Two Views of Culture

An etic perspective refers to a psychological construct or process that is universal, or true across all cultures. An etic perspective is closely associated with cross-cultural psychology. Remember our earlier example of child development and Piaget, an etic perspective seeks to compare development stages across cultures for similarities.

On the left is a map with a pin identifying a specific location. Next to the map is a globe of the earth.
There are two main perspectives about culture; global or universal (etic) or seen as culturally specific (etic). [Image]

Cultural universals are psychological processes that exist in every human culture  and includes attributes such as values and modes of behavior. These are often the areas of focus and study in psychology. Some examples of cultural universals in psychology are:

  • Language and cognition
  • Group membership
  • Ritual
  • Emotions

The idea that specific aspects of culture are common to all human cultures is contrary to the emic perspective which focuses on cultural differences and culturally specific processes that shape thinking and behavior. Research using an emic perspective is often considered to be an ‘insider’s’ perspective but can be biased if the participant or researcher is a member of the culture they are studying.  A participant-researcher may fail to consider how the culture and cultural practices might be perceived by others and valuable information might be left out.

Products of Culture

In cultural psychology, material culture refers to the objects or belongings of a group including food, fashion, architecture or physical structures. These objects reflect the historical, geographic, and social conditions of the culture. For instance, the clothes that you are wearing right now might tell researchers of the future about the fashions of today.

Replications of Nubian pyramids are in front of the ancient ruins of Nubian temples.
Architecture and physical structures are types of material culture. These Nubian pyramids in Meroe are reconstructed but the original pyramids can be seen in the background [Image by Wufei07 from Wikimedia Commons] Public Domain

Nonmaterial culture (subjective), by contrast, consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society.

Norms are things that are considered normal, appropriate, or ordinary for a particular group of people and guide members on how they should behave in a given context. In Western cultures wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral. In certain cultures, they reflect the values of respect and support of friends and family.

Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Norms are rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as good or evil. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it exhibits patriotism, which is a value.

Beliefs are the way people think the universe operates. Beliefs can be religious or secular, and they can refer to any aspect of life. For instance, many people in the United States believe that hard work is the key to success, while in other countries your success is determined by fate.

Norms, values, and beliefs are all deeply interconnected. Together, they provide a way to understand culture.


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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