In 7 Quotes or Less: Culture and Cognition: Readings in Cross-Cultural Psychology edited by J.W. Berry and P.R. Dasen

Posted on May 21, 2009 by


The Book: Culture and cognition: readings in cross-cultural psychology by John W. Berry and P.R. Dasen
Published in 1974, Methuen (London)

Authors of articles, virtually predominantly white people with a few twinkies sprinkled along the way, ran a battery of psychological tests on brown, black, yellow, and red people. Not that this wasn’t expected cause this was 1974 and earlier. But, they meant well. But then again, I could not refrain from wondering throughout the duration of this literature what would happen if the inverse occurred; what would happen if the people from those cultures came here and ran a battery of tests on us? How disadvantaged and inferior would we look?

I picked this book to read because I really really liked its title, and on occasion, they had really good things to say that should be out there in the public consciousness, imagination, and discourse.

1. Two quotes describing two ways of navigating the oceans.

His progress across the ocean is guided by a constant awareness in his own mind of his location relative to the position of every island and reef in the area through which he is travelling. Each bit of information —- whether a perception of changed conditions or an awareness of continuing progress under constant conditions — is integrated into a cumulative but changing knowledge of position and travel thus far. The [Trukese] navigator’s mental image is analogous to a radar screen on which a moving spot of light shows his position relative to other objects at any moment. His navigational decisions are then made on an ad hoc basis to assure continued progress toward his goal. (33)

Western navigators plan their entire voyage in advance. A course is plotted on a chart and this in turn provides the criteria for decisions. Progress is assessed at any given moment relative to a position across the plotted line. Unless the navigator is sailing a direct point-to-point course, he does not carry in his mind a physical sense where he is going (34)

T. Gladwin (1964) Culture and logical process from W.H. Goodenough (ed.) Explorations in Cultural Anthropology: Essays in Honor of George Petere Murdock (McGraw-Hill Book Co) pp. 167-77

Navigation was the main topic of the book I discussed in my very first post here about Cognition in the Wild.

Just struck by how the Trukese navigator merely uses his sense of direction and past knowledge to get to where he needs to whereas as had been shown by Hutchins in Cognition in the Wild and this quote, “Western” ways of navigation are primarily based on an extensive array of tools. The tools might make things more accurate, but left alone without them, they’d be sunk.


The final goal, of which an Ethnographer should never lose sight… is, briefly, to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world’ – Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: George Routledge & Sons (p.25)

(44) W.C. Sturtevant (1964) Studies in Ethnoscience. A.K. Romney and R.G. D’Andrade. Transcultural Studies in Cognition, American Anthropologist (Special Publication, 66 (3), Part 2, pp. 99-113, 123-4

I’d like to take this quote and apply it to teachers and learning. Teachers would do well to grasp what their students know, make their teachings relevant to their respective contexts.

Conversely, students learn best when they make an attempt to understand, not necessarily the teacher’s point of view, but understand where the lessons themselves are coming from, the story behind those lessons, and how it fits into their everyday contexts. If they can understand where the lessons are coming from, the story behind the lessons, and see how it fits, perhaps they’ll be patient enough and attempt to invest in getting to know and understand the ideas and concepts presented in class.

To invest.

3. Peoples develop tendencies in their language based on what’s presented to them in their environment.

Whereas the environment of the Temne, with its bush an colorful vegetation, is highly variegated, the environment of the Eskimo with its endless, uniform snowfields is extremely homogenous. Articulation is thus a built-in feature of the visual field of the Temne world but essentially lacking in the Eskimo world. Against this starting difference in their visual worlds there is a marked difference between the two groups in the kind of engagement with the environment which their economies demand. The hunting life of the Eskimo requires that they travel widely. The necessity of finding their way around in a highly uniform terrain must place a great premium during development upon investment in the articulation of space. The fostering of articulation, we may speculate, is likely to be stronger than in a society where the same need to travel widely is met by an environment which is inherently articulated. The Temne, in contrast, endowed with a highly articulated world, do not need to invest in articulation…(109)

H.A. Witkin (1967) Cognitive styles across cultures. International Journal of Psychology, (24), pp. 233-50

Essentially, Eskimos living in the uniform environment of snowfields make a lot distinctions in their language for snow and for other aspects related to their lives. Kind of the same way people who live in snowy environments in general seem to have a lot of terms for snow like “slush” to indicate extra slippery snow, which being a virtual native Southern Californian I had no idea.

In contrast, the Temne already live in a diverse environment, so theoretically they don’t need to make as many distinctions in their words. They don’t need to focus as much on differences cause it’s already there.

Perhaps it’s the case that with such difference comes categorization.


In high food accumulation societies, there was a strong tendency to emphasize responsibility and obedience during socialization, while in low food accumulation (hunting and gathering), achievement, self-reliance and independence were emphasized (132)

J.W. Berry (1971) Ecological and cultural factors in spatial perceptual development, Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 3(4), pp. 324-36

Would the statement be true if you replaced “high-food accumulation society” and “low food accumulation” with “rich country” and “poor country” or even at a more micro-level, “rich demographic” or “poor demographic”? I would say, kinda, sure, maybe, but that’s also because I don’t really believe in the idea of groups having “traits” or characteristics.

However, if I did accept the statement as true, it sounds like social norms become more important the more stuff you get.


In societies such as these, intelligent acts are then of a conforming kind, having primary reference to the affective climate of one’s own relationships with the spiritual force of the living and ancestral spirits of the kin group (256)

S.H. Irvine (1969), “Contributions of ability and attainment testing in Africa to a general theory of intellect” Journal of Biosocial Science, Supplement No. I, pp. 91-102

A different view of intelligence, but I wonder if this is true and how that plays out today.


These authors conclude that ‘the first effect of schooling is to increase their analytic attention to the perceptible features of situations such as our experiment'(326)

From Greenfield, P.M. (1966) On culture and conservation. In Bruner, J.S., Oliver, R.R. and Greenfield. P.M. (eds.) Studies in Cognitive Growth. New York: Wiley. pp. 225-56. Reprinted in Price-Williams, 1969. via M.C. Bovet “Cognitive processes among illiterate children and adults”

I took this to mean that teachers in school teach you the student what to focus on. Where to stick your camera lens of an eye on. What to listen for. So technically, teachers have a role in determining what a student will later consider “relevant.”

7. A quote about how some phrases don’t quite translate in other languages and perhaps lead to different actions and views.

She says when in doubt Chinese boys say “not the same”, while European boys said “close enough”‘ (p.11).. Although she notes that this difference does not stem from the lack of phrases like ‘close enough’ in the Chinese vocabulary or practice, one cannot help recalling the problems faced in other Zambian work when it was found that no word or phrase for ‘the same’ existed in certain Zambian languages (Heron, 1968) (346).

From A.Heron (1968) Studies of perception and reasoning in Zambian children. International Journal of Psychology, 3, 23-29 via A. Heron and M.Simonsson (1969) Weight conservation in Zambian children: a nonverbal approach. International Journal of Psychology, 4 (4), pp. 281-92

The point of the sentence, there is no word for the “same” in Zambian language, which could relate back to quote #3 about the physical environment’s role in influencing the distinctions made in a language.

But what I found intriguing was the first sentence.

Chinese would say “not the same” as opposed to the European children’s “close enough” when uncertain. Maybe that’s due to the bias of the experimenters themselves and something within their context, but nonetheless something to think about, especially in perceptual differences. Perhaps it says something elucidated in Geography of Thought by Nisbett such as Chinese are more likely to make finer distinctions or Europeans are more likely to blur differences.

That sentence got me thinking about how certain words and phrases become popular to say in one language in a certain situation.

Last night in my never-ending crusade to conquer the Castellano dialect, I was watching Los Angeles-Spanish language TV, some kind of variety show. When an attractive woman get up there, the crowd of guys chanted rhythmically the phrase, “Vuelta! Vuelta! Vuelta!”, which means “turn around”, “gyrate” or “twirl”. This is a popular thing to say in Spanish language TV that I’ve watched here in LA. It isn’t just specific to the show. Perhaps it’s popular to say because it’s a 2-syllable phrase and easy to keep repeating in rhythm.

Now imagine trying to say one of those words on Jay Leno or David Letterman. “Turn around” seems like it could work with practice but seems to take a lot of effort to chant, “gyrate” sounds kind of nasty for FCC audiences, and “twirl” sounds really weak.