Presentation Title: Social Justice and the Psychology of Cultural Differences: Toward a New Paradigm

Abstract: Cultural psychology has rarely been directly linked to social justice frameworks. This presentation argues for a social justice perspective in cultural psychology, with a focus on Asians and Asian Americans.

Asian Americans and Asians have been central subjects of cultural psychology research. Theoretical and empirical work in psychology with Asians and Asian Americans has made notable contributions toward moderating the cultural ethnocentrism of American psychology and legitimizing culture as an important consideration in psychology (Bond, 1998). However, persistent efforts to identify and document “cultural differences” between Asians/Asian Americans and Americans/Westerners have relied heavily on the theory of individualism-collectivism as an explanatory variable (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Triandis, 1989). Such cross-cultural or cross-ethnic investigations implicitly equate ethnicity and nationality with “culture.” The psychology of Asians and Asian Americans can be viewed as an illustrative case of the perils of the discipline’s over-reliance on comparative approaches to understanding diversity in psychological processes.

Using a critical history approach to the literature in cultural psychology, I argue that methodological practices in psychology with Asian and Asian American “subjects”—accompanied by theoretical deployments of “culture” within psychology—have inadvertently obstructed social justice goals. I trace the history of critiques within psychology with regard to its ethnocentric lens and its failure to consider intersecting identities and contexts that shape individual behavior. I then point to the ways in which cross-cultural psychology and ethnic minority psychology have been appropriated as remedies to diversify the discipline, yet cross-cultural psychology’s conceptual and paradigmatic legacies have resulted in the field’s over-reliance on simplistic cultural explanations for psychological differences. I use examples from the social psychology of East Asians and Asian American psychology to illustrate this thesis, and I propose a concrete theoretical and empirical agenda toward a more socially just psychology of culture.

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