Culture and the Psyche

Are we our culture?

In 1948, the World Health Organization [WHO] defined health as a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. To that end, the matrices in which we find ourselves — marriage, family, friendship, school or employment, organizations and associations, society and culture — are powerful influences.

Our cultural matrix determines our psyche to a greater degree than we often suppose. Those from collectivist societies, routinely using phrases such as “We Koreans think…”, innately understand this concept; those from individualistic societies tend to think we are each unique and minimally shaped by external forces. And then there are those of us who have removed ourselves from our own societies and taken up residence, perhaps even built a life, in a new place, for whom it is especially easy to believe that we are somehow distinct from our culture of origin.

Cultural psychologists view the individual mind as a function of the social community — culture and mind as inseparable. This doesn’t detract from an individual’s unique qualities, as culture is not a determinant but an influence; our social circles contribute to the patterning of our lives, and we in turn contribute to the fabric of our society as active cultural agents. For what is “culture” if not made of a group of individuals?

What, indeed, is culture? Well beyond foods, festivals, and costumes, it is a set of ideas that coordinate the actions and construct the meanings of a society or group, as shown in its practices, artifacts, and institutions. Humans, then, can be deemed the social process or product of their culture.

There are three ways to conceptualize cultural influence of one’s psyche: symbolic, in which culture is a system of shared symbols, concepts, meanings, and linguistic terms; activity, in which one’s psyche develops according to one’s engagement in the activities of one’s social world; and, individualistic, by which culture is an external context utilized by each individual as he/she sees fit. In any case, one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors reflect the values and beliefs of one’s culture, though the culture is predictive, not causal.

In Cross-Cultural Psychology, researchers attempt to look at how qualities, behaviors, and values compare and contrast across cultures. In Cultural Psychology, however, there is no comparison among cultures but rather a deep look at how the idea and system of culture itself affects the individual. Cross-Cultural Psychology seeks universals. Cultural Psychology springs from the premise that cultural patterning of human psychology is that which is universal.

Cultural Health Psychology, then, focuses specifically on health-related beliefs and practices, and how the individual is influenced by, and in turn influences, his/her culture in relation to matters of health. Health, in this case, is conceptualized according to the WHO definition, in a complex and all-encompassing manner — often referred to as a ‘bio-psycho-socio-cultural model’.

Several themes have emerged in current research, including the influence of culture in the areas of reasoning styles, motivation, perceptions of time / space / color, relational styles, and emotional experience / regulation / expression–and distinctions between Asians and North Americans in these areas are notable. What has been shown repeatedly is the failure of “Western” psychological precepts to be replicated in non-Western settings, resulting in a call for revised psychological theory which is more inclusive and thus of greater universal relevance. 

East-West psyche, indeed…and North-South as well.

Are we our culture? How could we be anything but?

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