Video: Dr. John Norcross on cultural universalism and cultural relativism

Dr. John Norcross talks about the therapeutic intersection of cultural universalism and cultural relativism

LF: How about the aspect of being culturally relevant?  I was curious about your take on that because you see a lot of focus on cultural relativity or … and people sort of say, all these people are like this and all these people are like that – or they’re all like this or that – and that, to me, seems pretty artificial …

JN: The emerging movement, as it were, has really come up with three positions, two of which you’ve nicely articulated.  The first position is cultural universalism.  That is, we’re all just alike and we’re all part of the same species and therefore, some transcultural skills, you know, one therapy can fit everyone.  We’ve largely gotten rid of that.  We know culture is individualized, it’s here, multiple-cultural sensitivity is imperative.

The second position then goes to the opposite end is called cultural relativism, where each specific race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, needs its own therapy.  Well, then we’re going to have literally thousands of therapies, not to mention the intersectionality of say, color and gender and sexual orientation.

So, the third position seems the one favored these days, both for training and certainly for the amount of research that it’s promoted.  And that’s cultural adaptation.  Another form of treatment adaptation that says we should take these brand name therapies and then adapt them to individual cultures.  The benefit of doing so is we have these demonstrably effective therapies that can then be tailored to the individual needs, the singular situation of the client in front of us.

So in this meta-analysis conducted by Guillermo Bernal and colleagues in Psychotherapy – Relationships that Work, they located 65 studies that did just that.  There was a culturally adaptive therapy compared in the same study to a non-adaptive therapy.  And sure enough, the effect size was of a quite impressive magnitude, the D of .46, which, not to get too geeky, is a medium-effect size.  So you improve therapy by adapting it to the cultural needs of your particular client.  Now this is sort of the middle road between the cultural universalism and the cultural relativism.  It’s the cultural adaptation. A third way, or a middle path, of being able to harness all the research we’ve done on what’s effective in treatments, but to still tailor or individualize it to that individual. And that seems to be where that’s heading.

About the Author

John C. Norcross, PH.D. John C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP, is a clinical psychologist, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Scranton, and Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University.  He specializes in the areas of  psychotherapy, clinical training, and self-change. Dr. Norcross is the acclaimed author of the self-help book Changeology, as well as hundreds of professional journal publications and books. He is past-president of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy and the Division of Clinical Psychology. He has served as an APA council representative and as a director of the National Register of Health Service Psychologists. Learn more about Dr. John C. Norcross' work at the Changeology website.

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