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Some local history
Theo Verheggen & Paul Voestermans (1996)

There exists some uncertainty about the origin of the expression "cultural psychology". Richard Shweder traces the origin back to the work of Michael Cole, Allan Howard and James Peacock, all in the early eighties. The work of Jerome Bruner (also appearing in the early eighties) should be mentioned as well. Yet, the term was used in Nijmegen as early as 1957, when a special chair which carried the name "cultural psychology" was erected. The initiative was taken by the director of the Psychogical Laboratory at that time, Professor F. J. Th. Rutten. He formulated three reasons to establish the new sub-discipline of psychology:

  1. Psychology should not break away from the other social sciences of anthropology, history, and sociology.
  2. Psychology is a practical science. In order for psychological interventions to be adequate, this science cannot remain indifferent to the developments and changes in society and culture at large.
  3. Psychology also has a critical function. If the local cultural values are not explicated by contrasting them with other values in other times and at other places, psychology is doomed to adopt uncritically in its scientific practice the local mores and customs.

Rutten's idea to not only initiate a cultural psychology but also a psychology of religion in Nijmegen, goes back to Wilhelm Wundt. Religion is a system that exerts its influence on nearly every other aspect of culture, including the local conventions of self definition. By appointing Professor Han Fortmann in 1957, the program of cultural psychology and psychology of religion took a start. In 1971 Fortmann's Inleiding tot de cultuurpsychologie [Introduction to cultural psychology] was published.

Initially, cultural psychology at the Nijmegen university was used for the development of a scientific perspective on religion. That explains why the Catholic University of Nijmegen did harbor a cultural psychology department at such an early point in time. The liaison with the scientific study of religion has stamped this young sub-discipline, of course. Originally, this new branch of psychological research focused on issues of religion and mental health. But, quite surprisingly (for who could have predicted the rather rapid decline of religious affiliation, particularly in catholic circles?), since the early sixties secularization took a strong hold on intellectual endeavors in the new department of cultural psychology. Many will now recognize in hindsight what the outcome of that process was: the discipline took a firm position in the newly created debate on the use of science for public well-being of, particularly, those sections of society in which oppression and domination were felt the most. In that regard cultural psychology in Nijmegen became a main local force in the turn to the political left. The department shared this particular concern with many others around the globe.

The research at that time was mainly on youth culture, the student movement of the sixties and the seventies, feminism, and the beliefs and opinions of the oppressed classes. It remained a local affair, since there did not exist any pressures to "go international", so to speak. The NCPG published predominantly in local journals, issued local readers, did local research with questionnaires, and constructed variable schemes which were quite in accordance with the fads and fashions in research at that time.

One could not speak of much international interest in culture at that time in the community of psychologists. The very few who took an interest in culture, were dispersed and had not gone so far as to organize themselves. Of course, there existed some scattered movements: in the cross-fertilization of psychoanalysis and ethnology (the culture and personality school), or later on in anthropology at large (psychological anthropology), and in Marxist and leftist circles in the profession (those who favored the Russian Cultural Historical School of Vygotsky and others in developmental psychology), but up till very recent, no single journal existed which could provide a sheltering home for those who wanted to study the relationship of psychology and culture seriously. One could object that there existed cross-cultural psychology. But anyone could see right away that this branch of psychology (with a very long history, that is for sure) was in almost permanent crisis about what psychological instruments and techniques developed in Western societies could contribute to our understanding of the psychological functioning of people abroad. If one did find differences in psychological functioning, they either were so small and of so little importance, that no real inspiration could be drawn from these findings. Or they were so large that the problems of interpretation became insurmountable.

To cut an intricated history short, due to the fact that one encountered cultural practices among those peoples of other cultures (which were not the same as the ones psychologists ran into at home) the whole cross-cultural gang, which really did care about other cultures and other forms of psychological functioning, closed its ranks and started what now tends to become a real movement in the USA: cultural psychology. "Cultural psychology" now counts among its ranks famous psychologists like Michael Cole, Richard Shweder, Hazel Markus, Jerome Bruner and many others. Due to this state of affairs, the tide turned and the international scientific community discovered the importance of culture in the science of the individual. At that point, the NCPG could tie up its more than thirty year old occupation with culture and psychology with the international developments.


Last updated: August 2000
Maintained by Cor Baerveldt