Escaping Orientalism in cultural psychology

eastwest1In a recent article in American Psychologist, Adam Cohen (2009) suggests that a number of fields in psychology have taken up the study of culture, but the results, although interesting, have been limited by what sorts of ‘culture’ have been investigated. As Cohen (2009:194) writes:

A person reading these literatures could be excused for concluding that there is a very small number of cultural identities (North American vs. East or Southeast Asian), that vary principally on the dimensions of individualism–collectivism or independent–interdependent self-construal—whether people are seen as inherently independent from others or whether social roles are most important in defining the self.

In this post, I want to provide a bit of a bibliography of some of the literature fast emerging on cultural difference in psychology, neuroimaging, and related fields, but also focus a bit on the consequences of this limited imagination in considering cultural difference, the almost exclusive focus on East-West contrasts. Just because I love a bit of controversy with my breakfast, I’ll suggest it’s a form of what Edward Said has called ‘Orientalism.’

Although Cohen brings up the issue and offers a few suggestions for how the problem might be addressed, I think his prescriptions would herald more of the same sickness, although perhaps spreading the infection to more hosts. That is, Cohen puts his finger on a serious problem in the psychological study of culture, but the prognosis won’t improve much unless we actually understand the root of the problem: it’s not studying Europeans (and European-Americans) and Asians (and Asian-Americans) that’s causing the whole problem. Part of it is misunderstanding what is being studied in the first place when cultural difference is under the lens.

This post is based on part of a talk I gave on Tuesday to the Centre for Cognitive Science (MACCS) here at Macquarie. When I got into the subject, I realized it was far more than I could possibly share in a 50-minute presentation, so I thought I’d post it here.

The cognitive consequences of cultural difference

A number of prominent neuroscientists have called for greater attention to the neural substrates of cultural variation in human cognition (e.g., Kitayama & Cohen 2007). A while back, in August 2008, Daniel wrote an extremely thorough review of a discussion of the issue by Shihui Han and Georg Northoff (2008): Cultural Neuroscience original Han and Northoff available as pdf here). As Daniel wrote back then, Han and Northoff’s pointed to a growth, not merely Cross-cultural psychology, which ‘has largely examined differences in human cognition through behavior experiments,’ but also in ‘cultural neuroscience,’ an attempt to establish the ‘neural correlates of interpersonal and social behaviours,” especially as they differ across cultures.

Although cultural neuroimaging is relatively young, cultural psychology more broadly has highlighted significant differences between groups in basic cognitive function. One of the landmark articles, a review of a series of experiments by Nisbett and Masuda (2003), discusses variation across a range of activities: causal inference, logic, categorization, attention (focal v. field), perception, change blindness, and esthetics.

What I find especially interesting is that some of this work suggests that there are cultural variations to even some of the most ‘innate’ cognitive functions. For example, researchers have found significant differences in:
face recognition (Chua et al. 2005)
facial expression of emotion (Marsh et al. 2003)
amygdala responses to fearful faces (Chiao et al. 2008)
object processing (Gutchess, et al. 2006)
self consciousness (Chiao et al. in press)
sound perception (Kuhl et al. 1992)
taste perception (McClure et al. 2004)
theory of mind (Kobayashi et al. 2007)

Before I get accused of over emphasizing ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’ (neither terms that I will use in this discussion), all I’m saying here is cultural variation in functioning; that is, environmental influences can inflect or alter basic functions, not that the basic functions necessarily arise whole cloth from environmental influences alone.

The variation is interesting, not because it shows us that genes have no influence or inheritance is nothing, or something overly wrought like this, but because they sketch out some of the possible variation to the ways these systems will emerge. Noticing the variation not only helps us to see the malleability, but it also helps us to understand how these capacities emerge even when they follow an entirely predictable pattern and result in cognitive abilities that perfectly match our expectations.

So who has a culture?

So given that a wide range of cognitive abilities demonstrate some cultural malleability and systematic variation, this would seem to be a really ripe area for research. The only problem is finding interesting research questions to ask. As my colleague, philosopher John Sutton, said in conversation the other day, it seems that these days the challenge is greater in the area of finding the questions to ask and doing the research design to find answers, rather than just in the brute technology of getting brain images or significant data.

Overwhelmingly, the research on cultural differences in cognition have focused on contrasting Western (European or white American) with Asian (Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, typically) populations. Even a partial list of research that uses this population contrast is impressive. I started to work on one, trying to focus on only a single article by any lead author, and quickly got an unmanageable list:

Blais, Caroline, Rachael E. Jack, Christoph Scheepers, Daniel Fiset, and Roberto Caldara. 2008. Culture Shapes How We Look at Faces. PLoS ONE 3(8): e3022. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003022.

Boduroglu, Aysecan, Priti Shah, and Richard E. Nisbett. 2009. Cultural Differences in Allocation of Attention in Visual Information Processing. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 40(3): 349-360.

Chiao, Joan Y., Tetsuya Iidaka, Heather L. Gordon, Junpei Nogawa, Moshe Bar, Elissa Aminoff Norihiro Sadato, and Nalini Ambady. 2008. Cultural Specificity in Amygdala Response to Fear Faces. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20(12): 2167–2174.

Chiao, Joan Y., Zhang Li, and Tokiko Harada. in press. Cultural neuroscience of consciousness: From Visual Perception to Self-Awareness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 15(10-11):?.

Chua, Hannah Faye, Julie E. Boland, and Richard E. Nisbett. 2005. Cultural variation in eye movements during scene perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 102 (35): 12629-12633. (abstract)

Doherty, Martin, Hiromi Tsuji, and William A. Phillips. 2008. The context sensitivity of visual size perception varies across cultures. Perception 37: 1426-1433.

Gutchess, Angela H., Robert C. Welsh, Aysecan Boduroglu, and Denise C. Park. 2006. Cultural differences in neural function associated with object processing Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience 6(2): 102-109.

Lewis, Richard S., Sharon G. Goto, and Lauren L. Kong. 2008. Culture and Context: East Asian American and European American Differences in P3 Event-Related Potentials and Self-Construal. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34(5):623-634.

Masuda, Takahiko, Richard Gonzalez, Letty Kwan and Richard E. Nisbett. 2008. Culture and Aesthetic Preference: Comparing the Attention to Context of East Asians and Americans. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34(9): 1260-1275.

Moriguchi, Yoshiya, Takashi Ohnishi, Takashi Kawachi, Takeyuki Mori, Makiko Hirakata, Minoru Yamada, Hiroshi Matsuda, and Gen Komaki. 2005. Specific brain activation in Japanese and Caucasian people to fearful faces. NeuroReport 16(2): 133-136.

Nisbett, Richard E., and Yuri Miyamoto. 2005. The influence of culture: Holistic versus analytic perception. Trends in Cognitive Science 9(10): 467-473.

Park, Denise C., and Angela H. Gutchess. 2002. Aging, cognition, and culture: A neuroscientific perspective. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 26: 859-867.

Tang, Yiyuan, Wutian Zhang, Kewei Chen, Shigang Feng, Ye Ji, Junxian Shen, Eric M. Reiman, and Yijun Liu. 2006. Arithmetic processing in the brain shaped by cultures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 103(28):10775-10780. (abstract)

Zhu, Ying, and Shihui Han. 2008. Cultural Differences in the Self: From Philosophy to Psychology and Neuroscience. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2(5):1799-1811.

All of these articles focus on contrasting ‘Asians’ and ‘Westerners.’ Like Cohen (2009:194), I think it would be helpful to explore ‘more kinds of variation among more kinds of cultures.’ There are some extremely interesting exceptions, such as Bang and Medin’s research with Native American Menominee (e.g., Bang, Medin, and Atran 2007) and some of the work that Nisbett later did with Uskul and Kitayama (Uskul, Kitayama and Nisbett 2008) on foragers, pastoralists and agriculturalists. (And I’m not going to try to list all the interesting cognitive anthropology work out there by people like Scott Atran because that’s not the topic of this post…)

Neural Orientalism (apologies to Said…)

The dangers of the East v. West research design are many. First, this kind of comparative work often assumes homogeneity within each population, both in how it defines people (Chinese subjects = ‘Asians’; Nebraska college students = ‘Euro-Americans’) and in how it handles the data, such as common amalgamation and data cleaning practices. In addition, the group chosen to represent the whole Culture (Asians, Westerners) may have its own idiosyncrtic traits relative to other members of the same group. As Daniel wrote in Cultural Neuroscience: ‘Despite assertions that “of course there is no such thing as a homogeneous ‘Western’ or ‘East Asian’ culture” the convenience of this sort of dichotomous sampling still creates a homogenizing effect.’

In addition, the experimental design, analysis and interpretation tends to assume that the groups are ‘opposed’ on some key trait, selecting which experimental procedures to run and which questions to ask. A whole field of messy, non-opposed traits, tendencies or characteristics are ignored that would not show the pattern of East v. West, adding to the appearance that there are ‘Two Cultures’ and they are opposite to each other.

This assumption of opposition and the imposition of homogeneity contribute to what I’m suggesting is a kind of neural Orientalism, to borrow from Edward Said (1978). Without getting into Said’s work, or the controversy around it too much, this understanding of cultural difference tends to exacerbate the gap between groups while simultaneously obscuring variation within them.

The search for a global explanation and a cultural entity

But even if we get over these issues, as Cohen advocates, and start exploring other sorts of cultural opposition, I don’t believe we’re going to make too much headway as long as we continue to employ several unexamined assumptions about culture that Cohen still makes: the assumption that culture is overarching, ideational structure and that it can be treated as an entity.

The problem with assuming that culture is an over-arching, ideational structure is that it tends to look for simplistic explanations for a complex multitude of data; for example, we find all kinds of differences between ‘Asians’ and ‘Westerners’ because ‘Asians’ are one thing and ‘Westerners’ are another, not because they have a myriad different customs, divergent historical experiences, different economic contexts, etc. etc.

In the early stages of ‘cultural psychology,’ the East-West gap was chalked up to ‘collectivist’ and ‘individualist’ character types or societies, as Hui and Yee (1994) pointed out. No matter what the experimental result, there had to be some way to stretch the explanation back to this foundational cultural difference, even though as Oyserman and colleagues (2002) demonstrated, the contrast between the two groups was not so great on collectivist and individualist attitudes.

In more recent work, there’s been a shift away from ‘individualist-collectivist’ explanations, toward a contrast between ‘analytical’ and ‘holistic’ thought or perception, but the tendency to dichotomize coupled with the search for an over-arching global explanation for observed differences seems likely to continually produce inadequate explanations that do as much to obscure similarity between cultural groups (as well as variation within them).

The other problem with the overarching global explanation for observed differences is that it tends to severely curtail the domains of experience and activity that get explored, especially concentrating on those sorts of thought or perception that can be readily linked up to one of these explanatory rubrics (to generate testable hypotheses). For example, my favourite area of difference, motor learning, never enters the discussion of culture, even though there’s tons of circumstantial evidence for its importance from studies of everything from juggling and child development, to visual expertise, music, sports, and driving a car.

Kitayama (2002) has produced one of the most effective critiques of this way of thinking that I have come across outside anthropology, arguing that the focus on ‘attitudinal’ interviews is problematic in cultural research and arguing that the confusion generated by thinking of culture as an ‘entity’ is a large part of the problem. I couldn’t agree more.

Treating culture as an entity (Greek culture, Twa culture, Australian culture, Kayapo culture) generates research design that focuses on dubious sampling strategies (get a bunch of Chinese people and test ‘em, and the difference between their average and our baseline white people is The Culture). Anthropologists have spilled barrels of ink writing intellectual demolitions of the culture as entity idea for a whole host of reasons too numerous (and likely boring) to really get into, but they tend to come back to some of the same issues with false homogenizing and selective opposition.

Okay, so does that mean we can ignore culture?

NO! That’s not what I’m trying to say, although the reader might feel like that’s the best strategy (back away from the neuroanthropologist slowly – he seems really upset and we might be able to get away before he notices…).

Part of my conclusion is to echo Daniel’s earlier reflection on the work of Han and Northoff:

But the anthropologist often goes from critique to critique, and freezes when asked, Well, if you don’t agree, how would you test culture using neuroimaging? To answer that question, I would start by paying attention to the work and ideas of people like Shihui Han and George Northoff. They are actually doing the work, learning from their exciting results and from the mistakes made along the way.

That is, the results being generated are exciting, and I do not want to deny or diminish them in any way, although I think we need a better way to understand what the experiments and imaging techniques are actually capturing.

In particular, I think we need a more developmental, dynamic approach to enculturation rather than focusing on ‘culture’ as an entity (see Hong & Mallorie 2004). That is, if we think that we are observing ‘culture’ in these experiments, we are likely to fall into the sorts of logical fallacies and essentialisms that tend to make this work objectionable to a lot of anthropologists as well as to people who fear it sneaks racism or ethnic prejudice back into the research.

Focusing instead on enculturation, on the varying degrees to which specific skills, habits, practices, or qualities of different developmental environments affect cognition, better explains cultural differences, but it also helps us to understand why groups are not homogeneous. We all know that not everyone of us has equal facility or passion for every activity within our own culture; it shouldn’t surprise us that there’s variation within a group and that there might even be similarities between members of diverse groups, given a focus on developmental dynamics.

The irony for me is that, even within my list of articles that concentrate on Asian v. Western cultures, I find numerous examples of more dynamic explanations for the results, explanations that don’t just make reference to cultural ideologies ‘collectivism’ or ‘individualism,’ and that don’t assume every child in a culture has identical experience. For example, the following articles, to varying degrees, offer subtle, developmental and skill- or practice-based discussions of neural difference:

Cantlon & Brannon (2006) discuss the role of using an abacus on mental calculation, the training of visualization as a form of calculation, how the length of number words affects working memory and how different calculation strategies might explain observable imaging differences among subjects doing mental mathematics.

Gutchess et al. (2006) describe the potential ecological role of visual affordances in urban environments and their affect on the ways that people take in visual scenes.

Kanzandjian & Chokron (2008) argue that reading direction itself and culturally patterned action affect which parts of the brain are most active in reading comprehension; that is, which part of your visual field you use to read affects which part of the brain gets trained to interpret written language.

Kobayashi et al. (2008) examined the effects of language and biculturalism on theory of mind in bilingual subjects, highlighting the role of language itself on shaping the way we perceive others’ subjectivity.

Finally, one of the articles that I criticized early in this post, Nisbett & Masuda (2003), also offer a much more detailed discussion of the emergence of different cognitive styles in various historical contexts, especially under the influence of family structure, social mores, and primary economic modes. In other words, the take-away from Nisbett and Masuda may be ‘Asians are holistic thinkers and Westerners analytic,’ but the explanation itself is much more detailed and attentive to how these differences emerged.

Stumble It!

Bang, Megan, Douglas L. Medin, and Scott Atran. 2007. Cultural mosaics and mental models of nature. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 104(35): 13868–13874. (abstract)

Cantlon, Jessica F., and Elizabeth M. Brannon. 2006. Adding up the effects of cultural experience on the brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11(1): 1-4.

Cohen, Adam B. 2009. Many Forms of Culture. American Psychologist 64(3): 194–204.

Fiske, A. P. 2002. Using individualism and collectivism to compare cultures—A critique of the validity and measurement of the constructs: Comment on Oyserman et al. (2002). Psychological Bulletin 128: 78–88.

Gutchess, A. H., R. C. Welsh, A. Boduroglu, and D. C. Park. 2006. Cultural differences in neural function associated with object processing. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neurosciences 6: 102–109.

Han, Shihui, and Georg Northoff. 2008. Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: A transcultural neuroimaging approach. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9: 646-654. (download pdf)

Hong, Ying-yi, and LeeAnn M. Mallorie. 2004. A dynamic constructivist approach to culture: Lessons learned from personality psychology. Journal of Research in Personality 38: 59-67.

Hui, C. H., and C. Yee. 1994. The shortened Individualism-Collectivism Scale: Its relationship to demographic and work-related variables. Journal of Research in Personality 28: 409-424.

Kazandjian, Seta and Sylvie Chokron. 2008. Paying attention to reading direction. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9(12):965.

Kitayama, Shinobu. 2002. Culture and Basic Psychological Processes—Toward a System View of Culture: Comment on Oyserman et al. (2002). Psychological Bulletin 128, No. 1, 89–96.

Kitayama, S. and D. Cohen. 2007. Handbook of Cultural Psychology. New York: Guilford Press.

Kobayashi, C., G. H. Glover, and E. Temple. E. 2007. Children’s and adults’ neural bases of verbal and nonverbal “theory of mind.” Neuropsychologia 45(7): 1522–1532.

_____. 2008. Switching language switches mind: linguistic effects on developmental neural bases of ’Theory of Mind.’ Social, Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience 3:62-70.

Kuhl, P. K., K. A. Williams, F. Lacerda, K. N. Stevens, and B. Lindblom. 1992. Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by 6 months. Science 255: 606–608.

Marsh, A. A., H. A. Elfenbein and N. Ambady. 2003. Nonverbal ‘‘accents’’: Cultural differences in facial expressions of emotion. Psychological Science 14: 373–376.

McClure, S., J. Li, D. Tomlin, J. S. Cypert, L. M. Montague, and P. R. Montague. 2004. Neural correlates of behavioral preference for culturally familiar drinks. Neuron 44: 379–87.

Nisbett, Richard E., and Takahiko Masuda. 2003. Culture and point of view. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 100: 11163–11170. (abstract)

Oyserman, D., H. M. Coon, and M. Kemmelmeier. 2002. Rethinking individualism and collectivism: Evaluation of theoretical assumptions and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 128: 3-72.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Tang, et al. 2006. Arithmetic processing in the brain shaped by cultures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 103: 10775–10780. (abstract)

Uskul, Ayse K., Shinobu Kitayama, and Richard E. Nisbett. 2008. Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 105(25): 8552-8556. (abstract)

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

9 thoughts on “Escaping Orientalism in cultural psychology

  1. Thanks very much for this helpful review. I’m an anthropologist who gave up on cross-cultural psychology years ago for the reasons you outline, but it looks like there may be reason to look again.

  2. thank you for this very interesting paper and for discussing our work on the interaction between biological and cultural factors in cognition. Do you have any papers written on this topic?

  3. I really enjoyed this post, and your critique of the WEIRD argument. It’s highly relevant to my current research and you articulate ideas that I’ve been struggling with myself. For instance, perhaps it’s a WEIRD trait to have to categorise everything and everybody into dichotomies and scales!? I particularly like your definition of enculturation in this post, “varying degrees to which specific skills, habits, practices, or qualities of different developmental environments affect cognition”, and I would like to use it in a talk I’m giving, I wanted to know if I should attribute my source as Greg Downey? Cheers, Kesson

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