Culture and Human Development
- Martin J. PackerMartin J. PackerIndependent Scholar
- and Michael ColeMichael ColeDepartment of Psychology, University of California San Diego
There is growing appreciation of the role of culture in children’s psychological development (also called human ontogenesis). However, there are several distinct approaches to research on this matter. Cross-cultural psychology explores the causal influence of culture on differences in children’s development, treated as dependent variables. Researchers interested in the role of cultural learning in human evolution view culture as beliefs and values that are transferred from the mind of one individual to that of another.
By contrast, “cultural psychology” views culture not as a cause, but a constituent of human psychological functioning. It invites us to pay attention to the fact that humans live in societies filled with material artifacts, tools, and signs that mediate human activity; that is to say, they provide the means with which people interact with the world around them and with one another. From this perspective, culture provides constituents that are essential to human development: it has a constitutive role in development.
Although there continues to be much debate over how to define culture, it is generally agreed that different human social groups have distinct cultures, and it is common to assume that cultural differences lead to differences in the trajectories of children’s development. This is true, but it is also the case that culture is a universal requirement for development. Every child is born into a family and community with a language, customs, and conventions, and in which people occupy institutional roles with rights and responsibilities. These facts define universal requisites of human psychological development and include the acquisition of language, the development of a social identity, the understanding of community obligations, and the ability to contribute to the reproduction of the community. The interdependence of human communities—which probably had its origins in collaborative foraging and cooperative childrearing—seems to have placed species-specific demands on children’s development, selecting for the capacity to acquire a sensitivity not only to people’s goals and intentions but also to rights and responsibilities.