The problem at hand
Culture is the elephant of Sufi legend – complicated, obscure, and ponderous, a daunting Rorschach of puzzling complexity. Kynna, a character in Renault's (2002) Funeral Games, confronts an alien culture with this reaction:
Kynna kept a cheerful countenance, but felt her spirits flag. The alien speech of the passersby, the inscrutable monuments, the unknown landscape, the vanishing of all she had pictured in advance, were draining her of certainty…she had known that the world was vast, but at home in her native hills, it had had no meaning. Now, on the threshold of the illimitable East, she felt like a desolate in its indifferent strangeness. (p. 74)
The use of culture as a variable of interest in scientific psychology yields studies reporting arresting differences between cultural groups in whatever response is of interest to the psychologist – be it pace of life, helping behavior, public staring, physical proximity, the content of complaint letters to government officials, or apologizing. These observed differences provoke intriguing speculations about their origins. Such speculations are often embedded in “thick description” and comparison of the social systems in question, are historically informed, and consider institutionally diverse factors that may lead to the different observed outcomes. Scholars present these “explanations” with experience and insight into the cultures involved. Because most readers are novices with respect to the cultures concerned, they are persuaded by the sophisticated argumentation on offer. But is it right?
This chapter describes how we can develop and test models of cross-cultural differences. We argue that an analytical approach to culture is adequate to explain cross-cultural differences but that we should try to be as specific as possible in such explanations. Saying that a particular Chinese person has a strong family orientation (compared with a Westerner) because he or she is Chinese does not tell us much. It is more informative to say that Chinese have a strong family orientation because they have been socialized for greater dependency on the family compared with persons in Western cultures. Our approach focuses on the identification of cultural elements that can explain such cross-cultural differences; we then show how these elements perform their explanatory role.