Cultures smudge universal picture

Psychology - Psychology - Psychology - Psychology - Psychology - Psychology - Psychology
November 27, 1998

At first sight, these books appear very similar: large, glossy American texts with almost identical chapter sequencing. But they are quite different. Some emphasise the socio-cultural aspects of psychology, some the biological aspects. All include what they call critical thinking exercises; but in some these are just comprehension tests, some require students to exercise their imaginations, one even requires students to think critically.

Cross-cultural and multicultural issues have never been stronger, and feminist psychology also shows its influence. Examples of different behaviours are drawn from cultures across the globe - Jin some texts, these are used to re-evaluate assumptions and to challenge established psychological "knowledge". It is a welcome and healthy development, even if sometimes a little tokenistic (each of the US textbooks includes Mary Calkins as a key figure in early memory research in the introductory chapter - but none of them cites her work in the memory chapter).

On the biological side, the advances in neurological understanding made possible by brain scanning are well covered, and as one who watched with dismay the abrupt disappearance of evolution from the US textbook in the late 1970s, I was relieved to find it back on the agenda. Genetic influences are also discussed in detail in the US texts, as psychology struggles to find a vocabulary to express complexities of causality in behaviour. I found these discussions generally well informed and integrative, without simplistic biological or genetic determinism.

There is wide variation between texts. Benjamin Lahey's Psychology: An Introduction is patchy. The chapters are wide-ranging at some expense of detail, but they are not organised as internally coherent units, and there is little cross-referencing between them. The book seems to have been put together from well-written but independent lecture notes rather than written as a single coherent project. Content is sometimes pedestrian, although Lahey describes psychological evidence better than other texts and highlights social and multicultural issues well.

It has several good points. The section on brain scanning is excellent and well illustrated, and each chapter ends with an extended discussion about applying some aspects of its content in everyday life. There are appropriate revision questions in and at the ends of chapters. In the biological chapters, these take the form of diagrams with blank labels for completion - a useful idea. The book's strength is in the everyday implications of psychology: the "drugs" section covers caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in detail, while the detailed chapter on gender and sexuality also includes information about sexually transmitted diseases.

The final applied psychology chapter is also distinctive, exploring occupational and environmental psychology and with a particularly good section on interviewing. The value of its education section for British students is limited because its content is located so very firmly in the US context. In short, this book has some extremely good sections, but not really enough consistency for a main course text.

Barry Smith's Psychology: Science and Understanding portrays psychology in a strongly biological context. He begins with Darwin and locates psychology firmly in the scientific tradition. Each chapter - even those on social and developmental psychology - includes a section on some neuropsychological aspect of that area, which is a useful integrative strategy. The downside of this is that cultural and social dimensions to the topics are underplayed. The book is also powerfully Amerocentric, to the point where one is left wondering how far British undergraduates would be able to comprehend some of the content in the more applied chapters.

The text has a wealth of diagrams, although one is left feeling that the colours have been rather splashed around and could have been better used semantically.

There is little theory, and to a British reader there are massive omissions that are most evident in the developmental and social chapters. There is nothing at all, for example, on reading. Nor anything on infant sociability or the child's theory of mind or development of social interaction skills. But Smith covers more social psychology than other texts of this kind. European social psychology is not covered, but that is hardly to be expected. The book, after all, is not written for any but a US market.

David Myers's Psychology , on the other hand, has realised that some books sell outside the US. He identifies psychology's European roots, and refers to European psychology and research in several places in the text. The content is still circumscribed by the Psych 101 syllabus, but the author has given considerable thought to the sequencing and presentation of material. For example, development is discussed early in the text, setting the context for cognition and other topics. The book is well balanced, dealing with the interaction of genetics and environmental influences particularly well. It also deals with parapsychology intelligently, adopting a clear but informed scepticism, and outlining its major research topics. The social psychology is unremarkable, but the motivation chapter is broad, attempting to include social as well as physiological issues, and the section on sexual motivation is excellent.

Myers draws out implications of familiar psychological mechanisms through vivid verbal examples (even though these are sometimes a little ethnocentric) as well as good illustrations. The brain diagrams are clear, and they use colour intelligently to indicate connected areas and systems. My main caveat on presentation is the number of text colours used, which is sometimes a bit overwhelming; and the underlining of key terms instead of putting them in bold, which gives the page a somewhat messy appearance. Overall, I found this to be a competent glossy US text: short on critical evaluation and theory, but well illustrated and very strong on the everyday implications of psychological findings.

In Psychology: Behaviour and Context , Lyle Bourne and Nancy Russo have written at a much lower level. I imagine that it is aimed at high-school psychology students in the US; here it would be more suitable for GCSE or subsidiary students than for those on psychology degrees. But that, of course, depends on what the course team wants. As a superficial "taster" of material to be covered in depth later, it would be perfectly adequate.

Where it does score is in multicultural awareness, and real-world applications and implications of the material. The authors take pains to point out that many apparently universal psychological phenomena emerge as nothing of the sort when addressed from a cross-cultural standpoint. Where other texts discuss the genetic foundations of behaviour, this one has an extensive chapter on the cultural and social foundations thereof, largely based on concepts that overlap into sociology and anthropology. Cultural discussions come up throughout the text, in boxes titled "Understanding human diversity", and these are often excellent.

Given the strength of the multicultural perspective, it is a shame that the rest of the book's psychological content is so lightweight. It underplays biological and laboratory-based psychological research considerably, covering the basics, but going no further. I would certainly recommend it as supplementary reading for its insights into and discussions of cultural and social issues. A few chapters, such as the one on psychotherapy, are excellent. But I do not feel that its content is thorough enough for the main text on a university psychology course.

Not being American, Michael Eysenck's history of key figures differs significantly from the US books, not least because seven of the ten are European. They are well-known names in British psychology, and represent a history of the discipline with which our students are likely to connect more closely.

Eysenck's Psychology: An Integrated Approach is the only British text of the set and the only multi-authored one. The real challenge for multi-authored texts is in achieving consistency. Eysenck's chapters are excellent, well structured and clearly written, and so are chapters on social groups, abnormal psychology and therapy, health psychology, work and research methods. But the book is badly let down by some contributors whose educational awareness seems distinctly lacking. In some key chapters, notably those covering biological and learning topics, fundamental background information is omitted, use of terminology is unhelpful, and at times, the level of detail is more appropriate for a second-level course than a first-year one. A survey of the current state of research is not always the best introduction for novices.

Covering European psychology is one of the aims of the text, the preface says, and it does that well, apart from the inexplicable absence of social representation theory from the social chapters.

Another aim was to achieve the "good production values of American texts", but here it falls far short of the mark. This is a production matter, of course, and not the authors' fault, but the text is dense and closely packed; there is only one additional colour (which admittedly is splashing out wildly for a British publisher); there are far fewer illustrations and discussion boxes; and the one and only colour plate is not located within the main text. Most of the authors have tried hard to achieve student-friendliness, so it is a pity the publisher could not have met them half-way. This is a useful text, with much relevant and up-to-date content, but it is disappointingly inconsistent.

Peter Gray's Psychology is scholarly in its approach to knowledge, but it is also very readable. Throughout, information is appraised thoughtfully, in terms of adaptive behaviour, cultural variation, social influence and biological constraints. The first chapter sets the tone, with a serious introduction to psychology's philosophical background - Hobbes, Descartes and Darwin - and the key figures being discussed in terms of the development of major areas of the discipline.

Gray does not shirk from dealing with controversial issues - there is, for example, a detailed section on genetic aspects of homosexuality - but at no point does he sink into simplistic biological determinism or simplistic social determinism either. There is an intelligent use of theory: I was delighted to find the perception chapter structuring research findings in terms of perceptual theories, including both Neisser and Gibson; and also to find social identity theory occupying an entirely appropriate place in one of the social psychology chapters. This combination of research findings, theory and cross-cultural information makes it a very strong text.

The book is not as rich in "extras" as other US texts. Apart from the occasional cartoon, most of the illustrations contribute directly to the text. There is a sensitive use of colour, and a series of focus questions in the margins to encourage students to address key issues in the text. The text itself is carefully structured, each chapter ending with an overview couched in terms of the major perspectives of psychology. I found this text educationally sound and academically stimulating - it is definitely a book I would recommend.

Carole Wade and Carol Tavris have set themselves the task of addressing the accusations about psychology being ethnocentric and racist. Their book, Psychology , shows a real commitment to cultural awareness and pluralism. They highlight racist issues in research, explore the societal implications of biased research and re-evaluate accepted interpretations. For example, a conversation with a member of the Kwelle tribe, cited as showing an inability to achieve formal operations in another text, is shown to reveal logical reasoning within cultural bounds.

The text is well illustrated - not as lavishly as some, but with pertinent and interesting illustrations that make educational and social points, and the discussion boxes do not shirk from socio-political questions. There is even one on the political history of IQ testing, and another discussing "politically correct" vocabulary. They give an excellent introduction to critical thinking for students, and have exercises in the text that really require students to evaluate and criticise, in a way that British lecturers will find familiar (and helpful).

There is, of course, a downside. The conventional physiological and cognitive chapters come across as competent but flattish. The chapters on psychological disorders, health, stress and motivation have excellent discussions of social and cultural factors, but they could be stronger on the biological side. Nonetheless, this is the best attempt to locate psychological information in a truly cross-cultural context that I have seen, and I recommend it for that.

In general, I have reservations about how well US texts coordinate with British psychology courses. There are major epistemological differences, such as the approach to critical evaluation and our greater emphasis on integrative theory, and there are differences in content. On the other hand, I am aware that for some, the benefits in terms of real-world examples, the application of educational principles, and, above all, the presentation of the material, outweigh the disadvantages. Faced with a course team who wanted to adopt Gray, or Wade and Tavris on a British degree, I would be hard pressed to argue against them.

Nicky Hayes is visiting senior fellow in psychology, University of Surrey.

Psychology: An Integrated Approach

Editor - Michael Eysenck
ISBN - 0 582 29884 9
Publisher - Longman
Price - £19.95
Pages - 829

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