Cultural Systems and Cognitive Styles

  • J. W. Berry
Part of the NATO Conference Series book series (NATOCS, volume 14)


The position of cultural relativism when applied to the study of cognition across cultures, leads to the view that cognitive development is likely to be relative to the cognitive problems faced by individuals in a particular cultural system. The cross-cultural study of cognitive development, then, must attend to three issues. One is the nature of the ecological and cultural context in which cognitive development takes place. A second is the kind of cognitive abilities which are developed in that context. And a third is the nature of the relationships which may exist between the cultural context and the cognitive development. To accomplish this threefold research programme, there must be a local analysis of both the context and the developed abilities; and there must also be a comparative synthesis of the patterns which may exist within each of the two domains. One implication of this strategy is that preconceived and prepackaged instruments are not adequate to the task of local analysis; that is, such gross apriori concepts as “culture” and “intelligence” cannot help in the research, and may indeed be a hindrance. A second implication is that remaining at the level of local analysis cannot yield the desired generalizations about the structure of culture, the pattern of cognitive abilities, and the systematic (perhaps causal) relationships between them. It is essential to search for these structures, for without them nothing may be said about panhuman features of culture or cognition. Examples of three approaches to the cross-cultural study of cognition are presented: the use of standard intelligence tests in various groups, the analysis of specific skills in local cultural contexts, and the synthesis of abilities into patterns (cognitive styles) in relation to cultural systems. It is contended that the first approach is ethnocentric (from a position outside the culture) and general, while the second is ethnocentric (but from a position inside the culture) but lacks generality; only the third can meet both goals of cross-cultural research--being cognizant of local cultural variation, while also seeking universal generalizations.


Cultural System Cognitive Ability Cultural Context Cognitive Development Cognitive Style 
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. W. Berry
    • 1
  1. 1.Queen’s UniversityKingstonCanada

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