Book review: Attaining the epistemological goal of indigenous psychology

Catherine Tien-Lun Sun reviews "Foundations of Chinese Psychology: Confucian Social Relations."

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Attaining the epistemological goal of indigenous psychology

2012-12-PI-PsycCRITIQUESA review of "Foundations of Chinese Psychology: Confucian Social Relations" By Kwang-Kuo Hwang. New York: Spring Science + Business Media, 2012. 378 pp. ISBN 978-1-4614-1438-4. $129.00

Reviewed by Catherine Tien-Lun Sun

“Foundations of Chinese Psychology: Confucian Social Relations” is an English version of “Confucian Relationalism: Philosophical Reflection, Theoretical Construction, and Empirical Research,” published in Chinese in 2009. The 13-chapter book is based on Kwang-Kuo Hwang’s previous published works, in particular, the ideas he developed on Confucian relationalism as the foundation of Chinese psychology.

The centerpiece of this book is his face-and-favor model, which he developed in 1987 and later refined to be used as an exemplar in the epistemological development of indigenous psychology in non-Western cultures (Hwang, 1995, 2000, 2006a, 2006b). Hwang argued for the adoption of a tripartite approach to achieve the epistemological goal of indigenous psychology, namely, philosophical reflection, theoretical construction, and empirical research. Chapters 1-5 deal primarily with philosophical reflection, whereas chapters 6-12 demonstrate theoretical construction and endeavors in empirical research.

Face-and-favor model

When the face-and-favor model was first introduced (Hwang, 1987), it was intended to explicate the structure of social exchange and social justice in Chinese cultures. The model outlined four kinds of interpersonal relationships.

Expressive ties are stable and occur between members of primary groups such as family and close friends and operate according to the need rule. Instrumental ties are diametric opposites of expressive ties and operate on the basis of the equity rule. They are unstable and temporary, occurring between strangers for the accomplishment of goals of common interests. Mixed ties lie somewhere between expressive and instrumental ties and refer to relationships between people who are known to each other. In mixed ties, the allocation of resources follows the rule of empathic reciprocity. The fourth kind of relationship is the vertical relationship between the petitioner and allocator of resources, and it operates according to the rules of ritual propriety.

In a later work, Hwang (2000) introduced two important concepts. First, he illustrated the respective application of the Confucian tenets of “ren” (benevolence), “yi” (righteousness), and “li” (propriety) in judging the expressive and instrumental components of the relationship, determining the rule of social exchange, and managing psychological conflicts. Second, he demonstrated how these four types of interpersonal relationships correspond to the four elementary forms of social behavior described by Fiske (1992), namely communal sharing, equality matching, market pricing, and authority ranking. For instance, in the Chinese culture, which is characterized by Confucian relationalism, the petitioner and allocator of resources in an ingroup are bound by expressive ties and are likely to observe the rules of communal sharing; in individualistic cultures such as the United States, interpersonal ties would tend to be instrumental, and social behavior would similarly emphasize market pricing.

Indigenous psychology

As an ardent proponent of the development of indigenous psychology, Hwang has always contended that such development should not adopt an inductive or bottom-up approach, as the findings from such an approach are often too fragmented and impossible to be understood by those from outside the culture. Instead, he drew from the work of Shweder et al. (1998) to pinpoint that the epistemological goal of indigenous psychology must follow the principle of “one mind, many mentalities” (p. xiii). In other words, the epistemological goal of indigenous psychology is to aim at constructing a series of theories that “represents not only the universal mind of human beings, but also the particular mentality of a people within a given society” (p. xiii).

To achieve this, Hwang suggested that a tripartite approach be adopted, namely, philosophical reflection, theoretical construction, and empirical research. This approach is elucidated in the evolvement of the face-and-favor model, which started with a consideration of the inadequacy of the Western presumption of individualism to explain social behavior in non-Western cultures, such as the Chinese. Theoretical construction then followed, in which the presumption of individualism was replaced with the presumption of relationalism in an attempt to create a body of knowledge in social psychology that would more adequately explain and guide social behavior in non-Western cultures. Metatheory analysis and quantitative and qualitative research ensued to put the theory to the test for its degree of approximation to the truth.

Hwang’s book embodies a detailed account of the manner in which the tripartite approach guided the construction of a series of theoretical models on Confucian relationalism in understanding Chinese moral thought and moral judgment, social exchange, life goals and achievement motivation, face and morality, “guanxi” (relationship) management, and conflict resolution.

Intended readership

Huang’s book is an important resource. First, it reveals the construction of a series of theoretical models on Confucian relationalism as foundations of Chinese psychology. Second, it makes a valiant attempt at untangling the link between individualism and universalism. Third, it challenges the relevance of the presumption of individualism in the construction of theories of social psychology for non-Western cultures, and it illustrates through empirical research the relevance of the alternative presumption of relationalism. Fourth, it demonstrates the wisdom of adopting a tripartite approach of philosophical reflection, theoretical construction, and research to achieve the epistemological goal of indigenous psychology. “Foundations of Chinese Psychology: Confucian Social Relations” makes an invaluable contribution for students, teachers, scholars, and researchers in the fields of Chinese psychology and indigenous psychology.


Fiske, A. P. (1992). The four elementary forms of sociality: Framework for a unified theory of social relations. Psychological Review, 99, 689–723. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.99.4.689

Hwang, K. K. (1987). Face and favor: The Chinese power game. American Journal of Sociology, 92, 944–974. doi:10.1086/228588

Hwang, K. K. (1995). Knowledge and action: A social psychological interpretation of Chinese psychological tradition [in Chinese]. Taipei, Taiwan: Psychological Publishing.

Hwang, K. K. (2000). Chinese relationalism: Theoretical construction and methodological construction. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 30, 155–178. doi:10.1111/1468-5914.00124

Hwang, K. K. (2006a). Constructive realism and Confucian relationalism: An epistemological strategy for the development of indigenous psychology. In U. Kim, K. S. Yang, & K. K. Hwang (Eds.), Indigenous and cultural psychology: Understanding people in context (pp. 73–108). New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media.

Hwang, K. K. (2006b). Moral face and social face: Contingent self-esteem in Confucian society. International Journal of Psychology, 41, 276–281. doi:10.1080/00207590544000040

Shweder, R. A., Goodnow, J., Hatano, G., LeVine, R., Markus, H., & Miller, P. (1998). The cultural psychology of development: One mind, many mentalities. In W. Damon (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 865–937). New York, NY: Wiley.