What is Cultural Psychology?

Cultural psychology constitutes something of a reunion between the fields of psychology and anthropology. For those who are interested in pursuing a scholarly career in either realm, it’s vital to understand the core tenets of this particular interpretive lens, namely that a culture and the individuals that adhere to it are bound in a recursive system. In the article that follows, we’ll unpack the finer points of this subfield of psychology and explore the implications it holds for the broader discipline.

A Bit Like Ouroboros

After a long stint of specification and differentiation, several disciplines are reacquainting themselves with one another and pooling shared knowledge about what it means to be human. To understand what we mean by cultural psychology, it’s necessary to draw together anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, and semiotics. The new interpretation of psychology stipulates that actors within a culture are shaped by their context and enact changes upon the context through their actions.

This new branch of psychology explores cultural contexts, shared symbolic systems of communication, tastes and preferences, concepts of morality, material creations, and many other previously discrete domains of the social sciences. Rather than seeking to uncover a universal psychology for all humans irrespective of culture, this field takes on the exotic Other on its own terms. Psychologists delve into the particular traditions, practices, and tropes that define a distinct culture, examining how they shape individuals within a specific group.

Researchers recognize identified differences between these groups in order to explore how those actors worldviews, preferences, modes of communication, aesthetic sensibilities, and value systems are formed. This particular stance also recognizes that human psychology is culturally dependent in many ways, which draws a sharp distinction from previous perspectives of universal human nature and stable bases of interpretation. Ultimately, the only non-organic constant is that cultural creation and elaboration leads to variability among the human species.

Strength in Variation

Many proponents of this socially centered psychology argue that noting these cross-cultural variations in psychological development are vital to the health of the field as a whole, according to the Association for Psychological Science. In the same way that exploring organic differences driven by injury, disease, and disorder advances the field of neuroscience, unpacking the variations in psychological structures across the cultural spectrum benefits the discipline.

What anthropologists have studied for decades, the psychological community is now discovering. Culture leads to an array of differences in domains such as complex reasoning skills, the perception of events, concepts of time and cause-effect relationships, color differentiation, the motivation for selective courses of action, emotional experience, and emotive morality, and even dialogic or conversational expression of commonplace events or concerns.

The physical expression of culture through materials, artifacts, and sacred spaces or relics shapes the thoughts and actions of members of that culture. In turn, these attitudes are layered atop the existing cultural structures and subtly changed over time via interaction between cultural spheres. Hence, cultural and psychological evolution are continuous processes, relayed between past and present and continuously interactive.

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Because this new field of psychology eschews the traditional causal or linear rationales attached to human actions and thoughts, it must adopt a new way of speaking about the human psyche. Rather than following the trend of their fellows and ascribing organic roots to human behavior, scholars who explore cultural psychology rely more heavily upon tropes and language developed by other social sciences to create a more holistic discipline in which psychology is rooted both in the brain and in the world.