Transcultural Orientation of Psychology

History of has shown us, that it is not so easy to study psychology transculturally because we tend to see the world through the lens of our own culture. The study of psychology with the emphasis on culture makes for interesting work; in fully understanding another culture, we have little choice but to become more aware of our own culture.

Hudson in the 1960s created simple illustrations on cards to study children from “unacculturated groups” in South Africa who had no exposure to children’s literature familiar to the western world, to see how the children interpreted the images (Hudson, 1967). He learned from experience working with the children that what we take for granted in the form of looking at 2 dimensional drawings while being able to understand the perspectives and interpreting the images as 3 dimensional representations, children who have not learned to see these images simply have no comprehension of them.  Mundy-Castle used the same cards, and the on a separate group of children in Ghana, and made some interesting observations from that as well.

Cicero (in 45BCE) Rome defined cultivation of the soul. In the Middle Ages “cult” is used to mean religious forefathers. By the 18th century, anthropologist, Johan Herder (1744-1803), defined culture as the point of separation between man and nature. He elaborated that language is the adaptation tool of the human species, which is used to pass information down from one generation to the next. Language is something we use for learning.

Studies in neuroscience and cultural anthropology demonstrate that culture is learned. How we perceive the world is how we make meaning to whatever reaches our senses. We learn from our culture through the process of socialization.  This starts with upbringing and continues for life through a lifetime of learning.  The learning process is possible through language.

Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) mentioned that all our thinking is language. This idea is quite similar to Jacques Lacan’s (1901-1981) famous essay, the agency of the letter in the unconscious, that the unconscious is structured like a language (Lacan, 1977). Lacan’s idea is somewhat different because he talks about the “unconscious” and not thinking, and he mentioned that it is structured “like” but not necessarily is, language.  We are faced then with the dilemma of distinguishing between “what we think” and “how we think”.  What seems more plausible, deducing from split-brain studies, is that the right hemisphere thinking is linked to what Freud calls primary processes, while the left hemisphere does the work of the language driven super-ego (Galin, 1974). This would then be contrary to the idea of Lacan.

It is true that we do not know everything about our own culture. Even so much of what we inherit of culture is through upbringing. Throughout life we adapt to changing cultural environment and evolve culturally through a learning process called “enculturation”. This process happens naturally due to influences to the socio-cultural development of our time.

Culture is a dynamic situation that each individual lives with, and every aspect of our lives is culture, and this includes inherited and adopted customs and practices, laws, symbolism, food, technology and taboos. As psychologists or psychotherapists, we have to be aware of our own culture glasses when working cross-culturally.  We also cannot overlook the ever-changing cultural environment in which we live in, and how technology and new habits shape our lives, environment and relationships.  Sherry Turkle (2012), in her book, Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, brings us to the awareness of how we are relying more of technology to get through with the boredom of life. Boredom and loneliness play a key role in our growing dependence on technology. The goal of psychotherapy in this instance is to find the root of these emotions.




Cicero, M. T. (45 BC). Tusculanes (Tusculan Disputations). pp. II, 15.

Galin, D. (1974). Implications for psychiatry of left and right cerebral specialization: A neurophysiological context for unconscious processes.Archives of General Psychiatry, 31(4), 572-583.

Hudson, W. (1967). The study of the problem of pictorial perception among unacculturated groups. International Journal of Psychology, 2(2), 89-107.

Lacan, J. (1977). The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious.

Turkle, S. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic books.



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