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Study notes

Issues & Debates: Evaluating Culture Bias

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

Culturally biased research can have significant real-world effects by, for example, amplifying and validating damaging stereotypes. The US Army used an IQ test before WWI which was culturally biased toward the dominant white majority. Unsurprisingly, the test showed that African-Americans were at the bottom of the IQ scale and this had a negative effect on the attitudes of Americans’ toward this group of people, which highlights the negative impact that culturally biased research can have.

Culturally biased research can have significant real-world effects by, for example, amplifying and validating damaging stereotypes. The US Army used an IQ test before WWI which was culturally biased toward the dominant white majority. Unsurprisingly, the test showed that African-Americans were at the bottom of the IQ scale and this had a negative effect on the attitudes of Americans’ toward this group of people, which highlights the negative impact that culturally biased research can have.

One way to deal with cultural bias is to recognise it when it occurs. Smith and Bond found, in their 1998 survey of European textbooks on social psychology, that 66% of the studies were American, 32% European, and only 2% from the rest of the world. This suggests that much psychological research is severely unrepresentative and can be greatly improved by simply selecting different cultural groups to study.

Contemporary psychologists are significantly more open-minded and well-travelled than previously, and have an increased understanding of other cultures at both a personal and professional level. For example, international psychology conferences increase the exchange of ideas between psychologists which has helped to reduce ethnocentrism in psychology and enabled a more nuanced understanding and appreciation of cultural relativism.

This heightened awareness of cultural diversity has led to the development of ‘indigenous psychologies’: theories drawing explicitly on the particular experiences of people in different cultural contexts. One example is Afrocentrism, a movement which suggests that because all black people have their roots in Africa, theories about them must recognise the African context of behaviours and attitudes. This is an example of an emic approach, which emphasises the uniqueness of every culture and looks at behaviour from the inside of a particular cultural system. This matters because it has led to the emergence of theories that are more relevant to the lives and cultures of people not only in Africa, but also to those far removed from their African origins. The development of indigenous psychologies is often seen as a strength of cultural relativism, but there are limitations as well: Are Afrocentric theories not as culturally biased as those they claim to replace?

There has also been some progress in the field of diagnosing mental disorders. Early versions of the American DSM system virtually ignored mental disorders that are found mainly or exclusively in non-American cultures. DSM-IV in 1994 acknowledged the inadequacy of that approach and included a short appendix on culture-bound syndromes found in other parts of the world. However, Kleinman and Cohen (1997) dismissed this appendix as “little more than a sop thrown to cultural psychiatrists and psychiatric anthropologists” and pointed out that detailed work in several non-Western cultures had uncovered many disorders totally ignored by DSM-IV. Examples include: pa-fend (fear of wind) found in China; amafufunyana (violent behaviour caused by spirit possession) found in South Africa and brain fag (problems in concentrating and thinking produced by excessive study) found in West Africa.

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