Tyler, F. B. (2002). Transcultural ethnic validity model and intracultural competence. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 16, Chapter 1), Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington USA.

This material is copyrighted by the author(s), who have kindly extended to the Center the right to use the material as described in the Introduction to this collection and the form entitled "Agreement to Extend License to Use Work."



Forrest B. Tyler
University of Maryland


To be a psychosocially competent person, each of us has to have an external perspective on ourself and our culture, a transcultural ethnic validity perspective. This conclusion is supported by a logical and empirical examination of how we know who we are and use our own judgmental capabilities to guide and change our lives and our situations. Particular emphasis is placed on the nature of psychological science as a human enterprise influenced by the personal and cultural backgrounds of its scientists and those they study.


It is my belief that for each of us to be a competent fully-functioning person in our own culture, it is essential that we acquire a transcultural framework. We can become intraculturally competent only by changing so that we no longer judge and guide ourselves, our lives, and our culture solely by its embedded perspectives, including its scientific and professional standards. Consequently, I use the term psychosocially competent to refer to both intra- and intercultural competence.

An analysis of the psychosocial nature of how we develop explanations of ourselves and others and become who we are as individuals and societies supports this view. First, there is the point made so eloquently by Kuhn (1970) that the basis of any science is the examples, or exemplars as he called them, that designate its subject matter. They direct the scientist's efforts and changing them changes the subject matter of the science. Further, starting with different exemplars leads to conflicts between opposing scientific perspectives about which is more basic and more correct. For example, are verbal reports valid data or only non-verbal behaviors? Mannheim (1936) referred to these conflicts as contests to become the general paradigm: that is, to achieve the position of being able to evaluate other knowledge systems, but not be criticized by them. Thus, if members of any society assume that their general paradigm is independent of or more highly evolved than others, they conclude that their people can contribute knowledge and explanations to other societies, but others have nothing to contribute to them.

There are such arguments between representatives of our current cultures. My position is that a transcultural perspective, one that encompasses multiple cultures, is necessarily the general paradigm. We can begin to understand ourselves and function well in our own cultures only by understanding that there are other cultures. We must see ourselves from other's points of view as well as our own to function well anywhere.

Psychology's Dominant Paradigm

In contrast, psychology's dominant paradigm is that of a positivist oriented experimental science. Poortinga (1997) argued that it is the responsibility of the psychologist investigator to approach his activities as does the physical scientist; identifying exemplars to be studied without input from his subjects who are considered to be donors of data. The scientist's task is to study these exemplars by manipulating them directly, or otherwise controlling for their differences.

In cross-cultural psychology, that approach has been developed by Berry (1989). The generality of exemplars (imposed etics) from a reference culture (usually a Western society) are studied in other cultures in an effort to identify universal human characteristics (etics), and culturally specific characteristics (emics). Characteristics that demonstrate cross-cultural generality are considered to be etics. Those that remain distinctive are then judged to be emics.

This approach identifies broad cultural patterns of similarities and differences on the dimensions (ranging from perceptual to social phenomena) chosen for study. However, it has a number of limitations that, in my judgment, more than offset its advantages. Specifically, it can (a) establish that people from different cultural backgrounds think and act differently, but it cannot identify how they can communicate across that barrier; (b) identify only each culture's central tendencies; it masks any subcultural diversity (Murayama, 1997); and (c) explore only topics and characteristics relevant in the culture that originates the research, not those unique to comparison cultures.

An Alternative: A Transcultural Ehnic Vlidity Perspective


The need for an alternative transcultural paradigm is highlighted by the following points. In concluding their 1994 book, Cross-cultural human development, the Munroes emphasized that the search for universals of human development has been fruitful only at the lower stages of development. They concluded that "perhaps, the next ambitious theoretical system [of development] will also provide greater understanding of adult humans' ingeniously diverse modes of thought and behavior", p. 152. To understand these "ingeniously diverse" aspects of complex human behavior requires beginning with exemplars that include these judging and decision making capabilities that emerge at later stages of development.

Khilstrom (1995) stressed that respondents in psychological research have an active role. Their interaction with the experimenter is one in which they are instructed to participate as though they were subjects (passive knowns) rather than decision making knowers. Thus, respondents are subject/participants who are assuming the roles of subjects to provide the known information sought and also a participant trying as a knower to make sense of the situation and contribute to knowledge. He argued that these roles can never be completely separated; rather, they and the relationship of the experimental situation to "real life" must be considered.

Howitt and Owusu-Bempah (1994) provided extensive documentation that there is a racist cultural bias in Western psychology's dominant paradigm. Specifically, the discipline was established by white male racists and their biases have persisted because they were built into the structure of the discipline. It is not necessary to be a racist to perpetuate this racism.

Together, these critiques lead to two important conclusions. The influences of culturally based experiences begin to influence and permeate our psychological natures at a very early age; that is, we become psychosocial individuals very early in life. Also, our psychosocial natures are inevitably shaped by unexamined culturally embedded biases.

Transcultural Ethnic Validity Model

Building a framework that can take account of people's "diverse modes of thought and behavior", their culturally distinct experiences, and their active role in defining their lives requires including appropriate exemplars. For example, people interpret the meaning of tragedies differently in ways that enable some to prevail over them while others succumb to them. To understand these interpretive and problem solving capabilities and differences requires incorporating the ideas that (a) people function as knowers in addition to also functioning as known in a deterministic fashion, and (b) our knower and known capabilities are a combination of our individual experiences and our social context.

We contribute not only to constructing our own natures, but also our relationships, communities, societies, and knowledge systems. We continue to create organization in our lives progressively in relation to our time-embedded, ongoing course. We are necessarily involved in influencing and being influenced by our own and others' activities. We bear some responsibility for our well-being and destruction since we have the potential to construct psychosocially benign and supportive patterns of living as well as destructive ones. When people interact, they are limited by their idiosyncratic natures and also actively involved in constructing a sense of the other participants. Further, theories and facts of human psychology formulated by any individual or community of scholars from a particular common cultural background cannot escape the distinctive features of that background.

The theories and approaches we construct for interacting with others must be embedded in a broader context than our own. For that broader context to adequately represent everyone involved it must be constructed by the shared efforts of the theorists and other participants from that broader domain (whether it is a local community or range of cultures). It is this reasoning that requires and enables us to construct what I call a Transcultural ethnic validity model (TEVM) (Tyler, 2001). The following paragraphs show how a TEVM can be used to provide an integrated understanding of individuals, their communities, ethnicities, and cultures.

Individual Psychosocial Competence

As individuals we use our self-directing skills to guide our lives as best we can. How well we manage to do so is a product of our respective levels of what I call individual psychosocial competence. It is made up of a number of factors, including (a) a sense of self-efficacy, (b) a sense of a self-world relationship involving optimism and trust or their opposites, (c) some level of active planfulness, and elements in our lives such as physical and psychological (d) supports, and (e) threats. These factors are psychosocial and interrelated in that they are influenced by social and cultural factors as well as individual experiences. Each of us becomes both a product of and contributor to our culture and its relationships to other cultures. The studies in the following paragraphs illustrate some of these interrelationships.

Rotter (1966) conceptualized and measured self-efficacy as locus of control, an individual's expectancy about whether s/he can control the outcomes of activities (internal vs. external control). That concept has generated thousands of studies in many cultures and contexts, and proven to be an important predictive variable. It has also led to identifying culturally distinctive conceptions of the meaning, nature, and preferences for different kinds of control. In the U.S.A, primary control is manipulative mastery of the environment; in Japan, it is adaptation to the environment; in Hinduism and Buddhism, it is denial of desire (Tyler, 1999).

Psychosocial context is also relevant to the nature of our senses of self-efficacy:

(a) Jessor and colleagues (1968) measured internal control and opportunity in a U. S. A. town with Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American residents. Level of internal control was related to opportunity, with high status Anglos most internal, low status Native Americans least.

(b) My colleagues and I (Tyler, Dhawan, & Sinha, 1989) found gender based commonalities and differences between students from the U. S. A. and India. Males in both cultures thought external events controlled personal more than task related activities; females thought the opposite. Males were more focused on chance/fate as an external factor controlling events; females focused on powerful others. A gender based cross-cultural difference was that only U. S. A. females expected to receive a fair share of opportunities in life.

(c) Jinn (1992) compared Chinese and U. S. A. college students. Tyler (2001) summarized them as indicating that the Chinese students had significantly lower self-efficacy scores, were more depressed,
less oriented to active planning, less internal, and rated their sociocultural environment as being significantly more negative....In the United States, the men were more self-efficacious and perceived the sociocultural environment as being more positive than did the women....Women in both samples and all NCDG [minority] members in the United States sample perceived their status as disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts (Tyler, 1992, p. 139).

Complex differences were also found in self-world attributions. However, those who lived in a more benign and supportive context (e.g., higher status individuals) tended to be more trusting. For example,

(a) Elderly African American women nominated as competent natural leaders in their communities were less trusting and concerned with social approval than their less competent peers. The reverse was true among Anglo American women (Tyler, 2001).

(b) Street children were generally indifferent to threats from mainstream society, but responsive to supports. The exceptions were that Bogota street youth trust levels were lower with physical threats on the street; among Latino street youth in Washington, DC trust levels were higher with physical supports (Tyler, 2001).

(c) Among white high school students in the U. S. A. trust level was positively related to observed competence; among their African American peers, it was not (Tyler & Pargament, 1981).

The attribute that showed the most generality across the life span and circumstances in a range of cultures was that of active planfulness. In particular, it proved to be the most dominant characteristic of individuals who had a disadvantaged status in a hostile world. Group comparisons revealed differences with women higher in some cultures, men in others, and no difference in others. Overall, there was consistent evidence that approaching life in a more active and constructively organized way served people well, though it was not essential for some high status individuals (Tyler, 2001).

Ethnic Validity

The way each of us organizes our life has both a personal validity and an ethnic validity based in the context of our psychosocial heritage. An important aspect of our heritages is the hierarchical structure differentiating Culture-defining (CD) and Non culture-defining (NCD) roles, statuses, and memberships (Tyler, Brome & Williams, 1991). People who are primarily assigned to or socialized as having a NCD status are usually from lower classes, ethnic minorities, "people of color" as they are now designated in the Western world, or are native to "less developed" societies. Their possibilities are largely defined by others while their perspectives, and at times, their very humanity is devalued. However, most of us have occasion to shift back and forth from defining roles for ourselves and others to roles defined for us by others. More importantly, people from mainstream CDGs, including professionals, are often socialized to a sense of superiority without regard to context. The society's structures, social control measures, and designated leaders and helpers share and support that perspective. It is difficult for CDG individuals to appreciate the self-protective biases in their contexts or themselves or the strengths of people whose lives are formed and lived out in NCD contexts.

For example, adolescents are temporarily in an NCD status in relation to adults. Parents and professionals think of them as needing CDG adults to define them, empower them, and improve them, yet that approach often increases the difficulty of their struggle to become adult. We asked street youth in Colombia to list their wishes. In contrast to lay and professional expectations that they would be hostile and antisocial, their wishes were overwhelmingly positive and prosocial. They wanted loving homes and families as well as education and jobs, not just the negative realities that had been their lot (Tyler & Tyler, 1996).

These findings support the conclusion that people choose a style of living that seems to provide them with a personally and ethnically valid competence in their life contexts. It may be actively prosocial and trusting, combative and distrustful, or passive and disorganized depending largely on people's circumstances and experiences. If our psychological perspectives, knowledge, and skills are to be valid they must incorporate an understanding of how people use their diverse experiences from such contexts to understand themselves, others, and their contexts. Conversely, to understand our own situations and be competent within them, we must acquire a transcultural perspective about ourselves and our situations.

Psychosocial Competence and Interactions as Interventions

All of us are guided in part by our psychosocial competence conceptions as we interact with our internal and external realities. Those of us who are psychologists contribute to those ongoing processes through research and professional activities. Inevitably, we provide to others and ourselves ways of building on each other's capabilities or of diminishing them. We are all engaged in resource exchange, resource enhancement, or resource diminution. As individuals or professionals we are necessarily involved in an exchange with people; taking as well as giving, but we are not taking over other peoples' lives, and they are not taking over ours. Rather, we are resource collaborators (Tyler, Pargament & Gatz, 1983) if we are working together or resource antagonists if we are seeking the same resources.

The Dynamics of Change Interactions

To be effective change agents, we need to understand how these psychosocial competence approaches and contextual factors shape our interactions. To build collaborative patterns, we have to develop and use competence approaches that focus on identifying and building on the commonalities we all have, such as people's concerns for the welfare of their children. We must also learn to respect and accept that there are different ways of living and being human. Finally, we have to learn prosocial ways to contain conflict. For example, we can build on tried and accepted approaches like the rule basic to most religions; that is, we should treat others the way we want to be treated. We also need to continue to develop new approaches to accommodating differences which emphasize non-violent methods. Finally, we must not only understand these distinctions, we must model them and teach them to others ranging from policy makers to gang members so they can use them too (Tyler, Brome & Williams, 1991).

Patterns of destructive interactions between individuals, communities, and societies focus on similar issues, they just approach them with different objectives as their goal. Emphasis is often placed on devaluing others, emphasizing the nature of differences as threatening, and subjugating or destroying these "enemies". By emphasizing that survival rests in preemptive steps to destroy such enemies, a cycle of escalating violence can be started. Acting violently threatens its targets who, in turn, respond to protect themselves, and so the cycle builds. The presence of these kinds of cycles has been documented in the functioning of extremist groups, in patterns of personal, ethnic and racial violence, and in wars (Tyler, 2001).

However, many interaction patterns are mixed and at times stem from a lack of sensitivity to differences in ethnic and culturally based perspectives. For example, CDG psychologists at times try to interact with NCDG clients as resource collaborators and enhancers without considering their ethnic/racial relationships. Ridley (1984) wrote of adaptive paranoia among African American therapy clients interacting with CDG therapists in the U.S.A. The relationship change needed is not for NCDG clients to become more trusting when they consider it unwarranted, it is for CDG therapists to demonstrate their trustworthiness. And, as mentioned earlier, societal agents working with delinquent youth often view them as deficient, immature, immoral, and resistant to discipline. Treating youth that way is likely to make them less trusting and escalate conflict rather than establish a basis for constructive collaboration (Tyler, et al., 1992).

Contextual factors also influence the ways change occurs and can be influenced. Barker and Schoggen (1973) studied how public places influence the behaviors that occur in them in the U.S.A. and Great Britain. They called places such as schools, parks, or communities behavior settings and identified how different settings create different demands (habitat claims) for certain role behaviors that shape social and individual choices. That benign and supportive settings are conducive to positive psychosocial development has been widely documented.

However, contexts are not always benign and supportive. Sustaining inner city drug cultures requires defining behavior settings as requiring special roles. Included are attractive gang roles for youth who are usually from NCDGs and have little access to long term prosocial careers. Yet it is mostly CDG adults who buy the drugs, and adults from all groups who employ and exploit the youth, trapping them in violent life styles and replacing them as they are destroyed. Even so, there is substantial support for the belief that youths join gangs to fulfill a sense of belonging, not because they want to be violent or involved with drugs (Tyler, et al., 1992). Likewise, Sereny's (1985) studies of youthful prostitutes in the U. S. A. and Europe strongly support the conclusion that the continuance of such settings is based in part on the reluctance of authorities to hold CDG adult clients responsible, preferring to blame the youth.

Configurations as Integral to Functioning and Change

The ways we build prosocial or antisocial communities and contexts and encourage or reduce prosocial behavior or unwanted violence and other destructive activities go together. The work of Olweus (1992) shows why successful antiviolence youth programs require a collaborative approach to defining the issues, identifying resources, and combining individual and social change approaches. He studied bullying in Norwegian schools and found that the bullies were not insecure nor did they have low self-esteem. They felt good about themselves and, unless stopped, continued their patterns into adulthood.

The bullying changed when the teachers, parents, and students in that behavior setting changed to redefine it and support the development of prosocial configurations of behavior. They did so by organizing a joint community and school program that created school, community, and home environments in which all adults were taught (a) to establish warm caring relationships with the children in order to create benign and supportive environments that could be trusted, and (b) to use consistent, firm, non-hostile, non-physical controls against unacceptable behavior.

Such patterns of change have been found in numerous cultures as basic to control of other patterns of violence as well. For example, the extensive multicultural work of Huesmann and Eron (1986) on television viewing and violence found similar patterns with some cultural variations. The relationships found between watching television and violence were a product of individual differences plus parental, environmental, and cultural norms and the inhibiting or facilitating nature of the violence seen on television.


The pattern and level of psychosocial competence each of us attains and how well it serves us rests on what possibilities and restrictions our life contexts provide and on the perspectives we have acquired, particularly our knowledge and skills at decision making and problem solving.. However, if we have been exposed to only one culture we are limited to its implicit and explicit possibilities. It is only by transcending those boundaries that we become aware of their possibilities and limitations plus the presence and nature of other possibilities.

Cross-cultural interactions involve encounters with strangers and strange situations, a centuries old phenomenon that has faced people with the need to redefine their understanding of themselves and their world. They require and enable us as individuals and groups to see that we and our situation could be different. We then face the task of learning how to change so that we can communicate and interact across psychosocial differences.

This process is particularly important to psychologist investigators trying to understand other cultures by just seeing them as poor imitations of their own. It challenges and defeats efforts to impose on other cultures a culture bound own view of science and people's presumed etics, including their values-all of which are culturally limited. In contrast, starting with a transcultural perspective as a basis for understanding individual and collective psychological issues in people's lives, both intraculturally and interculturally, provides a more adequate foundations. However, it necessarily requires:

(a) Including ourselves as participants, even as psychologists or other experts who contribute special expertise.

(b) Including ourselves, whether CDG figures such as community and cultural leaders, or NCDG figures such as society's outcasts, as part of our communities and cultures. It is in everyone's interest to consider everyone as collaborative participants in the community. We cannot build better lives and better cities unless we involve everyone in listening to each other to hear why people's choices are meaningful to them. We must also be willing to consider changing ourselves because others are not likely to change otherwise.

(c) Including ourselves as part of the world beyond our own communities, ethnicities, and cultures, and acting on our need to extend our perspectives beyond those traditional boundaries. In other words, it is imperative that we establish a transcultural ethnic validity conception of and for ourselves as well as others in order to live effective and enriching lives, to be psychosocially competent, even within our own culture.

A kind of decentering (of seeing oneself as other than in the center of the universe) is essential. Whether we are trying to understand and guide our lives, do research, teach, or create change; it is only by creating a transcultural perspective that we can move beyond the biases of our cultural and CDG or NCDG perspectives. As Howitt & Owusu-Bempah (1994) emphasized, we must become aware of and responsive to the nature of the context we are socialized in and be working to change it as well, or we are acting to support it in a social control way. We are also working against any efforts, even our own, to change ourselves and/or the contexts within which we live. In summary, we can become psychosocially competent intraculturally only by exposing ourselves to alternative perspectives from outside our culture; that is, by becoming at least somewhat interculturally competent.

About the Author

Forrest B. Tyler received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Ohio State University in 1952. Throughout his career he has been a university professor, director of clinical/community psychology graduate programs and of a preschool, and a government program administrator. His teaching, research, and program development activities have included involvement with people across their life spans and in a number of cultural contexts. The focus of his work has been on people's development of psychological strengths with particular attention to the role of people's self-directing capabilities and the effects of societal contexts, particularly the limiting of possibilities from restrictive and disadvantageous circumstances. He is currently an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA, who continues to be active in his career. E-Mail: ftyler@psyc.umd.edu


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Tyler, F.B., & Tyler, S.L. (1996). Criancas de Rua e Dignidad Humana (Street children and human dignity). Psicologia: Reflexao e Critica, Porto Alegre, 9(1), 83-100.

Questions for Discussion

1. Primary control is defined differently in different cultures. What are the three ways cited? Give examples of each and discuss their advantages and disadvantages.
2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using an etic/emic approach to cross-cultural research?
3. What is meant by a behavioral setting? a habitat claim? Consider some examples of each and discuss how they have influenced your life.
4. What differences in how you respond would it make to be treated like a knower as a participant in a research study? as a known?
5. What kind of difficulties would two people with different self and world views have in communicating with each other? Give some examples and discuss how they can be overcome.
6. Why might it be difficult to change your psychosocial competence orientation if you cannot change your life context?
7. What is meant by a transcultural ethnic validity orientation? What kinds of differences would developing such an orientation have on most of us? Give some examples.

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