The Cultural Character of Psychology

  • Carl Ratner
Part of the Path in Psychology book series (PATH)


Now that I have described the power of qualitative methodology to elucidate psychological quality, let us use it to investigate the cultural character of psychological phenomena.“The cultural character of psychology” is an unfamiliar phrase. We must explain it in order to clarify the subject matter that our methodology is designed to investigate. Only then will we be able to construct a methodology that is adequate to its subject matter. Clarifying the cultural character of psychology will help to avoid the positivists’ error of methodological a priorism, or formulating methodological canons without regard for the subject matter they are designed to investigate. A preoccupation with method, per se, undermines the empirical value of methodology because it does not consider the actual properties of phenomena. The empirical value of methodology is enhanced by first understanding the subject matter that it is designed to investigate.


Personality Trait Social Activity Activity Theorist Cultural Activity Practical Activity 
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    For a useful discussion of the dynamic that occurs among diverse social fields see Engels’s letters to Bloch, 1890, Schmidt, 1890, and Starkenburg, 1894 (Marx and Engels, 1942 ).Google Scholar
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    Jost (1995) makes the case that Wittgenstein had a similarly practical view of psychology. According to Jost, Wittgenstein argued that the meaning of a psychological concept depends on its functional role in society. Thus, Jost cites Wittgenstein’s statement that “the concept of pain is characterized by its particular function in our life.” Wittgenstein maintained that psychological concepts are defined in language-games; however, language-games are not purely semeiotic. They are grounded in life activity. As Wittgenstein wrote, “the term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” Moreover, Wittgenstein recognized that life activity is collective behavior. Thus, socially organized activity is the impetus for language and psychological concepts. Van der Merwe and Voestermans (1995, pp. 33–34) lend credence to Jost’s interpretation. They maintain that “the distinctive ’depth grammars’ or sets of usage rules of our language-games result, according to Wittgenstein, from the various ways and forms of our experience of the world…. A form of life is a collectively shared and culturally conditioned strategy of orientation in the world…”Google Scholar
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    Vygotsky criticized Piaget for neglecting the impact of socially organized activity on the child’s cognitive processes. When Piaget mentions the importance of social relations for cognitive development he considers only general social interactions rather than specific social activities. That is, Piaget speaks of the social need to share the thought of other people and how communication forces the child to reason logically. However, Piaget fails to specify the social organization of the Swiss kindergarten in contrast to the Russian kindergarten or in contrast to work activities that occupy the lives of unschooled children. What is missing is the child’s practical activity. This is fundamental. Even the socialization of the child’s thinking is analyzed by Piaget outside the context of practice. It is isolated from [societal] reality and treated as the pure interaction or communication of minds. It is the kind of socialization which in Piaget’s view leads to the development of thought. (Vygotsky, 1987, pp. 87–88) Vygotsky counterpoised Lenin’s view of the origins of logic to Piaget’s. Lenin said, “Man’s practice, repeated a billion times, anchors the figures of logic in his consciousness ” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 88 ).Google Scholar
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    It seems that Lave and some other activity theorists do not believe that mental processes are structured by activity at all. Activity seems to be some innovative action that an individual takes in order to deal with situations rather than socially organized behavior that is integral to a social system. Many activity theorists champion the autonomy of the individual from social influences (see Nardi, 1996, chap. 4 ). They reject the idea that mental processes are truly organized by social factors. They disparage social causation as smacking of reification and mechanism. For example, Lave disparages school-based mathas reified, and she lauds individuals for spontaneously devising alternative ways of calculating prices.Google Scholar
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    Activity changes the quality of psychological phenomena so profoundly that they become localized in different regions of the cortex, depending on which activity they are associated with. Visuospatial perception, which is normally localized in the right hemisphere, is allocated to the left hemisphere of deaf people who use sign language. The reason appears to be that individuals with normal hearing differentiate visuospatial perception from language, and they process the two in different hemispheres. However, deaf people utilize visuospatial perception in their sign language and therefore represent both of them together in the left-hemisphere language centers (Ratner, 1991, p. 232). A similar difference in localization is found among Japanese and Americans. Tsunoda (1979) discovered that vowels are localized in the nonverbal right hemisphere of Western brains, whereas they are localized in the verbal left hemisphere of Japanese brains. The same difference in localization obtains for humming, laughter, cries, sighs, sounds made by animals and insects, and traditional Japanese instrumental music. These are all localized in the right hemisphere of Westerners and the left hemisphere of Japanese. That these effects are cultural rather than genetic is demonstrated by the fact that Americans brought up in Japan evidence the Japanese pattern. Leontiev (1979, pp. 67–68) was therefore correct in stating that brain mechanisms and functions are a product of objective activity.Google Scholar
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    Fabrega et al. (1988, p. 155) describe the manner in which numerous asocial viewpoints overlook the cultural character of psychological dysfunction: The phenomenological, psychoanalytic, behavioristic, and biologistic psychiatrist all proceed as “deculturating agents.” They reduce the personalized and culturally contextualized behavioral data of personal illness to categories and rubrics that leave out the cultural colorations of the patient’s account…. Thus the phenomenologist searches for such things as changes in form and structure of experience; the psychoanalyst for expressions of unconscious conflicts, ego-defense profile, impulse control; the behaviorist for stimuli acting as reinforcers and for types of reinforcing schedule that promote maladaptive behavior; and the biologist for any of the preceding plus aspects of behavior that reflect… brain functions. (See Ratner, 1991, pp. 264–278, 294–301, for examples of deculturated descriptions of pathological symptoms in contrast to culturally specific descriptions.)Google Scholar
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    The cultural specificity of psychological phenomena poses a serious difficulty for translation. Catherine Lutz describes the incommensurability between emotion terms in English and the Ifaluk people of New Guinea: While the Ifaluk term song may be translated as “anger,” because the scenarios that both song and “anger” evoke and the uses to which the terms are put in social interaction show some broad similarities, the scenes each call forth are at variance in important ways. In particular, the term song evokes in the Ifaluk listener a much more vivid and unambiguous scene of moral transgression on the part of one person and of moral condemnation of that violation by the person who is song. (Lutz, 1988, p. 10) In an excellent discussion of the problem of translation, Phillips (1959) observes that “even ‘very basic human experiences’ resist translation” (p. 190). To daydream is mistranslated in Thai as “dreaming while one sleeps during the day.” The phrase “His most attractive quality is…” has no equivalent in Thai because that language has no general term corresponding to English “quality.” “Quality” must be variously rendered into Thai as more specific terms such as “inborn traits,” “behavior,” or “manners.” The English phrase “He feels frustrated” similarly has no counterpart in Thai. Nor is there a Thai equivalent for the phrase “Sometimes a good quarrel is necessary” because Thai people cannot conceive of arguments being beneficial or cathartic. Where complex meanings of two cultures are incongruent, translators frequently obscure the differences by selecting “an English word which has the ring of familiarity and is abstract enough to comprehend the meaning of all the terms, but which is clearly a deceptive description of the speaker ’s intent” (Phillips, 1959, p. 189). The English term “worry” has no counterpart among the Machiguenga Indians of the Peruvian Amazon (Johnson et al., 1986). Our concept “worried” combines two meanings that are separate in Machiguenga: “frightened” and “pensive.” Being worried is to dwell on fear. The Machiguenga do not anxiously think about their fears. Fear is a momentary event when danger is real and immediate, as during a violent thunderstorm, after being bitten by a snake, or learning that a loved one has been injured. But the Machiguenga do not seem to anticipate bad experiences in advance or fret over past troubles. When they think about things it does not have the element of anxiety that is included in “worried.” For instance, the Machiguenga will think about a relative who is about to leave, or has left, but they do not fret about loneliness or other misfortune that either party might suffer as a result of the separation. If a difficulty arises, it is only experienced at that time. Tribal Xhosa people similarly cannot comprehend the English term “worry” when it is defined as unpleasant thoughts going round and round in the mind. For the Xhosa, one worries with one’s heart, which precludes cognitive obsessions. There is likewise no close translation of “state of mind,” or “concentration,” and it is impossible to get the idiomatic phraseology of questions such as “Do your thoughts drift?” Gillis et al. (1982) describe how these difficulties interfere with using the Present State Examination (a psychiatric diagnostic instrument) among the Xhosa. The authors then inexplicably conclude that it is a valid instrument when used cross-culturally. The authors are also convinced that the measure reveals that elements of psychiatric illness are common to the Xhosa and English-speaking people. This commonality is only plausible if the specific meanings to terms such as worry are overlooked. If worry is defined as a general concern about something, then it may be deemed to be universal. However such generalities are vacuous.Google Scholar
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    Mauro, Sato, and Tucker (1992) reduced emotions to abstract cognitive appraisals with the same unfortunate result. The authors sought to determine the cognitive appraisals that underlie common emotions in diverse cultures. The cognitive appraisals included how much attention one pays to a situation, how predictable a situation is, how certain one is about coping with it, how much effort one believes must be expended in the situation, how pleasant it is, and the extent to which someone else controls the situation, as well as its importance, difficulty, and fairness. The researchers assessed the extent to which any of these cognitions are associated with 16 emotions in the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, and China. These cognitions are abstract in the sense that they are contentless. They ignore what is pleasurable about a situation, the manner in which one copes with a situation, and the ways in which a situation is predictable, important, difficult, or fair. The pleasantness of winning an intense athletic contest is quite different from the pleasantness one feels admiring a beautiful work of art. These different qualities of pleasantness are central to emotions yet they are not considered by the authors. The authors reduce emotions to combinations of abstract, contentless appraisals. They found, for example, that anger is generated by assessing a situation as highly unpleasant, unpredictable, and unintelligible, controlled by someone else, demanding effort but not attention, and being minimally fair (Mauro et al., 1992, p. 309, table 7). However, these abstractions do not add up to concrete anger. What is central to anger is the appraisal that someone intentionally harms a victim and could have acted otherwise. Interpreting someone’s action in terms of this culturally constructed belief in personal volition and responsibility is what moves us to become angry (Ratner, 1991, pp. 77–79). This concrete belief about the motives of an act cannot be replaced by abstract assessments of the unpredictability, unpleasantness, and unfairness of behavior.Google Scholar
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    In a famous phrase, Marx stated that human labor is prefigured in the mind, in contrast to animal behavior, which is directly produced by biological mechanisms: “What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality…. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own…” (Marx, 1887/1961, p. 178).Google Scholar
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    Marx’s writings are valuable for trenchantly analyzing institutionalized social institutions without reifiying them. Marx recognized that economic production is initiated, planned, and regulated by human consciousness. He said that “labor is, in the first place, a process in which both man and nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and nature” (Marx, 1887/1961, p. 177).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carl Ratner
    • 1
  1. 1.Humboldt State UniversityArcataUSA

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