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Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology

Culture and Developmental Systems

Volume 38



Edited by

Maria D. Sera

Michael Maratsos

Stephanie M. Carlson









Someone once said that the important questions in science do not change, only our answers to them do. That is a good thing because when the topic of culture emerged as a potential one for this symposium, I had the feeling that we had done it before. Indeed we had, and not too long ago. In 1999, Ann Masten organized a symposium called Cultural Processes in Child Development. Ann's opening remarks to that volume ended with the hope that the volume would usher in a “cultural renaissance” in developmental science. Organizing another symposium on the topic is a testament to that insight.

The role of culture in human development is undeniable. No child today has to figure out how to control fire, invent the wheel or the alphabet. For at least the last 70,000 years, the advancement of humans has depended on cultural innovation. Every generation gets information critical to its success from the generations that precede it. Yet answers to questions regarding the role of culture in human development seem to vacillate from one extreme to the other—from culture being everything, to cultures being really all the same and so not impacting development in meaningful ways. In my own line of work, questions about the role of language on thought—a line that can be encompassed within the broader umbrella of cultural relativity—have yielded apparently contradicting answers. Empirical work on the topic began with a paper by Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg published in 1954 showing that colors for which English speakers agreed on a name were better remembered than colors for which speakers did not agree on a name (these were focal hues, or the prototypes of English colors). The stage seemed to be set for work on linguistic (and cultural) relativity—that differences across speakers of different languages would analogously yield differences across speakers of those languages in thought. That view of relativity came to a dead halt in the early 1960s and 1970s when studies showed that: (1) cones in the primate retina differentially absorb hues that corresponded to the English color prototypes—blue, yellow, and green—suggesting a strong physiological basis for color perception; (2) adults whose languages had different color terms categorized colors the same way as English speakers did, suggesting that color perception was universal and language had no effect; and (3) infants—who do not know any words—also categorize colors the same way as do English adults, suggesting that color perception could not be affected by language. What followed might be viewed as the “dark ages” of nativism and universalism of the 1970s and 1980s. I wrote in the early 1990s that color might not have been the best domain in which to look for effects of language on cognition, and started looking for effects in domains that change with development. At about the same time, John Lucy published an argument about why the color work was flawed. The “renaissance” began. Between 1990 and today, there has been an explosion of work on the role of language on cognition. Effects of language have been shown on object perception, categorization, space, number, emotion recognition, and other concepts. But even with all the evidence in support of relativity, significant questions remain. For instance, even though 1954 might seem like a long time ago, it is not long enough to bring about the evolutionary change required to alter the physiological structure of the primate retina. How can the old work showing universal tendencies be reconciled with the more recent work in support of relativity? Significant progress has been made, and chapter 2 of this volume begins to reconcile the evidence on the role of culture (via language) on color categorization specifically.

More generally, the goal of the 38th Minnesota Symposium was to bring together scholars that examine a wide range of cultural factors, from genes to governments, in development. These scholars also represent different stages of academic careers—from recently minted PhDs to scholars who published early seminal papers. The volume begins with an exploration of how culture might have selected for certain genes, which in turn might shape neural functioning (in chapter 1). Chapter 2 moves to the role of culture via language on perception. Chapter 3 reviews the essential role of culture in mathematical thinking. Chapter 4 highlights cross‐cultural differences in the earliest stages of language development and their implications for theories of development. Chapter 5 highlights differences and similarities across cultures in parenting practices. Chapter 6 offers a picture of learning by children who do not go to regular (formal) schools—the way Homo sapiens learned for all but the last few hundred years. Chapter 7 illustrates how social emotional behaviors, such as shyness, can be differentially valued and perceived across different cultures. The final chapter makes explicit different ways of thinking about cultural relativity with examples from different points in history, countries, religions, and governing bodies. All make original contributions to a better understanding of culture and development.

The Minnesota Symposium has always been a joint intellectual exercise, and this one was no exception. I want to thank Stephanie Carlson and Michael Maratsos for their shared enthusiasm for the topic and their efforts with selecting speakers, organizing the event on which this volume is based, and editing the chapters. I also want to thank all who contributed chapters. They are, in the order that their chapters appear in the volume: Joan Y. Chiao, Anna Franklin, Rafael Núñez, Twila Tardif, Marc H. Bornstein, Suzanne Gaskins, Xinyin Chen, and Michael Maratsos. I also want to thank Delores Mordorski for helping to organize the event and Eric Hart for his sharp editorial eye and help with the chapters. We also thank Patricia Rossi and Jeevarekha Babu at Wiley for keeping us on task. And last but certainly not least, I want to thank the graduate students at the Institute of Child Development who help with the event in so many ways, especially Jose Causadias and Sandra Ahumada. The symposium would not have been the same without you.

Maria D. Sera


  • Marc H. Bornstein, PhD
  • Senior Investigator
  • Child and Family Research
  • Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
  • National Institutes of Health, Public Health Service
  • Stephanie M. Carlson, PhD
  • Professor
  • Institute of Child Development
  • University of Minnesota
  • Xinyin Chen, PhD
  • Professor
  • Applied Psychology—Human Development Division
  • Graduate School of Education
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Joan Y. Chiao, PhD
  • International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium
  • Anna Franklin, PhD
  • Professor
  • The Sussex Colour Group and Baby Lab
  • School of Psychology
  • University of Sussex
  • Suzanne Gaskins, PhD
  • Professor Emerita
  • Department of Psychology
  • Northeastern Illinois University
  • Michael Maratsos, PhD
  • Professor
  • Institute of Child Development
  • University of Minnesota
  • Rafael Núñez, PhD
  • Professor
  • Department of Cognitive Science
  • University of California, San Diego
  • Maria D. Sera, PhD
  • Professor
  • Institute of Child Development
  • University of Minnesota
  • Twila Tardif, PhD
  • Professor
  • Department of Psychology
  • University of Michigan