Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Culture and Psychology.

While perusing the internet, I found this interesting article about a controversial psychologist, Richard A. Shweder, whose work focuses on cultural psychology.

Scenario one: A man is in a serious car accident is transported to a hospital where he is refused treatment because he cannot afford to pay.

Scenario two: The day after a man dies his first born son gets a haircut and eats chicken.

Which do you think is a more serious moral transgression?

Gut reaction tells many of us that No. 1 is the obvious choice.

But on Thursday, Shweder will likely take people to the small town of Bhubaneswar in Orissa, India, where he has worked from time-to-time since 1968. It was there that Shweder learned that the first born’s actions in the situation above would be tantamount to throwing his father’s body in the garbage, thus putting the father’s soul in jeopardy.

“I’m going to try and take people into different worlds…worlds where they think that shame is a virtue, worlds in which they are more concerned about pollution and sanctity than about free choice,” Shweder said.

Shweder is a professor of human development and one of the founding fathers of cultural psychology.

“Cultural psychology is the study of the way cultural traditions and social practices regulate, express and transform the human psyche," writes Shweder in his book Thinking Through Cultures.

Through cultural psychology, Shweder challenges the one-size-fits-all path of general psychology. He also said cultural psychology runs counter to a “the West is best” assumption grown out of the Enlightenment.

He said the field has been staging a comeback since the 1980s as globalization has grown and cultures have begun to collide with regularity.

“It’s one thing to simply study differences, but once we come to moral values…the assumption is that you know what’s good for everyone else and he’s questioning this,” Katia Mitova said of Shweder. Mitova is coordinating the cultural center lecture series for The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Yet recently Shweder has run head-first into criticism for his views on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also called female circumcision. In the West, the surgical procedure is often viewed as a human rights violation with serious health risks.

Shweder said he believes the U.S. media have told only one side of the FGM story—an ethnocentric side that demonizes cultures, such as some African cultures, which practice the circumcision as an initiation rite.

“He does not shy away from controversy,” said Bettina Shell-Duncan, a professor of anthropology and global health at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Much of this debate is playing out in TierneyLab, The New York Times science blog by John Tierney, where Shweder has been contributing to a recent online dialogue about FGM. Reader comments are spilling in—at last count there were more than 450 of them— many with the kind of quick-fire repulsion that Shweder warns against. (Go to http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com .)

“We all have very socialized or culturally-informed judgments that we make," said Shweder. "They happen rapidly…they often can be guiding us poorly.” At the heart of cultural psychology, he said, is an attempt to show how morally descent and rational people can make judgments with which you would disagree or even find morally repulsive.

For some in the West, the issue of female circumcision is simple: human rights trump cultural practices.

Shell-Duncan, who said she does not always agree with Shweder, said she believes the debate over female circumcision has been unbalanced in the U.S. “What Rick has done in these blogs is to open up a more nuanced debate,” she said.
The lecture referenced has already passed, but I'm still intrigued to learn more about how we as a society view certain acts.

George Bush Sr. once declared, "There is no compromise for the American way of life", and it is this way of thinking that has permeated our entire culture. We think our way is the best, and because of this mindset we don't even stop to think about how a different culture would view a certain action. However, this framework of thinking proposed by Shweder really helps put things into perspective. While clearly there is still plenty of reason to debate issues such as female circumcision, it is still worthwhile to approach the topic from every angle in order to best know and understand it.