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Dr. Richard A. Shweder

Courtesy of University of Chicago News Office

Dr. Richard A. Shweder will speak on "Rethinking Cultural Psychology…and the 'Enlightenment' Along the Way" Thursday evening at Chicago Cultural Center.


Controversial psychology professor to speak at the Chicago Cultural Center

by Erin G. Edwards
Jan 21, 2008


University of Chicago psychologist Richard A. Shweder takes people out of their comfort zones by just posing questions - tough questions.

Try one of his "quizzes," the kind he's likely to pose at a free public lecture Thursday at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Scenario one: A man is in a serious car accident is transported to a hospital where he is refused treatment because he cannot afford to pay.

Scenario two: The day after a man dies his first born son gets a haircut and eats chicken.

Which do you think is a more serious moral transgression?

Gut reaction tells many of us that No. 1 is the obvious choice.

But on Thursday, Shweder will likely take people to the small town of Bhubaneswar in Orissa, India, where he has worked from time-to-time since 1968. It was there that Shweder learned that the first born’s actions in the situation above would be tantamount to throwing his father’s body in the garbage, thus putting the father’s soul in jeopardy. 

“I’m going to try and take people into different worlds…worlds where they think that shame is a virtue, worlds in which they are more concerned about pollution and sanctity than about free choice,” Shweder said.

Shweder is a professor of human development and one of the founding fathers of cultural psychology. 

“Cultural psychology is the study of the way cultural traditions and social practices regulate, express and transform the human psyche," writes Shweder in his book Thinking Through Cultures.

Through cultural psychology, Shweder challenges the one-size-fits-all path of general psychology. He also said cultural psychology runs counter to a “the West is best” assumption grown out of the Enlightenment.

He said the field has been staging a comeback since the 1980s as globalization has grown and cultures have begun to collide with regularity.

“It’s one thing to simply study differences, but once we come to moral values…the assumption is that you know what’s good for everyone else and he’s questioning this,” Katia Mitova said of Shweder. Mitova is coordinating the cultural center lecture series for The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Yet recently Shweder has run head-first into criticism for his views on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also called female circumcision. In the West, the surgical procedure is often viewed as a human rights violation with serious health risks.

Shweder said he believes the U.S. media have told only one side of the FGM story—an ethnocentric side that demonizes cultures, such as some African cultures, which practice the circumcision as an initiation rite.

“He does not shy away from controversy,” said Bettina Shell-Duncan, a professor of anthropology and global health at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Much of this debate is playing out in TierneyLab, The New York Times science blog by John Tierney, where Shweder has been contributing to a recent online dialogue about FGM. Reader comments are spilling in—at last count there were more than 450 of them— many with the kind of quick-fire repulsion that Shweder warns against. (Go to http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com .)

“We all have very socialized or culturally-informed judgments that we make," said Shweder. "They happen rapidly…they often can be guiding us poorly.” At the heart of cultural psychology, he said, is an attempt to show how morally descent and rational people can make judgments with which you would disagree or even find morally repulsive.

For some in the West, the issue of female circumcision is simple: human rights trump cultural practices.

Shell-Duncan, who said she does not always agree with Shweder, said she  believes the debate over female circumcision has been unbalanced in the U.S. “What Rick has done in these blogs is to open up a more nuanced debate,” she said.

Shweder's lecture kicks off “Starting from Scratch," a lecture series featuring prominent scholars, intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs, activists, and community leaders about the psychological dimensions of creating avenues of thought or enterprise from the ground up, according to The Chicago School.

Shweder will speak Thursday, January 24 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., 5th Floor. Call (312) 467-8607 for more information.