Culture, Ethnicity, and Diversity in Modern Psychology
In the early years of psychology and continuing into the latter part of the twentieth century, it was mostly taken for granted that all human beings are the same where psychological functioning is concerned. At the same time, almost all psychologists were white North Americans or Europeans, and they mostly studied white people like themselves. There were some exceptions, such as research that compared whites and blacks or females and males, but even this was narrowly focused on topics such as intelligence.
By and large, psychology ignored the effects of culture, which is the aggregate of the practices and the beliefs and generally the heritage of differing groups of people. They likewise paid little attention to ethnicity, which includes a person's culture but traditionally adds biological heritage and considerations such as “race.” The same went for diversity, which emphasizes ethnicity as well as gender, sexual orientation, age, and anything else that might consistently distinguish people psychologically.
Many scientists now believe that “race” has no scientific basis whatsoever. One important reason is that all modern humans appear to have originated in Africa, which means that all humans have the same ancestors. Another is that so-called racial characteristics aren't clearcut — you'll find almost every imaginable combination of skin color, facial features, and so on. In all, there is only one human race.
People often use the terms culture and society interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference. As noted, culture consists of beliefs, heritage, and the like — largely abstract things. In contrast, a society is an organized group of people — a physical thing. Thus, it has been observed that culture is to a society as personality is to an individual.
In the last couple of decades, psychologists have come to appreciate the potential impact of these considerations and a flood of research on cultural differences in particular has ensued. Psychologists have discovered that some of the basic psychological findings are actually not as universal as they once believed. Indeed, there has been such an overwhelming abundance of cross-cultural findings that researchers are still grappling with how to sort it out. A major finding, however, is that there are consistent psychological differences between people who live in individualist cultures, such as Western societies in which individual accomplishments are emphasized, versus collectivist cultures, such as Asian societies in which the emphasis is on group accomplishments. Research comparing the two has had its greatest impact on social psychology, as you'll see in Chapters 16 and 17.