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date: 27 January 2020

Moving the scientific study of Chinese psychology into our twenty-first century: some ways forward

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines aspects of survival and prosperous of Chinese psychology in the context of the twenty-first century. It explains various strategies to be adapted for the discipline to prosper in the twenty first century. There are several issues that need to be addressed in studying the Chinese psychology scientifically. One of the main things among them is the distinctiveness of Chinese people. However, those who study this field should be aware of how it is distinctive and should be able to prove it empirically. The researchers should be aware that such distinctiveness exists. They should know what it consists of, and what influence it has on the performance of societies. This article also takes on the indigenous contributions to psychological science in the Chine context.

Keywords: twenty-first century, cultural difference, future research, scientific study, political scientist

I write this conclusion to our Oxford handbook of Chinese psychology in March of 2009, having helped to finalize almost all the 40 commissioned chapters that you now hold in your hands. As a result of reviewing the work of so many distinguished researchers covering such diverse areas of Chinese psychology, I have a solid understanding of where we have reached in the current stage of our academic development in this now-small tide pool of intellectual activity. I propose to use what I have gleaned from this editorship to offer some bold assessments of the state of our art and its prospects for contributing to our planetary capital. I will focus on the how of doing Chinese psychology, not the content of what will be done. In appreciation of your intellectual labors in reaching this point of this handbook, I will be brief …

Rising to the scientific challenge

In 1993, Nathan addressed the question ‘Is Chinese culture distinctive?’ by responding, ‘Although anyone who studies it must be convinced that it is, we have far to go to state clearly how it is distinctive and to prove it empirically’ (Nathan, 1993, p. 936). In assessing the potential of social sciences in responding to claims for Chinese distinctiveness, Nathan answered, ‘What is required is to demonstrate that such distinctiveness exists, what it consists of, and what influence it has on the performance of societies’ (Nathan, 1993, p. 923).

As a political scientist, Nathan was focusing on the performance of societies; as psychologists, we focus on the performance of individuals. Even a cursory reading of this handbook would prove that Nathan's question has been answered in the affirmative. Numerous differences in the levels of psychological constructs and the processes linking those constructs abound, certainly when Western populations are the comparison groups. These differences have been established in compliance with Nathan's warning that ‘To test a hypothesis about the effect of culture on a social outcome, it is necessary to define cultural attributes in a way that is cross-culturally valid in principle’ (Nathan, 1993, p. 933). (p. 712) In general, we have observed the strictures of scientific measurement and methodology necessary to establish the corpus of cultural group differences proving that there is a cultural case to answer. This is assuredly the case when manuscripts are submitted to international journals for editorial review, as these outlets provide stricter quality assurance.

Chinese people are different, i.e. higher or lower in their mean scores on measured variables, than persons of other, mostly geographically separate, cultural groups, most of the time. More occasionally, cultural differences have also been shown for the strength of linkage among these measured constructs (e.g. Bond & Forgas, 1984; Liao & Bond, in press). It is rare, indeed, that a linkage among constructs is present in the Chinese group, but absent in a comparison cultural group (however, see Bond & Forgas, 1984; Hui & Bond, 2009). Whether they will be different in these two ways from more proximate cultural groups sharing more historical continuity is, of course, a matter for future research to address.

Are Chinese people distinctive?

Scientific demonstrations of empirical differences, be they frequent or occasional, do not constitute evidence for distinctiveness. In life, every thing and every event is distinctive; in science, nothing is distinctive. To the scientist, things or events, be they particles in a cloud chamber, evolving social systems, or two people touching, are exemplars of underlying constructs, and the processes that represent relationships among these constructs. For psychologists, these are psychological constructs working in concert within a given cultural context to yield observable individual outcomes, called behaviors or responses.

As long as psychologists can legitimately compare across persons and events in their cultural settings, there will be many unique occurrences, but no scientific distinctiveness; all occurrences will be united by the formulas, the equations, and the models developed by scientists to explain the processes by which the constructs operate in the revealed world. Each Chinese person and his or her life course will be unique, as for any person from any culture. But, the way by which each becomes a person and lives his or her life will be describable and explicable by the same constructs and processes everywhere and at any time. Chinese culture is unique, but not distinctive; each Chinese person is unique, but not distinctive. As Confucius put it, ‘Within the four seas, all men are brothers’; in this academic context, we might rather say, ‘Persons from all cultures are united in their shared human-ness’. As cross-cultural psychologists, we strive to demonstrate that unity scientifically.

The role of indigenous contributions to psychological science

As the center of psychological gravity shifts away from the West, it is inevitable that the repertoire of concepts and models of human behavior will be refined and will grow. Presented in the language of their origin by their proponents from cultural systems new to psychological discourse, they will appear distinctive, even unique (see e.g. Hwang & Han, this volume). However, if we are doing science and measuring these constructs and their interrelationships, then the question of whether and how far indigenous inputs are distinctive remains to be established (see Smith, this volume).

To date, I would venture to say that Interpersonal Relatedness, Holism, the Dialectical Self, Relationship Harmony, Paternalistic Leadership, and concern with the other's face have been adequately demonstrated to be distinctive constructs adduced from a dedicated and disciplined examination of Chinese culture, to identify the most prominent (see Cheung, Zhang, & Cheung; Ji, Lee, & Guo; Kwan, Hui, & McGee; Kwan et al; Chen & Farh; Hwang & Han, this volume, respectively). These constructs may, however, be extracted from responses of persons from other cultural groups to the appropriately designed and translated instruments (see the above chapters, and Smith, this volume). Of course, they will be less salient to members of these cultural groups, and they may prove to be less powerful in predicting relevant psychological outcomes in the ‘importing’ cultures (see e.g. Hui & Bond, in press, on face loss and forgiveness in Hong Kong and America). Nonetheless, these constructs are present and usually functional when careful scientific testing is conducted.

(p. 713) The role of indigenous theorizing, then, is to enlarge our repertoire of constructs and theories in describing and explaining the human condition using scientific best practice. Their ultimate function is to demonstrate how, ‘Within the fours seas, all men are brothers’. Non-mainstream cultural groups like the Chinese can enlarge our conceptual ambit, and ground psychology in the whole of human reality, not just their Western, usually American, versions (Arnett, 2008). Many believe that this expanded disciplinary compass will emerge from Asian psychological science (e.g. Miller, 2006).

Moving beyond the demonstration of cultural differences

How is an interest in other cultural realities provoked? In people's experience, it is the encounter with difference. Among those so inclined, this encounter can lead to the discovery of new tools of thought and a reorganization of their construct system, leading to changed interpersonal functioning (see Bond, 1997). Among behavioral scientists so inclined, this encounter can likewise lead to an identification of new constructs for analyzing social functioning and the development of new or expanded theories to explain that functioning.

Much Chinese psychology derives from this dynamic of demonstrating difference; many chapters in this handbook document these differences across a wide range of human functioning. Such compendiums present a case to be addressed and answered. These answers come in two ways:

From categorical comparisons to unpackaging studies examining process. In the discourse of psychological science, those answers must come from the identification of those constructs and processes that explain the ‘Chineseness’ of these differences. This is a process of cultural ‘unpackaging’, of penetrating the categorical differences to reveal the underlying psychological processes that drive them (Bond & van de Vijver, in press). In a sense, cross-cultural psychologists are trying to make the categorical differences ‘disappear’ by demonstrating that underlying variables may be used to position the Chinese relative to persons of other groups, and lead to the observed difference in the outcome of current interest. So, Chinese and persons from other cultural groups are united in being exemplars of pancultural psychological processes that explain human behavior in all cultural groups assessed. There are two variants to this approach:

  1. 1. Studies of mean difference. Of course, it does not always work out that we unpackage the difference between the cultural groups. When the difference lies in the mean level of a construct, e.g. the empathetic embarrassability of Singelis, Bond, Sharkey, & Lai 1999, the cultural difference may not be fully explained by the proposed construct, in this case self-construals. That outcome will then provoke further thinking to elaborate the mechanisms responsible for the unexplained difference. Perhaps the facet of ‘face’ from Cheung et al's (this volume) personality dimension of Interpersonal Relatedness will do the job. An appropriately designed study would reveal the answer.

    And so the scientific endeavor continues. Much of the research reported in this handbook, especially those studies done by earlier cohorts, will be enriched by attempts to build process models for the many outcome differences found between Chinese and other peoples in their content domains. Successful unpackaging will support the proposed models, and render the research of broader interest to scientists whose focus is on humanity, not merely on the Chinese.

  2. 2. Studies of difference in linkage strength. Once unpackaging studies are tried, a new kind of cultural difference may emerge, viz. the cultural difference involving the Chinese may be a difference in the strength of the linkage between a predictor variable and its outcome. So, for example, Singelis et al. 1999 found that an independent self-construal did a better job of predicting self-embarrassability for the Americans than it did for the Chinese. However, this shortfall in explaining the relative strength of self-embarrassability for the Chinese would likewise stimulate the development of theories about cultural dynamics to explain why an independent self-construal was relatively weaker in its effects within some cultural groups than within others.

    Scientifically defensible and theoretically informative attempts, however, would require an enlargement of cultural groups beyond the initial two-culture comparison that identified the (p. 714) variation in the construct's impact on the outcome of interest. Such work is described and rationalized next.

From categorical contrasts to multi-cultural dimensionalizing. Some psychologists, like some laypersons, have an understandably greater interest in some cultural groups that in others. This interest usually focuses on one's own cultural group, and can only be illuminated in contrast to some other group. In psychology, this comparison group is usually the Americans from the United States, for various historical reasons described by Blowers (this volume). Despite constituting only about 5 per cent of the world's population, they produce about 80 per cent of its theory, measures of constructs, and data (Arnett, 2008). If culture matters, and results suggest that it frequently does (e.g. Smith, Bond, & Kağıtçıbas¸ı, 2006), then this imbalance must be rectified by building models of culture of use to psychologists (see e.g. Bond, 2004).

Scientifically, these models of culture require the identification of dimensions across which cultures may be compared and along which they may be ordered with respect to one another. This dimensionalizing requires many more than two cultural groups, and the more the better; no comparison between any two cultural groups can evince such a dimension, only suggest some plausible candidates. In that respect, Chinese-American comparisons, which form the bulk of this handbook, may be provocative and stimulating—they help generate ideas.

Eventually, however, multicultural contrasts are needed. Hofstede's (1980) 40-nation study lead off the quest, and has been extended many times with respect to the countries and cultures assessed, the kinds of psychological constructs measured, and levels at which the data are analyzed (nation-level or individual-level). This empirical, multicultural work is described in Smith et al. 2006, chs. 3 & 4), and frequently involves Chinese persons from more than one sociopolitical entity, viz. Singapore, Taiwan, the Mainland, and Hong Kong.

Various dimensions may be teased out of such data sets, and achieve benefits for Chinese psychology. First, they locate various Chinese societies and their citizens relative to one another and to other societies and their members. Typically, Chinese societies and their citizens are found to be located in different positions and do not cluster together (see Kulich & Zhang; Leung, this volume), revealing that in respect of some cultural or psychological constructs, there is no Chinese monolith. Instead, these Chinese societies and their members instantiate different positions on underlying societal or psychological constructs.

These constructs may be used in building sophisticated models for individual behavior that incorporate cultural variables. So, a second benefit of dimensions extracted from multicultural studies lies in enabling sophisticated, multi-level studies where individual-level processes are explored across cultural groups using HLM analyses. These studies allow us to see both mean differences and linkage differences simultaneously in the same study. Sometimes these studies show differences across the cultural groups involved, and that the culture-level variables modify or moderate the individual level processes being examined (e.g. Fu et al., 2004; Liao & Bond, in press); sometimes not (e.g. Wong, Bond, & Rodriguez Mosquera, 2008). Regardless of outcome, such studies allow social scientists to begin exploring the universality of psychological processes empirically. Surely, this is the next goal for all cross-cultural psychological work (Bond, 2009).

My debt to Chinese culture and Chinese people

These insights, such as they are, have been gleaned from 35 years of doing psychological research in Hong Kong, mostly with Chinese psychologists. Much of this research has been described in the present handbook. Without participating in doing this research from its early, humble beginnings, none of these understandings would have been possible for me. Of course, they are hardly mine alone, but are now widely shared within the sub-discipline of which I, the authors in this handbook, and others around the planet constitute a large part.

I am stunned to realize the extent of my debt to my fellow Chinese psychologists and to the educational environment in Hong Kong culture and in other parts of the Chinese polity that has enabled (p. 715) me to do this work. I have been provided with a resourceful and sustaining job environment, a cooperative network of competent, enthusiastic colleagues, and service-oriented support staff. I have written appreciations of these happy circumstances elsewhere (Bond, 1997, 2003), but wish to close this handbook by thanking its contributing authors and reiterating my lifelong gratitude.

When drinking from a stream, remember its source.

    Chinese adage from a song by Yu Hsin.

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