aqa  Cultural bias, including ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. Universality and bias.



Ethnocentrism is a bias, and is the tendency to focus on one’s own culture. Ethnocentrism is the idea that we view our world through our own frames of reference and schemas so we cannot see from another person’s viewpoint (schemata refers to Bartlett (1932) who looked at reconstructive memory and suggested culture-based schemata, ideas from cultures which were individual interpretations of aspects of life). A culture or society has a strong frame of reference involving norms, rules, customs, habits and preferences. We see other cultures through our own eyes, and think that our view is right. This is thinking we are ‘right’ about ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism introduces bias in the findings of psychological studies. It is useful to know about ethnocentrism so that we can try to understand the views of other cultures, in order to try and eliminate that bias. Bias may be in that:

  • Biased in terms of diagnosis, for example when diagnosing schizophrenia, we need to use cultural relativism, making the diagnoses more relevant to the culture
  • Biased in terms of client-centred therapies, such as cognitive-behavioural therapies or psychodynamic therapies, which rely on having non-judgemental relationships with your client – you have to accept their view of the world Researchers tend to focus on investigation phenomena related to their own ethnic group, which leads to two problems:
  • A lack of balance in research, as much is based on westernised ideas
  • A lack of generalisability in the findings, such as with the DSM, ideas based on research may be inappropriately applied

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Cross-cultural research

Research across different cultures can be useful in showing whether a characteristic is universal or unique to a particular culture. This makes cross-cultural studies useful for contributing towards another of the debates, the nature-nurture debate. This is because the characteristics which are found to be universal (i.e. the same across all cultures) are more likely to be down to human nature, and those which are found to be different or unique to a culture are more likely to be down to nurture and the environmental influences surrounding that culture. Cross-cultural research takes a hypothesis and methodology and tests them in different cultures. Ainsworth and Bell (1969) used the strange situation to look at attachment types and found similarities between the Ugandan and USA studies. Researchers took the procedure and replicated it in other cultures, finding similar results in some, and very dissimilar results in others. Having similar findings in very different cultures gives them generalisability as a universal characteristic has been found. Viewing secure attachments (type B) as the ‘best’ and ‘right’ attachments is a very ethnocentric view, just because the UK and USA have the majority of children and mothers with these attachments. It can be said by analysing research into attachment types that the process of forming attachments is down to human nature, as all mothers and their children form attachments of some sorts across all cultures. However, attachment types must be influenced heavily by environment and are down to nurture, because results of studies using the strange situation procedure differed from culture to culture. Taking the example of attachment types, we can explain the cultural differences by looking at the views of different cultures. For example, in Germany, Grossman and Grossman (1975) found that there were very few securely-attached children, and mainly anxious-avoidant (type A). It was not suggested that German mothers were insensitive to their babies’ needs, but just that they encouraged independence.

Etic and emic approaches

There are a number of different ways of conducting cross-cultural research. An etic approach can be used whereby similarities are looked for between cultures, by studying each culture as an ‘outsider’. This would involve the outsider researcher using tools and techniques which have been developed in their own culture, using westernised ideas, and these may not be equally valid in other cultures. An example would be replicating The Strange Situation in non-westernised cultures.

Wmalinowski_triobriand_isles_1918Malinowski (1918) who used ethnography to study the people of Papua New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands.

An etic approach introduces much bias to a piece of research. Alternatively, an emic approach might be used, whereby the focus is on an individual culture from the perspective of an ‘insider’. An example might be Malinowski (1918) who used ethnography (immersing himself into another culture to try and gain a complete understanding of it and to avoid ethnocentrism), to study the people of Papua New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands. This researcher was a pioneer into ethnographic research, but ethnography has certain problems. It is all very well and good a researcher trying to immerse themselves into aculture to view things from an insider’s perspective, but we have to consider how well anyone is really ever going to become an insider. Firstly, they are never going to be treated like an insider by people who already belong to that culture. Also, you cannot completely understand a culture without really being a part of it, which makes it seemingly impossible to truly understand another culture. However, it is still seen as stronger than an etic approach.
Etic-300x217 Emic

Social constructionism

The concept of social constructionism illustrates a weakness of cross-cultural research:

  • If something is scientifically proven, it should be true of all people in all cultures and is likely to come from nature
  • Social constructionism suggests though that many features, concepts and ideas in human societies different between cultures, and therefore social constructs (such as gender appropriate behaviour and laws within the culture) are likely to affect cross-cultural research, and therefore although the same concepts might be being studied across cultures, they may not always have the same meaning and significance associated with them
  • Furthermore, the appropriateness of the methodology used, such as the strange situation, affects the validity of the findings
Evaluation of cross-cultural research

The main strengths and weaknesses for cross-cultural research are:

  • Cross-cultural research is the only way to identify differences and similarities between differing cultures, so that universal behaviours and characteristics can be discovered: this contributes towards the nature-nurture debate
  • It can also identify different approaches to issues in differing cultures, so allowing the transfer of techniques between different cultures, although this can be difficult (for example with diagnosis using the DSM)
  • Although the same methodologies may be used to test the same concept across different cultures, they may be more appropriate in some cultures than in others, such as with the strange situation task
  • There may be ethnocentric bias from the researcher or analyst reading the research or analysing the results of a piece of cross-cultural research, as they use subjective thoughts from their own culture’s concepts and schemata, for example with the strange situation, which infers that secure attachments are the best type, German children were found most often to be insecurely attached, but this is just because their children were encouraged to be independent, not because they have ‘worse’ ways of forming attachments with their children.



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