Book Review

Book review: Making sense of human culture: A historical, philosophical, and empirical collection

Judith Gibbons, Reginal Fanjul de Marsicovetere, Paola Garcia-Egan and Ruby Batz review “The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology.”

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Making sense of human culture: A historical, philosophical, and empirical collection

A review of The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology By Jaan Valsiner (Ed.) New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012. 1,130 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-539643-0. $250.00

Reviewed by Judith L. Gibbons, Regina Fanjul de Marsicovetere, Paola Garcia-Egan and Ruby Batz

The Oxford Handbook of Culture and PsychologyWhat is cultural psychology? What are its historical and philosophical roots? What kinds of questions are being pursued in cultural psychology? How might we best bring “culture into psychology as a science” (p. 3)? What do enactivism, positioning theory, folk psychology, cultural–historical activity theory, and macrocultural psychology have in common, and how do they differ? What are the differences between cultural psychology and its cousins, cross- cultural psychology and indigenous psychology? If you are intrigued by these questions, the book to consult is The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology.

The handbook, which is extensive and quite varied, works best as a reference book that researchers can use to inform themselves about the historical origins and divergent directions of the rapidly developing field of cultural psychology. The authors of the 52 chapters hail from 24 different countries, although most are from Europe or North America. The chapters vary in their approach; some are primarily historical or philosophical, highlighting the development of abstract concepts, whereas others report the findings of empirical studies.

The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology is organized into 12 sections that include the history of cultural psychology, its intersection with other disciplines, and its methods. Because the section titles do not reveal a great deal about the content of the book, we looked to the index for clues. The emphasis on philosophical roots of cultural psychology is apparent. Whereas well-known psychologists Hazel Markus and Geert Hofstede have two entries each, the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Marx receive nine and seven entries, respectively. Lev Vygotsky, one of the early thinkers in cultural psychology, is represented in 49 entries; and umvelt, the German word for environment or surrounding world, has 28. Meaning is indexed more often than social psychology. Stevenson is not Harold W., the educator and child development scholar, but Robert Louis Stevenson, the author.

The editor, Jaan Valsiner, sets the stage for this collection by presenting a provocative view of psychology. He implies that the progress of psychology has been hindered by a focus on what is socially relevant and an emphasis on objective science.

Many would take issue with this perspective. For example, Wilson (2005) said that the strengths of social psychology are based in its experimental methods and social relevance. The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (n.d., para. 5) is committed to applying “sound scientific research to a wide array of societal problems.” These are not new debates within psychology: Ardila’s (2007) essay on the nature of psychology discussed long-standing debates in psychology, such as the tension between psychology as scientific versus humanistic and the tension between psychology as an applied, socially relevant profession versus psychology as investigation into human behavior.

In his introduction, Valsiner backs away from defining culture, arguing for the usefulness of a vague and multiply-defined concept. Culture is presented as a fluid process, created by persons interacting in society. Valsiner argues as well that following any single school of psychology is dangerous. He advocates for multiple approaches to addressing the complexity and dynamism of human cultural thinking.

One of the great strengths of this book is that the editor himself points out what is missing. There are no representatives of the “Stanford tradition” spearheaded by Hazel Markus. Culturally informed psychoanalytic traditions are also missing (e.g., Obeyesekere, 1987). Richard Shweder, whose thinking provides the basis for much of cultural psychology, is absent as an author, although his work is frequently cited.

Some sections of the book require prior knowledge of philosophy and a willingness to wade through abstruse arguments and sometimes-awkward English. A much more accessible handbook of cultural psychology is Kitayama and Cohen (2007). A crystal-clear description of the assumptions of cultural psychology and its potential contributions to social psychology can be found there, in a chapter by Markus and Hamedani (2007).

However, there are some chapters in this handbook that we found particularly interesting and thought provoking. Heidi Keller, in Chapter 6, explains how cultural psychology has informed cross-cultural psychology, which in its early form conceived of culture as outside the person and depended heavily on cross-national comparisons.

Indigenous psychology (more often used in the plural form, indigenous psychologies) is a growing field that, as described in Chapter 4 by Pradeep Chakkarath, provides a fresh perspective on the history of psychology, suggesting that the study of the mind and emotions began in countries like India centuries before the word psychology was coined in 19th- century Europe and that what we today tend to identify as psychology is yet one more indigenous, culturally dependent paradigm that may or may not apply to other cultures. (Indigenous psychological approaches have been fostered recently by an electronic mailing list sponsored by the Task Force on Indigenous Psychology, part of Division 32 of the American Psychological Association, Society for Humanistic Psychology.)

An important contribution of this volume is that it provides a glimpse into the enormous advances in psychology that are outside the visual scope of many researchers, who are often entrenched in the English-language literature of psychology. One example is Rainer Diriwächter’s chapter on völkerpsychologie or “folk psychology” that highlights a discipline born in Germany around 1860, lasting several decades and producing over 200 articles regarding the psychological aspects of groups of people living in communities bound by common language, myths, and customs. Another example is Chapter 24 by Ana Cecilia Bastos and Elaine Rabinovich that includes research from psychological journals in Brazil. Brazil currently publishes over 200 journals of psychology, most of which would be unfamiliar to North American and European psychologists (A. V. B. Bastos, personal communication, Oct. 26, 2012).

We found that chapters in this volume are particularly useful and compelling when the authors present vivid examples of the concepts. An example is the chapter by Ernst Boesch in which he describes how he and his wife, originating from different cultures, view their garden through different lenses:

I enjoy the quiet privacy and the soothing green scenery, but I . . . never can remember the names of many trees, cannot distinguish their foliage or bloom, and tend to confound, when mowing the lawn, kitchen herbs with weeds. My wife . . . observes each smallest plant, watches their growth, knows almost personally the frogs and newts in the pond, and distinguishes not only the song of different birds but even its change when a cat prowls in the garden. (p. 351)

In other words, the same objective reality takes on different meanings and significance when perceived from distinct cultural viewpoints.

Another compelling chapter is Chapter 27, “Risk and Culture.” There, Bob Heyman provides valuable insights into cultural risk thinking, drawing implications for fields such as public health, education, and social care. The vivid examples in this chapter, based on Heyman’s own research, have to do with the important practical question of assessing the risk of having a child with Down’s syndrome. Reviewer Batz, with training in early intervention, has been constantly challenged by the intercountry variation in risk consciousness within public health systems. She notes that national discourses vary in their attention to risk and to preventative care.

Reviewer Paola García-Egan, who regularly teaches courses in ethics, found three chapters to be particularly interesting and useful. In Chapter 35, Angela Uchoa Branco argues that the study of values has been handicapped by its emphasis on cognitive contributions to morality, as in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Instead she would like to see affect, motivation, and culture incorporated into moral development theories.

In Chapter 38, Fathali Moghaddam and his collaborators analyze supererogatory acts to better understand moral behavior. Supererogatory acts are those that are beyond the call of duty, are praiseworthy, and whose omission is not blameworthy. Such sacrifices can help us understand whether there are universals with respect to moral rights and duties.

In Chapter 46, Manfred Holodynski and Wolfgang Friedlmeier present emotions as a double interaction between biology and environment; although all babies are biologically programmed to experience emotions, it is the social environment that models which emotions are permitted and encouraged in certain situations and which are not accepted. In other words, how humans interpret and experience emotions depends on their culture.

In sum, The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology will challenge readers to understand the complexity and variety of human cultural psychology. Libraries and individual scholars, such as academic psychologists and social scientists interested in cultural phenomena, will want it on their shelves as a reference source.


Ardila, R. (2007). The nature of psychology: The great dilemmas. American Psychologist, 62, 906–912. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.62.8.906

Kitayama, S., & Cohen, D. (Eds.). (2007). Handbook of cultural psychology. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Markus, H. R., & Hamedani, M. Y. G. (2007). Sociocultural psychology: The dynamic interdependence among self systems and social systems. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of cultural psychology (pp. 3–39). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Obeyesekere, G. (1987). Reflections on Pattini and Medusa. Contributions to IndianSociology, 21, 99–109. doi:10.1177/006996687021001010

Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. (n.d.). SPSSI policy program. Retrieved from index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.viewPage&pageId=471

Wilson, T. D. (2005). The message is the method: Celebrating and exporting the experimental approach. Psychological Inquiry, 16, 185–193. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli1604_09