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Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin, 2000, vol. 34, no. 1 & 2, pp. 5-11.


Outline of A Coherent, Comprehensive Concept of Culture

Carl Ratner


The Problem of Fragmentary Notions of Culture

The recent increased openness that cross-cultural psychologists have shown toward accepting diverse theories and methods has enriched the field. It also comes at a price. It has resulted in eclectically using diverse notions without systematically developing them into coherent concepts. Quantitative and qualitative methodologies are thrown together without systematically analyzing or purging their weaknesses (Koshima, 1998). Biological and social theories of psychological development are similarly accepted without explaining precisely how they might interact (Berry, et al., 1992). "Culture" is also used unsystematically, and I propose to explain and correct this problem here.

Despite some effort to delineate culture, cross-cultural psychologists generally treat it in two unsystematic ways:

a) As undefined background to psychological phenomena. Two populations of people are found to manifest different attitudes, mental illness, emotional expressions, etc. and the variations are said to demonstrate cultural differences. However what culture is and what the cultural factors and processes are that generate psychological differences are not addressed. Rohner (1984, p. 111) described this tendency: "On the whole, cross-cultural psychologists tend to take ‘culture’ as a given, that is, as a packaged, unexamined variable. Little attempt is made, as a rule, to determine what culture is, or to determine what about culture produces the claimed effects." Unfortunately, many cross-cultural psychologists continue to study psychology apart from specific cultural processes. They fall victim to the predominant ideology that separates psychology from culture.

b) As a collection of singular variables. These include parental treatment of children, ecological factors (climate, nutrition, noise, population density), cultural values, subsistence pattern (agricultural, urban, sedentary). The effects of these factors on psychological processes are worthwhile topics to study. However, they are typically studied as disjointed variables rather than as part of an integrated cultural system. Occasionally factors are arranged in a diagram where interactions are postulated via connecting arrows and statistical correlations. However, there is little conceptual integration about just how they interact among themselves or with ecological and biological factors -- e.g., what is the mechanism by which genes interact with culture to produce intelligence or homosexuality?

These two unsystematic approaches to culture retard the study of cross-cultural psychology. The first approach overlooks culture altogether. It simply compares psychological differences or similarities among groups of people without investigating culture at all. To learn that different peoples solve problems, perceive colors, and express emotions differently says nothing about culture and its relation to psychology. This approach does not systematically and comprehensively draw upon the rich intricacy of culture to better understand the characteristics of psychological phenomena. It does not use culture as a guide to study psychology. It selects psychological topics which are of interest to the researcher and defined by her society, and which may have little significance in indigenous cultures. The big five personality factors, schizophrenia, moral stages, and security attachment are examples of such topics (Miller, 1999, p. 89).

The second approach does identify and investigate cultural factors which bear on psychological phenomena. However, the absence of a coherent concept of culture provides no parameters for selecting relevant factors. The field of cross-cultural psychology becomes a free-for-all in which anyone studies anything and the mere fact that something has been studied qualifies it as pertinent. Cross-cultural psychology is then subject to any ideological current that arises. There is no way to decide whether "climate", "agriculture," "amount of time that parents spend with children," "strict discipline," or "individuals constructing their own personal meanings" are significant cultural factors replete with specific cultural content, or whether they are uninformative abstractions or even outside the rubric of culture. Nor is there any guidance for integrating factors and findings. We are left with the typical jumble of findings which allow few comprehensive conclusions about culture and psychology. This is additionally true because statistically associating societal and psychological variables fails to illuminate the actual ways that cultural phenomena organize and are embodied in psychology (Ratner, 1997, chap. 1). Finally, the shotgun approach permits important cultural factors to be overlooked because there is no systematic conceptualization of what important cultural issues are. Thus, social class, the organization of work, the legal, political, or educational system, or the form and content of entertainment and news receive comparatively little attention from cross-cultural psychologists despite their important influence on psychological functioning.

A coherent, comprehensive conception of culture is necessary to avoid these problems.


Toward A Coherent, Comprehensive Concept of Culture

A coherent, comprehensive concept of culture would:

1) Define the essential nature of cultural phenomena -- i.e., what something has to be in order to   qualify as "cultural"

2) Identify subcategories (kinds) of cultural phenomena

3) Identify how these subcategories interrelate

a) which ones are more closely related to particular others and influence their features

b) what the mechanisms of influence are

4) Explain the relation of culture to other phenomena such as biology and ecology


I propose that the above points are best formulated in terms of activity theory that draws on Vygotsky’s work. The facets of culture that activity theory emphasizes are:

1) Cultural phenomena are socially constructed artifacts. They are social facts in Durkheim’s sense of being collectively created and shared. They are neither natural nor individual phenomena. Of course, being collective products does not mean they are democratically constructed. Typically small groups of powerful individuals greatly influence the form that cultural phenomena take.

2) There are five main kinds of cultural phenomena:

a) Cultural activities such as producing goods, raising and educating children, making and enforcing policies and laws, providing medical care. It is through these activities that humans survive and develop themselves. They are basic to the ways in which individuals interact with objects, people, and even oneself.

b) Cultural values, schemas, meanings, concepts. People collectively endow things with meaning. Youth, old age, man, woman, bodily features, wealth, nature, and time mean different things in different societies.

c) Physical artifacts such as tools, books, paper, pottery, eating utensils, clocks, clothing, buildings, furniture, toys, games, weapons and technology which are collectively constructed.

d) Psychological phenomena such as emotions, perception, motivation, logical reasoning, intelligence, memory, mental illness, imagination, language, and personality are collectively constructed and distributed.

e) Agency. Humans actively construct and reconstruct cultural phenomena. This "agency" is directed at constructing cultural phenomena and it is also influenced by existing cultural activities, values, artifacts, and psychology.

3) These five cultural phenomena are interdependent and interlocking as well as distinctive. None of them is reducible to others yet neither does any of them stand alone outside the others. Each embodies the distinctive character of others within itself. Being integral aspects of culture, psychological phenomena originate in, reflect, and function to facilitate activities, concepts, artifacts, and agency. (Similarly, agency originates in, reflects, and facilitates activities, concepts, artifacts, and psychological phenomena.) Accordingly, cross-cultural psychological research should compare the psychological phenomena of diverse peoples who are engaged in various activities, utilize diverse artifacts, and adopt various concepts.

Emphasizing the social organization (social relations) of activities, the specific form of artifacts, and the cultural content of concepts will overcome the Western inclination of trying to link psychological functioning with abstract social variables such as "amount of time that parents spend with children," "strict discipline," "valuing children," "sedentary" or "collective" life styles. These abstract terms encompass many different social patterns. Amount of time can encompass disparate interactions, children can be valued in disparate ways, sedentary life styles can include feudal serfdom and bourgeois business, and collective life can include hunting and gathering societies, Chinese feudalism, and modern Amish communities. Obscuring concrete characteristics of social life obscures their presence in psychology. Elucidating the concrete cultural characteristics of psychological phenomena requires elucidating the particular activities, artifacts, and concepts which bear on particular psychological phenomena (cf. Gauvain, 1998; Ratner 1991, pp. 47-57 for research on artifacts affecting psychology).

Within the integrated configuration of cultural phenomena, cultural activities are the most influential. The reason is that activities are the means by which people survive and develop themselves. Without production of goods (e.g., food), systems of making and adjudicating rules, systems of raising and educating children, people would not exist as cultural beings – namely as humans. Consequently, cultural concepts, artifacts, psychology, and agency are oriented around activities and reflect the organization of activities. This standpoint leads researchers to pay particular attention to the congruence between psychological functioning and the social organization of activities.

4) Culture and biology interact in human psychology in a principled, coherent way. A coherent integration, proposed by Vygotsky and supported by a good deal of evidence, postulates that in the case of most psychological phenomena, biology acts as a general substratum that potentiates a wide range of psychological phenomena but does not determine their specific character. The particular character that these phenomena take on is primarily determined by cultural processes – participation in activities such as work, family, education, religion, as well as utilizing particular artifacts and adopting particular concepts. Thus, biological and cultural factors play different roles in psychology.

There are some exceptions to this formulation. Non-cultural, biological mechanisms contribute specific content to a few psychological phenomena. Perception of physical stimuli is certainly affected by sense receptors in addition to cultural factors. However, in the vast majority of phenomena, such as language, cognition, emotions, biological factors play a general enabling role and leave the determination of specific content to cultural processes.


I know that these points are controversial and require extended theoretical justification as well as empirical testing (elaboration can be found in Ratner, 1991; 1993a; 1993 b; 1997 chap. 3; 1998; 1999; 2000; forthcoming). My formulation of activity theory has the virtue of articulating what culture is, what the main cultural phenomena are, how they interrelate, how they organize the specific character of human psychology, and how they relate to biology. My formulation highlights certain factors which other approaches overlook – e.g., the importance of social activities for psychology. It also avoids the one-sidedness of materialistic, symbolic, individualistic, and biological approaches by integrating their strengths and rejecting their weaknesses. I avoid reification by emphasizing agency within cultural life. I recognize that psychological phenomena are important, distinctive, and irreducible to biological and other cultural factors. At the same time, psychology is inextricably related to other cultural and biological factors – although in different ways.

By explaining psychology in terms of cultural activities and concepts, activity theory drives cross-cultural psychology to become an explanatory science rather than a descriptive discipline.

Another advantage to my approach is that it would integrate cross-cultural psychological research within a common rubric. Researchers would investigate topics which have a common essence. The research on each topic would enrich understanding of the others because each would be studied as interdependent and interpenetrating with other cultural phenomena.

Activity theory additionally advances the scientific character of cross-cultural psychology by integrating its research within a common rubric. Researchers would investigate topics which have a common essence. The research on each topic would enrich understanding of the others because each would be studied as interdependent and interpenetrating with other cultural phenomena. Developing an integrated body of research that is guided and explained by coherent theoretical principles is necessary for cross-cultural psychology to become a true science.





Berry, J., et al. (1992). Cross-cultural psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gauvain, M. (1998). Historical footprints of psychological activity. Cross-cultural Psychology Bulletin, 32, 3, 10-15.

Koshima, Y. (1998). Culture, time, and social psychology of cultural dynamics. Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin, 32, 2, 8-15

Miller, J. (1999). Cultural psychology: Implications for basic psychological theory. Psychological Science, 10, 85-91.

Ratner, C. (1991). Vygotsky's sociohistorical psychology and its contemporary applications. N.Y.: Plenum.

Ratner, C. (1993a). Review of D'Andrade and Strauss, Human motives and cultural models. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 14, 89-94.

Ratner (1993b). Contributions of sociohistorical psychology and phenomenology to research methodology. In H. Stam, L. Moss, W. Thorngate, and B. Kaplan (Eds.), Recent trends in theoretical psychology (Volume 3, pp. 503-510). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Ratner, C. (1997). Cultural psychology and qualitative methodology: Theoretical and empirical considerations. N.Y.: Plenum.

Ratner, C. (1998). The historical and contemporary significance of Vygotsky's sociohistorical psychology. In R. Rieber & K. Salzinger (Eds.), Psychology: Theoretical-historical perspectives (455-474). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Ratner, C. (1999). Three approaches to cultural psychology: A critique. Cultural Dynamics, 11, 7-31.

Ratner, C. (2000). A cultural-psychological analysis of emotions. Culture and Psychology, 6,

Ratner, C. (forthcoming). Cultural psychology: Theory and Method. N.Y.: Plenum.

Rohner, R. (1984). Toward a conception of culture for cross-cultural psychology. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 15, 111-138.

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