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The developmental origins of culture

New research investigates how our increasingly global community transmits skills and behaviors across generations. How do children divine strategies to understand and adopt social practices, beliefs, and values from their societies?


The journal Child Development is devoting a new section of the magazine to the study of ways children learn culture. In a special section introduced by Cristine H. Legare PhD, associate professor of psychology and director of the Cognition, Culture, and Development Lab at The University of Texas at Austin; and Paul L. Harris D.Phil, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education, Harvard University, emphasize the need to build an understanding of children's development across a range of cultural contexts. Legare and Harris make note of a very restricted range of participants in such research.

In an analysis of 424 papers published in 2013 in three major psychology journals, 58% focused on participants from the U.S., 16% from English-speaking countries outside the U.S., and only 16% from Non-English speaking European countries — with just 9% comming from Central and South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Israel combined.

Cross-cultural research helps address this imbalance by focusing on a wide range of cultural childcare settings. These research articles indicate children draw upon a common repertoire of strategies to learn about their culture.

In one example, children observe differing norms for distributing resources fairly. In a study conducted by Zeidler and colleagues, German and Kenyan 5 to 10 year old children were observed in the processes of resource distribution and turn taking. While pairs of German children quickly adapted a strategy of taking turns to share resources, Kenyan children used another strategy. Resource distribution occurred over longer periods of time, with one child monopolizing the resources for a while, before finally yielding to another child.

Despite considerable variation in beliefs and values, children draw upon a consistent set of tools when learning their culture's expectations for normal behavior. They imitate older children and adults who, with consensus, model appropriate behaviors. And though animals also observe and imitate to achieve goals, animals only imitate parts of behaviors needed for specific goals. Children "overimitate," copying necessary and unnecessary parts of behavior across multiple cultural settings, experimenting with results.

In their earliest years, children learn the appropriate emotional expression for their cultures from their caregivers. Mothers in Germany place greater emphasis on a child's autonomous experience, whereas mothers in India emphasize children's interdependence on one another. Mothers transmit the forms of social interaction they prefer through emotional and verbal signals which become incorporated into their children's emotional repertoires.

According to Legare and Harris, young children are often referred to as "little scientists" or "budding psychologists." The two researchers encourage us to think of them also as "gifted anthropologists."


"Like anthropologists, but without the benefit of any formal training, children can deploy a repertoire of strategies for reproducing and deciphering the distinctive set of phenomena that make up culture — any human culture."


Abstract
Developmental research has the potential to address some of the critical gaps in our scientific understanding of the role played by cultural learning in ontogenetic outcomes. The goal of this special section was to gather together leading examples of research on cultural learning across a variety of social contexts and caregiving settings. Although the field of developmental psychology continues to struggle with the persistent problem of oversampling U.S. and Western European populations, we argue that the articles in this special section add to the growing evidence that children everywhere draw on a repertoire of cultural learning strategies that optimize their acquisition of the specific practices, beliefs, and values of their communities. We also identify future directions and outline best practices for the conduct of research on cultural learning.

This special section will be of particular interest to those seeking to understand patterns of children's development based on the full range of cultures rather than only the limited perspective of children growing up in highly developed Western cultures. Journalists interested in speaking with any of the authors listed above or gaining access to the complete special section of Child Development should contact Hannah Klein (hklein@srcd.org).

SRCD was established in 1933 by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The Society's goals are to advance interdisciplinary research in child development and to encourage applications of research findings. Its membership of more than 5,700 scientists is representative of the various disciplines and professions that contribute to knowledge of child development. In addition to Child Development, SRCD also publishes Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Child Development Perspectives, and the SRCD Social Policy Report.
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New research emphasizes the need to build an understanding of
children's development across a range of cultures.
Image Credit: Public Domain


 


 

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