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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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The Social Bases of Behaviour: Social and Cross-Cultural Methods

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, October 10, 2014

There are variant perspectives in contemporary psychology attempting to delineate causal relationships between psychological and behavioural tendencies and the social environment which embodies them. Pitched at the macro level of analysis, the social school hypothesizes that behavioural outcomes are habitually motivated by a continuum of evolutionary pressures acting upon and eternally shaping the individual. These include cognitive-based needs (i.e. understanding, belonging, and orientation within a seemingly chaotic world) related to the acquisition of purpose and stability, as well as more emotional driven ones like self-esteem and trust. Because intrinsic motives are understood as universal in character, individuals can develop mental representations of the environment within a relational matrix, thus affording individuals the opportunity to function, to shape, and to be shaped within shared conceptual spaces offered by empathic relationships, families, institutions, and greater communities. The social psychologists and anthropologists who study the dynamic interplay between the aforementioned motives and explicit external contingencies will develop systematic theories and then deploy descriptive, correlational, and experimental research methods in order to determine their empirical validity and scientific worth.

Alternatively, cross-cultural psychology emphasizes the dynamic role of implicit and explicit cultural processes in human development. According to this interpretative lens, there is a bidirectional flow of information between the individual, the interpersonal arrangement of the immediate environment, and the sociocultural framework encompassing certain roles and practices–three interdependent variables contained within a mutually consisting process which is itself in a state of ongoing transmutation. An overarching tenet of this subfield of psychological inquiry is that the developing individual cannot be separated from the ambient sociocultural field which she influences and is influenced by throughout her spatiotemporal existence.

Deeply resonant with me is the second paradigm, for it is much more rational to accept the notion that the multifaceted relations operant within the communal environment are effecting one another’s evolutionary trajectory than not. We are undoubtedly moulded by the cultural practices, the religious and ethnic orientation of our local communities and we in turn introduce novel ideas and practices to modify their constellation of features. Of course none of this would be possible if it wasn’t for individual and collective diversity.

There are a host of merits and limitations associated with both approaches. Social psychology’s claim to fame lies in the ecological validity of its field experiments whereby authentic behaviours are recreated in naturalistic settings and then generalized across entire communities. Through the work of some esteemed social scientists we have discovered how social contexts involving authoritarian figures facilitate ascetic obedience (Milgram, 1963) and moreover, how they can stimulate primitive urges to seize, possess, and overwhelm individuals with a relatively benign psychological constitution (Zimbardo, 1973). Despite subsequent replication of these finds there are various shortcomings associated with their methodology, namely the tendency to overemphasize environmental determinism and ignore genetics, individual differences, and cross-cultural variations when interpreting experimental outcomes. In many instances extraneous variables do confound results and the inadvertent use of homogenous samples will render a sweeping generalization defunct.

The cross-cultural approach to psychology appears to have a more ‘objective’ grasp on consensus reality because it remains sympathetic to differences wrought by specific cultural patterns and diversity, however it too downplays other competing factors in human development like genetics and individual personality. Adding to the disgruntling list of limitations, it would be remiss of me not to mention that many of the social psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists who have made these cross-cultural observations and assessments are individuals with limited proficiency when it comes to the meaning a specific configuration of circumstances might hold for participants of another cultural orientation. Our understanding and appreciation of another culture is only as good as the legitimacy of inside knowledge we have about its ecological milieus, our ability to view the cosmos through its own hermeneutic telescope.  

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