Study notes

Issues & Debates: Culture Bias

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, OCR

Culture can be defined as the values, beliefs and patterns of behaviour shared by a group of people. 

A variety of factors shape culture and these different factors are reflected in the differences between various cultures. Historically, psychology has been dominated by white, middle-class American males, who have monopolised both as researchers and participants. However, research findings and theories have been generalised, as if culture makes no real difference.

Cultural bias is the tendency to judge people in terms of one's own cultural assumptions. In psychology, cultural bias takes the same two forms as gender bias. Alpha bias occurs when a theory assumes that cultural groups are profoundly different, and that recognition of these enduring differences must always inform psychological research and understanding. Beta bias, on the other hand, occurs when real cultural differences are ignored or minimised, and all people are assumed to be the same, resulting in universal research designs and conclusions that mistakenly assume that all cultures are the same.

Exam Hint: Alpha and beta bias are only required for Gender Bias, and while it is useful to understand these terms, you are only required to understand ethnocentrism and cultural relativism for the Culture in Psychology subtopic.

Another way to consider cultural bias is through the distinction between ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.

1a. Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism means seeing the world only from one’s own cultural perspective, and believing that this one perspective is both normal and correct. Ethnocentrism is an often inadvertent lack of awareness that other ways of seeing things can be as valid as one’s own. For example, definitions of abnormality vary from culture to culture. Rack (1984) claims that African-Caribbeans in Britain are sometimes diagnosed as ‘mentally ill’ on the basis of behaviour which is perfectly normal in their subculture, and this is due to the ignorance of African-Caribbean subculture on the part of white psychiatrists.

Ainsworth's Strange Situation is another example of ethnocentric research. The Strange Situation was developed to assess attachment types, and many researchers assume that the Strange Situation has the same meaning for the infants from other cultures, as it does for American children. German children, on average, demonstrate a higher rate of insecure-avoidant behaviour. However, it is not the case that German mothers are more insensitive than American mothers. Instead, they value and encourage independent behaviour, and therefore their children react differently in the Strange Situation. The Strange Situation has been described as an imposed etic, where a technique or theory is developed in one culture and then imposed on another.

Extension: An etic approach looks at behaviour from the outside, whereas emic approach considers behaviour from the inside.

1b. Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism insists that behaviour can be properly understood only if the cultural context is taken into consideration. Therefore, any study which draws its sample from only one cultural context (like American college students) and then generalises its findings to all people everywhere, is suspect.

According to this viewpoint, the meaning of intelligence is different in every culture. For example, Sternberg (1985) pointed out that coordination skills that may be essential to life in a preliterate society (e.g., those motor skills required for shooting a bow and arrow) may be mostly irrelevant to intelligent behaviour for most people in a literate and more “developed” society.

2. Universality

When a theory is described as universal, it means that it can apply to all people, irrespective of gender and culture. However, this also means that it needs to include real differences.

In relation to gender, this means developing theories that show the similarities and differences between males and females, without devaluing either gender. This may mean using a variety of research methods and considering women in the natural settings in which they function. With regard to culture, one way to achieve universality would be to employ what Berry (1969) described as a derived etic. This is where a series of emic studies take place in local settings, conducted by local researchers using local techniques. Such studies can build up a picture of human behaviour in a similar way to the ethnographic approach taken by anthropologists. This is the study of different cultures through the use of comparisons, as by making comparisons between cultures we can learn more about a target culture.

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