In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural psychology and human development

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Reference Works
  • History of Cultural Psychology
  • Developmental Processes
  • Global Relevance of Cultural Psychology
  • Methodology
  • Future Directions

Childhood Studies Cultural psychology and human development
Nandita Chaudhary, Sujata Sriram, Jaan Valsiner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0234


Cultural psychology is a theoretical approach that treats human beings as intimately intertwined with the surrounding social world, which is filled with meanings conveyed through signs. It is based on the axiom that cultural contexts and psychological phenomena are assumed to be mutual, inseparable, and co-constructive. This focus fits the general scientific status of all open systems, which exist only due to the continuous exchange of materials with the environment. Cultural psychology is an integrated approach to psychology rather than a separate branch, as is sometimes believed, since psychology and culture “make each other up.” This involves constructive internalization (intra-mental construction of personal meanings) and equally constructive externalization (changing the environment in the direction specified by the internal meanings). As a collaborative, multidisciplinary perspective, cultural psychology is closely linked with disciplines like anthropology, sociology, linguistics, literature, and others. Cultural psychology focuses on the study of cultural—sign-mediating—processes within the mind. A common misconception relates to the fact that the term “cultural” refers to the study of similarities and differences between various communities. Rather than focusing on static comparisons, meaning-making and dynamic organization of personal and collective reality are studied. Differences between societies are important only as illustrations of the possible patterns of human psychological variation as they emerge in a particular time-space coordinate. Thus, another important axiom is that there can be no psychology without culture. Culture is constructed by goal-oriented human actions and involves continuous thought, action, and emotion in the face of uncertainty. Thus, the centrally important feature of cultural psychology is the inclusion of personal, interpersonal, and collective processes as they make up the different layers of meaning in irreversible time. Culture is both inside a person’s mind, as a personal manifestation, and also a shared system or collective set of customs. Cultural psychologists tend to treat the person as a whole rather than as separate different domains of activity because a comprehensive and multidimensional approach to a person within context is believed to be the key to meaning. Cultural psychology attempts to bring the notion of context into the central focus in psychology and the notion of person back into ethnography, as these are believed to be constructive. Context is viewed in two ways—as inevitably and inseparably linked with the phenomenon and as external social setting (e.g., home, school) in which human activities take place. Another important feature is that “cultural psychology is inherently a developmental discipline and developmental psychology is inherently cultural” (Shwartz, et al. 2020, p. 2). All levels of culturally organized human ways of living—persons, communities, societies—are constantly developing systems.

General Overviews

The discussion of and sources for cultural psychology will bring together its history, from the earliest works of German scholars in the 19th century to contemporary scholarship. Cole 1996 and Valsiner 2007 inform us that the first mention of the term cultural psychology (Kulturpsychologie) can be traced back to the year 1900 and the inaugural text of William Stern in differential psychology. Yet the introduction of this term was preceded by a century of active search for meanings-based human science that started from the natural philosophy (Naturphilosophie) in the first three decades of the 19th century and continued in the fields of Völkerpsychologie (initiated by Chaim Steinthal and Moritz Lazarus) in the second half of the 19th century. Although there are many common features of the different “schools” of psychology, two main perspectives emerge: one from psychology as a base and the other from anthropology as a base. The term “cultural psychology” became actively used from the 1980s onward when the earlier contributions by Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria in the 1920s–30s became recognized by an interdisciplinary group of psychologists, physicians, and educators. Shweder 1991 examines the idea that cultural psychology emerged to promote an integrative psychological theory based on the premise that mind, body, and culture were indivisible, and developmental processes were shaped within sociocultural contexts. Despite these early efforts, the creation of a unified theory remained elusive. However, the influence of these early collaborations influenced many schools of thought as well as the advancement of the field of cultural psychology (Cole 1996). The integration of cultural psychological perspectives with developmental sciences has remained relatively unexplored in the mainstream. Cultural psychology focuses on understanding the ways in which cultural processes and human psychological functioning interact and shape each other through the participation of people in cultural activity (Rogoff 2003) and meaning-making through the use of signs (Valsiner 2007). Rather than the pursuit of cultural universals through comparisons of different societies, cultural psychologists are interested in the exploration of the mutuality between cultural traditions and psychological functioning. An underlying assumption of this process of discovery is that cultural processes can serve different objectives in different contexts and the human experience is an outcome of that mutual co-construction.

  • Cole, Michael. Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1996.

    This volume provides a deeply thoughtful and inspiring introduction to cultural psychology with a reflective overview of developmental psychology as a cultural-historic science. In a synthesis of the theoretical and empirical work that has been formative for cultural psychology as a discipline, Cole’s volume is foundational. The author presents a contextually meaningful exploration of human phenomena through the use of the genetic method, using historical, ontogenetic, and microgenetic analyses.

  • Rogoff, Barbara. The Cultural Nature of Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    This volume contributes to the understanding of cultural patterns of human development through the exploration of similarities and differences in cultural practices. Rather than approaching culture as nationality, the author focuses on people’s routine participation in cultural practices. To understand cultural human development, the objective of this book is to advance the importance of people’s participation in cultural communities.

  • Shweder, Richard A. Thinking through Cultures: Explorations in Cultural Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

    This volume introduces the discipline of cultural psychology, addressing both psychology and anthropology through mutual renewal. The scientific study of persons, cultures, and natures is viewed as co-constructive, and human thought is believed to be inextricably embedded in meaning that is both the product and a component of the mind. A serious critique of the concept of the “person” implicit in Western social science is presented.

  • Valsiner, Jaan. Cultures in Minds and Societies: Foundations of Cultural Psychology. New Delhi: SAGE, 2007.

    The volume studies the relationship between people and society, proposing a semiotic theory of cultural psychology. The place of culture in human lives is dynamic and creative rather than static and singular. Although uniqueness of all human personal experience is recognized, the emphasis is on the universality of cultural organization of human minds and societies. This book is an example of building a universal theory of cultural psychology.

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