Cultural psychology and ethnic minority research


Beyond the “two worlds”: American Indian scholars’ experience


Despite a long history of remarkably diverse programs and policies to integrate ethno-racial minorities into the mainstream U.S. educational system, Native Americans have been increasingly underrepresented on the highest levels of education, and their employment prospects suffered accordingly. This qualitative interdisciplinary project explored the factors that enabled 20 male and 20 female American Indian scholars, interviewed at 28 mainstream universities across the U.S., not only to attain doctoral degrees but also to become professors and researchers in a wide range of disciplines, including STEM fields. In accord with the basic principle of cultural psychology, which is that culture and psyche cannot be studied separately because they mutually constitute each other, this project contributed to better understanding of the roles that historically based socio-cultural contexts and individual agencies play within this dynamic mutual process. Several studies, which were included in this project, focused on the following:


  • The first study explored what constituted for participants the challenging experience commonly described as "living between the two worlds" of their mainstream education and professions versus their tribal communities. Participants experienced these socio-cultural contexts as very incongruent and based on conflicting values associated with individualism in contrast with collectivism. However, when viewing these concepts (perceived as dichotomous from western points of view) from the perspectives of their American Indian tribal worldviews, participants were able to reconcile and integrate these notions.
  • The second study questioned the notion of identity confusion and conflicts among ethno-racial minority members. Instead of feeling pressure to select, and identify with only one worldview, the dynamic and contextual identities of participants enabled them to utilize different aspects of both cultural meaning systems as called for by cues in each of their divergent socio-cultural contexts. These shifts were experienced as not endogenous but rather exogenous adaptations, which therefore did not necessarily negatively affect the participants’ identities, as was previously theorized.
  • The third study explicated how contextual factors, and in particular distinct master narratives that fundamentally either favor or reject the idea of assimilation and inclusion into the dominant U.S. society, facilitate dissimilar ways of construction and experiencing of qualitatively different identities. Specific socio-cultural and psychological dynamics are associated with the status of Native American nations, which is politically and legally unique, and with their situation, which is historically and socio-culturally very different from that of other traditional ethno-racial minority groups.
  • The fourth study discovered how culturally specific American Indian worldviews facilitated resilience in participants who consciously engaged (instead of unconsciously reacted or avoided) adverse circumstances that allowed them to disprove negative stereotypes about their marginalized groups by their personal examples. The corresponding understandings among people who felt they were representatives working this way towards a better future of their marginalized groups allowed them to deconstruct, disprove, and ultimately transform the negative stereotypes into sources of empowerment.