Qualitative Methodology for Describing the Cultural Character of Psychology

  • Carl Ratner
Part of the Path in Psychology book series (PATH)


The foregoing tenets of cultural psychology frame the problems that qualitative cultural psychological methodology must address. Our methodology does not simply investigate psychological phenomena in different cultures; the goal is to comprehend culture in psychological phenomena. Qualitative cultural psychological methodology aims to investigate the concrete cultural character of psychological phenomena that derives from particular practical socially organized activities. These activities are organized within a particular social system.


Social Relationship Cultural Activity Qualitative Methodology Color Perception Demand Characteristic 
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  1. 1.
    Wilhelm Dilthey advanced this kind of analysis, where a psychological phenomenon is illuminated by investigating the cultural context in which it resides. In his biography of Schleiermacher, Dilthey sought to deepen his understanding of Schleiermacher’s psychology by relating its elements to broader cultural issues. Since Schleiermacher had been brought within the Christian sect known as Herrenhuters, Dilthey studied their beliefs and religious practices. Since Schleiermacher became a protestant clergyman, Dilthey studied the role of protestant clergy in Germany at that time. The fact that Schleiermacher lived in Berlin for a time prompted Dilthey to review the history and cultural atmosphere of that city. Schleiermacher ‘s friendships with some Romantic poets provided the reason for a detailed account of the Romantic movement. Because German literature, from Lessing to Goethe, exercised considerable influence on Schleiermacher, Dilthey considered its development in detail. Philosophy too was obviously important in Schleiermacher’s development, and Dilthey, therefore, devoted whole chapters to detailed discussions of the philosophies of Kant and Spinoza. The founding of the university of Halle and the history of hermeneutics are examples of other topics that Dilthey took up because they had a bearing on Schleiermacher’s life and work (Rickman, 1979, pp. 33–34 ).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Sociologists and historians of art have greatly illuminated the complex relationship between psychological activity and social institutions (cf. Goldmann, 1967, 1980; Hauser, 1982; Knights, 1937; Lowenthal, 1957; Lukacs, 1968; Southall, 1973, Williams, 1973 ). These sociohistorical analyses of art are quite instructive for qualitative cultural psychological methodology. For example, Goldmann states that comprehending literary meaning requires situating it in a vaster structure of social institutions, values, and practices. To explain the tragic structure of Pascal’s Pensees and Raciné s theater, they should be understood in terms of an extreme tendency within the ideology known as Jansenism. Understanding this ideology in turn requires understanding its relationship to the nobility of the robe of the seventeenth century. The nobility of the robe must be contextualized within the history of French society. Each broader context defines the more limited one (Goldmann, 1972, pp. 249–250; Sartre, 1963, p. 146 ).Google Scholar
  3. Bourdieu (1993b, 1996b) similarly explains that an external hermeneutic is necessary for understanding the relationship of an artwork to its place in the social division of labor (see note 1, chap. 3). The particular features of the field of artistic production along with features of related fields influence the character of artwork. An external hermeneutic interprets the work in relation to the full social context; it does not reduce the work to purely economic influences nor does it insulate the work from broader social influences. Scientific works (Bourdieu, 1975), philosophical works (Bourdieu, 1991, pp. 1–6, 57), and psychological phenomena must also be understood in relation to their position in the social division of labor.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    The neglect of cultural origins and characteristics is rooted in the very mission of phenomenology as advanced by Husserl. His phenomenology sought to comprehend the manner in which things appeared to consciousness. This is what he meant by phenomena. Husserl sought to discover the manner in which consciousness constituted phenomena. He was not interested in the real features or determinants of things themselves. Husserl was fascinated by what was immanent in consciousness. He was unconcerned with empirical objects and whether conscious experience corresponded to real qualities of objects that transcended consciousness. Characterizing the field of phenomenology, Husserl (1907/1964, p. 7) saidGoogle Scholar
  5. It is a field of absolute cognitions, within which the ego and the world and god and the mathematical manifolds and whatever else may be a scientifically objective matter are held in abeyance, cognitions which are, therefore, also not dependent on these matters, which are valid in their own right...Google Scholar
  6. Husserl was therefore not concerned with the empirical character of, and external influences on, psychological functions. Phenomenology was not designed to be an empirical science that investigated the influences on and processes of consciousness. Instead, phenomenology investigated “pure consciousness,” which generated essential (invariant, basic) ideas of things. Husserl explained the distinction between intuiting essential ideas of things and experiencing empirical things.Google Scholar
  7. Now, it is of decisive significance to know that essential intuition is in no way “experience” in the sense of perception, recollection, and equivalent acts; further, that it is in no way an empirical generalization whose sense it is to posit existentially at the same time the individual being of empirical details. Intuition grasps essence as essential being, and in no way posits being-there. In accord with this, knowledge of essence is by no means matter-of-fact knowledge, including not the slightest shade of affirmation an individual (e.g., natural) being-there. (Husserl, 1911/1965, p. 112)Google Scholar
  8. An extraordinary statement reveals Husserl’s rarefied view of consciousness as even divorced from the empirical existence of real people. He said, “We are dealing not with human cognition, but with cognition in general, apart from any existential assumptions either of the empirical ego or of a real world” (Husserl, 1907/1964, p. 60). Clearly, this phenomenological viewpoint would be unconcerned with the cultural origins and characteristics of psychological phenomena.Google Scholar
  9. 4.
    Dilthey observed that a cultural basis underlies the entire need for hermeneutics. It is only because modern society is characterized by intense division of labor, and heterogeneous roles and experiences, that hermeneutics is necessary at all. Complex society makes mutual understanding difficult because of the great differences among people. Consequently, people must carefully interpret each other’s expressions in order to know what they really mean. Modern people cannot assume homogeneous meanings as people in a tightly knit, homogeneous society can. A homogeneous society would not generate a hermeneutic method or even a historical consciousness, because historical differences would be minimal (Plantinga, 1980, pp. 98–102 ).Google Scholar
  10. Dilthey’s point can be extended to account for the modem preoccupation with epistemology altogether. Modem people are concerned with epistemology (how to know) because we are socially estranged and have difficulty knowing people. We question how to know people, and, by extension, physical things. Tight-knit societies such as ancient Greece evidenced no such concern for epistemology, because they believed that knowledge of people was easy to obtain. Accordingly, there was no reason to wonder whether knowledge was accurate or how to improve on gathering such knowledge.Google Scholar
  11. 5.
    A detailed social psychological investigation of contemporary family life is equally necessary to determine such issues as gender differences in power. It is a grave mistake to assume that gender differences in economic and political power outside the family are recapitulated as power differences within the family. Just as the privatized family broke down the emotional restraint that characterized men’s roles in social and economic institutions, it is quite possible that family structure makes for more equality in power than is the case outside the family.Google Scholar
  12. 6.
    Improving the ecological validity of measures is unquestionably worthwhile. However, it produces only limited benefits when used within the positivistic framework. Including culturally familiar items, presenting items in a culturally familiar format, carefully explaining instructions, and allowing subjects to practice with the instrument do engage subjects in the testing situation. However, employing positivistic tenets vitiates these improvements. Or, as we saw in Chapter 1, restricting subjects’ responses to superficial, overt, fragmentary behaviors, then employing statistical calculations to produce and interpret data, deprives even the most ecologically valid testing procedures of psychological value.Google Scholar
  13. 7.
    Tseng and Hsu (1991, chap. 10) provide a similar analysis of how social relationships structure psychotherapeutic techniques. The authors describe how therapists must work through the social relationships of ethnic families in order to address the members’ psychological problems.Google Scholar
  14. 8.
    Bandura and Jeffrey’s (1973) experiment vividly illustrates this problem. The authors sought to investigate whether symbolically coding information facilitates recall. They presented some complex information to two groups of subjects and gave one group a coding system for organizing the information. “Coders” and “noncoders” were then compared on recall. However, from postexperiment interviews the authors found that most of the “noncoders” had spontaneously devised their own codes for organizing the information. Consequently, the “noncoders” were actually “coders,” and the experimenter’s designation of the two groups, based on treatment conditions, was inaccurate.Google Scholar
  15. 9.
    Another serious flaw in Jenkins’s methodology is the fact that she failed to investigate the patients’ experience of residing in high and low EE families. Simply identifying the presence of high EE in the patients’ families reveals nothing about its psychological impact. Only a “cultural phenomenology” of the patients can reveal this.Google Scholar
  16. 10.
    In view of Luria’s diligent effort to comprehensively study diverse cognitive activities, it is strange that Cole (1988, p. 143) rebukes him for overgeneralizing from restricted data. Luria’s research is far more comprehensive than most others, including Cole’s.Google Scholar
  17. 11.
    Unfortunately, Vygotsky did not always employ the clinical method. His 1931 experiment on concept formation (Vygotsky, 1987, pp. 121–166)—which was a demonstration, not an experiment—employed a single test that was not corroborated by subjective reports or independent observations.Google Scholar
  18. 12.
    Cole (1988, p. 143) suggests that Luria’s tasks were invalid for drawing conclusions because they were unfamiliar to the Uzbekestani peasants; however, Cole presents no evidence for this assertion. There is no reason to think that grouping colors together, answering logic questions, or naming geometric forms were unfamiliar. In fact, Luria (1976, pp. 16–17) specifically says that the tests did resemble familiar riddles and that the peasants found them meaningful. Certainly, these tasks are no more extraordinary than the memory tests that Cole employed in his own research.Google Scholar
  19. Hamill’s ( 1990, pp. 32–33) criticism of Luria is equally baffling. He castigates Luria for predefining certain responses as incorrect and for failing to ascertain indigenous response categories. However, Luria is not guilty of this charge. He prodded the peasants to respond in different ways (e.g., categorize objects differently) to see whether prompting could help elicit responses that were not spontaneously forthcoming. When the subjects insisted on their responses Luria sought to comprehend their nature, he did not reject them as odd or wrong, as Hamill claims.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carl Ratner
    • 1
  1. 1.Humboldt State UniversityArcataUSA

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