1.The Utility of Cross Cultural Research


Shaffer 1993 argues that there are at least three valid reasons why psychologists should undertake cross cultural research.

  1. In the first instance a study of cross-cultural variations allows psychologists to detect which trends, traits or characteristics are universal and which are culturally determined.
  2. Secondly, cross-cultural research also acts as a form of natural experiment in which issues which may be socially sensitive can still be investigated, where they occur naturally.
  3. Finally cross-cultural research helps avoid the dangers of ‘an imposed etic’ (Berry et al 2003), where findings generated in one specific culture are imposed on others without further study.

These reasons could be applied to almost any area of psychology but they also have particular validity in relationship research which has traditionally been informed by western concepts of physical attraction, romantic love, monogamy and heterosexuality.


2. Traditional relationship research


Much of the research into interpersonal relationships has been carried out in the UK and USA, suggesting an exclusion of other cultures within the research. Furthermore, most of the research which has taken place in the western societies has focused on heterosexual, romantic relationships and thereby has excluded research into same sex and different sex platonic relationships or friendships which are a part of everyday life. In addition other types of relationships, such as gay relationships or those developed through computer mediated communication have also largely been ignored, at least until recently. For this reason if psychologists are to understand interpersonal attraction, maintenance and dissolution of relationships in all forms, both cross-cultural and sub-cultural analysis are required.

In investigating relationships psychologists have traditionally made a number of assumptions  all of which may be challenged.

  • That relationships are based either on physical attraction, frequency of interaction or perceived similarity
  • That relationships are based upon some notion of traditional or romantic love
  • That aspects of relationship formation and dissolution could be studied in fairly contrived and artificial research scenarios
  • That the Western, predominantly USA based, research could be regarded as typical and perhaps even universally the norm.

Duck (1999) suggests that in the past the psychology of relationships focused upon the mechanics of relationship formation, the ‘principles’ of which were often established in artificially contrived research settings. This approach assumed relationships were both positive and functional for the individuals involved and that they way in which relationships were formed could be studied using experimental techniques. More recently there has been an attempt by social psychologists to investigate what may be termed the ‘dark side’ of relationships, such as relationship dissolution, or abuse within relationships.

3. Counterbalancing these problems

In addition social psychologists are far more concerned with the following when investigating relationships.

  • Investigating them in the settings they occur in naturally
  • Investigating the dysfunctional aspects of relationships
  • Investigating the dissolution of relationships
  • Investigation both cross cultural and sub cultural variations in relationships.


4.Culture: Some  Definitions of Relevant terms

A set of rules, norms and customs that are agreed the members of that group and used to describe the outlook, attitudes and behaviours of people that make up that group.

Sub cultures are cultures within cultures, which are different and sometimes in opposition to the mainstream culture.


5. Classifying cultures


Goodwyn (1995) suggested a key difference between western and non-western cultures was whether they were individualistic or collectivist. In individualistic cultures it is expected that individuals will make their own decisions and take responsibility for their own lives. In eastern societies it is expected that individuals will regard themselves mainly as part of kinship and social groupings and that their decisions will be strongly influenced by their obligations to others.


We are able to judge whether a society is individualistic or collectivist where there is a conflict between the ‘I’ and the ‘we’, whichever normally prevails is taken to indicate whether the society is individualistic or collectivist. Goodwyn (1999) suggests that three factors contribute to making societies collective or individual:

  • Economic wealth
  • Religion
  • Geographical proximity.



This refers to the extent to which the society or culture is relatively closed or relatively fluid in terms of social mobility. High power distance cultures are characterised by a general acceptance of differentials. Low power distance societies or cultures tend to be less accepting of established authority or status.


Eastern religions place higher value on collective harmony than western religions.



Individualism and collectivism tend to cluster geographically such that the terms individualism and collectivism are interchangeable with the terms western and eastern culture.

6. Areas in which there may be significant cross cultural variations


Assuming that there are therefore significant differences with regards to interpersonal attraction and the formation and dissolution of relationships across different cultures broadly characterised as individualistic or collectivist. Then we would need to be able to investigate this by reference to different types of relationships and their characteristics as well as other cultural differences or variations which may or may not exist. It is therefore necessary to examine cross-cultural variations in the following:

  • Romantic love
  • Friendships
  • The extent of voluntarism
  • The degree of permanence
  • The importance of physical attributes
  • The importance of age
  • The structure or organisation of the relationship i.e. is it monogamous or polygamous.

7. Psychological Research into cross cultural variations


Romantic Love: Levine et al. (1995) conducted research into love and marriage in India, Pakistan, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Hong Kong, the Phillipines, Australia, Japan, UK and USA and found that love was regarded as more important for marriage in western or individualistic cultures.

Friendships: Goodwyn (1995) and Salamon (1977) found that in individualistic cultures, people were likely to have lots of friendships whereas in collectivist cultures there were fewer friendships but which tended to last much longer.

Degree of Voluntarism: The most common form of marriage partner selection, worldwide, is by arrangement. Harris (1995) in a study of 42 societies around the world, found that only 6 societies gave individuals complete freedom of choice of marriage partner with all the others having arranged marriages or at least a parental veto. Yelsma and Athappily (1998) compared Indian, arranged marriages with Indian and North America love marriages and found that the average level of marital satisfaction was about the same.

Degree of permanence: One area in which there is considerable cross-cultural variation is in the duration of the relationships. In some cultures divorce is barely tolerated. Simmel (1971) claims that divorce levels are higher in individualistic societies because of the cultural preoccupation with seeking the ideal partner. Goodwyn (1999) suggested that the low divorce rates (less than 4%) in China is attributable to the fact that it is barely tolerated and is in fact regarded as shameful. The growing tendency towards cohabitation without the commitment of marriage also suggests that there is less emphasis on the permanence of relationships in western societies.

Multi-faith societies: Within individualistic cultures there remain considerable sub-cultural variations. In a study of Jewish families in New York Brodbar-Nemzer (1986) found that the Jewish community was split into those who had assimilated the cultural norms of US society i.e. individualistic ones and those who held a more collectivist view, more in keeping with the Jewish faith.

Role changes: McKenry and Price (1995) have said that changes in the roles of women in many cultures, as well as social and economic changes, such as industrialisation and urbanisation, have led to increases in divorce rates across many cultures.

Methodological Issues: Finally, Eysenck and Flanagan (2001) have argued that psychological tools that are used to measure people and investigate behaviours such as IQ tests and questionnaires are pre-dominantly the tools of western psychology. They have been designed in one particular culture and are heavily based on the assumptions of that culture. They may not have any meaning in another culture or worse still their use may give rise to findings that are biased, distorted or mistaken. It is therefore important to recognise that whilst cross-cultural research has the potential to be highly informative about human behaviours, it also has many important weaknesses.

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