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Interdisciplinary Journal on Human Development, Culture and Education
Revista Interdisciplinar de Desenvolvimento Humano, Cultura e Educação

ISSN: 1533-6476

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Number 3, June, 2002
Número 3, Junho, 2002

Cultural Psychology:Theory & Method - Introduction
Carl Ratner

After many decades of self-imposed insulation from cultural issues, psychologists
belatedly and reluctantly have been forced to recognize that
psychological phenomena are constituted in certain ways by cultural
processes. This recognition has led to the development of a field of studies
called cultural psychology. Broadly conceived, it seeks to comprehend
the ways in which psychological phenomena are part of cultural life and
are interdependent with other cultural phenomena. In 1910 Dewey wrote
a statement that expresses a central tenet of cultural psychology. He said
that the processes that animate and form consciousness lie outside it in
social life. Therefore, the objective for psychologists is to use mental phenomena
(e.g., perception, emotions) as clues for comprehending the life
processes that they represent. This task resembles the paleontologist's
who finds a number and variety of footprints. From these he goes to work
to construct the structure and the life habits of the animals that made
them. Just as the paleontologist would be remiss to restrict his attention to
describing footprints themselves, analyzing their elements, comparing
them to each other, and discovering the laws of their arrangement in
space—while failing to explore the living organisms and habits that they
represent—so psychologists are remiss in restricting their attention to
describing states of consciousness, their elements, and interactions, while
failing to link consciousness to real-life processes of human beings. "The
supposition that these states [of consciousness] are somehow existent by
themselves and in this existence provide the psychologist with readymade
material is just the supreme case of the 'psychological fallacy'"
(Dewey, 1910, p. 250; see also Vygotsky, 1997a, pp. 272–273, 327 for a
remarkably similar statement).
Of course, psychological phenomena have a more complex relationship
to social life than footprints have to forces that form them. However,
Dewey is metaphor correctly emphasizes the social formation of the

Studying cultural processes in order to understand psychology is a
daunting task. It requires a specific, comprehensive conceptualization of
what culture is and how it encompasses human psychology (see Ratner,
2000a). Progress in this area is difficult for several reasons. The structures of
modern societies militate against scientifically understanding psychology
as a cultural phenomenon. Social life in contemporary societies appears to
be a myriad of diverse factors that have no ostensible relationship to each
other. Furthermore, each individual occupies diverse social positions, is
exposed to diverse information, and has substantial freedom of choice.
Given this dizzying diversity, how can there be anything coherent we can
call "culture"? And how can a dizzying diversity of cultural factors be
related to human psychology in any meaningful way, especially when
human psychology appears to be dizzyingly diverse? Individuals seem to
differ enormously in their perceptions, emotions, reasoning, memory, and
intelligence. If culture and psychology are indefinite, incoherent, and ineffable
then no systematic relationship could exist between them.
Difficulties in relating psychology to culture are compounded by
the institutional specialization of psychology as an academic discipline.
Segregated from social sciences such as sociology, anthropology, history,
and political science, psychology appears to be unrelated to the social
issues that are covered by these disciplines.

An additional factor that obscures the cultural nature of psychology
is Western ideology. It tends to regard human psychology as an individual
or universal phenomenon, equally unrelated to social factors.

These obstacles have impeded the development of cultural psychology
(see Ratner, 1993a, 1997b, 1999 for examples). Most cultural psychologists
manifest little interest in formulating a specific and thorough conception
of culture to guide their work. They often satisfy themselves with casual,
incomplete, and implicit notions such as "Psychological processes take
place in cultural settings," "Psychological processes are socially constructed
and shared," "Psychological processes are mediated by cultural tools"
(Wertsch), and "Cultural psychology is the study of intentional worlds"
(Shweder). Cultural psychologists rarely consult sociological or historical
research concerning the formation, maintenance, and change of social
organizations, classes, conditions, norms, and systems. Most cultural psychologists
express the belief that they are abandoning psychology if they
systematically study culture. Many anthropologists and psychologists
tend to regard culture as a platform on which psychology stands. The
platform model acknowledges that people in New Guinea and Germany
behave, reason, remember, feel, and perceive in different ways. It tells us
that these phenomena are cultural; however, it does not tell us how they
are cultural—that is, what they have to do with the particular societies in
which they occur. The very connection between culture and psychology is
suspended although psychology is recognized as occurring in (or on)
culture. This kind of research requires no familiarity with social systems
because it describes psychological phenomena per se.
Even research from the positivistic standpoint, which attempts to
correlate specific cultural factors with psychological phenomena, generally
overlooks the internal relationship, between them. It discovers that
commercial activity, for example, is associated with depression. However,
it does not disclose how depression recapitulates commerce, or how the
characteristics of depression reflect commerce. Thus, the cultural character
of depression is obscured even though its correlation with a cultural
factor has been identified.

Lacking a specific and thorough conception of culture has led to
eclecticism in cultural psychology. Virtually any topic, theoretical
viewpoint, and methodology are accepted within the rubric of cultural
psychology. There is little integration of hypotheses or findings. In
addition, many crucial components of culture are overlooked or discounted.
The result is little agreement or understanding about the cultural
aspects of psychology—or what it means to say that psychology is

The disinterest in culture reaches its apex in postmodernist notions of
culture, agency, and psychology. Postmodernism renounces culture as a
set of shared psychological phenomena that are grounded in organized
social life. Postmodernists construe society as inchoate, indefinite, and
incapable of providing a structure to psychological phenomena. They also
construe society as depersonalized and deleterious so that individuals
must find fulfillment in personal acts apart from social influence. In this
view, individuals must form their own personal psychologies on the basis
of unique needs and choices. This antisocial view of psychology has
squelched the promise of cultural psychology to deepen our understanding
of cultural aspects of psychology.

To be worthy of its name, cultural psychology must penetrate
beneath apparent fragmentation, incoherence, and disorder to discover
regularities and relationships. This, after all, is the task of all science. Just
as natural science has discovered parsimonious principles and laws
that integrally explain an enormous diversity of seemingly disparate
phenomena—the falling of an apple and the revolving of planets are all
forms of gravity—so social science can discover that culture is an organized,
coherent system; psychological phenomena are socially shared and
distributed; and psychological phenomena have definite social origins,
characteristics, and functions. As Hegel said, the real is rational.
Developing the science of cultural psychology requires a renewed
commitment to deeply understand culture both in general terms ("What
is human culture?") and in specific terms ("What is Polish culture?"). A
concentrated analysis of culture is necessary to provide a conceptual basis
to cultural psychology that will explain the cultural origins, formation,
and function of psychological phenomena. An analysis of culture will also
elucidate the active role of human agency within social life.

In the first part of Cultural Psychology:Theory & Method
(N.Y.: Plenum, 2002), I articulate a specific and comprehensive 
conception of culture. I identify its crucial components, the manner in 
which they are integrated together, and the role of psychological 
phenomena within them. My theoretical perspective draws on Vygotsky's
activity theory. I seek to develop its philosophical and political underpinnings
in new ways that can guide cultural psychology to become
a scientific discipline with practical importance.
In Part 2, I develop methodological procedures for testing the theoretical
issues raised in Part 1. I explain the principles of a methodology
that can elucidate the distintive and complex subject matter of cultural
psychology. I explain how interview techniques can be refined to probe
for cultural themes in psychological phenomena. I also explain how narrative
statements can be analyzed to elucidate cultural themes. The final
chapter designs an empirical investigation into the cultural psychology of
moral reasoning in children. It conceptualizes cultural aspects of moral
reasoning which are typically overlooked in structuralist accounts such as
Kohlberg's. It then describes a procedure for identifying cultural aspects
of moral reasoning. This project brings together theoretical and empirical
issues that have been discussed in earlier chapters.

The theoretical and methodological approach I outline is not meant
to apply to every aspect of human psychology. My approach is confined
to describing and explaining the specific cultural content that is embedded
in psychological phenomena shared by members of a particular
society (or subsociety). In other words, I seek to describe and explain the
characteristics of psychological phenomena that originate in, are formed
by, and function to promulgate particular cultural activities, artifacts, and
concepts that comprise a definite social system. Other aspects of psychology
are comprised of idiosyncratic features that originate in unique experiences
and biological processes of an individual. For example, a boy who
is raised by a soft-spoken mother may grow up to be soft-spoken. His
manner is more a function of his idiosyncratic experience than of prevalent
social activities. Or a girl whose father committed suicide in her presence
becomes insecure and paranoid. These psychological phenomena are
the province of clinical psychology, not cultural psychology.

In addition, there are general aspects of human psychology that are
common to all people. These psychological universals include the fact
that all humans engage in self-reflection and volitional action, are profoundly
open to experience and learning, understand the nature of things
and use this understanding to solve problems intelligently, communicate
via language, think and remember in symbolic terms, organize emotions
and perceptions around cognitive interpretations, and engage in logical
reasoning. These universal, general aspects of human psychology are
devoid of content and they do not reflect particular social activities, artifacts,
or concepts. They evidently depend on some social experience, as its
absence impedes the development of these general psychological features
(Ratner, 1991, pp. 11–68). However, they seem to reflect general aspects of
social experience rather than specific characteristics. For instance,
parental regulation of behavior may be necessary to foster self-control,
volition, planning, and self-consciousness. The general occurrence of parents
interrupting, guiding, and encouraging behavior fosters these in all
children, regardless of the specific manner in which parents exercise this
regulation. The specific manner in which regulation is exercised—for
example, by verbal threats, physical constraint, patient explanation, tolerance
for continued impulsiveness on the part of the child—would affect
the specific content of the child's self-concept, volition, and emotional
expression (Ratner, 1991, pp. 113–198).

The cultural psychology that I outline in  Cultural Psychology:Theory & Method 
is confined to describing and explaining specific, content-laden characteristics of psychology. I concentrate on this domain because it has tremendous (but
undeveloped) potential for enhancing our understanding of human
psychology. It also contains the greatest potential for practically improving
psychological functioning. We can alter cultural factors that affect
the psychology of many people, whereas general aspects of psychology
(e.g., emotions depend on cognitive appraisals) cannot be altered, and
individual aspects can be altered only in piecemeal fashion, and even this
is difficult as long as social activities, artifacts, and concepts continue to
foster them.


Dewey, J. (1910). The influence of Darwin on philosophy and other essays on contemporary thought. New York: Holt.
Ratner, C. (1991). Vygotsky’s sociohistorical psychology and its contemporary applications. New york: Plenum.
Ratner, C. (1993a). Review of D’Andrade and Strauss, Human motives and cultural models. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 14, 89–94.
Ratner, C. (1997b). In defense of activity theory. Culture and Psychology, 3, 211–223.
Ratner, C. (1999). Three approaches to cultural psychology: A critique. Cultural Dynamics, 11, 7–31.
Ratner, C. (2000a). Outline of a coherent, comprehensive concept of culture. Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin, 34(1 & 2), 5–11.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1997a). Educational psychology. Boca Raton, FL: St. Lucie Press. (Originally written 1921)

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