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Diversity Research Initiatives

Humans are intensively social and cultural animals. Although culture is often only invoked in the context of cross-group comparisons, human beings quite literally “live culturally”, in much the same way as one could say that fish” live aquatically.” Given the high degree of interdependence that characterizes human societies, it is not surprising that research has documented profound effects of the social and cultural environment on the affective, cognitive, and behavioral processes constituting the subject matter of psychology. The “social environment” consists of local, immediate contexts such as a family, a work team, or a class of students, as well as increasingly encompassing collective contexts such as residential neighborhoods, communities, ethnic groups, religious identities, and nations, among many others. Different social groups may possess quite different “ways of life”, evident in both explicit and implicit cultural practices (e.g. norms, traditions, language, ways of relating to each other and to nature). A question of great interest concerns which aspects of human functioning are universal and which unfold in ways that are distinctively embedded within and shaped by particular socio-cultural and environmental contexts.

Much psychological research has proceeded from the assumption, dating back at least to Aristotle, that fundamental psychological mechanisms (e.g. attention, perception, learning, memory) are universal. Certainly there is good reason to believe in the existence of species-typical psychological as well as physical characteristics. Despite such universalities, it is also clear that sociocultural forces exert a powerful influence on the psychological functioning of individuals and of groups, and that these forces are evident not only in group processes but also at the level of an individual’s basic cognitive processes. There can be little doubt that the psychological landscape of individuals and of groups is shaped by the attitudes, beliefs, and patterns of social interaction in which they are immersed, by the ecology in which humans exist, and by the linguistic and symbolic systems to which they are exposed. It is therefore time for psychologists to explore with rigor the psychological diversity that is represented across social environments and to trace the ways in which sociocultural factors exert their influence on the workings of the human mind.

The above questions are not just of intellectual curiosity---they are also of practical urgency. Perhaps the two most central issues facing humankind are whether we can get along with each other and whether we can live without destroying our environment.

The diversity of human psychological processes is a topic that has begun to capture the imagination of many scholars. The richness of sociocultural influences on human functioning can be circumscribed by focusing on three types of orienting frameworks provided by the social environment:

  1. Cultural frames -- collections of norms, values, ideologies, and beliefs that are shared by a group and transmitted to members by a variety of ongoing socialization processes.
  2. Linguistic frames -- the fundamental set of representations that are built into the language(s) and symbol systems used with a social group.
  3. Relationship frames -- the specific patterns of interdependence that characterize individuals’ capacity to influence one another’s life experiences and outcomes, including both interpersonal and intergroup relations.

The Northwestern Psychology department is extremely well positioned to push forward our understanding of the power of each of these orienting frameworks. In addition, we have the potential make strong contributions to our understanding of the challenges and opportunities that arise when individuals who possess different kinds of orienting frames come together in significant contexts, such as work teams, classrooms, and in the business world. Social diversity in these contexts is on the increase, and one impetus for the Culture and Social Relations Initiative is to generate a better understanding of the implications of the demographic trends to societal diversification. In particular, by combining a focus on how distinct cultural and linguistic frameworks interact within the context of different kinds of relationship frames, powerful new insights about the psychology of social diversity may be attained. Despite the fundamental importance of this topic, very few psychology departments have established programs to address psychological diversity in a comprehensive way. This is a topic that strongly invites, even requires, interdisciplinary collaboration and exploration.