All persons are embedded in and form part of their own culture. The students in this class reside in different regions of the world, but also form part of different social groups and have different sexual preferences. Some live in urban areas whilst others are rural dwellers. Some are deeply religious, and others are secular.
Yet, most psychologists have received their education and have conducted their research and professional practice in a largely male, White, Western, mostly urban middle-class context. Further, the vast majority of research has been conducted in what some humorously call WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) cultures, doubtfully representative of humans as a whole.
Throughout the history of psychology, theories that were postulated and researched in Europe and North America have been imported and taught directly in other culturally different areas of the world without substantial modifications and local adaptation.
As Wendy Stainton Rogers remarks, psychology tends to operate:
‘almost exclusively in a strange monocultural world of people-like-us, where anything different is seen as alien and exotic’. It is built upon a profound misunderstanding: that experiments conducted by people from a particular worldview on people who share the same worldview can somehow tell us anything about universal human qualities’.
This is an overgeneralisation, as in the past decades a growing number of psychologists are adhering to society’s general critical perspective..
Social constructionists argue that each one of us has to be understood within our specific culture, context and language. The particular qualities of the social practices, beliefs and institutions of our time and place, they suggest, give rise to different ways of thinking and behaving. Language plays a critical role in social constructionism: it shapes what we know, selectively filtering our attention and determining what we can say.
Through different mechanisms of social influence, prevalent cultural views and values highlight certain features of objects, situations and relationships, and promote them to a meaningful quality, whilst others are ignored or undervalued. Applied to our discipline, this implies that the prevalent views in psychology determine which dimensions, aspects, etc., can be extracted from reality and become the object of psychological investigation – and also which dimensions, aspects, etc., will remain invisible.
One of the most commonly criticised aspects of prevalent or mainstream psychology is its individualistic orientation – arguably the result of a conception of psychology as the study of individuals, as opposed to disciplines such as sociology or anthropology. Whilst it is true that interactions and the social context are present in many theories and research – particularly in social psychology – many argue that it is still an individualistic approach. The discipline still largely sees the behaviour of abstract individuals as the response to a given environment, rather than apprehending the subjectivity of concrete human beings living in historically determined societal conditions.
The individualistic orientation in psychology is hardly surprising in a field dominated by the Western ideals of autonomy, independence and self-fulfillment through individual achievement and material acquisition (Cushman, 1995). In a world characterised by the privateness of individuals isolated from one another, societal relations may appear in the form of natural relations amongst things.
This has a deep impact on many aspects of our work. For instance, already in 1971 William Ryan criticised the ‘blame-the-victim‘ politics which, by blaming individuals for their widely shared problems and legitimising only individual solutions, makes people less likely to advocate social change.
Further, these ideals are not ‘exportable‘ to many communitarian social groups around the world, and to cultures whose values prioritise interdependence, family solidarity and mutuality.
But individualism is not the only Western-White-middle class-male value explicitly or implicitly supported by mainstream psychology. Social class is, for most theories and research, invisible or inconsistently conceptualised and reported. Research areas considered as ‘feminine’, like educational psychology, are often assigned lower status. Ethnic minorities are often equated with lower socioeconomic status, and class-based analyses, when conducted, tend to neglect gender inequalities.