Sociocultural Perspective: Definition, Examples & Quiz

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Andrea McKay

Andrea teaches high school AP Psychology and Online Economics and has a Masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

Does your race, religion, or gender shape the way you interact with the world? If you think culture can help us understand a person's behavior, then you may already know a little about the sociocultural perspective in psychology.

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Sociocultural Perspective: Definition, Examples & Quiz

Psychologists use many different approaches that work together to understand and explain human behavior. The sociocultural perspective is one approach to understanding why humans behave the way they do. The sociocultural perspective seeks to understand human behavior and personality development by examining the rules of the social groups and subgroups in which the individual is a member. These rules are often unwritten guidelines that direct a person's actions.

Groups Can Affect Behavior

Race and ethnicity, religion, gender, social class, family traditions, peer groups, and age are some of the subgroups that may influence someone's behavior. Do students from poverty-stricken areas learn differently than students in wealthy homes? Do religious beliefs play a role in a teen's decision to delay premarital sex? Do families that eat dinner together every night have more successful children than families who don't eat together? A psychologist could use the sociocultural perspective to help answer these questions.

If you looked outside your window and saw a man speaking earnestly to a tree, what conclusions might you draw? You may argue the man could be suffering from mental illness and needs medication or treatment in a mental institution. But would your opinion change if you knew the man was Native American, and Native Americans believe in a spiritual philosophy that trees can speak if you listen to them? The context of culture makes a difference in how you view the behavior, and the sociocultural perspective takes that into account.

Examining Cultural Differences

The sociocultural perspective can also help explain how a similar behavior can be interpreted differently in two cultures. Japan is a small island nation with a very large population. Those conditions have helped shape the behavior of the people in Japan. Workers who are hired on the public train system may have the job of pushing commuters onto the crowded train so the doors can close without the commuter getting trapped in the doors. Because there is little space on the trains, the Japanese people who are shoved onto the train often thank the employee who pushed them! They understand the train employee is helping them. If you believe a commuter in New York City would respond differently to being pushed onto a subway train, you are using the sociocultural perspective to understand behavior. It's easy to see how the lens of culture gives us a different view of similar behaviors.

Crowded rush hour in Tokyo

Sociocultural theorists may also examine the role of culture on self-esteem and self-image. Ethnic groups who have experienced discrimination may report lower levels of self-esteem than groups who have not experienced discrimination. Images commonly portrayed in the media may also influence one's self-perception. In Western nations where media images of women are slimmer than average women, girls may develop poor self-images. A sociocultural psychologist would be interested in studying how cultural discrimination and societal perceptions of beauty influence the self.

How does culture affect our perception of beauty?

Individualist Versus Collectivist Cultures

Some sociocultural psychologists look at cultural differences in individualist versus collectivist societies. Individualist countries, like the United States, place value on personal identities and unique traits. Collectivist countries, like many Asian and African countries, often place a higher value on doing what is good for the group to which they belong over individual needs. The level of individualism versus collectivism in a group can shape how people in the group define themselves.

While there are many approaches psychologists use to understand behavior, the sociocultural perspective is most useful for understanding how one's groups or subgroups can influence attitudes and actions. Race, ethnicity, gender, culture, religion, and socioeconomic status are just some of the important elements that define our behaviors.

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