Culture and the Curriculum
Culture is the specific values and beliefs of a society that are sometimes visible through the behaviour of its members, but also act invisibly as ideas about what is ‘normal.’ The invisible and the visible combine to create cultural norms concerning, for example, gender roles, personal space and how parents and children interact. These cultural norms also define ‘abnormal’ behaviour that is socially unacceptable and a symptom of some disorder, illness or perhaps even possession. Studying culture is highly relevant in areas such as gender roles, diagnosis of mental disorders and child development.
Cultural bias is difficult to avoid, as we are all brought up in a culture that is ‘normal’ to us. Therefore, we tend to view and judge others in relation to our own cultural norms and values, which is cultural bias. Recognising that people from another culture have norms that are unfamiliar to you is unavoidable, but judging them because of it is cultural bias. Therefore, it is important to reflect on your own attitudes and beliefs that may lead to cultural bias.
Think about an example for yourself when you may have felt uncomfortable or encountered an unfamiliar behaviour that just seemed ‘wrong.’ Maybe you have visited a culture where people stood much closer to each other than you are comfortable with, made much less eye contact or spoke much more directly. English language uses the conditional form of the verb when making a request: “Would you pass me the salt, please?” In other cultures this may be phrased as ‘Pass the salt please,’ which sounds abrupt to our ears.
Universality of culture is the view that the values, concepts, and behaviours characteristic of diverse cultures can be viewed, understood, and judged according to universal standards. It is an absolutist view of right and wrong. However, of course the person or people judging the behaviours of an unfamiliar culture are unlikely to be applying a universal standard, but the standard of their own culture. This is ethnocentrism – assuming that the behaviour of one particular cultural group is superior and is the ‘norm’ to which others should be conforming.
Cultural relativism is at the other end of the continuum from universality of culture.This is the belief that it is vital to consider the cultural context of all behaviour. There is no universal right or wrong behaviour, just different behaviour.
How easy are these to identify?
Read these statements and try and identify examples of universality of culture, ethnocentrism and cultural bias.
- The truth is the truth, no matter where you are from.
- In all cultures, people should be free to speak up in meetings.
- We interviewed people from five different cultures, using the same standardised questions. Of course, we translated them.
- A good school education should be the right of every child aged between 6 and 18.
- We expect all employees to be punctual to the weekly meeting, but of course those from other cultures often aren’t.
Answers: 1) and 4) are examples of universality of culture. These are broad statements about ‘everyone.’
2) and 3) are examples of ethnocentrism: in 2) the person making the statement believes that ‘speaking up’ in meetings is normal behaviour, just because it is usual in their culture; in 3) there is the belief that using standardised questions that have been translated is a good way of getting valid answers. The questions increase replicability and reliability, but not validity. There may be culturally specific attitudes to questionnaires. 3) is also a good example of an imposed etic – using theories, methods and tools that are relevant and applicable in the researchers’ culture but unfamiliar and not applicable in other cultures, which can result in low validity of the findings and incorrect conclusions being drawn.
5) Is an example of cultural bias. There is criticism in the ‘of course’ and the general reference to ‘other cultures.’
You may have noticed some overlap between universality and ethnocentricity, and both can be responsible for cultural bias.
Is cultural relativism always appropriate?
Cultural relativism is seen as a moral approach to cultural differences. It is commonly accepted that as much as possible, mental health professionals, teachers, hospital doctors and medical staff and those who work in public offices should be drawn from a variety of cultures in order to increase cross-cultural understanding.
The main exception to this is when specific cultural practices infringe on human rights. Examples such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, discriminatory inheritance laws, the huge disparity of wealth in many countries and cultures, including the UK, and a lack of LGBTQ+ rights demonstrate where a universal appeal to human rights is more appropriate than adherence to cultural relativism. Culture needs to change with time and increased awareness of the rights of disadvantaged groups, and sometimes a difference really is ‘wrong.’