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Localized Chinese social psychology with global outlook

Author  :  Yu Guoliang, Xin Chengfeng and Wei Qingwang     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2014-09-10

The discipline of social psychology originated and developed in North America for a long time before it was introduced to Europe and finally made its way into Asia. But unlike North American individual psychology and European group psychology, indigenous Asian psychology is tinted with the characteristics of Eastern cultures, offering unique concepts and perspectives.

With its advantages in economy, population and culture, China in particular has an important role to play. The nation’s 5,000 years of history and culture as well as the social changes that have taken place in the past 30 years provide an abundance of research materials. It should be noted, however, that Chinese social psychology now faces unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Social psychologists should rise to the occasion by seizing the opportunities in order to blaze trails for a Chinese brand of social psychology that not only boasts Chinese characteristics but also is capable of achieving integration with mainstream Western thought. To this end, the following five pieces of advice need to be taken into consideration.

Indigenous vs international

First, the localization of social psychology in China should serve the aim of going global. Entering the 21st century, it is imperative for Chinese social psychologists to simultaneously adopt localized and internationalized approaches. We can neither blindly follow Western studies nor can we ignore them and only focus on our own problems. Instead, we should learn from the West with an open mind and contribute to social psychology around the world. To resolve the dilemma of localization and internationalization, we must not prioritize either approach at the expense of the other but rather combine the two.

Integrating theory and application

Second, Chinese social realities should be taken into account with equal emphasis placed on theory and application. To study Chinese social reality is to find solutions to problems facing China. In the process, attention should be paid to the background and implication of real issues that arise in traditional and modern times from the perspective of social and cultural change.

For instance, some researchers have observed that the group-individual dynamic in Chinese traditional cultures stresses “relationships” unlike in Western cultures, which tend to stress “classification”. As social changes occur in China, it is likely that the formation of the concept of “we” for the Chinese people is a result of the collision between the traditional idea of “relationship” and the modern idea of “classification”.

It is not hard to see that the group-individual dynamic has real world applications because it concerns real problems, such as mass frustration, ethnic harmony and class conflict. On the other hand, the relationship between the group and the individual—one of the key areas in which North American psychology and European psychology diverge—is of theoretical significance. As a consequence, probing into Chinese social realities is a good way to decide whether emphasis should be put on theory or practice.

Constructing core theories

Third, a core theory should be constructed based on cross-cultural comparison. In fact, the construction of core theories has made invaluable contributions to the success of European social psychology. In developing Chinese social psychology, efforts should be made to construct a core theory of its own based on Chinese social reality, which is to say to construct a universal theory instead of individual studies.

In terms of the construction of a core theory for Chinese social psychology, it is a wise choice to put forward thoughts and perspectives with Chinese characteristics regarding global issues on the basis of cross-cultural comparison. In addition, such a proposition is also an effective way for Asian social psychology to edge into the mainstream.

For example, the studies and theories about social axioms by Kwok Leung from City University of Hong Kong and the research on Chinese people’s personalities by F. M. Cheung, head of the Department of Psychology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, are all based on cross-cultural comparisons. Focusing on the similarities and differences between the mentalities of Chinese people and residents of Western countries, these studies have developed Chinese psychology with Chinese characteristics into a universal cultural form which, together with social psychology in the West, constitutes an integrated theory capable of fully interpreting certain psychological phenomena of human beings.

It is obvious that the construction of core theories based on cross-cultural comparison demonstrates the notion that localization of social psychology in China should serve the aim of going global and may be a result of exploring Chinese social reality. For instance, the social identity theory in Europe, with its universal methodological significance, has evolved into a metatheory that spurred the generation of a set of new theories. However, it is a pity that such universal core theories are seldom found in China.

Establishing academic community

Fourth, more stress should be laid on discipline construction and the establishment of an academic community, the responsibility of which falls on the Chinese Association of Social Psychology (CASP) and the Society for Social Psychology, a branch of CASP. And the two bodies should play an active role in the construction of textbooks, disciplines and various degree programs. Moreover, they also offer an organizational and institutional guarantee against the marginalization of Chinese social psychology. When compiling textbooks, we must pique the interest of Chinese students to make use of these newest methods to study our native social issues while paying attention to the latest developments in Western social psychology. What’s more, when introducing the achievements of social psychology in the West, we should emphasize examining the research methods applied by Western scientists, analyze how their research reflects the social and cultural backgrounds of their countries, and reveal the cultural biases of their research perspectives and conclusions. In addition to this, social psychology should be classified into at least the second-level disciplines and programs should be established for master’s and doctorate degrees. It is also necessary to conduct regular academic communication and establish a training system as well as publish influential social psychological journals. Only in this way can a large academic community of Chinese social psychologists be formed that wields a lot of influence and is capable of cultivating a pool of talent in this field.

Cooperating on equal terms

Fifth, it is important to enhance international cooperation on an equal footing and even to insist that China play a dominant role. To start with, we should go beyond collecting local materials to make substantial contributions to the issues under study. Then, we should develop a cooperative relationship on an equal basis before questions are raised and make concerted efforts on further research.

Lastly, we need to expose our research results or issues first put forward by us to the international community with the goal of expansion and cooperation. Above all, the effort will help China to play a more leading role in the process of collaboration.

In addition to cooperation on research issues, we need to strengthen cooperation among academic journals and organizations so as to accelerate the pace of academic achievements and encourage high-level researchers to go global. To this end, it is essential to take indigenous psychology and cultural psychology as the point of departure and seek cooperation among Chinese social psychologists in Asia and other areas around the world, paving the way for the localization and internationalization of Chinese social psychology.

In a word, maintaining our indigenous features and focusing on social issues of China is the key to making strides in Chinese social psychology. In the process, however, it is crucial to embrace an international vision because research on native phenomena, in the final analysis, is intended to contribute to the well-being of the entire world. At the same time, concentrating on social realities within China serves the purpose of the social development at home. And the resolution of Chinese problems in turn can provide valuable experience to other countries around the globe.


Yu Guoliang, Xin Chengfeng and Wei Qingwang are from the Institute of Psychology at Renmin University of China.

Editor: Yu Hui

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