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Self as Cultural Product: An Examination of East Asian and North ...

Self as Cultural Product: An Examination of East Asian and North ...

884 Heine

884 Heine Cultural psychology does not view culture as a superficial wrapping of the self, or as a framework within which selves interact, but as something that is intrinsic to the self. It assumes that without culture there is no self, only a biological entity deprived of its potential (Geertz, 1973). Individual selves are inextricably grounded in a configuration of consensual understandings and behavioral customs particular to a given cultural and historical context. Hence, understanding the self requires an understanding of the culture that sustains it. Cultural psychologists are thus more likely to prefer methodologies that examine the self in situ and tend to interpret their findings within the context of the culture under study (e.g., Greenfield, 1997). Features of North American and East Asian Selves This paper reviews literature conducted in two broad cultural contexts, those from largely European middle-class backgrounds of Canada and the United States, and those with a significant Confucian heritage (specifically, China, Japan, and Korea). For the purpose of brevity, I will refer to these two cultural groups asNorth American” and “East Asian” throughout this paper. Clearly, there is much variability among the different cultures encompassed by these labels, and even more variability among individuals living in those cultures. Moreover, the psychological processes, which I describe in this review, certainly exist within all individuals, varying in degree and depending on context. Throughout this paper, I refer to dichotomies of culture and psychological phenomena in order to highlight broad patterns by which we can identify the influence of culture on self. These two cultural groups have been selected as they are most represented in the literature comparing the self-concept cross-culturally over the past decade, and a number of authors have described them as theoretically distinct (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Triandis, 1989). There is much evidence to suggest that American culture represents a rather extreme case of individualism. The United States was founded on an ideology that emphasizes the importance of self-determination and individual rights. Lipset (1996) documents the variety of ways that U.S. culture is a clear outlier in terms of cultural and social markers of individualism: for example, his cross-national comparisons reveal that the United States is the only industrialized nation never to have a viable

Self as Cultural Product 885 socialist movement; it has the world’s highest productivity per capita, the highest divorce rate, the highest crime rate among industrialized nations, the greatest number of offices that are open for election and the greatest frequency with which these elections are held, the highest rates of litigiousness, and among the highest rates of volunteerism and individual philanthropy. It seems reasonable to conclude that at present individualism exists in no purer form than it does in the United States. The extreme nature of American individualism suggests that a psychology based on late 20th century American research not only stands the risk of developing models that are particular to that culture, but also of developing an understanding of the self that is peculiar in the context of the world’s cultures (Geertz, 1975). Canada appears considerably less individualistic than the United States along these dimensions, although a reasonable argument could be made that Canada more closely resembles the United States culturally and psychologically than any other nation. China, Japan, and Korea, although each culturally distinct from one another in many ways, share a number of cultural elements that provide a theoretically meaningful contrast with North American independent selves. The East Asian self is typically described as being collectivistic or interdependent, reflecting the significant role of relationships with ingroup members in the construction of the self (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Triandis, 1989). In particular, this interdependence is shaped by their common Confucian heritage. Central among Confucianism is the value placed on the maintenance of interpersonal harmony within one’s five cardinal relationships: father-son, husband-wife, elderyounger, emperor-subject, and friend-friend (Su et al., 1999). The roles associated with these relationships each bear specific obligations, and the roles themselves are relatively fixed within each relationship. For harmony to be achieved within any hierarchical unit, it is essential for individuals’actions to correspond with their roles. It requires individuals to know their place and to act accordingly. Cultural psychology maintains that the process of becoming a self is contingent on individuals interacting with and seizing meanings from the cultural environment. Thus, the resultant self-concept that will emerge from participating in highly individualized North American culture will differ importantly from the self-concept that results from the participation in the Confucian interdependence of East Asian culture. Below I discuss some psychological dimensions by which these two cultural groups diverge.

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