Similarity and Difference in Cross-Cultural Practice

Catherine Nye

in Handbook of Community-Based Clinical Practice

Published in print September 2005 | ISBN: 9780195159226
Published online April 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780199893843 | DOI:
Similarity and Difference in Cross-Cultural Practice

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Differences in cultural practices at the behavioral level are obvious. How families are constituted, who sleeps by whom, what people eat, what work they do, their child-rearing practices, all vary from culture to culture. Much of the early literature on diversity focused on difference at this behavioral level. Differences in meanings, ideals, and values, which are enacted in cultural practices, are more subtle and complex. For clinicians, questions about the impact of difference at both the behavioral and the symbolic level on the intrapsychic world of the individual are most complex and most relevant. How do differences in cultural practices and meanings shape the intrapsychic world of the individual? How are the individual's affects, cognition, and experience of self and other shaped by culture? How profound are the differences? Are there areas where cultural differences do not make a difference? Though these questions are relatively new to the human services, they have been central to the discipline of anthropology since the 1920s. Within anthropology, the conversation about similarity and difference across cultures is framed in terms of “universalism” and “cultural relativism.” For more than 80 years, proponents of “universalist” and “relativist” perspectives in anthropology have been engaged in a lively debate about their relative merits. In the hope that clinicians can build on the knowledge generated by this ongoing debate, this chapter reviews the history of these ideas in anthropology, explores the current state of this debate, and then discusses the implications for clinical practice.

Keywords: cultural practices; community-based practice; clinical practice; anthropology; cultural relativism; universalism

Chapter.  7123 words. 

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