The discipline of psychological science, largely influenced by Western perspectives, is guided by a set of underlying assumptions that shape its theoretical frameworks, research methodologies, and understanding of human behaviour and mental processes. Marsella (2009) asserts that psychology originating from North America and Western Europe is characterized by specific ontological, epistemological, and praxiological assumptions, which are derived from the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged. These assumptions, which continue to dominate the field, are shaped by some key factors: individuality, reductionism, empirical research, scientism, quantification, materialism, objectivity, and rationality. By evaluating these assumptions, we can gain insight into their potential limitations and biases. This critical examination allows for a more comprehensive understanding of psychological science.
The prominent assumption in Western psychology is the universality of psychological processes (Norenzayan & Heine, 2005; Kline et al., 2018). It suggests that the fundamental mechanisms underlying human cognition, emotion, and behaviour are largely similar across cultures and contexts. This assumption allows for the development of general theories and models that aim to explain human behaviour regardless of cultural variations. However, it overlooks the influence sociocultural factors on psychological processes, leading to potential ethnocentrism and a limited understanding of human diversity (Berry & Kim,1993; Barrett, 2015). The assumption of universality is incorrect due to the following reasons.
Western psychology emphasizes individualism, focusing on the autonomous self (Marsella, 2009). Individualism refers to the significance of individual attributes, autonomy, and independence in human behaviour and psychological processes (Ingle, 2018). This may neglect the significance of collectivism and the interdependent self-concept found in many non-Western cultures. For example, measures of personality traits may prioritize individual attributes and behaviours that align with individualistic cultures, potentially overlooking the importance of collectivist values and social roles in other cultures (de. & Leung, 1997; Ryder et al., 2008).
The Western approach to psychological science values empirical observation and the reductionist approach, aiming to break down complex phenomena into smaller, measurable components (Kendra Cherry, 2020). Reductionists assume that behaviour and mental processes can be explained by deterministic laws and principles – physical or biological causes. This can lead to an oversimplification of human behaviour. For instance, simplifying intricate social behaviours like aggression exclusively to genetic or neurological explanations disregards the impact of social, cultural, and environmental factors (Nisbett & Masuda, 2003).
Another assumption stems from materialism, which is that material possessions have a significant impact on individuals’ well-being, happiness, self-esteem, and identity. This assumption shapes research exploring the relationship between materialism and various psychological outcomes. It emphasizes studying observable and measurable aspects of behaviour and mental processes, as well as their underlying physiological and neural correlates.
How the Western approach impacts on psychological research?
While psychological science is a global discipline with contributions from diverse cultures, the historical influence of the Western approach has shaped the field in several ways.
A recent review found evidence that more than 90% of study populations represented in the leading developmental psychology journals are from the USA, Europe and or are English-speaking (Nielsen et al., 2017). It is widely acknowledged that psychology heavily relies on findings derived from studies conducted on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) samples, which represent merely 12% of the global population (Henrich et al., 2010).
Western researchers often prioritize topics and phenomena that are relevant to their own cultural context, which may inadvertently neglect important psychological phenomena and cultural variations present in non-Western societies (Shweder & Bourne, 1982). As a consequence, the knowledge base in psychology can become skewed and incomplete, failing to capture the full range of human experiences and behaviours.
The Western approach, characterized by features such as scientism and objectivism, has influenced the research methods employed in psychological studies (Simonds & Christopher, 2013). Western psychology has favoured quantitative research methods, such as experiments and surveys, which prioritize objectivity, generalizability, and statistical analysis. While these methods have yielded valuable insights into psychological processes, they may fall short in capturing the complexity and nuances of human behaviour in diverse cultural contexts. Unfortunately, qualitative research methods, which emphasize subjective experiences and cultural interpretations, have often been undervalued within the Western approach, further limiting the understanding of human diversity (Smith, 1996).
The Western approach in psychology has had the consequence of underrepresenting and marginalizing non-Western perspectives in psychological research. This exclusion has significant implications, including limiting the diversity of ideas, hindering cross-cultural collaborations, and perpetuating a western centric bias within the field of psychological science. For example, many psychological theories and measures of self-concept and identity have primarily focused on individualistic cultures prevalent in the Western world, such as the United States and Europe (Oyserman et al., 2002). This emphasis has led to an underrepresentation of non-Western cultural perspectives. As a result, our understanding of self-concept may not fully capture the diversity of cultural beliefs and values related to identity (Markus & Kitayama, 1991).
English-language publications originating from Western countries have traditionally held dominance, making it difficult for research conducted in non-English languages or by non-Western researchers to gain recognition and visibility. This publication bias perpetuates the dominance of the Western approach and further restricts the representation of diverse perspectives in psychological literature. According to Kobayashi (2018), English-language publications tend to receive greater attention and citations, leading to a bias in favour of research conducted and published in English. This bias can result in the underrepresentation of research conducted in non-English languages, limiting the diversity of perspectives in psychological literature.
How will my awareness of the Western bias affect my study of psychology?
My awareness of the Western bias in the models and methods of psychology will significantly influence the way in which I approach the study of psychological science. Firstly, I will adopt a critical and reflexive stance, acknowledging the limitations and potential biases associated with Western-centric perspectives. This awareness would drive me to actively seek out and engage with diverse voices, theories, and research from non-Western cultures and contexts.
Having been immersed in Korean culture for 32 years and then 22 years in Australia, my awareness of the Western bias in psychology significantly shapes my approach to studying. With my dual cultural background, I am aware of the different perceptions that different cultural backgrounds can bring to the same experience. I understand the importance of cultural diversity in understanding human behaviour, placing particular sensitivity on the influence of cultural factors.
Given my personal experience of navigating two cultures, I am inclined to reflect on my own cultural biases and assumptions. This reflexive stance enables me to develop a more nuanced understanding of how my background may influence my approach to studying of psychology. I try to be aware of potential biases or blind spots and actively work to mitigate them through self-reflection and critical examination of my approach in research methods and interpretations.
Drawing from my unique cultural background, I am well-positioned to integrate Western and Korean perspectives. By incorporating both frameworks, I strive for a comprehensive understanding that acknowledges the strengths and limitations of different cultural contexts. I aim to bridge the gap between Western and Korean psychological approaches, fostering an inclusive and cross-cultural understanding of human psychology.
Guided by my awareness of the Western bias, I will strive to be aware of how a client’s cultural background may make an assumption invalid. As a practicing counsellor, an awareness of the culture of the client is paramount in my mind. Whether Western or Eastern, every society is made up of many subcultures for instance, socio-economic, location and education. By being aware of the cultural diversity within Australia, I contribute in a small way to a more balanced and comprehensive understanding of human psychology.
Author: Catalina Nam, B Social Work (Hons), M Couns, AMHSW.
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, Catalina Nam has extensive experience in counselling including but not limited to: NDIS; veterans; migrants; disability; domestic violence; and seniors; and she has undertaken advanced training in Grief and Loss. Having moved to Australia from Korea in 2003, she has first hand understanding of the challenges of being a migrant.
To make an appointment with Catalina Nam, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
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