Culture as Sculptor: Markus Explores ‘Models of Self’
By Laurie J. Vaughan, The Bing Times Copy Editor
When most people walk to the Dish, they see the wonders of nature. But when Hazel Markus walks to the Dish, she sees human nature.
Or nurture, as the case may be.
Markus, an internationally renowned cultural psychologist, studies the subtle ways in which different cultures shape the way people think and act. On a hike to Stanford’s satellite dish with her 5-year-old niece last May, she witnessed half a dozen parent-child interactions that echoed her findings.
“These little interpersonal episodes were absolutely saturated with cultural assumptions about the right way to think, feel and behave,” Markus recalled. “And there were some real cultural differences in understandings about how to be a good parent and how to be a good child.”
The Stanford professor spoke May 31 to Bing School educators, parents and others who came to hear the school’s Distinguished Lecture of 2005, “Our Cultures, Our Children: The Influence of Culture on Children’s Development.”
Three of the Dish interactions reflected middle-class Euro-American values; three others showed the influence of Chinese, East Asian and Latino traditions. Many Americans would have no inkling which was which.
• A mom leaned over a stroller, handed a silent 3-year-old a juice drink and announced, “It’s hot. You must be thirsty.”
• Another mom leaned over a stroller and said to a drowsy 6-month-old, “We’ve seen three rabbits, two squirrels and now a hawk. Can you believe it? I wonder what we’ll see next! Hasn’t this been an exciting day?” The baby perked up a little.
• A 7-year-old ran up to his mother and grandmother and tried to get the younger woman’s attention. She said, “I don’t care how excited you are—don’t interrupt your grandmother when she’s speaking.”
• A dad, sounding exasperated, told his 18-month-old son, “Okay, now, you have a choice: either you wear this hat or we put on sunscreen. Which do you want?” The child replied, “I want juice.”
• An older man bent down to a baby in a stroller and whistled at one ear, then the other, getting the baby to follow his sounds in a back-and-forth listening game.
• Pointing off to the distance, a father asked a 4-year-old, “What are those things, Carl?” The boy looked up and said, “The sky.” His father said, “No, no—what are those things? Those sort of brown things.” Silence. “Carl, those are the foothills. What are foothills, Carl?” More silence. “Carl, foothills are hills at the base of a larger mountain range. Now, do you remember what you saw last time we were in the foothills?” Finally, the boy replied: “A salamander.” His father said, “Carl, you are so smart. You know everything!”
While those accustomed to diverse communities like the Bing School, where ethnic differences are sought and celebrated, might recognize the cultural roots of these scenarios, the convictions underlying the interactions are so deeply embedded in each culture that their powerful effects on child-rearing tend to go unrecognized, especially by those who hold them, Markus said.
The Air We Breathe
“Usually, when we talk about culture, we think about different kinds of foods, different festivals, and we all like to appreciate as much of that as we possibly can,” the researcher explained. “But the idea that our own cultural patterns are actually influencing the way we think, the way we feel, the way we act, is less obvious to us, because for the most part, they’re like the air we breathe: we don’t see them.”
Our own culture’s implicit assumptions may not become apparent to us until we compare them with those of other cultures and consider where the differences came from. Such comparisons are at the heart of Markus’s work.
Although our capacity for culture is humans’ great evolutionary advantage, the content of culture stems not from biology but from history, Markus emphasized. The behavioral differences she studies come from nurture, not nature. While it clearly affects our thinking, culture itself “is not something that’s inside people,” said Markus. “It’s out there in the world, in ideas, practices and artifacts.”
Markus’s cultural comparisons focus on sociocultural models of the self. These are differing patterns of ideas and practices about the right way to be a person. They exist both “in the head” (as thoughts, feelings and attitudes) and “in the world” (in the policies that animate schools, for instance, and the practices that are part of people’s daily lives).
“We tend to forget, in our middle-class and upper-middle-class European-American settings, that there are other ways of being,” Markus said. “There are many, many models of how to be a good self, and one of our goals is to try to figure them out, extract them from this collective reality so that we can begin to understand them and work with them.”
Two of the models she studies, “independent” and “interdependent,” characterize European-American and Asian cultures, respectively. These models exist as a kind of sociocultural yin and yang.
Euro-Americans tend to prize independence much more than interdependence, Markus explained. According to the independent model of the self, a person is fundamentally separate from others, an individual who should try to stand out. Markus characterized the model as follows: “I’m independent, I’m in control, I’m free to choose based on my own preferences and needs, I’m successful and hardworking, I like myself, and I am this way not because of what my parents have done, and not because of my relations to others, but because of what’s inside me—some special attributes that I uniquely have.”
It makes sense, then, that parents influenced by this model would try to help young children recognize and “shape up” their personal preferences. “You’d want to make sure that kids know what they want, so you’d give them opportunities to express their preference and make lots of choices,” Markus said. “You’d want them to stand out, to express themselves. It’s also important [under this model] to feel good about oneself and to be in a state of excitement or high arousal.”
Thus, on her Dish walk, parents with Euro-American backgrounds (scenarios 2, 4 and 6) spoke profusely to children too young to answer back, with the idea that children should be at least thinking of an answer, readying themselves for self-expression. These parents also encour-aged their children to make choices, to experience thrill and to think very highly of themselves.
Markus cited Penelope Leach (author of Your Baby and Child) as a trusted expert who vigorously sets forth an independent model as the only right way to raise children. “She says that from earliest infancy, everything about development depends on self-esteem,” Markus noted. “And if you’re going to succeed in a middle-class European-American world, that’s probably right. [But] she doesn’t write that this is the European and American middle-class model of how to be a person; she just says this is the way you should do it.”
Where does this model come from? Markus stressed that all sociocultural models of self are philosophically and historically grounded rather than empirically or evolutionarily based. In the United States, the independent model rests on a variety of building blocks, including ideas of personal liberty and pursuit of happiness, capitalism, the Protestant ethic, the American Dream, the individual working hard to reach the top.
Asian cultural traditions and practices often stand in stark contrast to those prominent in the United States or Europe. “If we move to an East Asian or South Asian cultural context,” Markus said, “the historical, philosophical and religious underpinnings are obviously very different—including, for example, lots of ideas from Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, ideas and practices of sympathy and compassion as well as hierarchy and filial piety.”
From a Japanese perspective, Penelope Leach’s advice would seem “the straightforward claim of a naked ego,” she said. The right way to express and enhance oneself in an Asian culture is to fit in, to promote harmony and calm, to feel what others are feeling. “This doesn’t mean that you give up your autonomy, but it does mean that you adjust yourself to others. It starts with the idea that we are fundamentally interdependent or relational.”
The Chinese mother at the Dish didn’t ask if her child was thirsty or offer any choices. “She just realized that it was hot, felt what the child was feeling and handed over the juice without making a conversational event of it,” Markus said. And the older man of East Asian descent initiated an entirely nonverbal interaction in which the baby responded reflexively by turning toward soft sounds he made.
Our Babies, Our Selves
Culture sculpts children from the time they are born, imposing society’s expectations even on newborns. In many parts of Asia, for instance, children are considered to be bodily tied to their mothers. Chinese and Japanese moms thus tend to have more physical contact with their infants than do American mothers, maintaining the bond by co-sleeping, co-bathing and carrying the baby everywhere on their backs. Asians and Latinos are apt to see mother-infant separation as something akin to child abuse, while in the Euro-American tradition, “too much” bodily contact is taboo.
Markus explained the difference. “[Americans] take this little baby that comes home from the hospital, that’s been close to the mom all this time, and they put the baby in her own little bed, then move her down the hall into her own little room, all beautifully decorated, to sleep alone. What underlies this is the idea that they want to create a good little self; they want her to be independent. Whereas in Asia, what you take home is an asocial being, and you want to keep that baby very close to you and keep yourself in tune with that baby to show her how to be so that the child becomes a fully social, interdependent being.
“From a Japanese perspective, co-sleeping and co-bathing foster interdependency, diminish tensions between generations, between genders, lots of things. And in fact, the only people [in Japan] who really sleep alone are people in late adolescence or in late adulthood if they are widowed or living without children or grandchildren.”
Cultural imperatives about child rearing are powerfully reinforced in advertisements, news broadcasts, song lyrics, books and posters, Markus’s research shows. She displayed a Gerber’s ad showing a toddler trying to escape an adult’s grasping hand and proclaiming the company’s foods “a good source of iron, zinc and independence,” followed by an ad for Gap Kids showing a gleeful boy with the label “Individual.” “Now, of course, they want you to go to the Gap and buy that black sweatshirt so you’ll be just like everybody else, but that’s not the point,” Markus said with a laugh. “The point of both ads is that independence is good, individualism is good; others don’t control us, we control our own actions.”
For contrast, she pointed to a couple of Korean ads. One showed a group of teen-age boys wearing identical punk hairstyles and a stripe of greasepaint along the left cheekbone, accompanied by the statement, “With this snack, you can be as unique as us.” “So being unique is okay as long as the whole group is unique,” Markus observed. The other ad promised, “If you try hard, you can prepare pork in the traditional way almost as well as your mother-in-law.”
To general laughter, Markus explained: “That sounds odd to an American ear, but of course, if you think of a more interdependent model, what you’re trying to do is produce family harmony, fit in, meet the expectations of your mother-in-law, express filial and generational piety—it makes sense.”
Even “Sesame Street” came under scrutiny, as she played a song sung by Muppet character Grover:
I am very proud of me.
I think I will sing out loud of me.
There ought to be a crowd of me because I am so special…
I seldom have a doubt of me.
I love every in and out of me.
I think I have to shout of me because
I am so very, very, very PROUD of me!
“My students from East Asian cultural contexts just can’t believe that North American parents would play this,” Markus said. “It seems so self-centered. But this is [the model] we want.”
She described a song popular in Japanese grade schools, called “Let’s Pool Our Strength,” as a counterpoint to Grover’s “Proud of Me,”
We’re all friends.
We’ll be friends forever, forever…
We’ve played together.
We’ve fought together.
We’ve laughed together.
We’ve cried together.
We’ll be friends forever.
Do Asian individuals inherently think less of themselves? The answer was an emphatic no. Markus cited a questionnaire given to adults from different countries, in which North Americans of European descent scored higher than Japanese who had never gone abroad. (The Dutch scored by far the highest, surpassing only the French.) “When you first see this, you might think, ‘Oh my goodness, the poor Japanese, they don’t feel good about themselves—it must be a very repressive, restrictive culture,’she said. “But think instead from this model’s perspective: they have very different ideas about the right way to be. In a Japanese context, ‘I am a person of worth’ is just not something you would say, although other people might say it about you.”
Significantly, when the same questionnaire was given to recent Asian immigrants, self-esteem scores climbed; among third-generation immigrants, they rose even higher. “So it’s nothing about being Asian that gives you lower levels of self-esteem; it’s which ideas you are engaging with. Once you become an immigrant you start to engage with the American model, and sure enough, your self-esteem goes up.
“In fact, with students who visit here for a year, we find that within six months they figure out the ‘right way’ to feel about themselves in order to succeed in an American context, and their scores on self-esteem go right up. Those who don’t figure it out don’t have a good time and go home.”
A Comprehensive Psychology
East-West studies are just one axis of comparison, a natural focus for early research in cultural psychology because East Asia was one of the first sources of diversity in American graduate programs. Markus is now looking at models of self in other groups—comparing working-class with middle-class Americans, for instance, and exploring Latino, African-American, American Indian, West Indian and South Asian cultures. She is also comparing groups by gender, religion, occupation and region of country, looking for differences in patterns of attitudes and ideas.
Multicultural Stanford is fertile ground for her work, as evidenced by the range of cultures encountered by chance on a simple walk to the Dish. “One of the wonderful things about being in an environment like Stanford is that you do come up every day with people who have these other ideas. Often, they’ve been raised with other ideas and they’re struggling with the ones they see here,” Markus said.
In the long run, she and her colleagues are hoping to produce “a comprehensive psychology, not a partial one based on our own culture,” she said. “If you don’t understand the underlying models, you’re not going to understand lots of behavior that’s out there in the world. You just can’t look at a behavior and assume you know what it’s about; you have to know what’s motivating it.”
Self-awareness is another goal, with benefits that extend to parenting. “I think it’s useful to try to articulate to yourself your ideas about what is a good child and to talk in your family about what’s the right way to be, recognizing that there could be other ways and drawing attention to that.” Markus suggested, “And you need to pay attention to your context: what ideas are out there that your child is being exposed to?”
Ultimately, the goal of cross-cultural understanding is greater tolerance, acceptance, even peace. “Recognizing that we’ve got one way and that there are other viable ways is a huge step toward understanding and tolerance,” Markus said. “Hopefully we’ll begin to appreciate and use these many different ways of being a self, and hopefully they won’t come in conflict with each other once we begin to experience them.
“I mean, it’s a start. It’s something we can do—one thing.”