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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2006
Cross-Cultural Human Development:
An Exciting New Field

Use P. Gielen, PhD, St. Francis College (NY)

During the last few decades American psychologists have become increasingly aware that much of their knowledge about human development is suspect because it may not generalize from American mainstream populations to other cultural groups living either inside or outside this country. American textbooks on adolescence, for instance, discuss topics such as identity struggles, role experimentation, efforts to gain emotional independence from one's parents, dating, drinking habits, various forms of sexual experimentation, and so on. This range of topics, however, would be seriously misleading for teenage girls from poor Indian families or for teenagers coming of age in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Iran. Living in economically and/or culturally constraining conditions, teenagers in other countries may not experience adolescence (in its psychosocial forms) at all (Saraswathi, 2000), or else they experience it in very different forms. To this we may add that some 86% of the world's children reside in the so-called developing world. We know far less about them than we know about the remaining 14% living in high-income countries because in too many respects American developmental psychology remains an ethnocentric field.
In response to these concerns and the intensifying forces of globalization and internationalization, some developmental psychologists both in the U.S. and abroad are now fashioning a new field, cross-cultural human development. For many students planning to attend graduate school, this could prove both an exciting and promising field to enter. It explores human behavior and the mind across the entire lifespan by relating them to the ecological and sociocultural context out of which they evolve. The context may include demographic variables such as birth and mortality rates, forms of family life, gender roles, social stratification systems, educational institutions, peer group influences, religious belief systems, cultural ideals, culturally shaped ideas about death and bereavement, and so much more. These variables may be fruitfully compared across nations and cultural groups in order to elucidate how they shape human development. Both quantitative and qualitative approaches may prove useful for this purpose.
While the new field still suffers from an unsettled identity, one can readily discern two of its main characteristics.
  1. Cross-cultural human development is a multidisciplinary field that includes a variety of perspectives derived from psychological and cultural anthropology, evolutionary biology, comparative sociology and the study of global sociocultural processes, demography, and psychology. Consequently, it is well suited to counteract any professionally induced tunnel vision that may keep us from understanding human development in all of its complexity. In this context, the student of cross-cultural human development may come across widely differing information such as ethnographic accounts of family life in different cultural settings, global demographics and economic statistics pointing to the widely varying parameters of children's lives in the poor and the rich countries, cross-cultural tests of evolutionary hypotheses, religiously shaped accounts of old age and death among tribal people, descriptions of societies in which infants are thought to be reincarnations of sacred ancestors, and so on. Many of these topics are missing from most accounts of American mainstream developmental psychology.
  2. Within psychology, the field reflects the sometimes competing influences of multicultural psychology, cultural psychology, and cross-cultural psychology. Whereas multicultural psychologists have tended to focus on psychological development among members of ethnic minority groups and immigrants within a given society (e.g., Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001), cultural psychologists have been impressed by the pervasive influence of indigenous conceptions such as parental ethnotheories, culture-specific worldviews, and collectivistic moral value systems in different parts of the globe. Many cross-cultural psychologists, in contrast, emphasize that at least some psychological developmental processes must be of a universalistic nature since cross-cultural comparison would otherwise be impossible.
    Ambitious undergraduate students looking for an exciting future may well contemplate graduate school work in cross-cultural human development. Because it is an emerging field, training opportunities are still somewhat uncertain. Nevertheless, the field provides excellent opportunities for creative minds to leave a mark precisely because it is in flux and open to new approaches and research findings. In contrast, a well established field is more likely to have gone stale.
Thinking About Graduate School?
At present no comprehensive psychology program exploring cross-cultural human development at the global and multicultural levels exists. Consequently, the interested student is advised to review graduate programs with a developmental emphasis in order to ascertain whether they include one or more active researchers in the field. Table 1 contains a few programs that might be of interest to you.
For graduate programs in cross-cultural psychology and education, consult the following website:
You might also wish to peruse recent issues of professional journals such as: International Journal of Behavioral Development (published by the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development), Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Ethos (this journal has an anthropological bent), Cross-Cultural Research, Child Development, Human Development, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Marriage and the Family, Journal of Research on Adolescence, Childhood: A Global Journal of Child Research, International Journal of Aging and Human Development, Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, and others. In addition, the volumes listed in the Academic Resources section provide extensive information about the available literature. For an extensive bibliography of pertinent books, see Gielen (2004).
Students preparing themselves for graduate school should also consider the possibility of doing undergraduate cross-cultural research with a developmental slant. Here are a few pointers in this context:
  1. Consider doing a research project focusing on an immigrant group. This will help you to think in cultural terms.
  2. Contemplate conducting an investigation on one or more cultural groups that have been less researched. Examples include immigrant populations from various Caribbean nations such as Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad-Tobago, various Arab societies, the Philippines, Nigeria and other African nations, Samoa and other Pacific island societies, and so on.
  3. Some problems are best investigated with the help of a variety of research techniques including questionnaires, qualitative interviews, ethnographic surveys, and others.
  4. If you are thinking about studying abroad consider combining your overseas sojourn with a research project however modest in scope. Such a project may also lead to useful overseas contacts for your later career.
Academic Resources
Eager to find out more about the new field? The following books explore human development from a broad range of theoretical perspectives and include much empirical research.
Arnett, J. J. (2006). Adolescence and emerging adulthood: A cultural approach (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
This is not only a superior textbook on adolescence but also the first survey of the teenage years and twenties from a cultural point of view.
Arnett, J. J. (Ed.). (in press). International encyclopedia of adolescence. New York: Routledge.
In this broadly conceived encyclopedia, an international team of contributors outline the changing nature of adolescence in numerous countries located around the world.
Berry, J. W., Dasen, P. R., & Saraswathi, T. S. (Eds.). (1997). Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (2nd ed.). Vol.2: Basic processes and human development. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
This standard handbook provides useful literature reviews and discussions of varied theoretical approaches to cross-cultural human development.
Brown, B. B., Larson, R. W., & Saraswathi, T. S. (Eds.). (2002). The world's youth. Adolescence in eight regions of the globe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
How is global change transforming the experience of adolescence around the world? A team of international researchers attempts to answer this question by reviewing trends in eight areas of the world and by advancing predictions for the future.
Comunian, A. L., & Gielen, U. P. (Eds.). (2000). International perspectives on human development. Lengerich, Germany: Pabst Science Publishers.
Fifty-four international authors review cross-cultural theories and research on the human life cycle from infancy to death. This massive compendium is appropriate for graduate and advanced undergraduate students.
Gardiner, H. W., & Kosmitzki, C. (2004). Lives across cultures: Cross-cultural human development (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. (A new edition is in the making.)
The only up-to-date textbook in the field, this volume is appropriate for undergraduates including those with a limited background knowledge in psychology. It covers the whole life cycle.
Gielen, U. P., & Roopnarine, J. L. (Eds.). (2004). Childhood and adolescence: Cross-cultural perspectives and applications. Westport, CT: Praeger.
More advanced than Gardiner and Kosmitzki's volume, this book provides cutting-edge surveys on topics such as childcare and parenting, gender roles, relationships between siblings, adolescents, immigrant children, bilingualism, street children, and developmental psychopathology, as well as historical and global perspectives on childhood and adolescence. The volume contains a useful bibliography.
Greenfield, P. M., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (1994). Cross-cultural roots of minority child development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
An international group of researchers explores how socialization and development take place in North American, African, and Asian cultures, and what this tells us about minority child development in the United States and Canada. Several chapters explore the influence of contrasting collectivistic and individualistic cultural scripts on child development.
Saraswathi, T. S. (Ed.). (2003). Cross-cultural perspectives in human development: Theory, research and applications. New Delhi, India: Sage.
An international group of contributors discuss theoretical approaches, methodological concerns, and practical applications to the study of human development around the world. Several of the chapters focus on India. Suitable for very advanced undergraduate and graduate students.
Suárez-Orozco, C., & Suárez-Orozco, M. M. (2001). Children of immigration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
The authors provide a concise, well-integrated discussion of the lives of immigrant children in the United States based on extensive research.
UNICEF. (2006). The state of the world's children 2005. New York: UNICEF.
This indispensable survey of how children fare around the world is published every year. Especially important are the statistical tables that provide crucial information on children's welfare and their environment for 193 countries.
Table 1 | Graduate Programs in Developmental Psychology with Cross-Cultural Components

Developmental Psychology
University of California, Irvine
Developmental Psychology
University of California, Los Angeles
Developmental Psychology
University of California, Riverside
Committee on Human Development
University of Chicago
Human Development and Psychology – Comparative Human
Development or Acquisition of Language & Culture
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Developmental Psychology
University of Hawa'i, Manoa
Developmental Psychology
University of Maryland, College Park
Developmental Psychology
New York University
Culture and Human Development specialization,
Department of Psychology
University of Saskatchewan, Canada
Developmental Psychology
Stanford University
Department of Child and Family Studies
Syracuse University
Department of Human Development
Teacher's College, Columbia University

Gielen, U. P. (2004). Selected bibliography. In U. P. Gielen & J. Roopnarine (Eds.), Childhood and adolescence (pp. 443-457). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Saraswathi, T. S. (2000). Adult-child continuity in India: Is adolescence a myth or an emerging reality? In A. L. Comunian & U. P. Gielen (Eds.), International perspectives on human development (pp. 431-448). Lengerich, Germany: Pabst Science Publishers.
Suárez-Orozco, C., & Suarez-Orozco, M. M. (2001). Children of immigration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Uwe P. Gielen, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Executive Director, Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Psychology at St. Francis College, New York City. Having received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1976, he later served as president of both the Society for Cross-Cultural Research and the International Council of Psychologists. His sixteen edited/coedited/coauthored books cover areas such as cross-cultural development, moral development, international family life, family therapy, international psychology, and psychology in the Arab countries. His latest coedited book is entitled Toward a Global Psychology: Theory, Research, Practice, and Pedagogy. He has given lectures, workshops, and paper presentations in 31 countries. For further information, see

Copyright 2006 (Volume 11, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


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