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date: 18 January 2020

Culture and Human Development

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Please check back later for the full article.

There is a growing appreciation of the importance of understanding the role of culture in children’s psychological development (also called human ontogenesis). In particular, the texts of Lev Vygotsky contributed greatly to a “cultural psychology” in which the study of culture and development is seen as central. At the same time, cross-cultural research in psychology has paid growing attention to developmental issues. Although there continues to be much debate over how to define culture, it is generally agreed that different human social groups have distinct cultures. It is common to assume, in addition, 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. The interdependence of human communities—which probably had its origins in collaborative hunting and cooperative childrearing—seems to have placed demands on children’s development, selecting for a sensitivity to norms and to other people’s goals and intentions. Every child is born into a family and community with a language, customs, and conventions, and in which people have institutional rights and responsibilities. These define universal requisites of human psychological development: These 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. An open question today is the character of the capacities that children bring to these developmental tasks: the apparently species-unique ability that has made possible vast “cumulative” societies.