Topic 2:
History & Methods
 for Understanding Culture & Communication


Various Perspectives on the study of psychology and culture

Kuhn (1970) suggests that understanding science and psychology
is done in relation to various worldviews. Paradigms or perspectives
of science built up like cultural world-views, the cultures of science.

  E.g., Necker Cube  

Martin & Nakayama (2007) discuss the importance of understanding the perception of the researcher and how his or her worldview of science may impact what they see and what they do.

Definition of perception: the process of selecting, organizing, and interpreting sensory data in a way that enables us to make sense of our world. 

Perceptions are a primary mechanism where our whole understanding of our selves and the the worlds around us is shaped by our culture and experiential expectations. 

Perceptions are the basis for our beliefs.

Perceptions are the root of our values. (see worldviews)


Activity DIE


Habermas (1971)  is champion of critical hermeneutics where he identifies  three goals or interests for knowledge: empirical-analytical (natural) sciences employ technical interest, historical-hermeneutical sciences employ practical interest  of understanding, while the empirical-critical sciences employ emancipatory interest.

Martin & Nakayama (2007)  follow this classification with their presentation of  dominant views of intercultural communication. They present the Social Science (SS), the Interpretive Approach (IA) and the Critical Approach  (CA)  along with a more holistic and synthetic approach, the Dialectical Approach (DA).


History of the field and Methodologies used

Historically psychology in general, and psychology of culture in particular is torn between the perspectives of natural science and human science.  


Martin & Nakayama discuss the early  development of the discipline.

They indicate that early work in intercultural communication was centred on non-verbal communication and proxemics or  distance zones.

Later the application of theory to diversity training began to take on, followed by Cross-cultural training for people travelling or doing business abroad. 

This applied field thus remain with an interdisciplinary focus as it draws in from psychology, communications, sociology, business/management, political science, linguistics, and history. 


SS is built upon the worldview of the Natural  Sciences, with the goal of control while the IA is built upon the the Human Science perspectives with the goal of understanding.

 CA also goes hand in hand with the IA insofar as it is applied to everyday human experience and raises several imperatives of thought and conduct.

The dialectical approach may be referred as a meta perspective insofar as it draws from theoretical and ontological pluralism through the adoption of an interdisciplinary and inter-cultural stance.


SS-Cross-Cultural Psychology (Functionalist)

is built upon the worldview of natural science as with: 

Edward Burnet Tylor (1832-1917) 'Father of Anthropology'

 "Culture or civilization, taken in its widest ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. The condition of culture among the various societies of mankind, in so far as it is capable of being investigated on general principles, is a subject apt for the study of laws of human thought and action" (1871/1958)


Berry et al. (1992) provide several definitions of culture as: 

"the shared way of life of a group of people" and its causal relationships to behaviour and cultural experience, with a focus on the generalisability of studies that may be used to understand cultural change.

Social Sciences (SS) involves the measurement of variables, usually in a quantitative fashion contrasting individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures. This approach assumes that culture is a variable that can be measured, there is one external reality and human behaviours are predictable.

 Hence, the goal of this research is to predict how culture influences communication. Typically it also examines learned group behaviour & perceptions. This approach assumes it can come up with a grand theory that explains all intercultural interactions.

Hence the goal is to test hypotheses about people, the universal validity of psychological theories (from general psychology & natural science). 

Theories - systems of thought give rise to

Hypotheses - specific statements of what to expect (predictions)

 Hypotheses are disconfirmed (refuted) by observations (data)
Positivism insists that verification gives rise to proof.

Other goals are revealed as:

  1. Test and transport - take a present theory or test and transport it to another culture. E.g., "practice makes perfect" testing
    the role of practice on remembering across different cultures.

  2. Explore and discover - Sometimes, 'failures' in the first type
    of study become 'discoveries' of differences. Other times
    keep eyes (and mind) open to uncover new phenomena that vary cross-culturally or cross-nationally.

  3. Integrate - to assemble various studies and theories into
    a grand theory or framework of knowledge that accounts
    for the similarities and differences observed across cultures.
    To generate a universal theory of psychology.

Research focuses on behavioural, biological, and ecological variables

  Designing cross-cultural studies

Berry et al. (1992): Seldom use the "Controlled Experiment"
across cultures, but still use the language of such studies.

Independent variable -> Dependent variables.
E.g., Taken at birth Cultural Identification
                             Adjustment, Esteem
, ...

 Difficult to "rule-out" all possible explanations (causes) so we do:


 Examples of this type of approach are: Anxiety / Uncertainty Management theory (AUM) which explains the role of anxiety in communication with people from other cultural groups.

 Related theory is Dr. Stella Ting-Toomey’s face negotiation theory. Saving face is something all cultures experience. She studies how cultures differ in conflict style and face concerns.

Similarly there is theConversation Constraints theory which attempts to account for the linguistic choices made in intercultural communication with respect to 5 universal concerns:

1) clarity,

2) minimizing imposition,

3) consideration for the other's feelings,

4) risky negative evaluation by the hearer, and

5) effectiveness.

Lastly, there is the communication accommodation theory which examines how changes to speech and non-verbal modes of communication occur when in an intercultural communication setting.

 Limitations of the Social Science Approach

  1. Communication is more creative than predictable
  2. Cannot identify all the variables that affect communication
  3. Difficult to predict why one intercultural interaction seems to succeed and another does not.
  4. Researchers may not understand the cultural groups they are studying (Big NO, NO)
  5. Translation and conceptual equivalence are recommended; however efficacy is debateable.

 Four strategies to eliminate competing alternatives used by Berry et al. (1992), Some "controls" offered.

1) a priori selection of participants from across 'societies' or 'cultures'

2) using an aggregate dependent variables: two + scores into one.

3) use of statistical analyses to 'eliminate' the effects of "irrelevant variables"

4) multiple measures: self-report, interview, analyses of life histories.


 Make use of convergent and discriminant validation where various studies of methods support each other or conflict with each other.

 Based upon such studies cross-cultural psychologists infer antecedents of behaviours and attempt to test hypotheses derived from theories about those antecedents or causes.


Interpretive Approach (IA) involves ethnography usually employing qualitative accounts through participant observations.  Case histories and rhetorical devices are used in place of statistical abstractions.  This approach typically examines culture as context.

These first two approaches give rise the everlasting etic - emic dispute.

Emic-Etic dispute

Central to the development of psychology and culture is the ongoing dialogue over the "Emic-Etic dispute."   Following Pike (1967) John Berry has described the Emic and Etic orientations as:

Emic refers to 'culture-specific' aspects of psychology or experience

Etic refers to universal or 'culture-general' aspects.

In Psychology there is a parallel debate over personality as being best known in idiographic vs. nomothetic terms.   

Coming from different worldviews they have contrasting goals and interests:

Eg., Natural Science Lawfulness (universal) and causal explanation 
vs. Human Science Variability (particular) understanding and expression

 Types of inferred antecedents have also been compared with the SS, IA & Dialectical approaches through the presentation of ideologies of: Absolutism, Universalism, Relativism (Berry et al., p. 257) F10.2

IA- Cultural psychology is built upon the worldview of human science with:

Gottfried Herder (1784-1791) who wrote a "History of human soul, in periods and peoples" where peoples (Volker) were characterised by shared language and historical traditions.  His concept of the Volkgeist - the "personality" or character of a group of people was very influential where he made use of   populism, expressionism, pluralism (Berlin, 1976).

Berry et al., (1992)  characterise Cultural Psychology as involving descriptive studies where:

1) The cultural system is seen as level of analysis, the meaning of behaviour depends upon the rules and customs of a cultural tradition.

2) There is an emphasis on the mutual process of individual and social; dialectics.

3) There is no room for comparative studies since meaning of behaviour depends on cultural context.



Inferences are made from data that are unfounded.

translations biases occur where meaning incommensurate.


 Richard Shweder (1990) one of the founders insists that
Cultural Psychology
pertains to the dialectics of self-society; subject-object; person-context; figure-ground.  Understanding the mind, self, emotion as they emerge in "constituted" worlds.

-Human beings are intentional and actively construct and re-construct the world into meaningful perspectives. Creating concepts of self, emotion, values, knowledge, religion, spirits, . . .

-It involves "thinking through" others interpretations of culture as expressed by and with others.



Carl Ratner (1997): Cultural Psychology and Qualitative Methodology

Critical of positivism and general / cross-cultural psychology.

1) Fragmentation (atomism)-including stimuli&responses,
2) Quantification -including qualitative invariance-reduction of qualitative difs to quantities (assumes qualities are uniform); also stats-means misleading & sig. test unimportant,
3) Operational Definitions - assume overt behaviour is equivalent with psychological meaning
4) Positive validity (looking for black crows) not falsification.

Cross-cultural psychology treats culture as a causal variable to be measured (and manipulated?)

Cultural Psychology should involve: recognition of complexity of phenomena that are expressed through extended activities and that mental phenomena have no specific behavioural correlates.

Cultural factors do not simply "influence" psychology, they are psychological" (2008, p.2)

Culture is seen as:

1) a collective product (synthesis) - not reducible individuals or a sum of individuals

2) a constructed world - a creative process

3) artificial (human creation) - not an outgrowth of "natural" mechanisms

4) a new order of life - like Sir Karl Popper's world three - polis or ethos


Methodological Principles for Cultural Psychology:

-Verstehen-Understanding against a historical context only (hermeneutics).

-Interpret behaviour - description of action sequence-that leads to certain outcomes in given historical social contexts.

-Interpret verbal statements and actions and institutions

-Identify situations in which phenomena do & do not occur
(examine the stimuli, presenter & observer relationships
ascertain the quality of phenomena through relationships with other

- the dialectical relationship between activity and psychology is central to cultural psychology.

- social activity involves final causes (telos) - goals and ends to which we collectively move

- personal psychological experience  / common cultural activity
subjective / objective dialectics

Besseverstehen (better understanding) is the ultimate goal of cultural psychology where one attempts to "elucidate features, relationships, and dynamics of psychological phenomena that may not appear in subjective experience" (Ratner, 1997, p. 61).



Micheal Cole (1996) Cultural Psychology

 Three basic Principles of Cultural Psychology


    1. Mediation through Artifacts – the creation and use of material objects.
      E.g., the making and using of tools as part of a shared cultural world.

    2. Historical Development - becoming a cultural being & helping others to become cultural beings is the process of enculturation.
      This capacity for development (individually and collectively) is the distinctive characteristic of our species. Culture is the fundamental human activity.

    3. Practical Activity – the analysis of psychological functions must be grounded in human everyday activities.

Cultural psychology involves the deciphering of (subjective) meanings from (objective) artifacts, social institutions and cultural concepts

According to Cole (1996) Artifacts can be:

Primary: objects of everyday significance (Axe, bowl, needle).

Secondary: representations of those objects in terms of meaning and use
(recipes, traditional beliefs, norms, schemas, scripts, roles)

Tertiary: imaginative works (art, products, and creative processes).

(Ratner ,2008) Fig 2 .



 Critical Approach (CA)  makes use of macro contexts (political, social, historical) and textual analysis to offer a broader critique of the data and information generation processes.

 Textual analysis of cultural products (i.e., media, movies, speeches, journals et cetera) provides an examination of the role of power in intercultural communication considering each culture to be a heterogenous dynamic zone of human inter-exchange.

Goal of this research is to understand and create change to the lives of everyday communicators. By reporting how power functions in cultural situations researchers are empowering people to learn how to resist forces of power and oppression. This approach shines a light on social and historical contexts and how they contribute to people’s intercultural interactions.

Let’s look at a segment of JK Rowling’s Commencement Speech at Harvard (June 5th 2008) and see what we can observe about power in North American Society…

Limitations of this Approach



Dialectical Approach (DA) extends  beyond, living between cultures to some degree, making use of the conversational models of knowledge and understanding through the processes of dialogue.

 Classically, the dialectical approach involves the talking through opposites where truth and understanding arise through the conversation.


Martin & Nakayama identify 6 principle dialectics that are relevant to the study of culture and communication:

1. Culture / Individual
2. Person / Context
3. Similarities / Differences
4. Static / Dynamic
5. History Past / Present Future
6. Privilege / Disadvantage


R. G. Tonks (1996, 1997, 2002) has promoted a Dialectical Approach to psychology and culture that draws from the strengths of each perspective, placing them into an ongoing 'conversation' about culture and psychology.

Here, for example, identity and acculturation can be assessed through quantitative methodologies (Tonks & Paranjpe, 1999) as well as qualitative cultural accounts that are built upon extended field studies (Tonks 2006).



Review of the Relationship between Communication & Culture

Most commonly from the SS perspective this topic is studied, where a number of potential obstacles can be identified, as indicated by Samovar and Porter (2004):


Obstacles in Studying Cultural Patterns

We are more than our culture - individual variations

Cultural patterns are interrelated - where religion, dress code, relationships all tend to go hand in hand

Cultural patterns are heterogeneity influenced - great variation within a dominant culture - co-cultures

Cultural patterns change - over time and place, blended, lost, created. 

Cultural patterns are contradictory - dialectics of individualism & collectivism

Cultural patterns are selected - fragments or elements are usually studied, not whole cultures

Examples: The Study of Cultural Patterns

Definitions of cultural patterns: a system of beliefs and values that work in combination to coherent, if not always consistent, model for perceiving the world.


Example of an SS model: Gannon's Four-Stage Model of Cross-Cultural Understanding

 Emotional expressive - open or closed expression?

Keys to understanding other cultures

Value of collectivism
Value of individualism.

Dimensions of cultural differences - achievement, uncertainty, time & gender

Cultural metaphors - competition, pride, self sufficiency


 Hall's Context Orientation

 High context - transmit meaning through gesture, space, silence, and other cues, show a  sensitivity to context

 Low context - need reassurance through verbal communication with little understanding of the collective contextual meanings