Social Psychology and Multicultural Psychology

Introduction: The Multicultural Person

Both the nature of what we take to be a self and its expression are inherently cultural (Bhatia & Stam, 2005, p. 419).

Each individual’s many aspects are not fragmented and distanced from one another or hierarchically ordered on behalf of a ruling center but remain in full interconnectedness and communication (Sampson, 1985, p. 1209).

There are a great variety of categories to which we simultaneously belong … Belonging to each one of the membership groups can be quite important, depending on the particular context … the importance of one identity need not obliterate the importance of others (Sen, 2006, p. 19).

Each of us is a multicultural human being. This simple and basic proposition, most descriptive of those of us who live in contemporary heterogeneous societies, constitutes the basic (though complex) theme of this book. Within its pages the reader will find attempts to explain, illustrate and argue for the value of this assertion. A major stimulus for pursuit of this is the belief that the study and understanding of behavior, when guided by the premise of individual multiculturalism, will increase the authenticity of our knowledge and the reliability of our predictions. This, in turn, should enhance the relevance and efficacy of the applications of our work to significant life situations – in the interest of advancing human welfare.

Multicultural Psychology and Cross-Cultural Psychology

This book needs to be distinguished from those that are in the tradition of cross-cultural psychology or mainstream multicultural psychology. The latter, as defined by Mio, Barker-Hackett, and Tumambing (2006, p. 32) “is the systematic study of all aspects of human behavior as it occurs in settings where people of different backgrounds encounter one another.” Multicultural psychologists prefer a salad bowl rather than a melting pot as metaphorical image, viewing the United States, for example, as a society in which groups maintain their distinctiveness (Moodley & Curling, 2006). They stress and argue for the necessary development of multicultural competence by psychologists and others. Such competence includes understanding of your own culture, respect for other cultures, and acquiring appropriate culturally sensitive interpersonal skills. To this end, professional guidelines have been proposed (and adopted) for education, training, and practice. Such guidelines are approved by the American Psychological Association (APA) for practice with persons of color (APA, 2003), practice with sexual minorities (APA, 2000), and practice with girls and women (APA, 2007).

The emphases in cross-cultural psychology are two-fold: first, to understand and appreciate the relationships among cultural factors and human functioning (Wallace, 2006); and second, to compare world cultures as well as subcultures within a single society. Cultures are compared on values, world-views, dominant practices, beliefs, and structures in order to recognize and acknowledge significant differences and similarities. The acknowledged ultimate aim is to uncover (or propose) “truly universal models of psychological processes and human behavior that can be applied to all people of all cultural backgrounds” (Matsumoto, 2001, p. 5). The focus is on cultural variability on such polarized dimensions as individualistic or collectivist perspectives, field dependence or independence, and on value orientations, ways of communicating, and so on, but the clearly articulated objective is to discover general laws of human behavior, or a truly universal psychology (Pedersen, 1999; Wallace, 2006). To accomplish this requires, as Matsumoto proposes, research with persons from a wide range of backgrounds, in appropriate settings, and the use of multiple methods of inquiry and analysis.

Both multicultural psychology and cross-cultural psychology have been of tremendous value in sensitizing us to the importance of culture in understanding human behavior and in promoting the necessity of cultural knowledge. The present thesis, elaborated in this book, is indebted to this work and to cultural anthropology but takes a different position and moves forward. As noted by Hong, Morris, Chiu and Benet-Martinez (2000, p. 709), “the methods and assumptions of cross-cultural psychology have not fostered the analysis of how individuals incorporate more than one culture.”

Interpretive Lenses

I interpret issues of multiculturalism and diversity, as I do all other issues in psychology, through the lens of a learning theory oriented social psychology (Lott & Lott, 1985; Lott, 1994). Such a perspective emphasizes what people do in particular situations and assumes that all human behavior (beyond molecular physiological responses and innate reflex mechanisms) is learned. Behavior is broadly interpreted to include what persons do and what they say about their goals, feelings, perceptions, and memories; and explanation involves relating social behavior to its antecedents and consequences. Explanations must take into account the setting in which the behavior occurs. People and environments are viewed as mutually dependent and interactive, with situations serving to maximize certain possible outcomes while minimizing others (Reid, 2008). And, it is assumed that persons never stop learning the behaviors most relevant to their cultural memberships, and that these remain with differential strength in one’s behavioral repertoire. The approach to the particular questions to be dealt with in this work is further situated within the general framework of “critical theory.” Such a framework can be described as a critical approach to the study of culture and personal identity that is informed by historical and social factors and an appreciation of their interaction (Boyarin & Boyarin, 1997). Fundamental to critical theory analyses are inquiries about the role of social structures and processes in maintaining inequities, as well as a commitment to studying strategies for change (McDowell & Fang, 2007). The related perspective of “critical psychology” (Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997; Prilleltensky & Fox, 1997) focuses specifically on issues of social justice, human welfare, context, and diversity. Such a focus demands that our research and inquiries cross disciplines, as will be the case in the material presented in this volume.

The intent of critical psychology is to challenge accepted propositions and interpretations of behavioral phenomena, and to examine the political and social implications of psychological research, theories, and practice. Critical psychology examines psychological phenomena and behavior in contexts that include references to power and societal inequalities, with the understanding that “power and interests affect our human experience” (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2002, p. 5). This is a departure from much that is found in mainstream psychology where individuals tend to be examined as separate from their socio-political contexts (Bhatia & Stam, 2005), or as “cut off from the concrete materiality of everyday life” (Hook & Howarth, 2005, p. 509). In contrast, critical psychology accepts as a fundamental premise the intertwined relationship between persons and society (Nightingale & Neilands, 1997).

Within critical psychology there are some who perceive traditional empirical methods to be in opposition to its objectives (just as some in mainstream psychology see critical psychology as outside the bounds of good science). I agree with Jost and Jost (2007) that this approach is neither necessary nor helpful. They argue that “the goal to which contemporary critical psychologists should aspire … [is to work] towards an accurate, empirically grounded scientific understanding” of the human situation (p. 299). In fact, it can be argued further that the best means of achieving a just society and social change is through the investigation and communication of empirically sound and verifiable relationships. There is no necessary incompatibility in social science between values and empiricism. All that is required of scientific objectivity is verifiability – that methods, data, and conclusions be repeatable and open to further investigation.

Persons and Communities

A major objective of this book is to examine the dimensions and politics of culture and how these shape individual lives. My arguments will be seen to have a special kinship with the position of Sampson (1989) who posited that the identity of individuals comes from the communities of which they are a part. Others, too, have appreciated the significance of these communities for understanding persons and their interactions with one another in multilayered social contexts (e.g., Shweder, 1990; Schachter, 2005; Vaughan, 2002). My approach to the communities of which persons are a part is to identify them as cultures, and my definition of culture, to which the next chapter is devoted, will be seen to be inclusive and to pertain to many human groups, large and small.

Such a position of broad inclusiveness has been judged by some to render the term multicultural “almost meaningless” (Lee & Richardson, 1991, p. 6), diluted and useless (Sue, Carter, Casaa, Fouad, Ivey, Jensen, et al. 1998). However, others (e.g., Pedersen, 1999), like myself, maintain that such an approach provides a more authentic understanding of how significant group memberships affect individual self-definition, experience, behavior, and social interaction. There are indications that the concept of multicultural is being redefined and widened in an effort to reduce “confusion and conflict within the multicultural movement” (Moodley & Curling, p. 324). Thus, for example, S. Sue (1994, p. 4) suggests that “Our notions of diversity should be broadened beyond ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class…Cultural diversity is part of the nature of human beings.” Sue and Sue (2003) express support for an inclusive definition of multiculturalism and for the need to think in terms of diversity across multiple categories. Wide definitions of culture are being supported. Markus (2008, p. 653), for example, agrees that culture “refers to patterns of ideas and practices associated with any significant grouping, including gender, religion, social class, nation of origin, region of birth, birth cohort, or occupation.”

Despite the perception of some (e.g., Flowers & Davidow, 2006) that multiculturalism has been a strong influence on contemporary psychology, there is still less than full agreement on its meaning. It was first launched as a theoretical, political, and educational perspective by the civil rights movement (Biale, Galchinsky, & Heschel, 1988). When introduced into psychology, it was clearly focused on cultures of race or ethnicity and emphasis was placed on the significance of this one aspect of human diversity. Part of the problem in dealing with the meaning of multicultural is a failure to clearly explicate what is understood by culture, a concept that has often been ignored or avoided within our discipline (Lonner, 1994; Reid, 1994). Another part of the problem is a reluctance to ascribe culture to a wide spectrum of groups, and a reluctance to equate multiculturalism with diversity.

My thesis, that each of us is a multicultural human being, includes recognition at the outset of the vital fact that not all groups or communities that constitute one’s unique multicultural self are equal in their position in a given society. They may differ dramatically in power (i.e., access to resources), in their size and history, and in the magnitude of their contribution to a person’s experiences. It is essential, as well, to recognize that in the U.S. there is an overriding national context in which Euro-Whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and middle-class status are presumed normative and culturally imperative. That there is a serious disconnect between such presumptions and the reality of life in the U.S. is illustrated by census data. With respect to ethnicity, for example, non-Whites now constitute a majority in almost one-third of the largest counties in the country (cf. Roberts, 2007), are 33 percent of the total U.S. population, and 43 percent of those under 20 (cf. Roberts, 2008b). But the presumption of Whiteness remains dominant, in support of status-quo power relationships.

This presumption is found across all geographic areas and all major institutions in U.S. society. It is reflected in university curricula in all fields including psychology (Flowers & Richardson, 1996). Gillborn (2006) asserts that unless a student is specifically enrolled in a course in ethnic or gender studies, higher education is still primarily directed by White people for the benefit of White people. Rewards are most likely to go to those who accept this state of affairs. Asante (1996, p. 22) cites historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as maintaining that “anyone wanting to be an American must willingly conform.” Asante likens this to being “clarencised (a word now used by some African American college students to refer to the process by which Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is said to have abandoned his own history)” (p. 22). Others have written about the construction of normativity in which maleness and heterosexuality are taken for granted as points of departure for assessing “difference” (Hegarty & Pratto, 2004). This context of pressured conformity to the perceived norms for “American” provides the powerful “background” for recognition of the (multicultural) person as “figure.”

Against this background, each of us is situated in a multicultural fabric that is unique. The groups or communities of which we are part and with which we identify, that contribute to our cultural selves, are not equal in power. Nor are they equal in terms of their salience and importance to individuals, or to the same individual over time or across situations. Acknowledging such complexity provides “multiple angles of vision” (Weber, 1998, p. 16). Such multiple angles/perspectives should encourage us, as individuals and as behavior scientists, to make more visible the experiences that pertain to our multiple group locations and their consequences.

This book is focused on contemporary life in the United States. It is likely that the multicultural nature of persons has been steadily increasing as a function of increases in the heterogeneous nature of our society, its institutions, roles, options, power inequities, inter-group contacts, and so on. Greater diversity in personal identity has also been attributed to the growth in globalization (e.g., Arnett, 2002), a phenomenon with widespread significance and consequences not just for national economies. Regardless of the nature of the precipitating historical and sociological changes and the number and variety of cultures that influence us, behavior is best understood as a complex product of the cultures of which we are a part. Our experiences and actions are thoroughly imbedded in a multicultural context.

A Proposed Social Psychological Perspective

That cultures differ is well recognized. What must also be acknowledged is that individuals in the same complex society, such as the one in the United States, are embodiments of such differences by virtue of their own unique multicultural selves. There are many intersecting cultures that define each of us as individual persons. Some are large – such as cultures of ethnicity, gender, social class, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, and geographical location. Some are smaller – occupation, political affiliation, special talent, educational institution, unions, or clubs. Cultures differ in size and also in how they are related to (or constructed from) hierarchies of power, domination, and access to resources. Cultures differ significantly in their degree of salience and in the intensity of their influence, depending upon personal histories. And for the same person, salience and intensity of a given cultural identity will vary with the situation, the time and the place, the historical moment, social demands, anticipated consequences, personal needs, and unknown other variables. We will turn our attention to these issues in the chapters that follow.

As portions of this text were being written, presidential primary elections were being held across the United States. Writ large and possibly larger than ever before in the public arena was the multicultural personas of the two final Democratic hopefuls for the presidency. Senator Hillary Clinton is a White woman, with a politically powerful background and sets of experiences, who has always been economically privileged, and whose early years were spent growing up in a very White Chicago suburb. Senator Barack Obama is the son of a largely absent African father and a White mother from Kansas. He did not grow up in a middle-class household although he is now an affluent professional. He spent his teenage years in Hawaii. Both are heterosexual and Christian, both share the general values and aspirations of the same political party, both graduated from ivy-league law schools, but they have had different personal and career paths and different spheres of interaction. The diverse aspects of their multicultural selves will have different meaning and importance for them and also for those who heard and saw them and considered their merits for the job to which they were aspiring. It should not be surprising that there were White women who publicly supported the candidacy of Senator Obama (e.g., Maria Shriver, Caroline Kennedy), nor that some Black men initially supported Senator Clinton (e.g., Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia, and Mayor Dellums of Oakland, CA). Gender and ethnicity define powerful cultural influences but to neglect the importance of other cultural ties leads us to not understand (and be unable to predict) significant social behavior in multiple arenas.

Situating each individual in a unique and complex multicultural framework has significant positive consequences. As Pedersen (1997) noted, it helps us appreciate and emphasize that “all behavior is learned and displayed in a cultural context” and to be aware “of the thousands of ‘culture teachers’ accumulated in each of our lifetimes” (p. 221). In the next chapter, the concept of culture will be carefully examined. As noted by Matsumoto (2001, p. 3) “No topic is more compelling in contemporary psychology today than culture, and no other topic has the potential to revise in fundamental and profound ways almost everything we think we know about people.” But we need to go beyond simply recognizing the contribution of culture to human behavior. We need to highlight and appreciate our individual multicultural nature. Doing so may help us to move beyond current tensions that pit “diversity” and “multiculturalism” against one another.

New perspectives more and more frequently include recognition of the significance of multiple individual identities (e.g., McDowell & Fang, 2007), the interdependence between individuals and their cultural contexts (e.g., Markus, 2008; Schachter, 2005), and the variations in cultural group salience across persons and situations (e.g, Sue & Sue, 2003). As noted by Pedersen (1999, p. xxi) “Each of us belongs to many different cultures at different times, in different environments, and in different roles.” What I propose, however, is that we take this recognition several steps further. We need to fully appreciate the reality that each of us belongs to many different cultures at the same time – and recognize the consequences of this phenomenon for individual behavior and social life.