Sociocultural Perspective in Psychology

When you were a child, what kind of rules were there in your school classroom? What were your teacher's expectations about how to respect and best interact with your classmates? Those sets of rules influenced how we behaved and interacted with our peers and our teacher. They also influenced your character formation and your understanding of morality. What if you had been raised in a different country? How might the rules or expectations of your school be different in another country? Would you have been able to attend school at all? Questions like these help us consider sociocultural influences on a person's life!

Sociocultural Perspective in Psychology Sociocultural Perspective in Psychology

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Table of contents
    • What is the sociocultural perspective in psychology?
    • What does the sociocultural perspective mean? What are some sociocultural factors?
    • What is the history of this theory in psychology?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of this perspective?
    • How can you apply the sociocultural perspective?

    The meaning of the sociocultural perspective in psychology

    The sociocultural perspective in psychology focuses on how situations and cultural factors affect a person's behavior and thinking. It also considers how behavior and thinking differ from culture to culture and from one situation to another. Culture is shared behaviors and ideas that are passed down through generations.

    Think about traditions during holidays that you celebrate. In the United States, Halloween is celebrated by wearing costumes, enjoying trick-or-treating, and eating lots of candies and chocolates. In Mexico, among other countries, it is popular to celebrate "Dia de Los Muertos," a 2 day holiday that takes place on November 1st and 2nd each year. It is a holiday celebrating death and life. These traditions and events are a part of culture!

    Your behavior and thoughts in a specific situation are influenced by many different sociocultural factors. Here are a few of the factors that can influence your thoughts and behaviors:

    • Culture and cultural expectations

    • Parental and peer influences

    • Community influences

    • Gender norms

    • Societal norms

    • Family, personal, and/or religious values

    • Power dynamics

    • Mainstream media and social media

    Sociocultural Perspective in Psychology, infographic of various sociocultural influences, StudySmarterSociocultural factors, StudySmarter Original

    The sociocultural perspective is one way to think about what causes our behaviors and mental processes, but it is only some of the pieces of the whole puzzle.

    AP Exam Tip: You may be asked to think about how the sociocultural perspective may help to explain a person's behavior in a given scenario in the Free Response Questions section of the exam. Thinking about the sociocultural factors above can help you develop your answer.

    Sociocultural theories in psychology

    The pioneer of the sociocultural approach is generally considered to be Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist. Vygotsky's area of focus was developmental psychology, so his theory is known as the sociocultural theory of cognitive development. He was interested in how children learn and develop cognitively within their cultural context. The process by which someone absorbs information from their social and cultural environment is called internalization. It is the internal acceptance of social beliefs, values, and standards as one's own.

    Vygotsky's sociocultural theory of cognitive development focuses on how a child's mind develops as a result of interacting with their social environment.

    Through his work, Vygotsky explained how a child's parents, siblings, teachers, and other relationships influence a child's values, problem-solving strategies, beliefs, and how they make sense of the world around them. Specifically, he believed that the adults in the child's life such as parents and teachers would serve as mentors in the child's ability to learn new skills. This is called scaffolding: a framework that provides children temporary support in their development.

    Vygotsky is credited with developing the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). This concept acknowledges that children have a range of skills and abilities that they can do on their own and others that they are able to do with help. In between what is easy for a child to do and what is too difficult for them to do even with help lies the zone of proximal development. This is the area where they can acquire new skills with the help of someone who knows the specific skill better than they do. Vygotsky thought that language was one of the most important tools of social mentoring and that it provides vital building blocks for thinking.

    Think about when you were approaching the age that you could legally drive a car. There is a lot of learning that has to be done in the process before you can take your driver's exam, right? If you weren't taught the rules of the road or practiced with an adult that had experience driving, you more than likely would not pass the driver's exam or be a skilled and safe driver. Learning to drive a car is in the ZPD area because you can learn how to drive a car with some help.

    Sociocultural Perspective in Psychology, a father helping his small child color and write, StudySmarterZone of proximal development, pixabay.com

    • Lev Vygotsky is the pioneer of the sociocultural perspective in psychology
    • Vygotsky developed the sociocultural theory of cognitive development which focuses on how a child's mind develops as a result of interacting with their social environment.
    • Vygotsky is also credited with developing the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which includes the skills that learners can develop with the help of someone who already knows that specific skill.

    Advantages of the sociocultural perspective in psychology

    One advantage of the sociocultural perspective is that it helps us to understand behavior and mental processes from within a social and cultural context. Humans are influenced by their societies and cultures. The way you think and behave is influenced by factors within your society and culture. If we don't consider social and cultural factors, we can't fully understand another person. We may even misunderstand why a person behaves or thinks a certain way. Considering social and cultural factors is part of studying humans from a holistic perspective.

    Remember that question at the beginning about going to school in a different country? For children in East Asian countries, the rules in a classroom mean much more than simply not getting in trouble. The rules are about how to be a good person within a collectivistic society. How do I fit in and contribute to the whole? Are we all behaving the same way? Standing out isn't a good thing in collectivist cultures, but it is typically praised in Western cultures. Western teachers and parents like to give children choices and allow them to express individuality. Eastern teachers and parents, in general, want to teach children to do things the right way and make the right kind of choices. Fitting into the social context is more important than expressing individuality.

    Sociocultural Perspective in Psychology, a woman dancing at a cultural celebration, StudySmarterCultural celebration, pixabay.com

    Strengths and weaknesses of the sociocultural perspective in psychology

    Over the years, researchers and professionals have identified some strengths and weaknesses of the sociocultural perspective. Below is a summary of some of these strengths and weaknesses:

    Strengths of the sociocultural perspective in psychology

    • In general, the theories within psychology are great tools to help us better understand and explain why we act and think the way we do. Theories may also help us predict behavior.

    • The sociocultural approach's focus on social and cultural factors is important to understanding why humans behave and think the way they do.

    • Vygotsky's sociocultural approach provided an alternative viewpoint about cognitive development from that of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget whose work focused on cognitive development via interactions with the physical environment.

    • What we learn from our sociocultural environments is not fixed. We may internalize and accept concepts that we learn from our environment from a young age, but as we grow older, we may find ourselves interacting with new cultures and social environments that may subsequently change what we choose to internalize and accept as our own.

    If our socio-cultural environments perpetuate negative biases towards other people, it is possible that we can learn to recognize our biases, understand how they impact how we think and behave towards others, and learn to overcome these biases and recreate a new framework of how we think and behave towards other people.

    Weaknesses of the sociocultural perspective in psychology

    • The sociocultural perspective in psychology tends to downplay personal responsibility and autonomy.

    • Even though there are sociocultural factors that influence our behavior and mental processes, there are other factors as well, and each person is unique.

    • The sociocultural approach doesn't account for all factors that play a part in cognitive development.

    • Vygotsky's theory of sociocultural cognitive development places a lot of importance on the power of language. Scaffolding is heavily dependent on verbal instructions. However, this may not be as important or relevant in all cultures and all types of learning.

    • Vygotsky's theory is hard to evaluate scientifically.

    Example applications of the sociocultural perspective in psychology

    Let's take a look at a scenario and focus on one specific sociocultural factor within that scenario.

    Example #1:

    In this first example, we will be looking at our first scenario.

    Scenario

    Andrew and his family move to a new town, and it's his first day as a freshman at a new high school. A group of older guys approach him and begin to make fun of the way he is dressed. Andrew asks them to leave him alone, but one of the guys gets in his face and says "or what?". Andrew doesn't like conflict and has never been in a physical fight, but he decides to punch the guy in the face. He was afraid of what others might think about him if he just walked away.

    There are many sociocultural factors that may have contributed to Andrew's decision to punch the guy in the face. Gender norms may be playing a role in his thoughts and behavior.

    What do you think?

    Do you think gender norms could be a sociocultural factor influencing Andrew's behavior and thoughts?

    One common gender stereotype for boys is that "boys need to be tough". We know that Andrew was afraid of what others might think about him if he just walked away. Societal and cultural gender norms could be playing a role in Andrew's thoughts and behavior in this situation.

    Example #2:

    This will be our second scenario to explain the application of sociocultural perspective in psychology.

    Scenario

    Susan, a 16-year old female, was temporarily placed in a foster home because her legal guardian was arrested for possession of drugs. Susan kept to herself and spent most of her time in her room. Her foster parents noticed that after a month of being with them, Susan started hanging out with a group of kids after school almost every afternoon. She was rarely ever home. One day, the principal of the school contacted her foster parents because the principal found marijuana in Susan's locker and some of her friends' lockers.

    Again, there are many sociocultural factors at play in Susan's life. One of those is her peer group. Who does she hang out with? Who are her friends? Will she want to be liked and accepted by her peer group? Could this lead her to act and think in ways that she wouldn't have otherwise?

    What do you think?

    What sociocultural factors might help explain Susan's behavior? Consider role models, peer influences, cultural norms, societal norms, family values, personal values, religious values, and mainstream media. Is it possible that Susan was exposed to drugs before her current foster placement? The use of marijuana has been increasingly normalized within US society, and experimenting is a common phenomenon among teenagers.

    Sociocultural Perspective in Psychology - Key takeaways

    • The sociocultural perspective in psychology focuses on how situations and cultural factors affect a person's behavior and thinking.
    • Sociocultural factors include culture and cultural expectations, parental and peer influences, community influences, gender norms, societal norms, family, personal, and/or religious values, power dynamics, and mainstream media.
    • Lev Vygotsky is considered the pioneer of the sociocultural perspective in psychology. He found that individuals in a child's life influence the child's values, problem-solving strategies, beliefs, and how they make sense of the world around them.
    • Strengths of the sociocultural perspective in psychology include its focus on social and cultural factors. These are key to understanding why humans behave and think the way they do.
    • Weaknesses of the sociocultural perspective in psychology include its potential to downplay personal responsibility and autonomy. Even though there are sociocultural factors that influence our behavior and mental processes, there are other factors as well, and each person is unique. The theory can't explain everything.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sociocultural Perspective in Psychology

    What is the sociocultural perspective in psychology?

    The sociocultural perspective in psychology focuses on how situations and cultural factors affect a person's behavior and thinking.

    Why is the sociocultural perspective important in psychology?

    The sociocultural perspective is important in psychology because it helps us think about behavior and mental processes from a social and cultural standpoint. Without considering social and cultural factors, it is possible to misunderstand why a person behaves or thinks a certain way. 

    What does the sociocultural perspective in psychology focus on?

    The sociocultural perspective in psychology focuses on understanding how a person’s culture and society influence and help to explain their behavior and mental processes. 

    What are sociocultural factors in psychology?

    Sociocultural factors in psychology are factors within the context of social and cultural domains that can help to explain a person’s behavior and thoughts. Some sociocultural factors include culture and cultural expectations, parental and peer influences, community influences, gender norms, societal norms, family, personal, and/or religious values, power dynamics, and mainstream media. 

    How does sociocultural psychology explain human behavior?

    Sociocultural psychology helps to explain human behavior because humans live within the context of their societies and cultures. Therefore, the way humans behave and think can be influenced by factors from their societies and cultures. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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