Published in Qualitative Research in Psychology, 2011



Liamputtong, P (2010) Performing Qualitative Cross-Cultural Research. Cambridge University Press


Matsumoto, D & Van de Vijver, F (eds.) (2010) Cross-Cultural Research Methods. Cambridge University Press


Reviewed by Carl Ratner (Distinguished Visiting Professor, Imam University, Saudi Arabia )


Qualitative methodology is vital for cultural psychology - broadly defined as the relation between psychology and culture - because it can apprehend the fullness of culture that

is embodied in cultural and psychological phenomena. Simplified, standardized, fragmented, overt, superficial measures used by positivists cannot accomplish this. This difference is revealed in two books, respectively: Pranee Liamputtong (2010) Performing Qualitative Cross-Cultural Research. and David Matsumoto & F. Van de Vijver (2010) Cross-Cultural Research Methods.


Liamputtong (p. 5) summarizes an ethnographic study of mental disturbance in a Hmong woman, Mia, that captures the cultural basis and quality of the symptom. Mai became disturbed after giving birth to a baby under anesthetic in an Australian hospital. She became anxious and physically incapacitated because she believed that while she was unconscious, one of her souls, which takes care of her well-being, left her body. Because she was moved from the operating room to the recovery room, she believed her soul was left in the operating room and could not find her body. Devoid of her protective soul, she became ill. She had disturbing dreams of wandering incessantly to distant, unknown places. This, she believed, reflected the experience of  her lost, wandering soul. In order to regain her health, Mai believed she must undergo a soul-calling ceremony to summon back her lost soul. She had to do this in the operating room where her soul was waiting. Liamputtong arranged for the ceremony to be performed by a shaman and afterwards her symptoms dissipated.


This case study elicited and respected the cultural belief system that generated and informed Maiís symptoms. This cultural factor is shown to be an organic  constituent of the symptom. The cultural belief system was the operating mechanism of her thought process; it generated her mental and physical distress. The cultural belief generated a specific form of anxiety (soul loss) that was alleviated in a certain way. An Americanís anxiety over job loss is a different kind of anxiety driven by a different operating mechanism, which could not be alleviated in the same way. The organic relationship between the cultural factor and the psychological symptom are rendered visible by the ethnographic methodology that was culturally informed.


Positivistic cross-cultural psychology follows an opposite tack. Bond & Van de Vijver explain (in Matsumoto & Van de Vijver, pp. 75-100) that cultural factors are nebulous and must be replaced as explanations of psychology by more definite, proximal ìmoderator variables.î For instance, a relationship between socioeconomic status and fertility does not specify the causation process. Consequently, Bond & Van der Vijver search for a more specific moderating variable. They suggest ìold-age securityî: people have more children because they need them to provide security in old age (p. 80). Poverty may generate old age insecurity, however it is this the latter that motivates fertility. The focus  thus shifts from structural poverty to the psychological variable -  the subjective feeling or premonition of old age insecurity. Old-age security is a general psychological variable that has its own properties. These are interpolated between poverty and fertility. This brings into being the study of the relationship between the properties old age security and fertility. The abstract moderating variable that mediates between culture and psychology is easily unhinged from its distal cause (poverty) and treated as a thing unto itself that can be manipulated through all sorts of procedures. In particular, it can be manipulated through psychological means to mitigate the perception or the feeling of old age insecurity. This is a gravy train for psychologists.


In this scenario, culture - poverty - is merely a trigger of the real, explanatory construct of fertility, namely old age security. As a trigger of old age insecurity, poverty is divested of its concrete character. Analogously, the trigger on a gun functions in a general capacity to ignite the bullet regardless of the triggerís specific size and shape; none of these are relevant to understanding the bulletís ignition or trajectory. Likewise, regarding poverty as a mere trigger that simply affects the level or degree of old age insecurity, renders its specific features irrelevant. Whether poverty is generated by harsh natural conditions, and shared by all members of society who assist each other in solidarity, or is generated by exploitation from a ruling class which leaves individuals fending for themselves, is irrelevant to poverty as an abstraction and to its effects on old age insecurity and fertility. Abstract poverty triggers abstract old age insecurity which triggers abstract fertility.


Bond and Van de Vijver pride themselves on eliminating concrete, structural, cultural explanation and description: ìIf we have completely unpackaged the cultural difference by using a [moderating] construct to predict the outcome, then we have effectively ëmade culture disappearíî (p. 85)! It is interesting that scholars in a field which studies culture gloat over decimating their subject matter, and regard their behavior as contributing to it. In contrast, utilizing qualitative methodology to conceptualize and study poverty and its psychological consequences would treat them as directly and organically interrelated. Specific forms of poverty would be identified, and these would be construed as the operating mechanism of subjectivity and the decision to bear children - just as the Hmong cultural belief system was the operating mechanism of Maiís symptoms. Cultural factors are definite, and open to comprehension by appropriate qualitative-hermeneutic methods. There is no need to postulate non-cultural moderator variables as more definite causes of psychology than cultural factors are. Bond & Van de Vijver manufacture a specious problem (of cultural vagueness) only to serve as justification for ìunpacking,î i.e., decimating, culture.


Another example illustrates their attack on culture. They seek to explain the finding that American university students are more satisfied with their lives than Hong Kong Chinese students. The moderator variables that explain this are  ìlevel of relationship harmony,î and ìself-esteemî (p. 84). The specific structure of cultural practices and beliefs is replaced as explanatory constructs and descriptors by quantitative levels of abstract psychological moderator variables. From this perspective, we donít have to concern ourselves with the social roles of students, the pedagogy that is practiced (e.g., competitive grading, stressful assignments), financial pressures, job opportunities, family pressures, or romantic distractions. We simply measure and manipulate levels of self-esteem and relationship harmony to explain, predict, and increase happiness. There are many sources of self-esteem and relationship happiness; cultural factors only comprise one source; we can never hope to identify and control all the sources; so we confine our work to proximal moderator variables and ignore the distal, diverse, intangible cultural sources. The authors are explicit about this: ìWe do not need to know a personís cultural background to predict his or her score on [a psychological variable]. Simply knowing the personís position on [a moderating psychological] explanatory variable is sufficientî (p. 86). Again we witness cross-cultural psychologists decimating the field of cultural psychology as spokesmen of that field (see Chen, Bond, Tang, 2007 for another example).


Applying this to Maiís symptoms, cross-cultural psychologists would disregard the specific cultural belief system of souls, soul loss, soul reclamation, and anxiety. They would  replace these with an abstraction such as ìlevel of religiosity.î The quantitative level of religious attitude would be linked to level of anxiety. Culture would be distanced from anxiety and relegated to the status of a distal factor which triggers the quantitative level of the proximal, abstract, psychological variable ìlevel of religiosity.î The concrete cultural belief system would be made to disappear, as Bond and Van de Vijver wish.


Qualitative methodologists and positivists move in opposite directions in relating psychology and culture. Qualitative researchers utilize rich cultural factors to explain psychology, while positivistic cross-cultural psychologists use psychological moderator variables to explain away culture which they regard as a vague, unscientific construct. Qualitative methodologists (when they use their methodology to its full potential) move from one cultural factor to the entire culture system (as a hermeneutic circle) in order to concretize the factor. They then utilize this hermeneutic understanding of the rich, complex cultural-historical character of a cultural factor as the direct explanatory construct, operating mechanism, and descriptor of a psychological phenomena. This concretizes the latter (Ratner, 1997,  2011a, b). Qualitative methodology thus develops the broadest, richest view of culture in relation to psychology. Positivists develop an impoverished view of culture in relation to psychology. They disparage culture and displace its connection with psychology by interpolating abstract psychological variables between them. This  prevents cultural factors from lending their concrete characteristics to psychology. Abstract moderator variables render both cultural factors and psychological phenomena abstract. Cultural factors are relegated to general triggers of moderator variables, and psychological factors are abstract consequences of moderator variables.


Liamputtong points out additional differences between qualitative methodology and positivism in the study of culture and psychology. Qualitative methodology employs culturally (ecologically) congruent research methods, culturally specific knowledge (particularly about ìstructural conditions that contribute to participantsí responses and to the interpretation of situationsî p. 87), culturally sensitive data interpretation, culturally informed theory and practice, and concern for subjects and consulting with them in planning, conducting, analyzing, and disseminating research. Positivists do not emphasize these points. Instead, the chapters in Matsumoto and Van de Vijver address technical concerns of positivist measurement such as sampling, effect sizes, statistical data analysis, and multilevel modeling. These chapters never address underlying problems of how to elicit and analyze culturally and psychologically meaningful information. Another important difference between the approaches is that Liamputtong emphasizes political aspects of human psychology and the theories and methodologies of studying psychology, while cross-cultural psychologists never touch this issue (Ratner, 2011a).


Occasionally Liamputtong invokes qualitative methodology in romantic ways which I consider to be misplaced and counterproductive. She speaks of it as a healing methodology that encompasses the principle of unconditional love and honoring and respecting indigenous knowledge and traditions (pp. 15, 23). However, it would be a disservice to oppressed indigenous people and to qualitative methodology to use the methodology to indiscriminately profess love and respect for cultural practices. To do so would be to disregard the cultural organization of experience which is oppressed and oppressive. When the experience is culturally oppressed and oppressive, culturally sensitive qualitative methodology must be used to identify and condemn this cultural quality, not romanticize it as a free, liberating creation of agency (Ratner, 2011b; 2008).


Liamputtongís book is a readable, non-technical account of the social and political aspects of qualitative methodology for cultural psychology. It explains how the methodology gives voice to indigenous people, and should be used in consultation with them to illuminate their life style so as to empower them. The book does not delve into specific procedures of qualitative methodology such as coding (cf. Ratner, 2008 for a discussion of both the social-political and the technical procedures of cultural qualitative methodology). Because of this, the book is primarily suitable for undergraduates and lay people. In contrast, Matsumoto & Van de Vijverís book is a technical presentation of positivistic procedures. The book is suitable for professional social scientists already committed to these procedures as it unreflexively treats them as given methods which require no justification in terms of epistemological or ontological principles. The book has little to offer to qualitative methodologists and maintains the traditional insularity of positivism to qualitative methodology. 




Chen, S., Bond, M., & Tang, D. (2007). Decomposing filial piety into filial attitudes and filial enactments. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 213223.

Ratner, C. (2008). Cultural Psychology and qualitative methodology: Scientific and political considerations. Culture and Psychology, 14, 259-288.

Ratner, C. (2011a). Macro cultural psychology: A political philosophy of mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ratner, C. (2011b). Macro cultural psychology, the psychology of oppression, and cultural-psychological enrichment. In P. Portes & S. Salas (Eds.), Vygotsky in 21st Century Society: Advances in cultural historical theory and praxis with non-dominant communities. NY: Peter Lang.