Why Psychologists Conduct Cross-Cultural Studies

When two variables are inextricably intertwined at home, it's time to go abroad.

Posted Mar 31, 2016

This post was written by Lawrence T. White.

Imagine that an 11-year-old boy has a disturbing dream in which he and his father are traveling together in a taxi. Suddenly, the driver swerves to avoid a small dog and the vehicle crashes into an oncoming furniture van. The taxi driver is killed at once, but the boy is miraculously unharmed and searches frantically for his father. On the street, under the van, the boy finds his father’s dead body.

What does this dream mean? Sigmund Freud, the great psychoanalyst in turn-of-the-century Vienna, probably would have interpreted the boy’s dream as an expression of his unresolved Oedipus complex. The dream illustrates the boy’s simultaneous love for and hatred of his father. The boy's hatred stems from sexual jealousy. His father is mother’s lover--and the boy unconsciously wants to sleep with mommy.

In the 1920’s, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski lived with Trobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea (off the northeastern coast of Australia). He had read Freud’s description of the Oedipus complex, so he collected dream reports from adolescent boys.

Malinowski made an interesting discovery. Trobriand Island boys rarely dreamed of terrible things happening to their fathers. Instead, they were more likely to dream of terrible things happening to their uncles. For example, one boy dreamed that he and his uncle were hunting together, running along a trail in the forest. Suddenly, the uncle stumbled and fell upon his spear, disemboweling himself.

Why the difference?

Trobriand Island society is an avuncular society. In such societies, boys are not disciplined by their fathers; they are disciplined by their mother's oldest brother. Malinowski concluded that adolescent boys--in the Trobriand Islands and elsewhere--unconsciously want terrible things to happen to their disciplinarian, not their mother’s lover.

The point is not whether Freud was right or Malinowski was right. (My money's on Malinowski.) The point is that, in many parts of the world, two factors exist simultaneously in fathers--they sleep with their wives and they discipline their sons. The two factors are tangled up, confounded--and somehow psychologists must find a way to disentangle or unconfound them. Malinowski accomplished this when he found an avuncular society.  Freud, on the other hand, made a logical error when he asserted a supposed universal on the basis of culture-specific data.

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