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A Macro Cultural-Psychological Theory of Emotions

Carl Ratner


Educators typically emphasize conveying information and facts; rarely have they articulated or modeled the full learning process replete with emotions of confusion, fear, sorrow, apathy, anger, jealousy, pride, and enthusiasm. Because emotions are integral to educational practices such as learning, persuasion, concentrating, and cooperating on projects, it is vital to understand and address them. Understanding emotions requires comprehending both their specific, distinctive qualities (e.g., palpable visceral qualities), and their general psychological features that they share with other psychological phenomena. We may imagine a model that looks like a funnel. At the top are general aspects of psychological phenomena that they have in common. As the funnel narrows, we find "emotions" which are specific psychological phenomena. At the bottom of the funnel stand specific emotions in specific situations (e.g., classrooms). Each lower level of the funnel incorporates upper levels. Consequently, comprehending and addressing specific emotions (in education) requires understanding emotions in general, and psychological phenomena in general.

This chapter shall elucidate an explanation of emotions as psychological phenomena that has relevance to the cultural practice of education. This theory is called "macro cultural psychology." It explains how emotions, and all psychological phenomena, are rooted in macro cultural factors such as social institutions, artifacts, and cultural concepts. Emotions have cultural origins, characteristics, and functions. Macro cultural psychology has the potential, which others can develop, to illuminate the cultural features of emotions that are not only cultivated by the cultural institution of the school (system), but are also cultivated by other macro cultural factors (such as consumerism, entertainment and news programs, social class, neighborhood infrastructure, and cultural concepts/ideology about the origins of intelligence in ethnic groups and individuals) and brought into academic activities inside and outside the school (such as homework).


Macro Cultural Factors Are The Basis Of General Features Of Psychological Phenomena


Macro cultural psychological theory was pioneered by Vygotsky and his colleagues under the name of cultural historical psychology (cf. Ratner, 2006a for historical and contemporary developments). The theory strives to explain the cultural basis, character, and function of emotions, and psychological phenomena in general as grounded in macro cultural factors. We can deduce this explanation from Darwinian theory:

1)    Culture is a unique adaptive mechanism that humans use to enhance their survival and fulfillment. Culture is the greatest adaptive mechanism because it coordinates and objectifies the strengths of many individuals to enhance the capability of each. A collective is more powerful, supportive, knowledgeable, stimulating, and enriching than separate individuals who may physically co-exist together.

2)    Cultural behavior is a distinctive kind of behavior that requires and selects for special behavioral (and biological) mechanisms to direct it. (Behavioral mechanisms, such as instincts, that guide non-cultural behavior will be de-selected by culture.)

3)    Human psychological phenomena are the mechanisms that enable cultural behavior. Psychological phenomena must have special attributes (and biological underpinning) that are capable of creating, maintaining, and reforming culturally distinctive behavior on which our survival and fulfillment depend.

4)    Human culture fundamentally consists of macro factors such as social institutions (government, corporations, educational and health care systems, family structure, religious organizations), artifacts (technology, art, buildings, clothing), and cultural concepts (about time, sex, children, privacy, private property, a fetus).

5)    Therefore, psychological phenomena must have features that are capable of generating and sustaining macro cultural factors.

The general and specific features of psychological phenomena are based on, geared toward, and congruent with the general and specific features of macro cultural factors. [1] Consequently, understanding the nature of macro factors provides indispensable insight into the nature of psychology.

Macro cultural factors are social (institutional), material (artifacts), and conceptual (Geist) formations. They are vast, complex, planned, coordinated, administered, objectified, and enduring. They are humanly constructed through struggles among competing groups. They are political in the sense that they are contested and are controlled by vested interests. And they are modifiable through conscious, collective action at the macro level. Macro cultural factors are the environment that exercised selective pressure for the formation of psychological phenomena that have features capable of sustaining macro cultural factors. Macro cultural factors selected for psychology in several ways.

On a basic level, cultural construction fosters psychological phenomena by restraining behavior. In order to coordinate behavior, everyone has to restrain their action and consult with others before acting. Social coordination requires separating action from impulses. We do not directly act to obtain food when we feel hunger. Instead, we coordinate a social effort for collectively obtaining food. This separation of behavior from impulse enables the organism to form a symbolic image, or idea, of the object before acting (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 26, 35, 40, 49-51; Greenspan & Shanker, 2004, pp. 36-37; Ratner, 1991, chap. 1). This is the origin of consciousness, the mind, and psychology. They occupy a "space" that is created between impulse and action by social restraint. The impulse looses its power to determine action that it has in the case of non-cultural organisms such as animals and infants. This power is acceded to consciousness, the mind, and psychological phenomena.

Cultural coordination is the impetus for communicating information across individuals so that each individual is expanded/extended to include the information/knowledge of many. As Vygotsky said: "Social interaction based on rational understanding, on the intentional transmission of experience and thought, requires some system of means. Human speech, a system that emerged with the need to interact socially in the labor process, has always been and will always be the prototype of this kind of means" (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 48).

Social communication, in turn, is the impetus for symbolic representation and the entire domain of the mental, the mind, the psychological. Social communication requires that each individual encode and store his or her particular experience in symbolic forms inside his or her head, and then recall and communicate these symbols to others at another time and place. All the others must develop the capacity to decode the symbols to comprehend what they refer to.

The vastness of macro cultural factors was/is also a main impetus for abstract concepts. Macro cultural factors cannot be known or managed by sensory impressions because they are too vast. One cannot see or hear a government, a war, a university, a transportation system, democracy, or the French language en toto. The entirety of vast macro cultural factors can only be known conceptually. I propose that people develop abstract concepts in order to manage vast, complex macro cultural factors. The more complex the objects one deals with, the more abstract the concepts one needs to develop.

Macro cultural factors operate according to abstract rules that require (select for) abstract concepts. "Hand in homework on time," "You go to the third tree on the left and I will go to the second big rock on the right in order to trap the animal that was here last night," "If the forward is double-teamed, pass the basketball to the point guard," "Stay three car lengths behind the truck in front of you," "Don't think women are stupid," are examples of abstract cultural rules that require abstract cognitive competencies. Vygotsky explained the relation of communication and abstract concepts as follows: "To communicate an experience or some other content of consciousness to another person, it must be related to a class or group of phenomena. This requires generalization. Social interaction presupposes generalization and the development of verbal meaning; generalization becomes possible only with the development of social interaction" (ibid., p. 48).[2]

Macro cultural factors additionally select for the capacity to learn and remember cultural norms (van Schalk, 2004), and to merge self /behavior/consciousness with those of others in group action, joint intentionality, collective agency, and collective rationality (Pettit & Schweikard, 2006). In addition, the ability to understand others' intentions (theory of mind, social referencing, social learning, identification) is important for coordinating and predicting behavior, as well as learning and teaching information.

Importantly, the more coherent, stable, and extended over time and space that macro cultural factors are, the more advanced psychological functions must be to enable them. Transient, informal, small cultural factors necessitate simpler psychological functions.

Advanced psychological phenomena require a corresponding anatomy. They require a neocortex. In addition, cultural learning requires that infants are born immature and acquire skills through extended parental nurturing rather than being equipped with them at birth. The neocortex and neotony are thus ultimately selected for by macro cultural factors. In addition, they depend upon macro factors to provide the resources for nurturing them. The nutrition and time necessary to "feed" the neocortex and neotony are only supplied by collective labor that raises output beyond what individuals can produce on their own.

This macro model of psychological phenomena applies to emotions. Emotions have all the foregoing properties of psychological phenomena that have been selected for by macro cultural factors, and are functional for them:

a) Emotions animate and sustain cultural behavior. Their passion animates and sustains long-range, persistent behavior that is necessary for forming and sustaining complex macro cultural factors that extend over time and space and encompass millions of individuals -- e.g., a nation's government. Emotions are shaped by, and socially learned and nuanced from, experience with macro factors. Socially organized and shared emotions are cultural factors in their own right (Harre, 1986; Hochschild, 1978). Saturated with the cultural content of macro cultural factors, emotions can direct and respond to macro cultural factors (cf., Ratner, 1991, pp. 156-157, 214-217; Ratner, 1997, pp. 104-105; Ratner, 2000, pp. 22-24).

b) Human emotions include consciousness of macro cultural factors. Emotions include love for one's country, anger at injustice, love of art, national shame, dejection about political trends, resentment of a rival country's technical superiority, and admiration for a form of government. Such emotions would not be impossible unless they were informed by consciousness of abstract phenomena. Culturally conscious emotions enable people to develop and respond to social institutions, artifacts, and cultural concepts.

For instance, when students are afraid to hand in homework late. The students' fear is based upon an understanding of the system's (abstract) rule that requires timely homework and punishes tardiness. The fear may motivate action that conforms to and sustains this rule. Students' emotions must be based on a conscious understanding of abstract rules if the rules are to be maintained. If emotions were only sensitive to physical colors and odors, they would not relate to complex macro cultural factors such as school rules, and they would not contribute to constructing and maintaining them. The macro cultural factors that enhance our survival and fulfillment would then be rendered impossible.

c)  Conscious emotions are consciously known to the individual. We not only become angry, we know that we are angry. Human emotions are conceptualized, or intellectualized, emotions, as Vygotsky said (cf. Ratner, 2004a). Reflecting on our emotions enables us to analyze them, evaluate them, and alter them. This is vital for delaying individual behavior so that stronger, supportive, richer collective cultural behavior can be coordinated. It is also vital to animating new macro cultural factors that can improve on problematical ones.

Construing emotions as subjective processes that form and maintain macro cultural factors eliminates the aura of mystery and irrationality that surrounds them. Emotions are not irrational, uncontrollable, unfathomable, animalistic, unpredictable phenomena that have a life of their own, localized in a special, separate, primitive, non-conscious part of the brain, and overwhelm cognition, behavior, and social life (Ratner, 1989, 2000, 2006 pp. 256-259). On the contrary, emotions facilitate social life, thinking, and deliberate behavior (as Aristotle and Vygotsky observed), and are adapted to macro cultural factors. We love culturally valued things (country, democracy, consumer goods, body types) and our love may motivate us to preserve them; our jealousy maintains a cultural value of competing against others in school, work, and consumption; fear of punishment/failure motivates socially acceptable behavior such as studying for tests; excitement motives us to finish reading the book and solving math problems; hatred of injustice motivates us to work for democracy.

Because emotions are distinctive aspects of culture and psychology, they can serve as an entrée to culture and psychology. Emotions can be cultivated and aroused to stimulate social behavior. Teachers frighten students to encourage them to study; football coaches stimulate feelings of loyalty in fans in order to encourage them to support the team.

Emotions arose phylogenetically as adults struggled to construct social institutions, artifacts, and cultural concepts. Rudimentary emotions and rudimentary cultural behavior reciprocally drove each other forward to more sophisticated forms. Emotions did not evolve as means of individual expression, or from infants' "natural tendency" to express themselves and communicate with caretakers, or from interpersonal interactions about personal matters.[3]

The conceptual nature of emotions originated in the need to engage with vast, complex, macro cultural factors such as government, educational institutions, air pollution, corporate ownership of the media, war, economic inflation, racism, or democracy. We could not emotionally respond to them on the basis of simple sensory properties such as a noise or color because they are far vaster than these attributes. This conceptual character of emotions was then extended to all stimuli. For example, we become afraid of an animal in the woods because we  recognize it to be a bear that we believe to be dangerous. We do not simply become afraid because of its size or gestures. If we didn't believe it to be dangerous, or if we had a gun with which we could kill it if necessary, we would not fear the bear. Our emotion depends on abstract, conceptual cultural knowledge about things ("bears are dangerous," "this gun will kill the bear"), which is required by cultural life.

The emotions we employ in face-to-face interactions similarly originate at the macro level (Hochschild, 1978). Anger and guilt are based upon ethical and legal values. If a student injures someone in her physical proximity and she caused the injury, she feels guilty. If she did not cause the injury she may feel sad and compassionate for the victim, however, she will not feel guilty. The reason is that guilt is instigated by personal responsibility for a misdeed. If we are not responsible for the misdeed, we do not feel guilty over it. We must (implicitly) know the cultural concept of personal responsibility in order to feel guilt. Personal responsibility is also the conceptual basis of anger. If Jill injures John by mistake, John has "no right to get angry" (as his teacher will say) because it was a mistake. But if Jill deliberately injures him, he legitimately becomes incensed. The reason is that anger is triggered by the ethical and legal principle that deliberate, willful injury is wrong. Western legal principle distinguishes between willful and accidental injury, and dispenses very different punishments for them. This legal distinction is the basis of anger. People must know this cultural concept in order to become angry.[4]

Personal expression and communication are derivative functions of macro cultural emotions. The latter are capable of explaining the former because broader, more complex phenomena can explain smaller, simpler ones. The converse is not possible. Personal emotions that convey information about individuals in face-to-face interactions do not have the scope to generate emotions that are necessary to initiate and sustain and reform broad macro cultural factors.


Macro cultural factors are the basis of emotions' specific content


Just as the general properties of macro cultural factors are the basis of general features of psychological phenomena and emotions, so the culturally specific form and content of macro cultural factors structure the specific form and content of psychological phenomena. Emotions' content, form of expression, intensity, interrelation (or organization), and socialization must be congruent with, and vary with, particular social institutions, cultural concepts, and artifacts (cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 76-83; 2000; 2006, pp. 105-108). Romantic love, maternal love, and children's emotions illustrate this point.

Romantic love

Romantic love in Western countries, and increasingly the world, has a historically unique quality. It is a delirious, impulsive, sensuous, fun-loving, emotion that is elicited by idiosyncratic personality traits in one's partner. Romantic love is divorced from real-life concerns. It is a magical, irrational feeling that overpowers analytical thinking. Modern romantic love is qualitatively different from Puritanical love during the colonial period in America which was a restrained, spiritual, rational affection based upon a partner's moral qualities (cf. Stearns & Knapp, 1993).

The two forms of love embody different institutions, artifacts, and cultural concepts. Puritan love embodied the frugal, hard-working, serious, patriarchal, communitarian features of the petty bourgeois family economy, and Christianity. The family was the economic unit, so familial relations and personal feelings were part of work activity. This is why personal attraction was based upon socioeconomic norms of work: dutiful responsibility, thoughtfulness, self-control, and realism.

Modern romantic love (as opposed to aristocratic, medieval love) was developed during the 18th and 19th centuries in Western Europe and the United States by a different class -- the bourgeoisie -- as part of living in different macro cultural factors. The macro cultural factors that the bourgeoisie developed, to which romantic love was adapted, included the exclusion of personal relations from commoditized work relations, and their confinement in a private domain. With love situated in a realm of personal relations segregated from serious, calculating, disciplined, impersonal, routine public concerns, it took on the opposite qualities of escapism, irrationality, playfulness, and personalism.

Romantic love is additionally made giddy and delirious by the fact that it is desperately sought and extremely hard to find. When it is encountered it is cause for exhilaration. Modern capitalist society makes it difficult to establish an intimate relationship with another person. The breakdown of community and the depersonalization of public life are contributing factors. The individualistic ideology of capitalism is another. It makes people attracted to idiosyncratic qualities of individuals, not to their common, social attributes. Encountering idiosyncratic traits in someone that happen to match those of oneself is improbable. When it does happen and romantic love is kindled, a feeling of exhilaration and giddiness ensues. 

The sensuousness of romantic love is generated by the sensationalism, hedonism, and materialism that pervade middle class personal life in the form of consumerism. With personal life so occupied by these issues, romantic love is infected by the heavy emphasis on sensual gratification.

The irrational, hedonistic anti-social qualities of romantic love are cultural phenomena that are shaped by macro cultural factors. These qualities are not due to a natural autonomy, animalism, and irrationality of emotions. They did not characterize Puritan love. In addition, the irrational, delirious quality of romantic love is based on cultural interpretive schemas; it is not devoid of cognition. People look for "the right, unique person" because that is the normative ideal; they reject the ordinary person; they know intimacy is rare and special; they hope for it; they think about how exhilarating it will be; they are primed to experience delirious love. It is not a natural experience.

Romantic love (implicitly) embodied, elements of cultural concepts, social institutions, and artifacts of a particular class of people (cf. Ratner, 2000, pp. 12-16; 2006, pp. 105-106). Romantic love also reciprocally animated the bourgeois family structure and personal relations. It promoted a middle class family structure based upon personal choice, individualism, and separation from the public domain. Romantic love motivated people to regard themselves and others as unique individuals and to become attracted to each other based on idiosyncratic personality attributes. Romantic love also reinforced the distinction between personal life and social life that capitalist work relations initiated. The irrational, magical, impulsive, playful quality of romantic love could only occur outside serious social concerns and public activities. Work, education, health care, and government could never incorporate personal concerns and love because the latter were inimical to serious, public activity. The escapist quality of love thus legitimated the depersonalization of public life. A different cultural form of love that was elicited by humane public treatment of people, and by one's social beliefs and contributions, would motivate people to humanize public activities in order to find love in that domain instead of in private relations exclusively.

Romantic love demonstrates that the form and content of emotions is culturally organized. Whether emotions are controlled or impulsively expressed, whether they are strong or weak, serious or playful, rational or irrational is a function of macro cultural factors.

Maternal love

Certain emotions are constructed by social leaders to advance their own control of, and profit from, macro cultural factors. Military leaders stir feelings of patriotism, and hatred for the enemy to recruit soldiers for war. Religious authorities cultivate feelings of blind devotion to the faith in order to recruit religious disciples.

Sociologist Daniel Cook (2004) explains how new emotions in parents and children were cultivated in the 1920s and 30s by clothing manufacturers and marketers in order to induce them to consume quantities of expensive clothing. This strategy was spelled out in the trade journal Infants' Department, in its inaugural issue in 1927: "If mothers bought for their babies only what was absolutely required, a few yards of diaper cloth, a knitted undergarment or two, and a few dresses would be the limit of their purchases. But the maternal instinct that desires everything that will contribute to the comfort and welfare of the baby is enlisted on the side of the merchant who knows how to create desire and inspire confidence" (Cook, 2004, p. 58).

Clothing merchants cultivated a distinctive new form of mother love that was manifested in continuously seeking out every imagined desire the child had, and indulging them through consumer products. Merchants wrote massive quantities of articles and advertisements in trade journals and popular magazines expressing the following psychological themes that inculcated this maternal love (and children's emotions to be discussed momentarily):


·      Children want to grow up quickly.

·      Mothers are insecure about rapidly changing social norms and how to best bring up their children.


Each one of these emotions/needs had a commercial function involving the consumption of clothes and other commodities.

Mothers' love was not only to be satisfied in new ways through clothing and consumer products. The very quality of emotions, needs, and self-concept was transformed. Mothers' love was intensified and extended. It was now to be manifested continuously and effusively so that children would be constantly aware of it and never in doubt about it. Additionally, mothers' love took the form of anxiously seeking out and indulging every desire the child might have.

Children's emotions

The foregoing list of emotional themes cultivated a new emotionality in children as well as mothers. In contrast to the restrained, rational, diffident emotionality of Puritan children, bourgeois children's emotions were cultivated to be intense, impulsive, insistent, irresistible, egocentric, unquestioned, overtly expressed, hedonistic, and immediately gratified through consumer products. Marketers thus cultivated the generation gap. They unleashed children's desires from parental control so that children could demand more products. Children's independence and individuality had a commercial motive. "Markets and market mechanisms are inseparable from the historical process of elevating the child to more inclusive levels of personhood" (ibid., p. 68). As the advertising director of Child Life magazine said in 1938, "An important factor in the growth and development of the juvenile market is the trend toward stimulating greater self-expression in children" (ibid., p. 77).

Clothing merchants cultivated an additional psychological phenomenon to instigate consumption of children's clothing. They promoted the idea that bio-psychological development occurs in distinctive, sequential stages of short duration, which children want to traverse rapidly. Delayed development in one stage was claimed to be emotionally frustrating and psychologically damaging. Stage psychology had the economic purpose of enabling merchants to market distinctive clothing (toys, games, and other products) to each stage (just as creating distinctive psychological disorders creates a market for new medications). Each psychological stage was converted into a market for new products. Children were said to need distinctive clothes that were appropriate to their momentary psychological stage. Outmoded clothing would retard psychological development to the next stage because peers and teachers -- and the child herself -- would treat the child according to the younger styles that she wore. The more stages, and the more rapidly that children traversed them, the more new, distinctive clothes (and products) could be sold.

While clothing merchants said they were simply designing clothes to meet the natural developmental stages and needs of the child, they actually cultivated the child's stages and needs to meet the economic demand for profit.

For example, clothing designed for toddlers was the mechanism for instantiating the notion of toddler as a psychosocial stage of life: "In 1936 the `toddler' as a commercial persona or construct began to take shape." "The term `toddler' began to be used with great frequency as a size range and as a merchandising category, and soon after, as an age-stage designation" (ibid., p. 86, emphasis added). "Commercial interests and concerns coalesce and interact to essentially institutionalize a new category of person and new phase of the life course" (ibid., p. 85). Department stores also segregated age-graded products into separate departments (ibid., pp. 115-116), thereby physically objectifying and promoting the notion of distinct developmental stages.

The ontogenetic category, toddler, that parents (and psychologists) regard as natural, originated as a commercial category invented by businessmen who objectified and promulgated it through clothing products (ibid., pp. 18, 19).[5] Psychology became a commodity that served money; things and money did not serve to express psychology. Capital harnessed psychology to generate more capital (Money - Psychology - Money). Psychology did not utilize monetary things to express and develop itself (Psychology - Money - Psychology). Clothing did not simply express psychological stages, clothing defined the stages; psychological stages conformed to the distinctions that were displayed in clothing styles (Cook, p. 97).

This case study exemplifies an important way that psychology is formed at the macro level.


Practical applications of the macro cultural theory of emotions to education


Macro cultural psychology emphasizes that the cultural character of emotions must be considered and altered to resolve interpersonal and social problems. The commercial qualities of emotions (and needs, motives, attention, concentration, memory, and reasoning) that we have just discussed (cf. Dawson, 2003) impede serious learning. Under the pressure of consumerism and its domination of entertainment, news, sports, products, and advertisements, many students have become habituated to attend to appearances; seek continuous sensual pleasure and material satisfaction; seek novel and more intense forms of sensory stimulation; have an attention span that is limited to transitory sensational images; engage in uncritical reasoning that accepts superficial, preposterous images and associations; are titillated by trivia and have low motivation for intellectual activity; and desire success for minimal effort.[6]

Teachers must pointedly address students' cultural psychology and transform it to one that is conducive to serious study. Teachers must point out to students how their psychology has been adversely affected by consumerism and other cultural influences. They should systematically remediate each psychological function (attention, emotions, reasoning, memory, sensationalism) to make it conducive to serious learning. This requires helping students alter their activities outside school -- to choose different forms of entertainment, interests, and peer groups -- as books such as Beyond the Classroom urge. It involves working with parents to support these changes. Teachers will fail to educate students if they treat them as having neutral needs and emotions that can be readily oriented toward serious learning by simple encouragement to "pay attention," "study hard," and "notice how interesting the material is." Such an approach fails to consider the cultural basis, character, and function of psychological phenomena that are involved in academic work.

Macro cultural psychology is applicable to resolving psychological problems on the group and individual levels.

 In dealing  with a classroom, or school we deal with the largest common denominator of cultural psychology that encompasses the most individuals. If research, or logic, indicates that consumerism has a pervasive influence on academic habits, then if we address and counter this influence in a class or school, we are likely to help a large number of individuals, even though some individuals have a different cultural psychology because they were exposed to contradictory cultural factors such as art.[7] Dealing with the largest common denominator is like immunizing a risky population against a common disease even though not every individual is likely to contract the disease.

A macro cultural approach to psychological problems on the individual level involves tracing an individual's problem to his or her particular cultural experiences. Poor academic habits, or debilitating emotional reactions are not only due to consumerism. They may spring from any number of cultural influences to which one is exposed.[8]  In addition, psychological problems are engendered by cultural models that one employs as coping mechanisms to handle cultural conditions and treatments. Individuals draw on cultural models such as body image, sexual behavior, violent behavior, self blame, masculine and feminine stereotypes, spiritual notions of body and soul, and guns, as ways of coping with cultural experiences (Ratner, 2006, pp. 170-174). Debilitating cultural coping mechanisms that an individual employs can be identified and remediated by informed macro cultural psychologists.

A cultural psychological perspective on emotional problems not only emphasizes their cultural content, but their conscious psychological character as well. Recall that cultural psychological phenomena are conscious because that is essential for their ability to react to and animate vast, complex macro cultural factors.

Beck (1988) has demonstrated the cognitive underpinnings of emotions through analyses of individual cases. Extreme anger or depression is generated by interpretations and assumptions about another's behavior. A student becomes enraged with a classmate because he interprets her action as insulting. The "emotional problem" is not a problem with emotions, per se; it is not due to defects in endemic mechanisms such as faulty neurotransmitters and neural connections in certain areas of the brain that distort emotions. The term "emotional problem" is thus a misnomer. It creates the impression that there is something internal to the operation of emotions themselves that generates a localized deficit within emotions. However, a problem that has emotional manifestations, such as angry outbursts, is the expression of a more general psychological problem that involves attention, perception, memory, self-concept, and a vast cultural setting that includes social treatment, physical infrastructure, incidence of crime, job opportunities, and cultural values.




Macro cultural psychology is a Copernican shift in our understanding of emotions, and psychology in general. Whereas mainstream psychology explains culture in terms of the individual, adults in terms of childhood experiences, the human in terms of animal processes, the large in terms of the small, the complex in terms of the simple, and the extrinsic (culture) in terms of the internal (mind, biology), macro cultural psychology explains the small, the simple the individual, the child, and the internal in terms of stimulation and organization by the large, the complex, the adult, and the extrinsic (culture).[9] Of course individuals, psyches, and biologies are the active agents that form macro cultural factors. However a) they do so collectively, not as separate individuals, and b) the macro cultural factors they form, then outrun or transcend individuals and actually constrain their behavior. For instance, individuals form a school, however the rules, budgets, and physical infrastructure they create then become structures that require that individuals maintain them. Individuals adjust their behavior to maintain the structure. Social structures are not reified, however they do structure behavior.

Macro cultural psychology takes facts that are traditionally overlooked or regarded as marginal -- e.g., cultural variations in emotions, and culturally-oriented emotions, such as love for one's country and delight over viewing Michelangelo's sculpture David -- and construes them as prototypes of human emotionality. Rather than being extensions of simpler, natural, universal "basic emotions" such as fear and love, these cultural emotions are the basic form of human emotions. Emotions that are invoked on the interpersonal level are extensions of macro features of emotions, not vice versa. Consequently, micro level emotions should be identified with cultural terms. We should speak of bourgeois romantic love, or Puritanical love, or capitalist maternal love rather than love, in general. We should speak of Buddhist sadness and Western sadness, rather than sadness in general. Speaking of emotions in general, abstract terms creates the impression that emotions are universal and natural and should be studied from the perspective of natural science. This is a false impression that is contradicted by the cultural basis, character, and function of emotions and all psychological phenomena.




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[1] Culture, and psychology develop together phylogenetically and ontogenetically. Conversely, biological programs for behavior, a lack of culture, and a lack of psychology are equally inseparable. In both sets, any one element depends on the others in its set. It cannot co-exist with elements from the other set.

Animals that do not have developed emotions cannot construct and maintain large-scale, coordinated, planned, reformable macro cultural factors; conversely, animals that lack culture cannot develop emotions (Ratner, 1989, 1991, chap 1). Instinctual behavior precludes both culture and emotions (and all psychological phenomena). Instinctual behavior is an automatic, involuntary, unconscious, stereotypical, fixed, invariant (throughout the species), immediate response to a stimulus. There is no mental space, mind, consciousness or psychology to mediate action. Furthermore, instinctual behavior is essentially individual behavior, not cultural. Each organism is internally (genetically) programmed to act in response to a stimulus. Any apparent coordination of behavior is actually the result of different individual programs. Thus a queen bee is biologically determined to act in one way while worker bees are programmed to act in another way. This integrated division of labor is the product of each individual acting out its own program. It is not the result of individuals collectively coordinating their behaviors. Animal "society" is based upon individual action that is not enhanced by others; nor can it be improved by its members.


[2] Vygotsky also emphasized the reciprocal importance of psychology for culture: "social interaction mediated by anything than speech or another sign system is extremely primitive and limited. Indeed, strictly speaking, social interaction through the kinds of expressive movements utilized by non-human animals should not be called social interaction. It would be more accurate to refer to it as contamination. The frightened goose, sighting danger and rousing the flock with its cry, does not so much communicate to the flock what it has seen as contaminate the flock with its fear" (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 48).

[3]  Nor did emotions (and all psychological phenomena) evolve via genetic mutation of individual organisms. They were socially constructed by groups of people in their struggle to form macro cultural factors as adaptive mechanisms. The individualistic model of individual genetic mutation, that evolutionary psychologists (and Darwin) espouse, does not apply to changes in human behavioral competencies (Ratner, 2006, pp. 201-209).


[4] The conceptual character of emotions that originate in macro cultural factors is qualitatively different from animal emotions which have no such origin. Love for one's country, informed by a social consciousness, is incomparable to the attachment a cat feels for her master. Even the human appreciation of a delicious meal is incomparable to an animal's contentment after eating. The human satisfaction is permeated with thoughts, memories, social feelings toward one's companions, and those that are not present. Culinary satisfaction is also permeated by a conscious reflection on the palatability of the food and the quality of the taste. Animals are simply satiated by the full stomach.

Infants' emotional outbursts are also qualitatively different from adult emotions. In Vygotsky's terms, the former is a natural, spontaneous, unconscious, non-social, biologically programmed reaction. Adult emotions are informed by consciousness and culture as we have explained above.

The fact that animals and infants cannot respond emotionally to abstract things, such as Michelangelo's David or democracy, testifies to the fundamental difference between animal and human emotionality.


[5] Clothing merchants did not create age distinctions on their own, although they articulated these ideas in ways that specifically induced consumerism.. Other macro cultural contributed as well. Schools had already divided students into age-graded classes (Cook, 2004, p. 98). In addition, some of the psychological ideas of the merchants had been articulated by child psychologists such as Hall and Freud -- who had articulated the notion of developmental stages and the notion that child psychology was different from adult psychology and could not be understand by ordinary parents.


[6] The pedagogy of American schools recapitulates these anti-academic psychological tendencies. Stigler & Perry (1988) found that American classrooms are more fragmented and incoherent than Japanese classes (p. 46). American teachers shift among topics far more rapidly than Japanese teachers. 75% of all five-minute instructional segments [of a math lesson in fifth grade] in Japan focused on only one problem, compared to only 17% of the segments in Chicago" (p. 47). Japanese teachers frequently devote an entire 40-minute math lesson to one or two problems. This never happened in American classes. Additionally, American teachers rarely explain relationships among different math topics and problems. They concentrate on individual problems discretely. "More time is spent making sure students have a blue crayon than to conveying the purpose of the three segments on measurement" (p. 50). Similarly, "In American first grade classrooms, a total of 21% of all segments contain transitions or irrelevant interruptions [such as handing out materials, checking on crayons, chatting] compared to 7% in Japan" (p. 46). Additionally, teachers lead student academic activities far less in the U.S. than in Asia: "No one was leading the students' [mathematical] activity 9% of the time in Taiwan, 26% of the time in Japan, and 51% of the time in the U.S." (p. 37).


[7] A society does not necessarily require every individual to adopt a given behavior, such as consumerism, as long as the majority of people adopt it, and as long as the non-normative behavior does not directly threaten the norm.


[8] Individual problems may also have idiosyncratic sources in unique family interactions (Laing, 1964). However, these are not the province of cultural psychology (cf. Ratner, 2002, p. 93 for discussion of idiosyncratic and cultural factors in individual psychology).


[9] A formulation of this is the extended mind hypothesis in cognitive psychology. It emphasizes that cognitive processes depend upon artifacts, and are extended in artifacts (exograms), beyond the individual mind and body. (cf. Sutton, 2005; Clark, 2006; Clark & Chalmers,1998; Carruthers, 1996).


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