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What is Cultural Psychology?

By S. Ashraf
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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Cultural psychology, sometimes also referred to as ethnopsychology, is an interdisciplinary area of study that brings together the academic fields of psychology and anthropology. As a discipline, cultural psychology explores the relationship between the mind and culture. It examines such questions as how culture is influenced by mind and how the mind is likewise shaped by culture. Some of the broad topics studied in cultural psychology include emotions, identity, child development, social behavior and family as well as other social relationships.

The discipline of cultural psychology marks a departure from the general academic study of human psychology. Traditionally, the field of psychology has somewhat marginalized the role of culture as a factor in psychological processes. Instead, it has focused on defining and establishing universal psychological principles that would be applicable to all humans in all societies. Generally speaking, psychological research has not been able to duplicate results from studies done in Western cultural laboratories in non-Western settings. One of the main purposes of research in the field of cultural psychology, as a consequence, is to have data from diverse cultures inform fundamental psychological theories so that they can become better at explaining all human behaviors rather than only ones observed in Western cultures.

Mind and culture are viewed as inseparable in cultural psychology, whereas general psychology sees culture as something akin to background noise. A cultural psychologist assumes that psychological theories developed in one culture are, at most, limited in applicability to other cultures. Basically, there are no universal laws that govern how the mind works. Cultural psychology is a discipline that is aimed at expanding psychological research beyond industrialized Western cultures and making it relevant to non-Western societies.

The field of cultural psychology can be broken down into three main schools of thought concerning human psychology. One school is the symbolic theory school, and it dominates the field. This approach sees human psychology as being formed by collective concepts and symbols that individuals have worked together, over time, to develop in a culture.

A second school of thought is activity theory, which sees psychology as based in practical cultural activities. These everyday cultural activities are considered the main cultural influence on human psychology. The individualistic theory is the third and most recent school of thought to emerge in the discipline. This approach sees individuals as being creative and selective in what aspects of the culture they choose to assimilate or adopt. Individuals, then, exert some influence over their psychology.

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