The Importance of Cross-cultural Research in Child Development
As inhabitants of Western culture, we tend to assume that the way we develop from infancy to adulthood is exactly the same, or universal, everywhere else in the world. We may even assume that we all define the word "culture" the same way. However, the exact meaning of the term "culture" is still being debated and refined. In fact, it is so difficult to define, that in 1952 there were more than 100 definitions for "culture" (Kroeber, 1952)! However, more recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2002) described culture as: "... the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs." Thus, even within the broad society of the United States, there are many subcultures which correspond to differences in geographics, sexual preference, religion, and perhaps even gender. The science of human development not only seeks to understand typical patterns of normative development, which sifnifies patterns of change that are similar across developing children; developmental scientists also wish to understand ideographic development, or how children may differ as they develop. In order to generalize, or state that findings across samples and settings are universal, scientists must conduct cross-cultural comparisons.
Cross-cultural studies are those in which participants from different cultural or subcultural backgrounds are observed, tested, and compared on some aspect (or aspects) of human development. In addition to supporting (or refuting) the generalizability of our findings, scientists can utilize cross-cultural research methodologies to tease out the unique contributions of biology and environment to human development. Cross-cultural research designs are not only utilized to verify or understand important universals in child and adolescent development, but also beautifully demonstrate how heavily environmental variation within our species, and the rich tapestry of cultural context, affect how normal developmental changes occur (Scarr, 1992).
If developmental research scientists neglect cross-cultural research, the consumers of this research may fall prey to believing the incorrect assumption that what holds true in our own society holds true elsewhere in the world. I personally would not want to make this mistake.
Kroeber, A. L. & Kluckhohn, C. (1952). Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum.
Scarr, S. (1992) Developmental theories for the 1990's: Development and individual differences. Child Development 63, 1-19.
UNESCO. (2002). Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. Retrieved January 3, 2007 from http://www.unesco.org/education/imld_2002/unversal_decla.shtml#2.
Wikipedia (Jan 2, 2007). Culture.Retrieved January 3, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture.