Culture can be defined as the values, beliefs and patterns of behaviour shared by a group of people. A variety of factors shape culture and these different factors are reflected in the differences between various cultures.
Universality is when a theory is described as being applicable to all people, irrespective of gender and culture. However, this also means that it needs to include real differences. With regard to culture, one way to achieve universality would be to employ what Berry (1969) described as a derived etic. This is where a series of emic studies take place in local settings, conducted by local researchers using local techniques. Also, studies of conformity (Asch) and obedience (Milgram) revealed very different results when they were replicated in parts of the world outside the USA.
One limitation of this is the distinction between individualism and collectivism, and the reference to culture as individualism vs. Collectivism. Individualist cultures, such as the USA, value individuality and independence, whereas collectivist cultures, such as India, value the group, or family, rather than independence. Although, critics say this is a lazy and simplistic distinction that no longer applies nowadays, and evidence from Taken and Osaka (1999) found no distinction between the two culture types from studies comparing USA and Japan, suggesting seeing the world in this culturally biased way is less of an issue than it once was.
Ethnocentrism means seeing the world only from one’s own cultural perspective, and believing that this one perspective is both normal and correct. Ethnocentrism is an often inadvertent lack of awareness that other ways of seeing things can be as valid as one’s own. Ainsworth’s Strange Situation is an example of ethnocentric research. The Strange Situation was developed to assess attachment types, and many researchers assume that the Strange Situation has the same meaning for the infants from other cultures, as it does for American children. However it was found that German children’s mothers were seen to be a lot more cold and rejecting than American mothers, implying that the research was an imposed etic, where a technique or theory is developed in one culture and then imposed on another.
Limitations have been suggested , saying that cross-cultural research in prone to demand characteristics, and that conducting research in western cultures, the participants’ familiarity with the general aims and objectives of the study are pretty much assumed. In contrast, conducting research in countries where perhaps there is not much historical experience of research, the local populations may be less affected by demand characteristics than those from western countries, threatening the validity of the outcome of results, and those results cannot be generalised universally.
Cultural relativism insists that behaviour can be properly understood only if the cultural context is taken into consideration. Therefore, any study which draws its sample from only one cultural context (like American college students) and then generalises its findings to all people everywhere, is suspect. Sternberg (1985) pointed out that coordination skills that may be essential to life in a preliterate society (e.g those motor skills required for shooting a bow and arrow) may be mostly irrelevant to intelligent behaviour for most people in a literate and more “developed” society.
A strength of this cross cultural research however is that it challenges western assumptions, and their typical ways of thinking and viewing the world. Understanding and comprehending that the views and ideas people in the west have may not be shared by others in other cultures, promoting greater sensitivity to individual differences and cultural relativism. This means that the conclusions psychologists come to are likely to have more validity if they recognise the role of culture in bringing them about.