the world’s largest laboratory. In order to “uncover universals of human behavior,” they prefer to “transport and test” and to “discover and explore” universalist assumptions by using “culture” as either an “independent” or an “index variable” (Berry, Poortinga, Segall, & Dasen, 1992). Having criticized mainstream psychological research for either focusing on only certain types of evidence or ignoring specific differences in human activities that are situated in different national, social, and cultural contexts, cross-cultural psychology ends up doing exactly the same.

Another response to the exportation of American psychology to other nations and cultures than those in Western Europe and North America exhibited itself under the label of indigenous psychologies (Heelas & Lock, 1981). Some Third-World psychologists, who were trained in the West and/or allied with Western researchers, claim to avoid culture-blindness and culture-boundedness of mainstream psychology. They aim to scientifically study behavior of the “native human mind” that is “not transported” and is “designed for its people,” still being interested in the discovery of human universals without assuming a priori that they exist (Kim & Berry, 1993). Some, however, are discontent with the inclusion of cultural variables that general or cross-cultural psychology either “eliminated” or “controlled.” They seek, for example, a “macropsychology” (Sinha, 1994), a relational redefinition in psychology (Misra & Gergen, 1993), and further critical deliberations of racism and sensitivity to the postcolonial conditions for a “liberation psychology” (Foster, 2004; Hook, 2004). Both local and indigenous responses to hegemonic psychology cannot avoid reproducing the prevailing categories of the mainstream psychology in a counterdependent fashion at a different level of knowledge-practice.

Universalization, as explicitly/implicitly present in many narrow and partial, mainstream, or ideologically critical analyses, conceptualizes “development” as a linear, unidimensional, unidirectional, unicentered, and teleological process in a static world, and “culture” as a homogeneous entity with an essentialistic perspective. Substantial challenges to both orientations that are calling for radical transdisciplinary transformations are frequently ignored, censored, or marginalized. Present historical conditions of postmodernity or late modernity and the critical scholarship together pose further challenges to this heavily saturated concept and seriously test its heuristic value, survival, and definition.

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