Social Psychology And Multicultural Psychology

1 Introduction: The Multicultural Person

Both the nature of what we take to be a self and its expression are inherently cultural (Bhatia & Stam, 2005, p. 419).

Each individual’s many aspects are not fragmented and distanced from one another or hierarchically ordered on behalf of a ruling center but remain in full interconnectedness and communication (Sampson, 1985, p. 1209).

There are a great variety of categories to which we simultaneously belong … Belonging to each one of the membership groups can be quite important, depending on the particular context … the importance of one identity need not obliterate the importance of others (Sen, 2006, p. 19).

Each of us is a multicultural human being. This simple and basic proposition, most descriptive of those of us who live in contemporary heterogeneous societies, constitutes the basic (though complex) theme of this book. Within its pages the reader will find attempts to explain, illustrate and argue for the value of this assertion. A major stimulus for pursuit of this is the belief that the study and understanding of behavior, when guided by the premise of individual multiculturalism, will increase the authenticity of our knowledge and the reliability of our predictions. This, in turn, should enhance the relevance and efficacy of the applications of our work to significant life situations – in the interest of advancing human welfare.

Multicultural Psychology and Cross-Cultural Psychology

This book needs to be distinguished from those that are in the tradition of cross-cultural psychology or mainstream multicultural psychology. The latter, as defined by Mio, Barker-Hackett, and Tumambing (2006, p. 32) “is the systematic study of all aspects of human behavior as it occurs in settings where people of different backgrounds encounter one another.” Multicultural psychologists prefer a salad bowl rather than a melting pot as metaphorical image, viewing the United States, for example, as a society in which groups maintain their distinctiveness (Moodley & Curling, 2006). They stress and argue for the necessary development of multicultural competence by psychologists and others. Such competence includes understanding of your own culture, respect for other cultures, and acquiring appropriate culturally sensitive interpersonal skills. To this end, professional guidelines have been proposed (and adopted) for education, training, and practice. Such guidelines are approved by the American Psychological Association (APA) for practice with persons of color (APA, 2003), practice with sexual minorities (APA, 2000), and practice with girls and women (APA, 2007).

The emphases in cross-cultural psychology are two-fold: first, to understand and appreciate the relationships among cultural factors and human functioning (Wallace, 2006); and second, to compare world cultures as well as subcultures within a single society. Cultures are compared on values, world-views, dominant practices, beliefs, and structures in order to recognize and acknowledge significant differences and similarities. The acknowledged ultimate aim is to uncover (or propose) “truly universal models of psychological processes and human behavior that can be applied to all people of all cultural backgrounds” (Matsumoto, 2001, p. 5). The focus is on cultural variability on such polarized dimensions as individualistic or collectivist perspectives, field dependence or independence, and on value orientations, ways of communicating, and so on, but the clearly articulated objective is to discover general laws of human behavior, or a truly universal psychology (Pedersen, 1999; Wallace, 2006). To accomplish this requires, as Matsumoto proposes, research with persons from a wide range of backgrounds, in appropriate settings, and the use of multiple methods of inquiry and analysis.

Both multicultural psychology and cross-cultural psychology have been of tremendous value in sensitizing us to the importance of culture in understanding human behavior and in promoting the necessity of cultural knowledge. The present thesis, elaborated in this book, is indebted to this work and to cultural anthropology but takes a different position and moves forward. As noted by Hong, Morris, Chiu and Benet-Martinez (2000, p. 709), “the methods and assumptions of cross-cultural psychology have not fostered the analysis of how individuals incorporate more than one culture.”

Interpretive Lenses

I interpret issues of multiculturalism and diversity, as I do all other issues in psychology, through the lens of a learning theory oriented social psychology (Lott & Lott, 1985; Lott, 1994). Such a perspective emphasizes what people do in particular situations and assumes that all human behavior (beyond molecular physiological responses and innate reflex mechanisms) is learned. Behavior is broadly interpreted to include what persons do and what they say about their goals, feelings, perceptions, and memories; and explanation involves relating social behavior to its antecedents and consequences. Explanations must take into account the setting in which the behavior occurs. People and environments are viewed as mutually dependent and interactive, with situations serving to maximize certain possible outcomes while minimizing others (Reid, 2008). And, it is assumed that persons never stop learning the behaviors most relevant to their cultural memberships, and that these remain with differential strength in one’s behavioral repertoire. The approach to the particular questions to be dealt with in this work is further situated within the general framework of “critical theory.” Such a framework can be described as a critical approach to the study of culture and personal identity that is informed by historical and social factors and an appreciation of their interaction (Boyarin & Boyarin, 1997). Fundamental to critical theory analyses are inquiries about the role of social structures and processes in maintaining inequities, as well as a commitment to studying strategies for change (McDowell & Fang, 2007). The related perspective of “critical psychology” (Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997; Prilleltensky & Fox, 1997) focuses specifically on issues of social justice, human welfare, context, and diversity. Such a focus demands that our research and inquiries cross disciplines, as will be the case in the material presented in this volume.

The intent of critical psychology is to challenge accepted propositions and interpretations of behavioral phenomena, and to examine the political and social implications of psychological research, theories, and practice. Critical psychology examines psychological phenomena and behavior in contexts that include references to power and societal inequalities, with the understanding that “power and interests affect our human experience” (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2002, p. 5). This is a departure from much that is found in mainstream psychology where individuals tend to be examined as separate from their socio-political contexts (Bhatia & Stam, 2005), or as “cut off from the concrete materiality of everyday life” (Hook & Howarth, 2005, p. 509). In contrast, critical psychology accepts as a fundamental premise the intertwined relationship between persons and society (Nightingale & Neilands, 1997).

Within critical psychology there are some who perceive traditional empirical methods to be in opposition to its objectives (just as some in mainstream psychology see critical psychology as outside the bounds of good science). I agree with Jost and Jost (2007) that this approach is neither necessary nor helpful. They argue that “the goal to which contemporary critical psychologists should aspire … [is to work] towards an accurate, empirically grounded scientific understanding” of the human situation (p. 299). In fact, it can be argued further that the best means of achieving a just society and social change is through the investigation and communication of empirically sound and verifiable relationships. There is no necessary incompatibility in social science between values and empiricism. All that is required of scientific objectivity is verifiability – that methods, data, and conclusions be repeatable and open to further investigation.

Persons and Communities

A major objective of this book is to examine the dimensions and politics of culture and how these shape individual lives. My arguments will be seen to have a special kinship with the position of Sampson (1989) who posited that the identity of individuals comes from the communities of which they are a part. Others, too, have appreciated the significance of these communities for understanding persons and their interactions with one another in multilayered social contexts (e.g., Shweder, 1990; Schachter, 2005; Vaughan, 2002). My approach to the communities of which persons are a part is to identify them as cultures, and my definition of culture, to which the next chapter is devoted, will be seen to be inclusive and to pertain to many human groups, large and small.

Such a position of broad inclusiveness has been judged by some to render the term multicultural “almost meaningless” (Lee & Richardson, 1991, p. 6), diluted and useless (Sue, Carter, Casaa, Fouad, Ivey, Jensen, et al. 1998). However, others (e.g., Pedersen, 1999), like myself, maintain that such an approach provides a more authentic understanding of how significant group memberships affect individual self-definition, experience, behavior, and social interaction. There are indications that the concept of multicultural is being redefined and widened in an effort to reduce “confusion and conflict within the multicultural movement” (Moodley & Curling, p. 324). Thus, for example, S. Sue (1994, p. 4) suggests that “Our notions of diversity should be broadened beyond ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class…Cultural diversity is part of the nature of human beings.” Sue and Sue (2003) express support for an inclusive definition of multiculturalism and for the need to think in terms of diversity across multiple categories. Wide definitions of culture are being supported. Markus (2008, p. 653), for example, agrees that culture “refers to patterns of ideas and practices associated with any significant grouping, including gender, religion, social class, nation of origin, region of birth, birth cohort, or occupation.”

Despite the perception of some (e.g., Flowers & Davidow, 2006) that multiculturalism has been a strong influence on contemporary psychology, there is still less than full agreement on its meaning. It was first launched as a theoretical, political, and educational perspective by the civil rights movement (Biale, Galchinsky, & Heschel, 1988). When introduced into psychology, it was clearly focused on cultures of race or ethnicity and emphasis was placed on the significance of this one aspect of human diversity. Part of the problem in dealing with the meaning of multicultural is a failure to clearly explicate what is understood by culture, a concept that has often been ignored or avoided within our discipline (Lonner, 1994; Reid, 1994). Another part of the problem is a reluctance to ascribe culture to a wide spectrum of groups, and a reluctance to equate multiculturalism with diversity.

My thesis, that each of us is a multicultural human being, includes recognition at the outset of the vital fact that not all groups or communities that constitute one’s unique multicultural self are equal in their position in a given society. They may differ dramatically in power (i.e., access to resources), in their size and history, and in the magnitude of their contribution to a person’s experiences. It is essential, as well, to recognize that in the U.S. there is an overriding national context in which Euro-Whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and middle-class status are presumed normative and culturally imperative. That there is a serious disconnect between such presumptions and the reality of life in the U.S. is illustrated by census data. With respect to ethnicity, for example, non-Whites now constitute a majority in almost one-third of the largest counties in the country (cf. Roberts, 2007), are 33 percent of the total U.S. population, and 43 percent of those under 20 (cf. Roberts, 2008b). But the presumption of Whiteness remains dominant, in support of status-quo power relationships.

This presumption is found across all geographic areas and all major institutions in U.S. society. It is reflected in university curricula in all fields including psychology (Flowers & Richardson, 1996). Gillborn (2006) asserts that unless a student is specifically enrolled in a course in ethnic or gender studies, higher education is still primarily directed by White people for the benefit of White people. Rewards are most likely to go to those who accept this state of affairs. Asante (1996, p. 22) cites historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as maintaining that “anyone wanting to be an American must willingly conform.” Asante likens this to being “clarencised (a word now used by some African American college students to refer to the process by which Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is said to have abandoned his own history)” (p. 22). Others have written about the construction of normativity in which maleness and heterosexuality are taken for granted as points of departure for assessing “difference” (Hegarty & Pratto, 2004). This context of pressured conformity to the perceived norms for “American” provides the powerful “background” for recognition of the (multicultural) person as “figure.”

Against this background, each of us is situated in a multicultural fabric that is unique. The groups or communities of which we are part and with which we identify, that contribute to our cultural selves, are not equal in power. Nor are they equal in terms of their salience and importance to individuals, or to the same individual over time or across situations. Acknowledging such complexity provides “multiple angles of vision” (Weber, 1998, p. 16). Such multiple angles/perspectives should encourage us, as individuals and as behavior scientists, to make more visible the experiences that pertain to our multiple group locations and their consequences.

This book is focused on contemporary life in the United States. It is likely that the multicultural nature of persons has been steadily increasing as a function of increases in the heterogeneous nature of our society, its institutions, roles, options, power inequities, inter-group contacts, and so on. Greater diversity in personal identity has also been attributed to the growth in globalization (e.g., Arnett, 2002), a phenomenon with widespread significance and consequences not just for national economies. Regardless of the nature of the precipitating historical and sociological changes and the number and variety of cultures that influence us, behavior is best understood as a complex product of the cultures of which we are a part. Our experiences and actions are thoroughly imbedded in a multicultural context.

A Proposed Social Psychological Perspective

That cultures differ is well recognized. What must also be acknowledged is that individuals in the same complex society, such as the one in the United States, are embodiments of such differences by virtue of their own unique multicultural selves. There are many intersecting cultures that define each of us as individual persons. Some are large – such as cultures of ethnicity, gender, social class, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, and geographical location. Some are smaller – occupation, political affiliation, special talent, educational institution, unions, or clubs. Cultures differ in size and also in how they are related to (or constructed from) hierarchies of power, domination, and access to resources. Cultures differ significantly in their degree of salience and in the intensity of their influence, depending upon personal histories. And for the same person, salience and intensity of a given cultural identity will vary with the situation, the time and the place, the historical moment, social demands, anticipated consequences, personal needs, and unknown other variables. We will turn our attention to these issues in the chapters that follow.

As portions of this text were being written, presidential primary elections were being held across the United States. Writ large and possibly larger than ever before in the public arena was the multicultural personas of the two final Democratic hopefuls for the presidency. Senator Hillary Clinton is a White woman, with a politically powerful background and sets of experiences, who has always been economically privileged, and whose early years were spent growing up in a very White Chicago suburb. Senator Barack Obama is the son of a largely absent African father and a White mother from Kansas. He did not grow up in a middle-class household although he is now an affluent professional. He spent his teenage years in Hawaii. Both are heterosexual and Christian, both share the general values and aspirations of the same political party, both graduated from ivy-league law schools, but they have had different personal and career paths and different spheres of interaction. The diverse aspects of their multicultural selves will have different meaning and importance for them and also for those who heard and saw them and considered their merits for the job to which they were aspiring. It should not be surprising that there were White women who publicly supported the candidacy of Senator Obama (e.g., Maria Shriver, Caroline Kennedy), nor that some Black men initially supported Senator Clinton (e.g., Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia, and Mayor Dellums of Oakland, CA). Gender and ethnicity define powerful cultural influences but to neglect the importance of other cultural ties leads us to not understand (and be unable to predict) significant social behavior in multiple arenas.

Situating each individual in a unique and complex multicultural framework has significant positive consequences. As Pedersen (1997) noted, it helps us appreciate and emphasize that “all behavior is learned and displayed in a cultural context” and to be aware “of the thousands of ‘culture teachers’ accumulated in each of our lifetimes” (p. 221). In the next chapter, the concept of culture will be carefully examined. As noted by Matsumoto (2001, p. 3) “No topic is more compelling in contemporary psychology today than culture, and no other topic has the potential to revise in fundamental and profound ways almost everything we think we know about people.” But we need to go beyond simply recognizing the contribution of culture to human behavior. We need to highlight and appreciate our individual multicultural nature. Doing so may help us to move beyond current tensions that pit “diversity” and “multiculturalism” against one another.

New perspectives more and more frequently include recognition of the significance of multiple individual identities (e.g., McDowell & Fang, 2007), the interdependence between individuals and their cultural contexts (e.g., Markus, 2008; Schachter, 2005), and the variations in cultural group salience across persons and situations (e.g, Sue & Sue, 2003). As noted by Pedersen (1999, p. xxi) “Each of us belongs to many different cultures at different times, in different environments, and in different roles.” What I propose, however, is that we take this recognition several steps further. We need to fully appreciate the reality that each of us belongs to many different cultures at the same time – and recognize the consequences of this phenomenon for individual behavior and social life.


24 Multiple Dimensions of Human Diversity

Loreto R. Prieto and Sara Schwatken

Cross-cultural research in psychology has, in most cases, been cross-national in its focus. However, numerous nations are ethnically and culturally diverse, with the United States being a prime example. Nagayama Hall and Maramba (2001) discussed the possible relationship between cross-cultural and ethnic minority psychology, and analyzed published work in the two fields. They found little overlap between the two, and suggested that one way to increase the focus on minority subcultures might be to combine the efforts of researchers in the two areas. This chapter is an effort to assist the reader to achieve that end.

The demography of the U.S. has been rapidly changing over the last several generations (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). In particular, the number of persons who possess multiple dimensions of human diversity (e.g., permutations of sex, race/ ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class) is increasing exponentially. For example, the United States Census Bureau more than a decade ago formally added the categories of “biracial” and “multiracial,” along with the longstanding “Hispanic (any race)” in the collection of race/ethnicity data on its citizenry. No longer can we think about people as members of discrete, mutually exclusive categories in terms of demographic diversity. As Reynolds & Pope (1991) noted in irony as long as 20 years ago, affirmative action statements in employment advertisements encouraging women and minorities to apply can leave women of color wondering within which group they should be counted.

This rapidly changing mix of demography can also pose new challenges for conceptualizing and understanding individuals who possess multiple diverse demographic characteristics (e.g., Asian American lesbian woman), or a mix of majority and diverse cultural attributes (African American, middle-class, gay male). Which demographic characteristics take priority in how people perceive themselves? In how others perceive them?


A cogent place to start our discussion concerns how we define our labels and concepts. Important to clarify first is the concept of cultural diversity. The notion of cultural diversity itself suggests that there is a baseline culture, as well as culture(s) that differ from, or are diverse as compared with, that baseline culture. For our discussion we will rely on the commonly held concept of a majority culture in the U.S. that serves as the baseline.

We remind the reader that although the majority culture base reflects the demographic characteristics of those who hold societal and institutional power, members of the majority culture do not necessarily reflect a majority in the numerical sense (for example, there are more women than men in the U.S., but male-oriented standards and values define the majority culture and men more than women are the chief power holders in the U.S.). We also remind the reader that identifying a set of majority culture demography neither suggests that this demography is superior to other demography, nor that the institutional and societal power held by those with this set of demography defines the way things should be. We simply offer a description of the way things have evolved in the United States through centuries of European imperialism, the oppression and slavery of many non-European groups, the legal and social enforcement of racism, sexism, and heterosexism, as well as the long standing sociopolitical, legal, and economic positioning to power of a majority culture group with a particular set of demographic characteristics.

This set of majority culture demographic characteristics has by many scholars (see Iijima-Hall, 1997) long been purported to include: being male; being of young adult to middle adult age; having European national ancestry; having light skin color, possessing a heterosexual orientation; possessing a middle-class or higher socioeconomic status; being fully physically able; behaving in a rational and emotionally stable fashion, with rare demonstrations of strong emotion (especially publicly); adhering to the Christian faith; being a primary (and typically only) English speaker; and generally striving to think, act, hold values, and live in a way that adheres to a conservative male, Christian, European lifestyle.

As to cultural diversity, we reference and work from the general definition proffered by Iijima-Hall (1997). She defined diversity as “differences in age, color, ethnicity, gender, national origin, physical and mental ability, emotional ability, race, religion, language, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and individual unique style” (p. 646). Thus, although this is an extremely broad definition, basically any demographic or lifestyle characteristic that diverges from the above list of majority culture characteristics constitutes a culturally diverse characteristic.

With respect to multiple dimensions of human diversity, clearly there are ways in which many people will possess or exhibit differences along the continua of these demographic characteristics. For example, a primarily Spanish-speaking, Latina female will be diverse along three of these demographic axes (sex, race, language). This same Latina can also simultaneously hold majority culture axes as a 30-year-old, Catholic, heterosexual, fully physically able person. It is within this complex interweaving of human demography that we will discuss diversity issues, in lieu of a more traditional academic discussion of only one aspect of human cultural expression and identity. Furthermore, because certain demographic variables have historically engendered exceptionally longstanding social oppression in U.S. society, in this chapter we will limit our discussion to these variables. Specifically, we will use sex, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class as frequent examples to highlight multiple dimensions of human diversity.

We wish to stress that this does not represent any kind of imposed hierarchy (on our part or otherwise) on the perceived or real importance of these demographic axes over others; rather, in this limited amount of space we have chosen to deal with those axes that have commonly been dealt with in texts, so as to help expand those presentations. Excellent chapters and texts exist that offer in-depth coverage of variables we will not touch on here (e.g., see Dunn, 2009 for an excellent discussion of diversity as it applies to disability issues). Finally, we believe that many of those diverse demographic axes we will not deal with or illustrate directly can nevertheless be conceptualized in the manner in which we will propose considering those variables we do present.

An Overall Schema

Beyond the ways in which people can differ from one another in their demography, people also interact with, shape and are shaped by various environments and levels of environments within our society. Similar to the work of Abes, Jones, and McEwen (2007), we can conceptualize the diverse demography of people within the spheres of their intra-psychic, interpersonal, and socio-institutional domains of existence. Thus, the aforementioned Latina has a highly influential internal sense of awareness of and level of identity with her various demographic characteristics. Additionally, on a daily basis, her internal sense of self (derived in part from her demography) influences and is influenced by the people with whom she directly interacts (e.g., family, friends, co-workers, and service professionals). Finally, her intra- and interpersonal worlds are also influenced by the majority culture-based socio-institutional realm of the society within which she lives. She and the people with whom she directly interacts are all affected by the political, socioeconomic, religious, legal, educational, labor, and other social systems that are based upon the practices, values and perspectives that emanate from the majority culture base (e.g., male, European, heterosexual, Christian, middle-class).

These societal factors impinge on (and support) her demography in different ways, while simultaneously affecting the way others interact with her. For example, as a woman in the U.S., on average she will earn only 80 cents to a man’s dollar. Often she will be perceived as placing a (presumed and stereotyped) desire to be a mother as a higher priority than her desire to achieve success in a career. Moreover, she will be expected to abandon a career (or at the very least to significantly reduce her work hours) if she has children in order to be their primary caretaker, lest she be considered a bad mother. As a Spanish speaker, she will frequently encounter reactions ranging from confusion to anger when she attempts to speak with the majority of people living in the U.S., who have chosen to learn and speak only English. Others may view her accent and secondary use of English (even if it is fluent) as a sign that she is not a “real” American, or they may stereotype her as an “illegal alien” or recent immigrant, even though her family may have lived in the U.S. for several generations and have chosen simply to retain their fluency in Spanish. Finally, because of her darker skin and Latina cultural heritage, she may face racism and discrimination, both subtle and overt, both seen and unseen, and she will not enjoy the race-based cultural privileges that her more light skinned, European counterparts do (cf., Jensen, 2007; Rothenberg, 2007; Wise, 2007 on the concept of White privilege).

Yet, at the same time, she will enjoy some majority culture benefits and privileges because of the particular demographic characteristics she shares with the majority. As a heterosexual, she can walk down the street holding the hand of her boyfriend, even stopping to give him an intimate public kiss or display of affection, without fear of derision or assault, without being thought of as psychologically maladjusted or immoral (as most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered [LGBT] people are stereotyped), or without being advised to stop “flaunting” her sexuality publically or stop “forcing” it upon others. Ironically, we do not consider heterosexuals kissing in public as “flaunting” or “forcing” their sexuality upon us. She can place her boyfriend’s picture on her desk at work and freely discuss her relationship with him with her friends, parents, and co-workers. She may even eventually choose to legally recognize her relationship in the form of a state marriage license that allows her a multitude of legal, economic, and political rights that her lesbian and gay counterparts do not have in all American states.

In sum, all of these factors simultaneously influence our Latina and her daily life (as they do each of us according to our own demography), and also to some extent have a reciprocal and interactive influence on the individuals in her social groups and in the institutions within which they all interact.

We believe that the two concept maps we have discussed here (intra-psychic and level of environmental context) interact to create the lived experience and public perception of moment-to-moment aspects of cultural diversity; especially the lived experience of multiple dimensions of diversity. We propose that rather than a cultural identity (singular), every human being possesses and manifests many cultural identities, according to their demography, culture-based experiences, and daily experiences in society at large, which itself favors its own cultural values, behavioral norms, and realities. In the remainder of this chapter, we will offer more detail on the factors we believe influence the waxing and waning of various cultural identifications and the salience each may possess dependent upon the intra-psychic and environmental context forces in play.

The Intra-Psychic Realm

Prieto (2006) discussed various factors for persons with multiple dimensions of diversity that could influence the personal and environmental salience of a particular demographic characteristic. These intra-psychic factors included: the specific mix of majority and culturally diverse demography that people possess; differential identity development growth vectors surrounding these demographic characteristics (and their interaction); and, an individual’s own shifting, internal weighting of her demographic characteristics as a function of salience perceptions. To these we now add: past experiences based on or attributed to demography; the effect of immediate learning and choice to alter cognitions or behavior; situational emotional reactions; learned coping strategies/ego defenses adapted as a function of life experiences (or those taught by others such as parents—see Kerwin, Ponterotto, Jackson, and Harris [1993] for strategies taught by parents to their biracial children to deal with potential future racism); and the impact of acculturative forces (the pressure from society to shape our being more toward the favored majority culture values, behavioral norms, and perceptions).

We suggest that these factors can be conceptualized by way of a regression equation of sorts; that is, each of these different intra-psychic factors (variables) has its own “beta weight” in a particular environmental or psychological context that can roughly explain individuals’ manifestations and expressions of cultural identities. For example, we could write this as:

y = x1b1 + x2b2 + x3b3 … xnbn + e

where y is an individual’s moment-to-moment manifestations and expressions of cultural identities. Each x (1 through n) is the intra-psychic factor of interest (e.g., impact of acculturative forces; effect of immediate learning and choice to alter cognitions or behavior; situational emotional reactions; and identity development surrounding demographic characteristics such as sex, race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status). And each b associated with each x is the particular beta weight (salience) associated with that particular variable in a given situation or context (we will deal with how we include the interpersonal and institutional environmental variables in a later section). Error (or noise) in this equation would be conceptualized as e; we see this as a way of both providing “wiggle room” for the influence of additional variables not yet known theoretically or empirically, and to explain the sheer fuzziness of human (cultural) experience!

We recognize that we are making certain assumptions in using a linear, least squares regression model that might be limiting or might not match the reality of the phenomena we are describing. For example, a linear model does not account for moderation or mediation effects among the x variables and ignores the possibility of various curvilinear relations among the x variables or between the x variables and the y variable we wish to explain. However, we believe that a more parsimonious model is better to start with conceptually, and we look to future research to flesh out the shortcomings or unknowns in our present thinking on the matter. We also recognize that readers may balk at conceptualizing human experience via such a sterile and removed method as a statistical equation. However, this type of metastructure allows for the modification of our schema in a tidy way and also allows for a relatively specific way of capturing a fluid, human event of lived experiences and social perception.

One way to think about this method of conceptualizing human culture-based experience is how one of us (Prieto) teaches applied psychology graduate students to conceptualize working with clients in psychotherapy. I often bring in a piece of moving classical music (the baroque composer Vivaldi is my favorite—specifically his Four Seasons concertos) and have my students listen to it while they note their visualizations, the emotion in the music, and the effects the changing melodies and mood of the music have upon them. I then show them the sheet music for the concertos, explaining that the same music they have subjectively experienced with their senses, that moved them emotionally, and that they connected with on a personal level (as they do with clients and their experiences in therapy), can also be written in the extremely structured and precise format of musical notation. The time, notes, key, and complex arpeggios of the music are all there; the structure and precision in the writing of the music does not detract from its phenomenological beauty and humanity. The sheet music and aural music are one and the same.

The Interpersonal and Institutional Realms

In addition to the intra-psychic realm, we can identify two other important levels or spheres of environments within which individuals manifest and express their cultural identities. These are the interpersonal and the institutional levels. We will detail our conceptualizations of these levels below.

The interpersonal realm

The easiest way to define this level is to say that the interpersonal realm encompasses all the human interactions we encounter on a daily basis within our more proximal networks. It is important to understand that by proximal we do not mean, necessarily, close to us with respect to physical distance. Rather, we mean proximal with respect to our ability to truly interact with people and experience direct reciprocal impact on personal manifestations and expressions of cultural identities. So, for example, our families, friends, co-workers, and colleagues, and those who offer us various services (waiters, transporters, educators, authorities) are all a part of our interpersonal realms. We can influence and affect their manifestation and expression of their cultural selves and identities about as much as they can influence ours. And that influence can come from across the world or just a cubicle away.

Within the interpersonal realm, there are several factors that can influence an individual’s cultural identities. We conceptualize these as being: social power bases within the environment (e.g., authority hierarchies); the social formality and purpose of the environment (e.g., work, leisure, home); the similarity of the individual’s demography to that of people in the environment; the level of acceptance and safety felt by the actor within the social environment; and the extent to which individuals in the environment enforce socially oppressive or culturally privileged aspects of the majority culture.

Additionally, the people with whom we interact also have their own intra-psychic factors bringing about the attitudes and behaviors they share with us. As noted above, these include: the specific mix of majority and culturally diverse demography that people possess; differential identity development growth vectors surrounding these demographic characteristics (and their interaction); an individual’s own shifting, internal weighting of her demographic characteristics as a function of salience perceptions; past experiences based on or attributed to demography; the effect of immediate learning and choice to alter cognitions or behavior; situational emotional reactions; learned coping strategies/ego defenses adapted as a function of life experiences; and, the impact of acculturative forces.

The socio-institutional realm

The institutional realm is the uppermost level of the socio-cultural milieu and context that we conceptualize. This level can be described as the more faceless, bureaucratic, codified systems in our society—like the legal, educational, and healthcare systems. Of course, these systems and institutions are nothing more than a collective of individuals, but because of their removed bureaucratic nature, the individuals who work within them generally have little personal vulnerability to those with whom they interact. And, except in the most egregious of situations (e.g., irrefutably clear instances of bias or harassment based on race, sex, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status), workers in these systems can act with relative immunity. The people who make up these institutions in our society are the ones who create, maintain, and enforce both the socially oppressive policies and laws as well as the cultural privileges in operation in our society. They collectively create a monolithic force that sets the majority culture values, norms, mores, and guidelines for acceptable behavior toward others.

For example, although only a few federal legislators may personally sponsor, write, and publically advocate for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage (or restrict the legal use of a marriage contract to heterosexual couples only, either avenue has the same effect), no one lawmaker can ever be singled out for being personally responsible for the actual passage of such a law. The responsibility for such an oppressive law and its corresponding oppressive behavior is spread among several hundred lawmakers in Congress. Even after such a discriminatory law is passed, legislators who voted to approve it can attribute their behavior to the wishes of their constituencies; no one need take individual responsibility for their actions.

And, once an oppressive law is on the books, the attitudes and values it represents infiltrate the system and are enforced by those individuals who work in the system. They each now have the power to act in a discriminatory way toward LGBT persons, but they also have the ability to say to those LGBT persons (while in the process of discriminating against them) “It’s not me—it’s the law.” In some fashion, the individuals within an institution can always hide behind or use the shield of bureaucracy, law, and policy. They can also hold themselves harmless and distance themselves from those they discriminate against and from the negative effects such discrimination brings into the lives of those who are oppressed. Likewise, these same individuals are able to extend cultural privileges without vulnerability to those who possess the demography favored by the majority culture base (in this case, heterosexuals). In fact, the policies and law often allow if not encourage this extension of these cultural privileges to those who have majority culture characteristics. As the old saying by cartoonist Walt Kelly goes: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

One way in which this institutional oppression is commonly seen is the inability of many LGBT workers to find health insurance (or employers who offer health insurance) that will allow them to obtain coverage for their life partners. Often, LGBT partners are denied coverage because the couple remains unable to obtain a state marriage license, the document that legally confers the status of “marital spouse” and allows one to enjoy coverage on their partner’s insurance policy.

In terms of an environmental realm within which individuals find themselves interacting as complex, multiply culturally identified beings, this socio-institutional realm can be thought of as a background that provides strong contextual elements suggesting how people should interact with one another. Recall that we conceptualize the institutional level as both the monolithic entity that legitimizes (by law and social policy) as well as enforces (by courts, money, and distribution of resources) our majority culture norms. The institutional level also serves as the vehicle within which individuals decide and create what our majority culture norms will be.

As an analogy, in clinical work and psychotherapy, we talk about both patients’ mood and affect to describe their emotional states. As defined in the Diagnostic and statistical manual—text revision (4th ed., American Psychiatric Association, 2007), mood is “the pervasive and sustained emotion that colors the perception of the world” (p. 825). On the other hand, affect is defined as “the expression of a subjectively experienced feeling state (emotion)” (p. 819). Therefore, a person might feel and express a happy affect, even while in the midst of an overall depressed mood. Likewise, a person in a generally euthymic or good mood might feel and express a strong dysthymic or “down in the dumps” affect in reaction to a disappointing incident. So, in this analogy, we would use the concept of mood to describe the overarching socio-institutional realm (exerting a pervasive and sustained cultural influence) on the expression and manifestation of individuals’ identities, and the concept of affect (transient experience) as the more proximal or immediate interpersonal and intra-psychic influences on the expression of identities.

In this way, we can see how the pervasive institutional realm can affect both the actions and reactions of individuals, as well as moderate the effects of more proximal interpersonal and intra-psychic experiences. For example, although a gay man might meet a supportive straight ally in a dorm and feel a good measure of acceptance and real friendship in that personal relationship, he will not forget that others in that same dorm might treat him badly if they knew he was gay. Similarly, he may know that the general public will not be accepting of him or his LGBT orientation because of the heterosexism and anti-LGBT oppressive values held and enforced by the majority culture society.

Reciprocity among the Three Realms

We are conscious of the fact that we have presented the interactions of demographic and social psychological variables largely in an oppressive and biased-based perspective and framework. We also wish to point out the estimable nature of the reciprocal influence that individuals can have upon their environments. This is not only critical for the sake of accuracy in our theorizing, but also because this notion of reciprocity is utterly essential in the emergence of social justice and increasing acceptance of human diversity in our society. Just as individuals form the force behind oppressive values and attitudes that find their way into socio-institutional structures and policy, so too are those same individuals the agents of social change who can alter these policies and the society as a whole.

To continue with an above example, the behavior and values of the straight ally of the gay student may have an important effect on both the gay student and the dorm environment by acting against the majority norm value base and instead showing acceptance of LGBT persons. As time goes on and more instances of this acceptance occur, a sense of acceptance (knowledge and direct experience that not all people are anti-LGBT) will become a part of the daily experience of the gay student, and this sense will also become a part of the daily experience of other (gay and straight) individuals in the interpersonal (and socio-institutional) environments. When enough individuals begin to interact in an LGBT-accepting manner within the interpersonal realm, this new value and norm will begin to spread and take hold in the socio-institutional realm and eventually become a part of the codified systems reflecting the majority culture norms. Therefore, both oppression and social justice are born of the same teaching and learning pathway, and both lie essentially within the power of the individual to shape.

In terms of relating the more public realms (interpersonal and socio-institutional) to the more private realm of intra-psychic processes and experience, we are still struggling to make the best determination on how to conceptualize this bridge. We see at least two ways to do this: (1) add a variable (and beta weight) to the equation to stand for the single level of environment having the greatest influence on the manifestation and expression of multiple identities by individuals at a given time (easy to express but perhaps artificial); or (2) have the realms operate simultaneously (as in reality) on the individual and within interpersonal interactions with three distinct variables in the intra-psychic equation, each with its own beta weight (and the more complex algebraic relations that would bring into the equation). We will not seek to answer this conceptual question here, but will defer to investigators in the future to address it in a more empirical manner. However, we believe that our conceptualized model as is might help to spark critical discussion and further theory development in this area (see  Figure 24.1 ).

The figure helps us to relay the notion that the individual is the center of our conceptualization concerning the manifestation and expression of multiple cultural identities, as well as relaying the notion that each larger environmental level emanating from the intra-psychic is inclusive of the content and factors in the one before it, yet also has additional elements unique to it. Finally, the figure relays the recursive nature among all of the levels, recapitulations that we conceptualize as an ongoing, shaping process.

What Does It All Mean?

Our goal in this chapter was to introduce our conceptualization of persons with multiple dimensions of diversity so as to expand upon the more simplistic presentation in most text sources of humans evincing only single axes of diversity (e.g., “Here is the Latino culture,” “Here is the gay culture,” as opposed to “Here is a way to conceptualize the gay, male Latino culture”). As well, we wanted to present a model reflecting the various axes of cultural identities within and across individuals and how these can influence and interact with each other. Finally, we wished to place this model of multiple cultural identities within the realms of various environmental contexts to fully explicate the person-in-environment, recursive nature of how human cultural identities shape and are shaped by others within specific social arenas.


Figure 24.1  Multiple cultural identities across environmental contexts.

However, the model itself does not necessarily directly suggest specific strategies we can use to understand the everyday reality of interacting with the multiple cultures within each of us. To this end, we make the following suggestions that we hope are helpful to readers in understanding the real-world application of our model.

First, we agree with those who assert that that each individual is the best estimator of the particular identities that have the most salience for him or her in any given situation or environment (cf., Suzuki, Casas, Ponterotto & Alexander, 2001). So, when we interact with others, we must take care not to assume what particular cultural or demographic characteristic is most salient for them. For example, we may see a primarily Spanish-speaking, middle-class, Christian, Latino male sitting alone at a Catholic wedding ceremony for two European Americans, where the guests are largely European Americans. We might presume that among so many European Americans, this Latino looks worried, isolated, and unsure because he is of a different race/culture than most people there. Although this is a reasonable notion, we might be surprised to discover that he is most concerned about being a gay man at a straight, Catholic wedding. In reality, this type of event brings up many feelings for him, like the fact that where he lives he and his partner cannot be married even though they have been in a monogamous relationship for 15 years and love each other very deeply. Such events may also highlight for him the internal strain and conflict he wrestles with concerning his religious and sexual orientation identities. So, when we sense that this Latino man is not feeling comfortable or seems distant from others, we would do well to ask him what is on his mind, versus presuming his discomfort arises because he is Latino.

The importance of non-presumption (and respecting the self-definition of identity salience) becomes critical because certain kinds of diversity (e.g., sexual orientation, religion) can remain invisible if a person wishes. Some aspects of our demographic-cultural characteristics and identities are highly visible (e.g., our sex, skin color, race, language, physical ability), and it becomes easy for observers to make unfounded presumptions that these characteristics will be central to our identity. We often make the erroneous assumption that the demography we can see is the demography that is most salient to the person we are encountering.

Second, we must be aware that the salience of identities can shift, sometimes even moment-to-moment, depending upon environmental contexts and cues. Thus, even though we may ask for others to indicate for us the identities they feel are important and want to be recognized and respected in any given environment, this does not mean that their perceived salience of those identities will remain stable across time within that setting. For example, Prieto (2006) provided the example of a male professor of color whose female students of color might feel quite able to share race-based perspectives with him given that he is a person of color, but a moment later be a bit wary about discussing their perspectives as women with this same man if they are unsure of his personal and professional perspectives on feminism, womanhood, and male privilege. Likewise, this male Latino professor may feel a lessening in the salience he places on his racial/cultural identity (Latino) and a simultaneous increase in the salience of his sex-based identity (male) when the conversation with his female students shifts from race issues to issues of feminism.

Third, all of us, being multiply identified in our cultural identities, must learn to be aware of the interaction and differential development of those identities, and as well, must be interpersonally aware of the interaction and differential development of the demographic-cultural identities of others. For example, our aforementioned Latino wedding guest, with his mix of both majority and diverse cultural identities, may wrestle internally with accepting, balancing, and integrating his identities. He may be well aware of the challenges he faces as a homosexual and a Latino in our society, but simultaneously fail to realize that his sex (male) and socioeconomic class have allowed him to avoid many hardships that others without that demography encounter—in fact, that those majority cultural characteristics have actually provided him with privileges that others do not possess! This may be a hard reality for him to see, but it is nonetheless true. Finally, he may be at different stages of identity development with respect to his various demographic-cultural characteristics. For example, he may have personally grown to an advanced level of understanding and acceptance of racial issues in the U.S. and how he wishes to view himself and others in an accurate way. For example, although he clearly and accurately acknowledges that racism is present in our society, he does not think all European Americans are racists. Instead, he may go on a case-by-case basis when it comes to determining European Americans’ motivations, attitudes, and sense of acceptance concerning people of color. However, even though advanced and open-minded in his understanding of racial issues, he may be simultaneously less well advanced (and even biased, stereotyped, and closed minded) in his view of non-Christian persons, of the homeless or economically disadvantaged, or of women and feminism. In short, we cannot expect that the level of personal growth, knowledge, understanding, and acceptance will be equivalent within any one individual in relation to his or her multiple cultural identities. There will be variance, both within and between their majority and diverse culture characteristics.

A Few Suggestions for Future Research

Our proposed model is exactly that, a proposed model. To validate and more fully understand the interactions in the model, it will become necessary to conduct empirical research. Below we have suggested a few basic guidelines we think will help investigators test the model we have outlined.

Start in the laboratory

The first step in beginning to empirically test our model is to examine its overall tenets. The idea is to first try to understand the big picture, examining whether the major components of our model relate to one another in the way we have proposed. To do this, it will be necessary to transpose our fuzzy, real-life based model into the more structured laboratory setting. Although we have streamlined our theory into a regression equation that fits nicely inside concentric intrapsychic, interpersonal, and socio-institutional realms, the reality of how we express our identities and humanity is not so easily delineated. For example, in our model we propose that the intra-psychic, interpersonal, and institutional realms are distinct contexts possessing the capacity to simultaneously and conjointly interact to influence the expression of identities in a given situation. In everyday experience, it is much more likely that these environmental levels will blur. Therefore, by initially testing the model in the laboratory we will be able to better control for extraneous “noise” in order to more accurately determine the reality of how contexts affect identities.

Although there are drawbacks to conducting laboratory studies to examine real-world experiences (e.g., internal validity versus external validity), testing in the lab allows for a more robust and experimentally sound way of evaluating our model. Laboratory study allows for better control of experimental conditions and better control over subject selection and assignment among experimental conditions. Once basic relations in the model have been validated, then investigators can move from exploratory, correlational designs to more confirmatory designs to test model elements and postulations. For now, exploratory designs examining relations within the expression of diverse identities in various situations will allow us to move forward in reaching an understanding of the complex nature of multiple dimensions of human diversity.

Determine the interplay of cultural privilege, social oppression, and environmental contexts

As we have seen, an individual can simultaneously hold a number of demographic-cultural characteristics from both majority and non-majority cultures. And, depending upon the environmental contexts at play, people may alter their expression of cultural identities. What is not clear is how holding culturally dominant characteristics affects the negative effects and experiences that come along with possessing culturally diverse characteristics. Are there buffering effects against social oppression and discriminatory experience that arise from possessing majority culture characteristics? Do persons with both majority and non-majority characteristics tend to place greater salience on one group of these characteristics over the other? Do these characteristics play moderating or mediating roles for each other? Do relations change depending upon the environmental level settings? Many complex relational aspects of the model need to be examined.

How can we best foster social acceptance of diverse characteristics?

As investigations progress toward uncovering and validating relations among key parts of the model, we should also examine how the model can inform us about increasing the acceptance of diverse cultural characteristics and reducing social oppression. We predict that interpersonal interaction among people who establish norms and values counter to those more oppressive ones in the majority culture can, with time, effort, and numbers, eventually spread a new perspective of acceptance into the socio-institutional realm. After all, institutions are simply collectives of individuals, and if enough individuals with a new and different perspective can form an institutional collective, change could be at hand. However, this aspect of the model requires empirical support and validation.

Last, many additional concepts and experimental approaches in social psychology (cf. Matsumoto & Juang, 2008) are directly applicable to human diversity, cross-cultural psychology, the psychology of prejudice and discrimination, and the psychology of persuasion and attitude change. These resources may be a fruitful place to begin to investigate our model as an avenue toward understanding possible interventions aimed at social justice, social change, and intercultural relations.


We have tried to explicate our conceptualization of what we see as the baseline for all individuals; that is, human beings possess multiple dimensions of human diversity. Very few will possess purely majority culture characteristics (in the broad sense of Iijima-Hall, 1997), and even these individuals have varied investments of salience and expression of all the identities they possess. Thus, conceptualizing all of us as having multiple cultural identities simply makes good sense. We can no longer artificially pretend that our human demography and associated identities can be adequately discussed or scientifically examined in an isolated fashion as if only one aspect matters to us or others. We are multivariate, complex beings and we need to think about, interact with, and study ourselves in that way. This more complex view of human identity may help to broaden our understanding of ourselves, others, and those human potentials yet to be unlocked. We might also be better able to perceive and change ourselves and our society so that we can reduce social oppression and ills and build upon our strengths and the beauty of our widely diverse humanity.


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Dunn, D. S. (2009). Teaching about the social psychology of disability: Issues of being, not becoming. In R. A. R. Gurung & L. Prieto (Eds.), Getting culture: Best practices for incorporating culture into the curriculum (pp. 120–127). New York: Stylus.

Iijima Hall, C. (1997). Cultural malpractice: The growing obsolescence of psychology with the changing U.S. population. American Psychologist, 52, 642–651.

Jensen, R. (2007). White privilege shapes the U.S. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (2nd ed., pp. 129–132). New York: Worth.

Kerwin, C., Ponterotto, J. G., Jackson, B. L., & Harris, A. (1993). Racial identity in biracial children: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 40, 221–231.

Matsumoto, D., & Juang, L. (2008). Culture and psychology (4th ed.). Florence, NY: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Nagayama Hall, G. C., & Maramba, G. G. (2001). In search of cultural diversity: Recent literature in cross-cultural and ethnic minority psychology. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 7, 12–26.

Prieto, L. R (2006). Multiple cultural identities: Will the real student please stand up?. In W. Buskist & S. Davis (Eds), The handbook of the teaching of psychology (pp. 175–178). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Reynolds, A. L., & Pope, R. L. (1991). The complexities of diversity: Exploring multiple oppressions. Journal of Counseling and Development (Special Issue: Multiculturalism as a fourth force in counseling)70, 174–180.

Rothenberg, P. S. (2007). White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (2nd ed.). New York: Worth.

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Wise, T. (2007). Membership has its privileges: Thoughts on acknowledging and challenging whiteness. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (2nd ed., pp. 133–136). New York: Worth.


Could simply thinking about smart people improve your performance? Dutch researchers hypothesized that merely contemplating professors could make people more knowledgeable. Fifty-eight Dutch college students volunteered for a pair of pilot studies to develop materials for future psychology experiments. Seated in individual computer cubicles for the first pilot study, two-thirds of the participants started out by imagining and listing a typical professor’s behaviors, lifestyle, and appearance; some did so for two minutes and some for nine minutes. The remaining third of the participants skipped this task. Then, in the second pilot study, all participants completed a 60-item general knowledge test, composed of items from the Trivial Pursuits game. Examples included “Who painted La Guernica?” (a. Dali, b. Miro, c. Picasso, d. Velasquez) and “What is the capital of Bangladesh?” (a. Dhaka, b. Hanoi, c. Yangon, d. Bangkok). Participants typically answered about 50% correctly (where 25% would be chance). None of the participants saw any link between the first pilot study and the second. In fact, however, subjects who had spent time thinking about typical professors actually performed far better on the knowledge test than those who did not ( Table 2.1 ): Professorial thoughts gained them an advantage of 6% to 14% on this multiple-choice test of factual knowledge. What happened? Did participants become more knowledgeable merely as a result of thinking about professors? (We wish.) The experiment’s authors (Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1998) speculated that having “professor” on the mind may have caused them to work harder, use better strategies, or trust their hunches. Other studies will unravel this mystery (see  Chapter 4 ). For the present, however, this study illustrates the simultaneously elegant and provocative nature of a well-designed experiment.

TABLE 2.1 Trivial Pursuit Score, after Thinking about Professors

  Time Spent Thinking about the Typical Professor
  0 Minutes 2 Minutes 9 Minutes
Percent Correct 45.2 51.8 58.9

Source: From Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1998, Experiment 2. Copyright © American Psychological Association. Adapted with permission.

This chapter aims to help you understand the unsurpassed power of the scientific experiment but also its limitations. Whether studying the influence of thinking about social roles, as in the professor study, or the impact of group decision making, as in Lewin’s organ-meats study from  Chapter 1 , all social psychologists grapple with determining the scientific methods best suited to test their hypotheses. Methods form the bedrock on which our field rests, and experiments are the most solid scientific rocks of all. Careful scientific methods and outcomes provide the best information about the plausibility of our ideas, whether the hypotheses concern the power of roles, the influence of group decision making, or the causes of aggression.

To explain social psychology’s methods, this chapter first describes forming scientific hypotheses, which involves the process of conceptualization. Second, the chapter describes testing hypotheses, that is, the process of operationalization, whereby researchers create empirical, working definitions of their concepts. Third, the chapter describes three research strategies that utilize social psychology’s operational methods: descriptive, correlational, and experimental. Fourth, we will see that some methodological challenges are peculiar to social settings and the core social motives that people bring to them. Finally, the chapter includes a brief discussion of research ethics. By the end of the chapter, I hope you will see how the research enterprise operates and what dilemmas it confronts, that is, how social psychologists conduct their science.

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