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date: 24 June 2021

Culture and Human Developmentfree

Culture and Human Developmentfree

  • 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.


  • Cognitive Psychology/Neuroscience
  • Developmental Psychology


There is growing appreciation of the importance of culture in children’s psychological development. It can be argued that the most important characteristic that defines human beings is our ability to arrange culturally organized environments. Every human child is born into a community, a society with a culture, in which he or she will live, grow, and develop. This community is essential for children’s survival, and in time they will become able to fully participate in it, and so to help reproduce and even transform the community and its culture.

For much of the history of developmental psychology, the role of culture was ignored or reduced to a simple influence such as shaping behavior or socialization. Today, 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 (cf. Ellis & Stam, 2015; Keith & Allen, 2013). Indigenous psychology studies folk theories regarding children’s development (Greenfield, 2000; Hwang, 2016). Researchers interested in the role of cultural inheritance view culture as beliefs and values that are transferred from the mind of one individual to that of another (Heyes, 2017; Legare, 2017; Tomasello, 2016).

By contrast, “cultural psychology”—which is the approach adopted in this article—views culture not as a cause, but as a constituent of human psychological functioning (e.g., Cole, 1996; Cole, Cole, & Lightfoot, 2013; Cole & Packer, 2011; Packer, 2017). 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, 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: culture 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 details of children’s development. However, 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, in which people occupy institutional roles with rights and responsibilities. These facts define universal requisites of human psychological development, including 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.

From the perspective of cultural psychology, children’s development is a process in which biology and culture are interwoven. In this process, neither of these constituents alone is sufficient for development to occur, and neither is reducible to the other. Rather, “culture and biology mutually define themselves in human development” (Greenfield, 2002, p. 57). One might say that in human development, processes studied by biologists are interwoven with processes (sometimes the same ones) studied by anthropologists, so that increasingly complex psychological functions emerge.

This article first discusses the issue of “Defining Culture,” then introduces some of the “Basic Ideas and Key Proponents of Cultural Psychology,” before comparing the research methodologies of cross-cultural psychology and cultural psychology in “Cross-Cultural Research on Children’s Development” and “Cultural Research on Children’s Development.” Then follows “Developmental Pathways in Cultural Context,” a short summary of research demonstrating the multiple, diverse pathways of children’s development around the world, including a typology of “Family Models.” Next “Developmental Stages and Transitions in Cultural Context” and “Cultural Variations in these Developmental Transitions” are discussed. Finally “Design Research” is described as a methodology for cultural psychology, before “Conclusions” are presented.

Defining Culture

The term “culture” has been used in a variety of formal and informal ways, but a widely accepted definition has been remarkably difficult to achieve. Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) collected 164 definitions; more recently Baldwin and colleagues found 313 (Baldwin, Faulkner, Hecht, & Lindsley, 2006). Since the cognitive revolution of the 1950s, it has been popular to define culture as the beliefs, skills, and values possessed by individual members of a community. The following is a typical definition of this type: culture is “information stored in brains, rather than genes” (Mesoudi, 2016, p. 17).

By contrast, anthropologist Clifford Geertz insisted that “The interminable, because unterminable, debate within anthropology as to whether culture is ‘subjective’ or ‘objective,’ together with the mutual exchange of intellectualist insults (‘idealist!’–‘materialist!’; ‘mentalist!’–‘behaviorist!’; ‘impressionist!’– ‘positivist!’) which accompanies it, is wholly misconceived” (Geertz, 1973, p. 10). It would be a mistake, Geertz proposed, to think that culture is in people’s heads, or equally that it is merely physical behavior. Culture, he argued, is in “the public world of common life”: in public practices, social events, and institutions.

Following this line of reasoning, the authors have argued that culture is most appropriately conceptualized as the medium in which humans live and develop (Cole, 1996; Cole & Packer, 2011; Packer & Goicoechea, 2000). That is to say, culture should be defined in terms of material artifacts and the ways in which these mediate activities in “the public world of common life.” Every artifact is an aspect of the physical world that has been modified over the history of its incorporation into goal-directed practical activity. This may seem a narrow focus, but human artifacts include not only simple everyday tools and signs but also complex material representations, including speech, text, diagrams, and works of art. Spoken language, for example, is a modification of the material flow of the air people breathe. Printed language is a modification of ink on paper or of patterns of light on a screen. The modern smartphone, whose operation depends on sophisticated semiconductor technology that embodies and executes complex programming languages, is another example.

Like every other living species, humans have modified their circumstances to create “environmental niches.” The environmental niche of humans, however, is distinctive in that it is an “institutional reality” made up of entities that have been assigned special powers and consequently can perform new functions, so that they are “institutional facts” (Searle, 2009). A dollar bill, for example, is paper that can be exchanged for goods and services. A professor is a person who has both the obligation and the right to evaluate students’ learning. A woman may be “Professor Jones” when she is in the classroom, but she is “Mommy” when she is at home. Not only her obligations but also her identity changes as she moves from work to home. In summary, each institution consists of an ontology (what is in the world: kinds of entity) and a deontology (what ought to be done: rights and responsibilities).

For example, people in the United States live in an institutional reality of senators, freeways, schools, grocery stores, dollars, and hedge fund managers. The Matsigenka in the Amazon, by contrast, live in an institutional reality of spirits, co-wives, cotton spinning, and manioc beer, each with their rights and responsibilities. Americans can do things with a dollar bill that they cannot do with just any piece of paper. Among the Matsigenka, a man is obliged not to marry the daughter of his uncle because she counts as his sister, but he has the right to marry the daughter of his aunt (Johnson, 2003). The ontology and deontology of an institution are public matters, as Geertz noted, not private beliefs or values. It follows, then, that culture can be defined as the ontologies and deontologies of the institutions of a community.

Cultural Psychology: Basic Ideas and Key Proponents

Cultural psychology focuses, then, on the role that culture plays as a key constituent in every child’s psychological development. Here, the ideas of the 20th-century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky continue to be important because he was the first modern psychologist to develop a comprehensive account of the role of culture in human development. Like other psychologists of his time, such as Piaget, Vygotsky insisted that every child actively makes sense of the world. Unlike Piaget, however, he insisted that there is always a “social moment” in individual development.

Vygotsky described this social moment in several ways. One was in terms of what he called the “general law of cultural development,” which states that every psychological function appears twice, first on a social and interpersonal level, and second on an individual and intrapersonal level:

Every function in the cultural development of the child appears on the stage twice, in two forms. First it appears as social, then as psychological; first as a form of cooperation among people, as a group, as an interpsychical category, and then as a means of individual behavior, as an intrapsychical category.

(Vygotsky, 1987)

Vygotsky viewed human psychological development as driven by the child’s need to live in a social world: “the fundamental definitive necessity of all human life,” he wrote, is “the necessity to live in a historical, social environment and to reconstruct all organic function in agreement with the demands set forth by the environment” (Vygotsky, 1993, p. 155). He insisted that psychology needs to recognize the difference between “lower psychological functions” and “higher psychological functions.” The latter, he argued, develop only because the child lives within a culture, embedded in relationships with significant other people, and employs the artifacts that this community makes available. Cultural artifacts—especially language—enable the child to gain mastery of lower psychological functions and transform them. Higher psychological functions include deliberate memory, conceptual thinking, emotions evoked by works of art, and so on.

Vygotsky placed particular emphasis on the importance of language in children’s development. Both oral speech and written language are systems of artifacts that mediate interactions among people. Vygotsky argued that in consequence, they provide the opportunity for children to learn to act on themselves. He also made the proposal, radical for his time and still today, that child who are blind or deaf are not handicapped except insofar as they have to live in a world organized for the seeing and hearing. In other words, deficits are produced by society, and this means their treatment should take the form of a redesign of the environment. Experimental schools for the blind or deaf based on these ideas were tremendously successful.

Outside Russia, calls for attention to culture in psychology began in the 1960s and 1970s, along with criticisms of the cognitive paradigm that dominated psychology at that time. Jerome Bruner is often considered to be a proponent, indeed one of the founders, of the cognitive perspective in psychology, but he also had a strong interest in culture. This was evident in a 1964 paper titled The Course of Cognitive Growth, in which Bruner proposed that “the development of human intellectual functioning from infancy to such perfection as it may reach is shaped by a series of technological advances in the use of mind” (Bruner, 1964, p. 1). These technological advances, he suggested, act as “cultural amplifiers” of human motor capacities (tools, the lever, the wheel, various modern devices), amplifiers of human sensory abilities (the microscope, the microphone), and amplifiers of human reasoning capacities (“from language systems to myth and theory and explanation” [Bruner, 1964, p. 1]). In Acts of Meaning (1990), Bruner argued that whereas cognitive psychology had focused on what he called “mindless” computation, attention should be paid to folk psychology: the culturally constituted cognitive systems that people use to “organize their experience in, knowledge about, and transactions with the social world” (Bruner, 1990, p. 35).

Another characterization of cultural psychology has been offered by Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist. Shweder, whose books include Cultural Psychology: Essays on Comparative Human Development (Stigler, Shweder, & Herdt, 1990), views the field as an interdisciplinary one that investigates the fact that “there are distinctive psychologies associated with alternative ways of life” (Shweder, 1999, p. 64). Cultural psychology, in Shweder’s view, is attentive to “local conceptions of what is true, good, beautiful, and efficient” (Shweder, 1999, p. 66), along with the ways people face up to universal questions of human existence. Shweder concludes, “Cultural psychology is thus the study of the way the human mind can be transformed, given shape and definition, and made functional in a number of different ways that are not uniformly distributed across communities around the world” (Shweder, 1999, p. 68).

Both Bruner and Shweder argued that the cognitive revolution of the 1950s and 1960s failed because it studied not meaning, but information. The computer model, they and other cultural psychologists argued, is a form of reductionism. What is needed, they proposed, is a return to the phenomena of meaning: to the semantics and pragmatics of language, the significance that humans find in their worlds, the symbolic mediation of human action, the intentionality (object directedness) of human consciousness, and the constitution of mind by culture.

Cross-Cultural Research on Children’s Development

The ways that researchers in psychology study the role of culture in children’s development reflect their definition of culture. In cross-cultural research, culture is assumed to be something that “belongs to” the individual. When a Japanese child is studied it is assumed that this is a way to study Japanese culture, or at least the influence of Japanese culture, even when that child is studied outside Japan. This is the familiar definition of culture as “in the mind,” as individual beliefs and values.

Consequently, cross-cultural research uses a type of design called quasi-experimental: two or more groups of people who differ in their cultural histories are compared on one or more tasks or measures. The participants cannot be randomly assigned for both practical and ethical reasons: if a researcher is comparing children in Japanese and American cultures, for example, they cannot randomly assign each child to live in Japan or in the United States. In fact, they are interested in the comparisons precisely because the children have had different cultural experiences. The result is that quasi-experiments have limited validity because the independent variable (culture) is not being manipulated by the researcher.

Furthermore, to equate culture with nationality (or any other geographical entity) introduces further problems. A nation is a political unit; nations are often made up of many communities; and they differ on characteristics such as topography, climate, and resources, that are presumably distinct from culture. When children from two different nations are compared, there is usually no way of knowing which of these differences produces the observed outcomes.

Most importantly, the cross-cultural approach to the investigation of culture treats it as a causal factor, and evidence for a cultural influence is assumed to take the form of differences between groups. It is common to assume that biology defines a universal human nature, whereas culture is responsible for differences among peoples; but sometimes culture creates something universal to all humans, and sometimes biology creates human differences. For example, the universal ability to speak a language requires participation in a speech community. At the same time, there is growing evidence that genetic differences among human communities have psychological consequences (Laland, Odling-Smee, & Myles, 2010).

In short, when the role of culture is studied using a quasi-experimental research design, severe methodological difficulties arise, and these make it difficult for researchers to draw clear inferences about culture and psychological development (Boesch, 1996).

Cultural Research on Children’s Development

Whereas cross-cultural research studies children from different cultures, cultural psychology studies children in different cultures, in their interactions with other members of their community. Comparisons are made, but these are comparisons of children in everyday contexts, not quasi-experimental designs employing standardized test procedures. This article calls this “cultural research,” to distinguish it from “cross-cultural research.” In a later section, the article describes one from the range of methodologies of cultural research: “Design Research.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers keen to conduct research on children’s development in cultural context tried to use standardized cognitive tasks and discovered that the tasks traveled badly (Cole & Scribner, 1974). It also became apparent that cognitive skills that researchers had presumed were universal were actually linked to the practices and institutions of formal schooling in Western society (Cole, Gay, Click, & Sharp, 1971; Rogoff, 1981).

For example, research using Piagetian tasks appeared to demonstrate that many adults do not develop formal operational thinking and that even concrete operational capacities, such as conservation, show up much later than one might expect, if at all. Other research found that when people from traditional cultures fail to respond logically when presented with logical syllogisms, it is because they are unwilling to accept hypothetical—“unverifiable”—premises. This finding suggested that syllogistic reasoning should be seen as a learned language game rather than an individual cognitive capacity (Scribner, 1975). Researchers found that schooling improves only particular kinds of intellectual performance, implying that “cognitive tests [don’t] reveal a general ability across tasks unrelated to people’s experience” (Rogoff & Chavajay, 1995, p. 863).

Consequently, when cultural researchers give children tasks, they try to ensure that these tasks have “ecological validity” (Cole, Hood, & McDermott, 1978). To achieve this, cultural psychologists have made use of ethnographic methods and have often collaborated with anthropologists. Ethnographic studies of children provide

a descriptive account, based on field observations and interviews, of the lives, activities, and experiences of children in a particular place and time, and of the contexts—social, cultural, institutional, economic—that make sense of their behavior there and then.

(LeVine, 2007, p. 247)

The next section, “Developmental Pathways in Cultural Context,” describes some of the outcomes of such research.

Developmental Pathways in Cultural Context

Like many anthropologists, cultural psychologists maintain that children’s development can be adequately understood only in terms of its culturally organized context. Theories of children’s psychological development—cognitive, moral, attachment relations, and so on—have often taken the form of a set of stages that are presented as universal. What has been considered “normal” development is often based on familiarity with, and studies of, only children in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) settings (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). But what diverges from “normal” may in fact be an adaptative response to specific circumstances: difference does not mean deficit. Ethnographic research by both psychologists and anthropologists has demonstrated clearly that there are multiple alternative healthy pathways for child development.

For example, anthropologists John and Beatrice Whiting conducted some of the first large-scale systematic cross-cultural comparisons to test hypotheses about the ways parenting practices have enduring psychological consequences for children, in what they called a “psychocultural” approach. In the 1960s, they organized the Six Cultures Study of Socialization, a large comparative study of childrearing and child development in Mexico, the United States (New England), Japan, the Philippines, India, and Kenya (Whiting, 1963). All the communities were settled agriculturalists except in New England.

The Whitings proposed that childrearing is part of a linear causal chain (Keller, 2010) in which childcare depends on the “domestic organization” of the family, which in turn rests on the basic “maintenance systems” of a society, determined by its local ecology. The crops that can be grown, and the success of fishing, hunting, or herding animals, depend on the soil, rainfall, and linkages to other communities with whom goods can be exchanged. These aspects of how the community derives a living from the local ecology influence the ways that dwellings are constructed and arranged spatially, and the way the household is organized: the size of the family, relations among the generations, sexual division of labor, and so on. The practices of childrearing—for example, who takes care of the infant, tasks assigned to older children, and discipline—depend on this domestic organization. The Whitings hypothesized that aspects of adult personality would be products of these childrearing practices, and personality would be expressed in aspects of the culture: religion and magic, ritual and recreation—even rates of crime and suicide (LeVine, 2010; Whiting, 1963). They emphasized cultural variability in childhood, while still maintaining that there is a “transculturally universal grammar of behavior” that children draw on (Whiting & Edwards, 1988, p. 17).

In the 1960s, researchers started to conduct ethnographic studies of childcare in hunter-gatherer communities, assuming that this lifestyle resembles that of early Homo sapiens (many are reprinted in LeVine & New, 2008). They conducted detailed observations of infant behavior and interactions, and confirmed that young infants are already participating in the practices of their communities. Care for infants in such communities differs in interesting ways from what is often considered normal practice in industrialized societies, and also from what occurs in agrarian societies, centered around agriculture.

For example, the Efe are hunters and gatherers in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). They live in camps of from 6 to 50 people and are semi-nomadic, moving every four to six weeks. They forage with bow and arrow, or work as laborers in nearby farm communities. The Efe employ a system of multiple caretaking (Tronick, Morelli, & Ivey, 1992). They value cooperation and sharing, and there is continuous social contact and interaction among community members. Infants spend a lot of time away from their mothers, passed among many individuals and suckled by other women. The infant’s needs for nutrition and warmth are met by access to plenty of milk and continual physical contact, in an environment where the temperature is between 17 and 22 degrees Centigrade. Toddlers are free to wander around the camp to watch adults at work, making tools, or cooking, and they are allowed to enter, uninvited, most of the huts. From the age of three, young children go with their parents to gather food, collect firewood, and work in the gardens. There are very few activities where adults focus exclusively on their children; instead, children participate alongside adults in whatever they are doing.

By contrast, the Ngandu are an agricultural community that live in the same tropical forest as the Efe. Despite infant mortality rates being similar to those of the hunter-gatherers, Ngandu caregivers both interact more with their infants and leave them alone more often than do the Efe. Infants are carried on the back; they are dressed more completely; and small chairs, beds, and mats are made for them. These and other differences between the Ngandu and their hunter-gatherer neighbors indicate that local ecology alone does not determine style of childcare or children’s developmental pathway. What is important is the mode of subsistence in this ecology: in this case, hunting and foraging versus agriculture (Hewlett & Lamb, 2002).

Family Models

The connections among subsistence, the arrangements of care for children, and expectations for their psychological development have been explored in more detail in several interesting research programs that attempt to define key dimensions that can characterize cultural ecologies.

In the case of modern societies, it has been common to distinguish those that are “individualistic” and foster independence from those that are “collectivist” and foster interdependence. However, Turkish psychologist Cigdem Kağitcibaşi (2005) suggested that independence and interdependence should be considered not as mutually exclusive alternatives, but as two independent dimensions, both of which are important in every culture. If each dimension is dichotomous, there are four different kinds of childcare context, each of which defines a “family model” with specific practices of childcare and distinct goals for how children should develop, and so a distinct developmental pathway (see Fig. 1).

Interdependent Family Model

This family model emphasizes interdependence and obedience. For families in traditional rural farming societies, but also for poorer families in urban settings, interdependence among the generations is crucial. Children are a valuable resource for parents and contribute to the family’s economic and social activities. Family size tends to be large, and siblings support and care for one another. Interdependence is encouraged rather than independence, and autonomy in a child can be seen as a threat, so parenting tends to emphasize obedience. Obedience is indeed adaptive when children will engage in simple agricultural or manual labor as they grow up. As parents get older, they become increasingly dependent on their children, so interconnection continues to be emphasized. This interdependent family model has been found in large parts of Asia in traditional cultures as well as among ethnic migrants in Western societies. It is also found in poor, marginalized groups in the West, such as lower-income African Americans.

Independent Family Model

This family model emphasizes autonomy and independence, and is more common in urban families with more schooling. Greater economic resources and higher levels of education mean that older adults are less likely to become dependent on their children, and may even view such dependence as unacceptable. Children represent a cost to the family rather than a resource, so family size is smaller, and each child receives focused attention from his or her parents. The child’s autonomy is not viewed as a threat to the family; instead, it is valued and encouraged. The goal of parenting tends to be the child’s separation from the family to establish their own independent nuclear family.

Autonomous Relatedness Family Model

It is often assumed that there is a general historical movement from the interdependent family to the independent family as economic development and urbanization increase. However, although this may occur in some circumstances, there is evidence that in many circumstances a third model is emerging: the autonomous relatedness family model. A global tendency for traditional families with patterns of generational interdependence to move to urban settings has created the conditions for a transformation in family dynamics, but not toward individualism. In many parts of the world—such as Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore—urbanization and economic development have taken place without a shift toward individualism.

The autonomous relatedness family model emphasizes both autonomy and interdependence or connection. With the increasing affluence that often comes from participating in a wage economy, intergenerational economic and material support within the family may no longer be necessary. However, members of the family will continue to value their connection and emotional interdependence, so psychological interdependence continues to be valued in children. At the same time, there is space for children to develop autonomy, because this is no longer considered a threat to family survival. On the contrary, autonomy is an asset in the new social context because both school and workplace require individual decision-making. Consequently, autonomy is encouraged in young children, but it emerges on the basis of continued emotional connection within the family. Parenting tends to be controlling rather than permissive, but children understand this as a sign of involvement and support rather than as authoritarian manipulation. Both relatedness and autonomy are encouraged, rather than obedience. In addition, the overall goal of parenting is not that the child will ultimately separate from the family.

Hierarchical Neglecting Family Model

Finally, there are childcare practices of indifference and neglect, which foster a heteronomous-separate self, but these are relatively uncommon.

Figure 1. Dimensions of agency and interpersonal distance, and the four family models that they define (based on Kağitcibaşi, 2005).

Developmental Stages and Transitions in Cultural Context

It is widely acknowledged that children’s development is marked by periods of relative stability interrupted by times of rapid change: it is an alternation of stages and transitions. Cultural psychologists propose that stages are qualitatively distinct from one another not only in the form of intelligence that the child employs (as Piaget noted) but also in the child’s way of engaging with the world. Each stage involves a specific way of relating to the world and relating to self, and as a result a distinct way of experiencing and understanding. Transitions, by contrast, are times when there is dramatic change in a child’s way of engaging with the world, so he or she discovers new possibilities in that world and gains a new sense of self. During the stage that follows, the child progressively masters this new way of engaging with the world. Transitions are changes not only in the child but in the whole child-caregiver-niche system:

Anthropologists have long recognized another feature of [developmental] transitions: They are potentially dangerous as well as hopeful. They represent changes in the social order, in social relationships, and in personal identity, changes in which many in the community have a stake. They are often, therefore, marked through rituals, initiations, ceremonies, and special, culturally marked events.

(Weisner, 1996, p. 296)

In addition, with each transition the child becomes both more differentiated from the other components of this system and, at the same time, reintegrated with those other components in a new way and on a higher level.

These processes of differentiation and reintegration can be seen in prenatal development and birth. At birth, neonate and mother become physically separated, though the newborn remains completely dependent on other people and must continue to interact biologically with them (obtaining milk or a substitute food). Birth, then, is a physical differentiation from the mother’s body. Newborn and caregiver must then reintegrate in a new way: for example, food will be provided by nursing rather than through the umbilical cord.

Similarly, becoming able to move independently dramatically changes the infant’s way of engaging with the world (Campos et al., 2000). The age at which this occurs varies widely across cultures, for walking is due not only to physical growth. Caregivers and community may encourage and facilitate the first steps or discourage and restrict them. For example, the Beng people in Côte d’Ivoire actually forbid their children to walk until they are one year old, and have both physical and mystical restraints to enforce this rule (Gottlieb, 2004).

Locomotion transforms the way the world is known, and the toddler’s practical intelligence becomes increasingly sophisticated. Around the same time, the first words transform how the toddler interacts with family. This transition can be viewed as a biological differentiation in which the toddler becomes less dependent on other people and yet more aware of his or her dependence.

Around three years of age, toddlers in the United States show a growing ability to understand material representations, such as pictures and models (DeLoache, 2011), and to engage in “collective intentionality” (Tomasello, 2019). These achievements seem linked to a new sense of self. Self-recognition is often assessed using the rouge test, where a dab of red is placed on the child’s nose, who is then shown his or her image in a mirror. By 12 months, many infants recognize their own image and distinguish it from others, and they respond correctly when asked, “Where are you?” Most toddlers’ reactions are different, however: they start to touch the red dot around 20 months and when asked, “Who’s that?” will answer, “Me.” Then the mirror experience may start to become troubling, and the child will show wariness. In “Cultural Variation in Developmental Transitions,” the article describes research exploring how these changes depend on the developmental pathway of a community.

There is convincing evidence that the transition into middle childhood between five and seven years of age involves a psychological differentiation (Weisner, 1996). Children in a wide range of cultures become more responsible, more self-controlled and deliberate, and more able to provide assistance to adults (Rogoff, Sellers, Pirrotta, Fox, & White, 1975). Boys can now be assigned tasks such as watching the herd of family goats, and children of both ages are expected to help provide care for their younger siblings. This is the age when children begin to attend school in societies where schooling exists.

Experimental studies show that children now hear their own thoughts as inner speech, words “in the mind,” and they begin to apply the distinction between appearance and reality to themselves and other people. The child begins to learn how to control an “inner space” of private feelings, memories, and thoughts, and recognizes that other people also have “inner” beliefs and desires. It should be noted, however, that this differentiation between “inner” and “outer” may be characteristic only of cultures for which “mind” is part of the folk psychology. This notion of interiority is “a historically limited mode of self-interpretation, one which has become dominant in the modern West” (Taylor, 1989, p. 111).

In many communities, the end of middle childhood at around 11 years marks the entry into adulthood. Adolescence as a distinct developmental stage has emerged very recently in human history (probably not for the first time) and is not universal across cultures. The dramatic biological changes of puberty indicate the acquisition of the biological capacity for reproduction, but this is also a cultural event, handled energetically but differently by adults in communities around the world. Becoming an adult requires both the emergence of this biological capacity and the cultural recognition of new status. In some cultures these two coincide, and the young person becomes an adult at puberty, or only shortly afterward, in a transition often marked by ceremonies of initiation. In other cultures, there is a gap or mismatch between the biological changes of puberty and the ability and opportunity to take on adult responsibilities. In such cases, a distinct stage of psychological development exists, which is called adolescence.

The world of the adolescent is one of possibilities; one can say that possibility has become more important than reality, or that reality has become just one among many possibilities. This is a stage in which the higher psychological functions become paramount, when an adult identity is formed, and when young people become highly sensitive to what they perceive as the authenticity or insincerity of adults.

Piaget’s account of development assumed that there is a single telos to children’s development: the achievement of scientific rationality, characterized by what Piaget called formal operational reasoning. But there are many ways to be an adult, and there is growing evidence that adults in different cultures not only live in different ways, they also think, perceive, and feel in different ways. They use different kinds of tools, speak different languages, and work in different kinds of social institutions. Each of these diverse adulthoods is a stage in the cycle of life, and even though it will be marked by the endpoint of ontogenesis (that is to say, death), each kind of adulthood makes important contributions to the ontogenesis of the next generation.

Cultural Variation in Developmental Transitions

Evidence that the timing and content of developmental stages and transitions varies with the pathways defined by cultural context comes from studies such as that conducted by Heidi Keller and her colleagues, who compared a sample of middle-class families living in Athens, Greece, with a sample of families in the rural Nso community in the Cameroons. Families were visited in their home when their infants were 3 months of age, and again between 18 and 20 months (Keller, Yoevsi, & Voelker, 2002). Self-recognition was assessed using the rouge test, and self-regulation was assessed by a compliance task: the toddlers are prohibited from doing something that interested them, and asked to perform a requested behavior.

In free play with their infant, the Greek mothers tended to emphasize face-to-face interaction with mutual eye contact and to display objects to the infant. The researchers called this the ”distal parenting style,” because the mothers kept their infant at a distance. This style of parenting emphasized face-to-face interaction with a lot of verbalization, to which the infant contributed through gaze direction and changes in behavioral state. The experience of contingent interaction was accompanied by positive affect on the part of the infant, and this was encouraged by the mother, who granted the infant the status of an equal partner and adjusted to the infant’s minimal interactive skills.

The Nso mothers, by contrast, emphasized body contact and physical stimulation. The researchers called this the ”proximal parenting style.” This style was focused on interpersonal proximity, using emotional warmth, such as sleeping together and breastfeeding on demand. The major concern of the parents who used this style was the healthy growth and physical development of the infant, and achieving motor milestones such as standing and walking were emphasized because they reflect the child’s potential to contribute manual labor to the family. The Nso people emphasize emotional interdependence, and value harmony and respect for a hierarchy that is based on age and gender. They expect conformity so that values do not change over generations.

These parenting styles during infancy (at three months) were associated with differences at 18–20 months in self-recognition and self-regulation. The Greek toddlers showed the greatest self-recognition (68.2%) but the lowest compliance: 47.7% of them did not comply with either requests or prohibitions. The Cameroonian Nso toddlers showed very low self-recognition (3.8%), but the greatest levels of self-regulation (71.9% complied).

The researchers hypothesized that the distal style established a framework of mutuality between mother and infant within which the infant had a relatively high degree of control over the interaction so that the infant started along a developmental pathway toward independence and autonomy. They hypothesized that the proximal style, by contrast, promoted interdependence, unity, and fusion rather than separateness, and established synchrony between mother and infant, rather than reciprocity.

When the researchers looked in more detail at the various aspects of parenting style, they found that the caregiving practice that best predicted the toddlers’ self-recognition was presenting objects to stimulate the infant, in particular the degree of mutual eye contact. They concluded that “the more mutual eye contact the children experience the more likely it is that they recognize themselves at 18 to 20 months” (Keller et al., 2004, p. 1753). This kind of interaction with parents apparently strengthened “the sense of autonomy and the experience of being a distinct and separate person” (Keller et al., 2004, p. 1755).

In terms of self-regulation, body contact turned out to be the aspect of the proximal style that was the strongest predictor of self-regulation at 18 to 20 months of age. The researchers interpreted the toddlers’ compliance with requests and prohibitions as an indication of obedience and interdependence.

This research supports the proposal that the distinct cultural pathways of development both facilitate the new sense of self that emerges around 30 months to three years of age, and also make a difference to the character of that sense of self. Toddlers in families in which caregivers used the distal style and who valued independence became self-conscious at a younger age than those whose parents used the proximal style. They were also less compliant, suggesting that they were beginning to assert their independence in the family.

Design Research

Finally, this article returns to the issue of the methodology of cultural psychology. A relatively new approach to the study of culture and development is known as “design research” (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016; Design-Based Research Collective, 2003; Edelson, 2002). This approach is one in which researchers design conditions that are intended to make possible a developmental phenomenon that is of interest, and seek to implement these conditions within an existing institutional reality (Cole & Packer, 2016). Design research provides a way to satisfy Vygotsky’s recommendation that to understand children’s development researchers must

move to a completely new type of investigation, which, by virtue of some of the fundamental features of its “object,” a cultural-historical and evolving object … must itself be implemented within the organized framework of some psychopractical action, or perhaps even some regular system of psychotechnical practice, serving as a necessary organ that makes possible the projection, realization, reproduction, and directed development of this practice.

(Vygotsky, 1986, p. 76; emphasis in original)

For example, researchers at the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC) at the University of California, San Diego, created a system of activities in which young children and undergraduates engaged in a wide range of games and related diversions in an after-school program that they called the Fifth Dimension (Cole & The Distributive Literacy Consortium, 2006). The Fifth Dimension program was part of an intervention focused on second- to fifth-grade children who had been nominated by their teachers because they were failing to acquire the ability to read. The program focused on engaging children in academic activities designed to allow both relevant diagnosis of their learning difficulties and the testing of theoretically guided procedures intended to overcome those difficulties (LCHC, 1982). The children were joined in their activities by undergraduates who participated as part of a practicum course.

The local “idioculture” of the Fifth Dimension made it a rich medium for both the fostering and the empirical investigation of culturally mediated developmental processes. In particular, the involvement of undergraduate students both as participants in the program activities and as observers and documenters of the children’s social interactions provided not only theoretically important resources for the development of the children but also a unique kind of data that enabled processes of psychological development to be traced over time, externalized, and analyzed. At the same time, the Fifth Dimension helped “educate the educators,” improving undergraduate education and helping students understand the complexities of children’s lives.

The principles of the Fifth Dimension align closely with Vygotsky’s recommendations for research. First, a Fifth Dimension site provides the opportunity for research conducted not in the abstraction and artificiality of the laboratory, but in the complexity and intricacy of collaborative practical activity in a community setting. Second, such research is guided and informed by a practical concern to improve the academic achievement of marginalized youth. It is an intervention: an involvement that seeks to “meddle” with the way things have habitually been done. Third, the activity under analysis is studied as a “cultural-historical evolving object,” so change in the participants and in the nature of their activity is the focus of interest. Put another way, a Fifth Dimension is an institution with its own ontology and deontology (Moreno & Packer, 2019).

Design research, then, is research conducted through the design of an activity that is intended to foster development in a specific institutional context. Such research acknowledges that children’s development and learning are not simply “natural” processes, but results of active choices made by caregivers and others in the community. In design research, investigators themselves make active choices, and document and study the consequences. In the short run the Fifth Dimension has made possible the study of heterogeneous contexts of learning and development. In the long run, it has made visible new features of those contexts as they underwent change.


Developmental psychologists have sometimes assumed that the child is a biological creature who only becomes social and/or cultural as a consequence of the influence of other people. This division between the biological and the cultural is perpetuated by textbooks that deal only with cognitive development, or only with social development, or divide them into separate chapters. The separation is inappropriate, however, because the human child is always a participant in the culture of their community. Even a newborn acts in and through relations with other people. Development does not take the form of “socialization” in the sense of training the child to become social, or “enculturation” in the sense of acquiring a culture.

Hopefully, it has been demonstrated in this article that culture does not simply “influence” children’s development or “impact” their development. Certainly culture doesn’t “cause” children’s development, either alone or with the help of biology: culture and biology are two aspects of a single process. Furthermore, ontogenesis is a dynamically unfolding process in which the child, as a material organism, is actively engaged with the environment as a humanly organized material setting. Ontogenesis should not be conceived of as occurring “in” the child or as happening “to” the child.

Culture—understood as the ontology and deontology of the institutions of a community—defines diverse developmental pathways for children, pathways that involve both stages and transitions. Although this article has emphasized that the variety of cultures around the world do not lead only to differences in children’s development, the demonstrations of cultural differences in the ways children develop, briefly summarized here, are valuable in multiple ways. They show that research with children in middle-class families in the United States does not discover something “natural” or universal. They show the rich diversity of ways in which children are raised, the variety of their pathways to adulthood, and the multiple ways of being an adult in human communities around the world. In any community, the ways that children develop reflect a shared biological potential but also the values and goals of caregivers and the community.

Further Reading

  • Cole, M., Cole, S. R., & Lightfoot, C. (2015). The development of children (8th ed.). New York, NY: Worth.
  • Ellis, B. D., & Stam, H. J. (2015). Crisis? What crisis? Cross-cultural psychology’s appropriation of cultural psychology. Culture & Psychology, 21(3), 293–317.
  • Packer, M. J. (2017). Child development: Understanding a cultural perspective. London, U.K.: SAGE.
  • Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Shweder, R. A. (1999). Why cultural psychology? Ethos, 27(1), 62–73.
  • Tomasello, M. (2019). Becoming human: A theory of ontogeny. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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