An Era of Multiple Psychologies

How can we inherit aboriginal insights relating to non-Western psychology?

Posted Nov 19, 2020

William Wundt, the father of modern psychology, distinguished the workings of psychology into two components: “Naturwissenschaften” (the experimental and natural form of psychological science) and “Geisteswissenschaften” (the cultural component of psychological science). Wundt was engaged in groundbreaking work in experimental psychology but that did not lead him into discounting the importance of culture, language, traditions, and ethnicity. It was this realization that laid the foundation for “Völkerpszchologie” or “Cultural Psychology.”

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The indigenous psychology approach considers endemic cultural processes while conducting research.
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Many disciplines including psychology, sociology, and anthropology started appreciating the inclusion of cultural variables in their research methodologies used to study human behaviour. The appreciation of cultural variables became essential when researchers from non-Western countries realized that viewing their culture through the lens of Western concepts was futile. This realization led to the inception of a global event that encouraged researchers to approach local issues by resorting to indigenous practices. Uichol Kim and colleagues have argued that this is very essential as the general psychology models were based solely on Western philosophy and information or data collected using subjects from Western countries. For ages, psychologists have stated the importance of culture on cognitive, affective, and behavioural responses of humans and thus considering this, Kim realized the importance of a new approach termed “indigenous psychology.” 

Indigenous psychology is a branch of psychology that involves scientifically studying human behaviour, intrinsic to one’s culture and is not acquired from other groups. This branch focuses on generalizing findings to the culture within which the research is conducted. According to the system of indigenous psychology, culture, language, philosophy, and science are by-products of human labor. Hence, it is of utmost importance to understand the interplay of all these variables and their influence on an individual.

Furthermore, indigenous psychology advocates exploring and employing three essential components: phenomenology (i.e. study of phenomena from an individual/native perspective), epistemology (i.e. study relating to the rationality of knowledge or phenomena), and context (i.e. understanding the phenomena in a particular circumstance/situation) familiar to the individual in an effort to generalize the findings of psychological science for that particular group. Research on developing culture-sensitive psychological methods is still in its formative years and most psychologists engaged in cross-cultural research continue to validate the universality of existing theories like the five-factor model of personality

Indigenous researchers view the same phenomena differently based on the context.
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Cross-cultural variation researchers have identified a few basic assumptions: first, Indigenous psychologists suggest studying a phenomenon in reference to the group’s or individual’s ecological, political, historical, economical, philosophical, social, and cultural constellations. This branch does not advocate only studying mysterious or far-reaching groups but encourages studying every group including developed as well as developing countries in the framework of their own culture and habitat. It further cautions researchers to remember that heterogeneity can also exist within a particular culture and hence, it is important to come up with plausible explanations that suit the group workings most closely. The tradition of indigenous psychology motivates the use of eclectic research methodologies while researching the implications of a concept in a particular society. Researchers should not be bound by one particular method, but rather use a multitude of methods to make findings robust.

Furthermore, some indigenous researchers are of the opinion that most cultures have their own natural laws and do not debate them very often. This passive approach can sometimes lead to us missing important processes within a culture and hence, from time to time, cross-cultural comparisons can help provide a fresher perspective on the same phenomena. Last, the aim of indigenous psychology is to find how the universal truths of general psychology can be applied to different cultures; in doing so researchers are careful in integrating individual, social, cultural, and temporal variations and applying cross-cultural research methodology to test the generalizability of these universal truths. 

On one hand, some are of the opinion that culture is a subject variable or quasi-independent variable that has an impact on human behaviour and this variable thus leads to finding different sets and combinations of psychological data. These multiple psychologies pose a threat by not following the law of parsimony while explaining human behaviour. On the other hand, another group of researchers posit that culture is not considered as an aggregate of individual characteristics or a subject variable, but rather defines culture as a medium through which humans interact, collect knowledge, approach, and modify their environment. 

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Human behaviour is culturally inclined
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Culture is the key to our survival, irrespective of which societies we belong to. In the book, Indigenous and Culture Psychology, the authors compare culture to our basic physiology and argue that without it we would not be civilized. Culture helps individuals find their identities, establish and achieve goals, and attach meaning to their realities. It thus intercedes with the way we think, emote, and behave. 

In conclusion, it is important to remember that in a science like psychology, we collect our knowledge from the perspectives of different individuals and/or groups, and this information is subjected to change based on motivations, understanding, and context. It is thus difficult to look at the truth from a single perspective as that may not always fit the situation, or be generalizable to every individual or group.

This post was written by Urvi Mange, a Junior Research Assistant at Monk Prayogshala, India and a postgraduate student pursuing her MSc in Neurocognitive Psychology. Her interests lie in social, developmental, and behavioural psychology.