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How Do Culture and Context Shape Psychology?

Science is situated, not constructed.

Key points

  • Psychology requires consideration of culture and context.
  • Context is not adequately captured by a psychology modeled on the physical sciences that seek laws of the mind.
  • The best way forward is to employ constraints between multiple levels of analysis.

Achieving objectivity in the human sciences has proven a challenge, yet empirical psychologists continue to use experimental protocols to argue that all human beings, regardless of culture or race, share the same basic psychological and cognitive make-up. While the scientific method clarifies the study of biology, chemistry, medicine, physics, and astronomy, I argue its protocols do not necessarily work for the human sciences, especially psychology, because they do not adequately take into account the role of culture and context.

Rami Gabriel, used with permission
Rami Gabriel, used with permission

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, psychology and its uses in society have proliferated, even though mental phenomena have not been entirely reduced to neural principles, nor are the contours of cognition clear and identifiable. Empirical psychology has yet to furnish us with the kinds of law-like principles that we hope for from a science. Rather, they may depend upon extra-logical factors such as culture, history, theory, and contingent social formations.

Some psychologists have suggested the limitations reside in actual data sets. Others blame technical issues in interpreting brain imaging or argue that psychology has consistently ignored the inordinate influence of context. In fact, there is no shortage of critical voices and heterodox practices in the field.

In this post, I specify extra-logical factors which determine the contexts of discovery and interpretation in research psychology. It turns out culture and history, as embodied in background theoretical commitments, are crucial to understanding the basic, supposedly law-like psychological categories of human nature. This includes assumptions about cognition, the self, mental health, and many other taken-for-granted concepts.

Some signs of recognition of these issues are available. For example, the field of indigenous psychology speaks to the hegemonic assumptions of Western psychology by allowing for disparate cultural and historical factors. Also, surveying a broader set of data drawn from global sources helps us understand how psychology is an historical science.

The context of the study of psychology constrains the goals and methods that it uses. There are obvious considerations in terms of access to equipment and the sociology of knowledge. In addition, the practical implementation of psychological data is constrained by the place and time in which it occurs. Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the mind clearly drew from and articulated ideas that were in the air in fin-de-siecle Vienna.

Background commitments to concepts color the assumptions and goals of knowledge production. Despite the purported objectivity of its methods and tools, psychology is a continuation of the society from which it arises. The study of the mind in a given location and time period is also necessarily a study of the cultural and historical conditions of that locale. One way to integrate these considerations is to draw from methods used in anthropology and history. These qualitative fields describe, explore, and explain the epistemic background that shapes the uses of knowledge practices.

As an illustration of how we can draw from anthropological methods, observe how individualism serves as a cultural frame for conceptualizing the limits and extent of the mind. Individualism is a commitment to a set of philosophical and political practices. In Louis Dumont's words, it is a cultural frame that posits notions of agency whereby the will is a determinant moral factor for the liberal consuming subject.

The individual self is assumed to serve as a locus for personality, memory, and agency; it is thus embedded in research and social practices. Individualism as a cultural frame is reinforced in the practices of talk therapy, popular psychology, self-care programmes, and consumer taste. Psychoanalysis, as a theory of human nature that is at the same time a mode of therapy, and a toolbox for cultural criticism, institutionalizes the cultural frame of individualism in its model of the mind.

Individualism is the cultural context of many forms of therapy as it is a phenomenological, empirical, and structural system for explaining behavior through hidden processes. My motivation for emphasizing psychoanalysis is to dramatize how cultural forms that distinguish particular aspects of the human become naturalized in methodological systems of hermeneutic exploration, which explain pathology and therapeutic practices.

Epistemic constraints thus limit the kinds of knowledge that may be derived from diverse studies of the mind. In psychoanalysis, subjectivity is a platform for analyzing feelings and their causes. It employs discursive knowledge practices to alleviate suffering by buttressing one’s sense of agency. This can be done by aiding the analysand to understand why she acts as she does, including the triggers, the moments of trauma, and alternative ways to think of one's self.

Martinican psychologist Frantz Fanon took these principles of psychoanalysis beyond the psychiatric ward to address how the colonized mind suffers from continuous oppression and thus becomes a stranger to itself. He clarified the intimate psychological causality of this harsh reality and then was able to connect the tools of oppression of subjectivity to the Algerian struggle for recognition and liberty under French colonial rule. Fanon's use of psychology was thus constrained by its political context and cultural use. Individualist psychology was a means to promote liberatory subjectivity by strengthening the sense of agency as reflexive knowledge.

Context is not adequately captured by a psychology modeled on the physical sciences that seek laws of the mind, but it can be explored using a discursive idiographic approach that draws together multiple levels of analysis, including anthropological, historical, and contextual cues. It may be more pragmatic to think of psychology as a set of useful localized knowledge practices formulated according to the exigencies and values of the given community. This does not mean that all psychology is socially constructed. Rather, it means that the human sciences are culturally situated in important and fundamental ways. As espoused by Carl Craver, one hopeful way forward is a kind of mosaic of constraints between multiple levels of analysis.

We have seen how discursive forms of psychology like psychoanalysis are situated and empirical forms of psychology are framed by background beliefs, but are all forms of psychology equally subject to the epistemic constraints I have been describing? Let’s take computational modeling in cognitive science as an example, it is a formal system based on engineering through which researchers depict how a system may work given data collected from experimental subject behaviors.

The formal aspect of models which describe inputs, outputs, and global functions is an analytical technique. Yet, the shift required to take data aggregated from human experiments and recapitulate it as a computational model is surely constrained by the context of the twentieth-century assumptions about how the mind is like a computer and how data can be used to answer research questions. The tools of investigation also bind it. So that even though modeling itself is a formal discipline, the context within which it is used is subject to cultural constraints. That does mean it is not useful or insightful, but it does suggest that exercising this technique may not lead to securing laws of the mind. As Lisa Osbeck wrote, understanding that psychological practices are value-laden clarify their scope.

Based on the cultural constraints that face theorists and experimentalists, I suggest that psychology should include knowledge practices adapted from history, such as descriptions and comparisons that render the embeddedness of individuals in their sociocultural milieu across time. The tools developed by anthropologists for observing and formulating cultural forms are crucial to clarify the uses fulfilled by psychology as they offer situated, contextualist forms which demonstrate the shared social meaning of perceptions, attitudes, and experiences. This includes, for example, qualitative research methods, such as focused ethnography.

Multilevel integrative methods help determine the role of context and would help theorists and empiricists work with the constraints of psychology to offer sufficiently thick explanations.


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