An important perspective that has emerged in psychology in recent years is termed the sociocultural perspective. Like social learning theory, the sociocultural approach is based on the assumption that our personalities, beliefs, attitudes. and skills are learned from others. The sociocultural approach goes further, however, in stating that it is impossible to fully understand a person without understanding his or her culture, ethnic identity, gender identity, and othe' incportant sociocultural factors (Miller, 1999; Phinney, 1996a).
For example. we are all shaped by our culture and must be understood in that context. Culture is defined as the patterns of behavior, beliefs, and values that are shared by a group of people. Culture includes everything-from language and superstitions to moral beliefs and food preferences-that we learn from the people onging to a particular eth- with whom we live. When I worked in Miami for 3 years, I met tudes, skills, music, cere- many persons who were born in Cuba and had moved to the United States. They brought with them all of the
beliefs, attitudes, and ways of Cuban culture, but they are now part of the culture of the United States. To fully understand my Miami friends, you would need to
understand the ways in which Cuban and U.S. cultures are similar and different and how each has influenced their lives.
In addition, we must all be understood in tenDS of our ethnic group and ethnic identity.
An ethnic group is a group of persons who are descendants of a common group of ancestors, usually from a particular country or area. Ethnic identity refers to each person's sense of belonging to a particular ethnic group and of shaling that group's beliefs, attitudes, skills, music, ceremonies. and the like. Members of less powerful ethnic groups in a country also often share a history of discrimination and repression by more powerful ethnic groups.
Members of an ethnic group often share similar racial charactelistics. Knowing a person's race is often less informative than knowing his or her ethnic identity, however. For example, my friend Maria is an immigrant to the United States from San Salvador. She grew up speaking Spanish and learned English only after moving to the United States as a teenager. She sees herself as a Hispanic. but she is of African descent and also identifies strongly with her fellow African Americans. Her racial heritage. then, reveals only part of her sense of ethnic identity. To take another example, my friend Barbara says that three of her grandparents are white and one is African American. In racial terms, she is not mostly of African descent. but she was raised by her parents in a mostly African American neighborhood in Los Angeles and proudly considers herself to be an African American. In the case of both of these women, understanding their ethnic identity will lead to more understanding of them as persons than just knowing their race.
A third term that is important to the sociocultural perspective is gender identity. This term refers to one's view of oneself as male or female. As boys and girls interact with their parents. siblings. teachers. and friends, they learn what it means to be a male or female in their society. In the United States, for example. males traditionally have been taught to be strong and assertive. whereas females have been taught to be nurturing and gentle. And, although strides have been made in recent years to reduce the shaping of the two genders into narrow sex roles, the impact of socialization of this sort has had an impact on each of our gender identities.
According to the sociocultural perspective. all of us can be fully understood only if our culture, ethnic identity, and gender identity are taken into consideration. Other sociocultural factors must be considered as well. For example, gay men and lesbian women have identities ads homosexuals that shape their lives. Similarly, women and men who have integrated a feminine perspective into their lives must be understood partly in that context. Any social or cultural force that influences human lives is importanto the sociocultural perspective. Sociocultural perspective not only encourages us to consider cultural and social empting to understand a neighbor or coworker but also requires that we not misuse that information. Two aspects of this perspective are parrticularly relevant to our disrhe sociocultural perspective promotes cultural relativity. Although virtually every culture in the world views other cultures as inferior to itself (Triandis, 1991), the sociorive encourages us to think of different cultures in relative terms rather than judgemental terms. That is, the sociocultural perspective promotes the view that different cultures, ethnic groups, genders, and sexual orientations are simply different from, rather than infelior to, another. Indeed, the sociocultural perspective encourages us to view differences among persons in our diverse world as rich sources of new ideas and ways of coping with the demands of human life.
Second, the sociocultural perspective reminds us that not all members of a given culture, ethnic group, or gender are alike. Some Asian men, for example, are tall and some are short; some are good at mathematics and some are not. The same is true of any sociocultural group. On most characteristics (moral beliefs, interest in music, willingness to work hard in school, sports ability, etc.), there are usually more differences among persons within each group than between different groups.
The sociocultural perspective has become important in psychology in recent years, partly because psychologists who advise companies that conduct international business have been in great demand. This is because even small gestures and ways of speaking that would be perfectly acceptable in the United States can be insulting to members of another culture. For example, in the United States, we would expect an inventor who is presenting a new product to potential investors to make the new product seem very desirable (and to make the inventor seem brilliant). That approach might offend potential investors from Japan who are more used to hearing a presenter modestly play down the importance of the new product and even apologize for the inadequacies of the inventor (Kitayama & Markus, 1992).
Although international business has given the sociocultural perspective its strongest push in psychology, however, the changing nature of Western countries will continue to demand attention to this important new perspective. The United States is rapidly becoming a multicultural and multiethnic country. In 1989,20 percent of all youth (up to 17 years of age) were members of minority ethnic groups. In the year 2000, that proportion has grown to over 33 percent. If the United States is to continue to succeed and prosper, we must all learn to understand one another better and to extend more opportunity to groups that have been held at the bottom of the economic ladder by the kind of prejudice and discrimination that comes from lack of understanding.
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