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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2000
On the Growth
and Continuing Importance
of Cross-Cultural Psychology

Walter J. Lonner, PhD, Western Washington University

One of the more noteworthy developments in psychology during the past 35 years has been the rapid ascent of cross-cultural psychology. This growth has made it highly unlikely that anyone for whom Eye on Psi Chi is intended has not heard the term and used it in his or her teaching and research, often in sophisticated and informed ways. How could anyone in psychology in the year 2000 not recognize the importance of culture to nearly every aspect of psychological theory, research, and applications?

The concepts of culture, ethnicity, diversity, and the misused term "race" (Segall, 1999) have been part of psychology's vocabulary for many years--even going back to Wilhelm Wundt and his interest in Volkerpsychologie (Folk Psychology) and the 11 volumes he published under that title. But it wasn't until about the mid-1960s that a convergence of independent events and efforts led to what has been called the "modern movement" in cross-cultural psychology (see Adam-opoulos & Lonner, in press). This confluence of activities and initiatives led to the creation, in 1972, of the International Association of Cross-Cultural Psychology (IACCP), an organization consisting of approximately 800 psychologists from some 70 countries. These individuals strongly identify with IACCP and its basic mission of extending psychology's horizons beyond the traditional Euro-American sphere that has dominated the discipline for many years. IACCP holds both international and regional meetings, and is central to organizational and professional matters. The 25th anniversary conference was held at Western Washington University in 1998, marking the first time that IACCP has met in the United States (Lonner, Dinnel, Forgays, & Hayes, 1999). Interested individuals are invited to learn more about these structural characteristics by visiting IACCP's website at However, in this brief article I will comment primarily on problems of a conceptual and methodological nature that the introduction of culture poses. These problems are often complex, but cross-cultural psychologists excitedly rise to the challenge of solving them. My comments may also be useful to students and faculty who wish to become more actively involved in dealing with culture and ethnicity in the psychological curriculum.

Enriching Psychology's Scientific Content by Extending its Boundaries
Most cross-cultural psychologists share the opinion that the only way psychology can reach the highest level of scientific achievement and influence, on par with sciences such as chemistry and physics, is to extend its investigations to all corners of the world. Indeed, if generalizability is a necessary ingredient of what defines a "true" science, then one may ask if psychology falls somewhat short when compared with the so-called "hard" sciences. Consider some facts. The vast majority of psychological research ever conducted has been in the Western world (primarily the United States, the U.K., Canada, and their territorial, scientific, philosophical, and linguistic extensions). And, most psychologists who have ever lived are from these same areas. This striking imbalance has created what has been called a problem of W.A.S.P. proportions--not an acronym for the familiar White Anglo-Saxon Protestant but rather for Western Academic Scientific Psychology, with its mantra of logical positivism and linear thinking and its penchant for basing a sizable percentage of its scientific foundations on participation in research by conscripted "samples of convenience" or "grab" samples known somewhat pejoratively as the American College Sophomore. Thus psychology has received accusations of being both culture-bound (largely restricted to the industrialized Western world) and culture-blind. For example, often left out of the equation in most psychological investigations are different family structures, different values placed on children, radically different views of causality, considerable variation in cognition and perception as a function of different ecologies, the effect of different languages on intricate psychological processes, and demands placed on the individual in a rapidly changing world populated by a crazy-quilt of human beings who identify with one or more of the world's approximately 4,000 psycho-linguistic groups. The list of shortcomings could go on and on. Moreover, many of these accusations and concerns can be just as valid within countries such as the United States with its many different cultural and ethnic groups. Despite the "melting pot" ideology for which the U.S. is known and its motto of "e pluribus unum" (out of many, one), this country prides itself on diversity and even makes efforts to celebrate its multicultural and multiethnic citizenry.

Lest the reader assume at this point that I am a curmudgeonly and antiestablishment psychologist with an ax to grind, that is assuredly not the case. I have been teaching psychology in a solid department at a fine little university to quite able (and overwhelmingly White and generally privileged American) students for about 32 years. I enjoy psychology and think that it's an indispensable discipline that does what it can, often creatively, to understand the human mind and to contribute to the solution of human problems. With the exception of two culture-oriented courses that I designed years ago, I have been using "mainstream" textbooks and carrying on like almost any other Anglo faculty member. Professionally, I believe that nothing is more important than providing students with a solid foundation in the entire range of topics covered in basic psychology. Like my cross-cultural brethren, however, I also believe that psychology can and must stick its neck out further to test the limits of its so-called laws and theories that are often touted as universal without first exposing them to the cauldron of other cultures, languages, and worldviews. By sticking its neck out and testing the limits of psychological theory, by subjecting an important hypothesis to people in other places, and by creatively integrating culture and all that it entails in sophisticated research, psychology will be enormously enriched. A large number of questions may be asked in the search for commonalities or universals. For example, are laws of learning, memory, perception, and other basic processes as applicable in Afghanistan, Benin, Chile, Egypt, and indeed anywhere else on the planet as they are in Anaheim, Chattanooga, or Bellingham, Washington, where I live? If not, what accounts for variations? Is conformity the same everywhere? Is depression to be understood in exactly the same way in all corners of the world? Open an introductory psychology text to four or five pages at random (perhaps excluding statistics and basic physiological processes--but don't close the book on how culture may influence those, either) and ask yourself if the topics on those pages are culturally invariant. And if you are convinced that they are, what is your evidence?

Why Many Psychologists Ignore or Resist the Challenge of Incorporating Culture in Their Work
There are many reasons why psychologists may not want to get involved with other cultures. Formidable methodological problems (see below) may inhibit many scholars, and difficulties in acquiring adequate funding for research is another reason that may result in researchers deciding to stay home to enjoy the comfortable and familiar trappings of their own laboratories, language, customs, and values. Some researchers may decide that there's enough "on their plates" to study in their own part of the world, with many believing that behavior occurring elsewhere is insufficiently salient to their homegrown research to be of much help. Also, in some psychology departments there may be little incentive to deal with the "outer world" because such research may not conform to the kind of scientific orthodoxy that is rewarded in tenure and promotion decisions. During my career, however, this has not been an issue. I am fortunate to work in a department that has not only provided thousands of students with a solid grounding in psychology, but also strives to "walk the walk" when it comes to culture's influence on thought and behavior. More than half of the faculty in our 25-member department are associates of our Center for Cross-Cultural Research. Another inhibiting factor has been a tendency for many people to compartmentalize disciplines, which carries with it the argument that the study of culture should be left to the anthropologists and sociologists. Moreover, many instructors may shy away from cultural topics either because they don't have time in their already jam-packed syllabi or feel ill-prepared to deal with the complexities of culture. Who wants to appear ill-informed in front of admiring students?

Another factor that is particularly dampening to the growth of psychology, and which can be perniciously ethnocentric, is the absolutistic map of the world--the belief that laws of human behavior, wherever they may be established, transcend cultures. In its extreme form absolutism would contend that human "cultures" constitute nothing more than a thin veneer that just barely mask a broad spectrum of universal laws governing thought and behavior. The obverse of this view is the doctrine of radical relativism. Relativists believe that behavior and thought can only be understood in the intricate context of specific ecocultural systems. Radical relativists hold the view that everything about the human condition is based on the social constructionist argument that mind and culture make each other up, and that the pattern is never repeated. Consequently, they would argue, it is impossible to make comparisons across cultures. The view that culture and mind are co-constructed is held by a growing number of psychologists who identify with the closely related perspective known as cultural psychology (e.g., Cole, 1996; Miller, 1997). Not surprisingly, most cross-cultural psychologists tend to find comfort in the middle or compromise position of universalism--the a priori belief that there is considerable continuity in all human thought and behavior, and also the conviction that culture plays an enormously important moderating or mediating role in most domains of psychology. Indeed, it could be argued that culture is antecedent to all thought and behavior. Many psychologists have discussed these matters (see Lonner & Adamopoulos, 1994, and Adamopoulos & Lonner, in press, for reviews of various positions). To get a firm grasp of these arguments and perspectives one would have to consult volumes of writing and analysis that have accumulated during the past 35 years (see below).

What Do Cross-Cultural
Psychologists Do, and Why?

Cross-cultural psychology, which can be described as psychology "writ large," has the same goals as mainstream psychology. Indeed, cross-cultural psychologists would hardly disagree with the definition of psychology and the listing of its goals as found, for instance, in standard introductory psychology texts (e.g., psychology is the systematic study of human thought and behavior). In a very real sense cross-cultural psychology is not a separate, fractionated "field" unto itself but a methodological approach, on par with the experimental, physiological, quantitative, and clinical approaches. The special nature of cross-cultural psychology requires, as noted earlier, that the challenges of rather trenchant methodological problems be met. For example, problems of equivalence (conceptual, linguistic, and metric) must be solved. Also, various problems associated with sampling require creative solutions. In a sophisticated research design, one must ask important questions: Which cultures are to be studied, and why? Which communities and individuals should be selected, and why? And precisely which behaviors should receive detailed attention? These are difficult matters to confront effectively and convincingly. However, there are excellent overviews of how to define and approach methodological problems (e.g., Berry et al., 1997, and van de Vijver & Leung, 1997).

The breadth of what cross-cultural psychologists study is astonishing, and it reflects the heterogeneity of mainstream psychology. Thus we see how emotions are regulated differently in various cultures, how anxiety is manifested and controlled as a function of family type, how culture shapes conceptions of the self, and whether writing Chinese characters affect performance on various Piagetian tasks. Cross-cultural psychologists study the consequences of rapid relocation, they try to determine if Gypsy children develop intellectually like other children, and they attempt to assess if and how cultural beliefs affect recovery from radical surgery. They frequently attempt to determine if human personality is structured in basically the same way everywhere, and if age-related declines in cognition are pancultural. It is clear that any psychological topic or concept can be extended to other cultures and tested to determine how safe it may be to generalize.

Resources and Perspectives are Abundant
This brief overview has barely scratched the surface in describing historical and methodological perspectives in cross-cultural psychology. A recent article in the American Psychologist gives a more comprehensive account of the developments in this area (Segall, Lonner, & Berry, 1998). A wealth of information is available to those who are interested. For instance, to get a good flavor of contemporary research in this area one could peruse the bimonthly Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, which is the flagship publication. For overviews of the field and its various activities, the six-volume Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology (Triandis et al., 1980) and the three-volume second edition of the Handbook (Berry et al., 1997) should be consulted. A number of books, many explicitly written for undergraduates, are available. They include Brislin (2000), Lonner and Malpass (1994), Matsumoto (2000), and Segall, Dasen, Berry, and Poortinga (1999). The forthcoming single-volume Handbook of Culture and Psychology (Matsumoto, in press) contains numerous research perspectives. Additional commentaries on the teaching of cross-cultural psychology are given in Lonner (in press), which appears in an APA-sponsored book concerned with teaching about diversity and multicultural aspects of psychology. About 30 years ago there were very few resources and readings in this area. The current situation is remarkably different. The small explosion of scholarly activities under the aegis of cross-cultural psychology has been rather breathtaking.

We stand on the threshhold of the new millennium. With it comes the exciting promise of building and maintaining a more vibrant and inclusive psychology--a psychology that consults all that is human on this shrinking big blue marble we call earth. The initiatives and perspectives provided by a growing number of psychologists with a passionate interest in expanding psychology's horizons have been explained briefly. The future of psychology is in the hands of members of Psi Chi and all the other younger psychologists throughout the world. I am optimistic about the future of psychology and am confident that cross-cultural psychology will continue to play an in-fluential role as our important discipline continues to mature and to expand its vistas to the fullest possible extent.

Adamopoulos, J., & Lonner, W. J. (in press). Historical perspectives and theoretical critique of psychology and culture. In D. Matsumoto (Ed.), Handbook of culture and psychology. Cambridge: Oxford University Press.

Berry, J. W., Poortinga, Y. H., Pandey, J., Dasen, P. R., Saraswathi, T. S., Segall, M. H., & Kagicibasi, C. (Eds.). (1997). Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (2nd ed., Vols. 1-3). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Brislin, R. (2000). Understanding culture's influence on behavior (2nd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard.

Lonner, W. J. (in press). Teaching cross-cultural psychology. In P. Bronstein and K. Quina (Eds.), Teaching a psychology of people: Resources for gender and multicultural awareness. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Lonner, W. J., & Adamopoulos, J. (1994). Absolutism, relativism, and universalism in the study of human behavior. In W. J. Lonner & R. S. Malpass (Eds.), Psychology and culture (pp. 129-134). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Lonner, W. J., Dinnel, D. L., Forgays, D. K., & Hayes, S. A. (Eds.). (1999). Merging past, present, and future in cross-cultural psychology: Selected proceedings of the 14th International Congress of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology. Lisse, The Netherlands: Swets and Zeitlinger.

Lonner, W. J., & Malpass, R. S. (Eds.). (1994). Psychology and culture. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Matsumoto, D. R. (2000). Culture and psychology (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Matsumoto, D. R. (Ed.). (in press). Handbook of culture and psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, J. G. (1997). Theoretical issues in cultural psychology. In J. W. Berry, Y. H. Poortinga, & J. Pandey (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology: Vol. 1. Theory and method (2nd ed., pp. 85-128). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Segall, M. H. (1999). Why is there still racism if there is no such thing as "race." In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, D. K. Forgays, & S. A. Hayes (Eds.), Merging past, present, and future in cross-cultural psychology: Selected proceedings of the 14th International Congress of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology. Lisse, The Netherlands: Swets and Zeitlinger.

Segall, M. H., Dasen, P. R., Berry, J. W., & Poortinga, Y. H. (1999). Human behavior in global perspective: An introduction to cross-cultural psychology (2nd ed). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Segall, M. H., Lonner, W. J., & Berry, J. W. (1998). Cross-cultural psychology as a scholarly discipline: On the flowering of culture in behavioral research. American Psychologist, 53, 1101-1110.

Triandis, H. C., Lambert, W. W., Berry, J. W., Lonner, W. J., Heron, A., Brislin, R. W., & Draguns, J. G. (Eds.). (1980). Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (Vols. 1-6). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

van de Vijver, F. J. R., & Leung, K. (1997). Methods and data analysis for cross-cultural research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Walter J. Lonner, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington. He is also director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Research, which is an integral part of the Psychology Department. He is founding editor and currently senior editor of the bimonthly Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, which was inaugurated in 1970. Lonner reports his involvement with far more publications and all kinds of other scholarly activities than he ever thought possible considering his humble beginnings, noting also that this should give many beginning students confidence to exceed their present expectations. He also has served as president of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology (1986-88). In 1994 the Association bestowed on him the title of Honorary Fellow. A 1984-85 Fulbright Scholar (Germany), Lonner has been involved in research and scholarship in several European countries, Mexico, New Zealand, and elsewhere. He was president and chair of the Scientific Program Advisory Committee of the 25th International Congress of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, held on the campus of Western Washington University in 1998.

Copyright 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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