Sociocultural Psychology: Definition and 10 Examples

sociocultural psychology definition and examples, explained below

Sociocultural psychology is the study of how the individual is affected and shaped by society’s cultural attributes, and in turn how the individual affects society.

In a way, it is the combination of sociology and psychology. Sociology being the study of culture and psychology being the study of the individual, sociocultural psychology is then the study of how society and the individual affect each other.

It is sometimes referred to by various names, such as “cultural psychology,” “cross-cultural psychology,” and “psychological anthropology.”

Sociocultural Psychology Definition

Although an exact and widely accepted formal definition does not exist currently, it can be described reasonably well.

Markus and Hamedani (2007) offer an explanation as to its focus of study, which consists of both culture and the individual:

“…culture cannot be understood without a deep understanding of the minds of people who make it up and, likewise, the mind cannot be understood without reference to the sociocultural environment to which it is adapted and attuned” (p. xiii).

Sociocultural psychology has shed light on our understanding of human behavior in a wide range of domains, including education, health care, clinical practice, and general research (Chirkov, 2020).

Sociocultural psychology is becoming an established branch of psychology, just as the study of the work environment eventually became Industrial-Organizational psychology.

Sociocultural Psychology Examples

  • Internalizing Stereotypes: Media portrayals of certain groups as conforming to stereotypes can lead to people believing those stereotypes. In fact, even some of the people in those groups might start to internalize those characterizations and integrate them into their self-identity.
  • Cultural Definitions of Leadership: In some cultures, leaders are expected to be firm, demanding, and emotionally distant. In other cultures, leaders are expected to be concerned about the thoughts and feelings of their team. These differences are expected to have effects on worker productivity and company loyalty.
  • Differentiated Learning: Some teachers will pay careful attention to the abilities of students in their classroom. They then divide the students into various groups based on their abilities and tailor the lesson plan to match those skill levels. This shows how students and teachers have reciprocating influences on each other.
  • Teacher Expectations: Students with teachers that have low expectations regarding their abilities will often perform accordingly. In contrast, when teachers expect a student to do well, they often will.  
  • Evolving Gender Roles: There was a time in the U. S. when women were expected to be submissive and affectionate. However, as times change, gender roles do too. Today, it is more acceptable for women to be strong and independent. These changes were in part a result of women exerting a greater voice on society regarding their rights.
  • Parenting Practices Across Cultures: Whereas in one culture parents are very demanding and make their children study extra hours after school and on the weekends, in another culture there is a belief that kids should spend time outdoors playing and exploring the world. These different cultural practices will have an effect on the social and emotional development of the children.
  • In Teaching Practices: Schools in one country are very teacher-centered; the teacher speaks and the students listen. Schools in a different country are very student-centered: students decide what they want to study and what kind of project to work on. Research on how these different teaching philosophies affect creativity and problem solving would be an area of study in sociocultural psychology.
  • Collectivism: What happens when someone from a highly competitive, individualistic culture is transferred to work in a collectivist culture? Examining how the new cultural parameters affect their work behavior and how their individualistic attributes affect their new coworkers would be an interesting topic of study to a sociocultural psychologist.
  • When Learning a Second Language: If a person was born and raised in a very subdued culture, and then moves to one that is highly expressive (e.g., Italy or Spain), they may be surprised at what happens when they start to speak the local language. They might notice that whenever they begin speaking, they have more intonation, use more colorful adjectives, and display more pronounced facial expressions.  
  • Acceptance of Hierarchical Structure: In some countries, work environments are highly structured. There is a clearly defined organizational hierarchy. Workers that are native to this cultural dynamic have no qualms receiving instructions with very little questioning or feeling free to offer suggestions. In fact, offering a suggestion might be seen as questioning management’s authority and a sign of disrespect.

Sociocultural Psychology vs Cognitive Psychology

Sociocultural psychology is the study of how societal and cultural factors can influence and shape individual behavior, whereas cognitive psychology is the scientific investigation of mental processes such as attention, perception, memory, language use, problem solving, and thinking.

Sociocultural psychology often looks at the norms, rules, and standards brought by society, and how they affect overall cognitive development, attitudes, and behaviors. For example, sociocultural psychology would examine how our cultural background (such as an Eastern versus a Western culture) influences our worldview or approach to conflict resolution.

Cognitive psychology, on the other hand, focuses on how we take in information from our environment, how we process that information, and how it affects our responses. In a real-world context, cognitive psychologists might study why we remember certain things (such as a traumatic event) while forgetting others (like where we left our keys).

Both branches fall under the umbrella of psychology, but they approach the understanding of human behavior and thought from different angles:

  • Sociocultural psychology puts a greater emphasis on the external factors (society, culture, environment) that can affect our behavior and mental processes.
  • Cognitive psychology, in contrast, delves more into the internal mental processes that govern our perspective and behavior.

For instance, sociocultural psychology might look at how social media influences our self-esteem and idea of self-worth, while cognitive psychology would be more interested in how we process the likes and comments on a social media post.

Sociocultural PsychologyCognitive Psychology
ScopeSociocultural psychology focuses on the influence of social and cultural environments on behavior. It investigates how social interactions, societal norms, and culturally constructed beliefs shape individual behavior and cognitive processes. For instance, an example might be studying how societal norms shape individual perceptions of beauty (like in the case of the “thin ideal” in Western societies).Cognitive psychology concentrates on the internal mental processes. It explores how individuals perceive, think, remember, and learn, primarily focusing on processes happening inside the individual’s mind. These processes can, for example, include studying how memory works (such as memory formation, storage, and retrieval).
MethodsThe primary research methods in sociocultural psychology tend to be observation, interviews, and case studies to understand human behavior in specific societal and cultural contexts. Sociocultural psychologists may study parenting styles in different cultures, for example.Cognitive psychologists often use laboratory experiments, cognitive research methods, and psychophysical methods to study the mental processes. An apt example would be conducting lab experiments to understand how human memory functions.
Perspective on Human BehaviourSociocultural psychology regards behavior as largely a product of culture and society. An individual’s knowledge, for example, is viewed as constructed through social interaction.Cognitive psychology views behavior as a direct result of mental processes. It presupposes that our actions are determined by the way we process information we receive from our environment.
ProfessionalsProfessionals in this field can include social workers, cross-cultural psychologists, cultural anthropologists, and others utilizing a sociocultural lens to effect change in societal behavior.Professionals in cognitive psychology could be therapists, counselors, educators, or researchers, focusing on enhancing mental strategies and coping mechanisms.

Subjects of Study in Sociocultural Psychology

Just about any psychological phenomenon can be the subject of a cross-cultural analysis. Below is a sample of topics that have been examined from a sociocultural perspective.

1. Cultural Assimilation

To assimilate or not to assimilate, that is the question. When moving to another country for the long-term, there can be a large number of struggles and decisions.

One of those being whether the individual stays true to their native cultural identity or modifies their behavior and self-concept to be more aligned with their adopted homeland. In sociocultural psychology, this is referred to as psychological acculturation (Graves, 1967).

While psychological acculturation is focused on the individual’s actions and thought processes, it should not be confused with the most often cited definition of acculturation by Redfield et al. (1936):

“Those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups” (p. 149).

This definition considers the effects of inter-group contact of two or more groups, although the effects are usually not symmetrical, as one group tends to be more dominant than the other (Berry & Sam, 1997).

Berry et al. (1992) have developed a model that describes the various paths the individual may pursue when being immersed in a new cultural setting:

  • Cultural Assimilation: the individual does not want to retain their original cultural identity. They then seek frequent interactions with the new culture.
  • Cultural Integration: the individual is interested in retaining their original identity while also interacting with and trying to become part of the new culture.

Separation: the individual rejects the new culture and maintains their original identity.

Marginalization: this occurs when the individual is not interested or is not given the opportunity to become part of the new culture. This could be for reasons related to discrimination by members of the new cultural group.

2. Globalized Workplaces (‘Workways’)

With the spreading of American multinational corporations and the increasing popularity of U. S. business schools in attracting international students, some have expressed concern that this may lead to a reduction in cultural variance in the workplace (Hébert, 2005).

In sociocultural psychology, the term workway is defined as “…a culture’s signature pattern of workplace beliefs, mental models, and practices that embody a society’s ideas about what is true, good, and efficient within the domain of work” (Sanchez-Burks & Lee, 2007, p. 346).

Even before the emergence of sociocultural psychology, researchers in industrial-organizational psychology have been interested in how cross-cultural dynamics affect the work environment.

Perhaps one of the most well-known early studies on this matter was a study conducted at IBM (Hofstede, 1980). This study proposed that workways varied along four dimensions:

  • Power distance: The individual’s preference for equality-inequality treatment within a given group.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: The degree of preference for structure and knowing what and how things are to be accomplished.
  • Masculinity/femininity: A preference for either assertiveness and competition in the workplace or an environment which is more concerned with interpersonal relations.
  • Individualism vs collectivism: The degree to which the workers are focused on themselves or on the group’s performance as a whole.

Despite the fact that Hofstede’s study has been so often cited that it has been classified as a “super-classic,” its utility has been less impressive (see Baskerville, 2003).

According to Sanchez-Burks and Lee (2007), researchers have more recently become focused on cognitive structures such as cultural schemas that moderate and mediate work behavior. This orientation has produced “more precise, richer models of cultural workways” (p. 349).

3. Attachment Theory

Attachment theory (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991) identifies the characteristics of maternal and infant behavior and personality that affect the quality of their emotional bond.

One indicator of a healthy bond between mother and infant is referred to as “base-touching” (Ainsworth, 1976; Ainsworth et al., 1978). This is the extent to which the infant uses the mother as a source of feeling secure when in an unfamiliar environment.

The early experiences of the infant play a fundamental role in the developing child’s “internal working model” regarding what to expect from others and their capacity to develop healthy interpersonal relationships (Bretherton,1992).

Despite the enormously meaningful insights which have been derived from attachment research, LeVine and Norman (2001) have criticized the theory on cultural grounds, stating: “The study of attachment . . . gave rise to an approach as blind to culture as any other in psychology” (p. 86). 

Similarly, Morelli and Rothbaum (2007) suggest that conceptualizing secure base as a means to master the environment reflects a Western emphasis on independence. Independence is a highly valued attribute in individualistic cultures such as the U. S.

However, from a sociocultural perspective, this is a narrow frame from which to understand the bond between mother and child.  

Japanese attachment researchers have pointed out that in Japan, “Mothers’ effectiveness in serving a secure base function well represents the quality of attachment only in the American culture, in which social independence or self-reliance is emphasized” (Takahashi, 1990, p. 29),

Harwood et al. (1995) also commented on the definition of secure attachment as being limiting due to its Western orientation. The conceptualization of secure and insecure attachment “…has become equated in U.S. psychology with a host of culturally valued qualities that are specific to the socialization goals of our highly individualistic society, thus limiting their cross-cultural meaningfulness” (p. 114).

Thus, we see that even one of the most respected and meaningful areas of psychological research in the last 50 years can lose relevance once those findings are viewed from a sociocultural perspective.

Conclusion

Sociocultural psychology is an emerging branch of psychology that is concerned with the reciprocating influences of the individual and cultural dynamics of society.

We can see how individuals are affected by their cultural experiences in a wide range of contexts. When traveling to another country, people are prone to act and sound like the locals. The longer they stay, the more culturally fluent the become.

If staying long enough, each individual must decide if they want to assimilate, integrate, or reject their newfound culture. In some cases, that may not be a choice, as marginalization can become their forced reality.

On a more micro level, the social environment, via teacher expectations and practices, can shape a child’s performance, for better or worse.

Definitions of leadership, defined role in an organization, and sense of teamwork are all shaped by culture.

At the same time, individuals can shape society’s definitions over time. Gender roles can evolve and stereotypes can be changed.

Although relatively new as a more formally recognized area of study in psychology, it is possible to apply a sociocultural analysis to just about any previously studied psychological phenomenon.

References

Ainsworth, M. D. (1976). Systems for rating maternal care behavior. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service Test Collection.

Ainsworth, M. D., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wahl, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ainsworth, M. D., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46(4), 333–341. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0003-066X.46.4.333

Baskerville, R. F. (2003). Hofstede never studied culture. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 28(1), 1-14. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0361-3682(01)00048-4

Berry, J. W., & Sam, D. L. (1997). Acculturation and adaptation. In J. W. Berry, M. H. Segall, & C. KaÈitçibaêi (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology: Vol. 3. Social behavior and applications (2nd ed., pp. 291– 326). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Berry, J. W., Poortinga, Y. H., Segall, M. H., & Dasen, P. R. (1992). Cross-cultural psychology: Research and applications. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University

Press.

Chirkov, V. (2020). The sociocultural movement in psychology, the role of theories in sociocultural inquiries, and the theory of sociocultural models. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 23(2), 119-134. doi: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ajsp.12409

Graves, T. D. (1967). Psychological acculturation in a tri-ethnic community. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 23(4), 337-350.

Harwood, R. L. (1992). The influence of culturally derived values on Anglo and Puerto Rican mothers’ perceptions of attachment behavior. Child Development, 63, 822–839. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.1992.tb01664.x

Harwood, R. L., Miller, J. G., & Irizarry, N. L. (1995). Culture and attachment: Perceptions of the child in context. New York: Guilford Press.

Hébert, R. (2005). A world of difference. APS Observer, 18.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture and organizations. International Studies of Management & Organization, 10(4), 15-41.

LeVine, R. A., & Norman, K. (2001). The infant’s acquisition of culture: Early attachment reexamined in anthropological perspective. In C. C. Moore & H. F.

Matthews (Eds.), The psychology of cultural experience (pp. 83–103). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Markus, H. R., & Hamedani, M. G. (2007). Sociocultural psychology. Handbook of cultural psychology, 3-39.

Morelli, G., & Rothbaum, F. (2007). Situating the child in context. Handbook of cultural psychology, 500-527.

Redfield, R., Linton, R., & Herskovits, M. J. (1936). Memorandum for the study of acculturation. American Anthropologist, 38(1), 149-152.

Sam, D. L. (2006). Acculturation: Conceptual background and core components. The Cambridge handbook of acculturation psychology, 11-26.

Sanchez-Burks, J., & Lee, F. (2007). Cultural psychology of workways. Handbook of cultural psychology, 1, 346-369.

Takahashi, K. (1990). Are the key assumptions of the “Strange Situation” procedure universal? A view from Japanese research. Human Development, 33, 23–30.

Zittoun, T. (2016). A sociocultural psychology of the life-course. Social Psychological Review, 18(1).

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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