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Culture, Cognition, and Intelligence
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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Intelligence: A Biocultural Perspective

The construct of intelligence has remained one of the most controversial topics in the history of psychology. Some researchers have pointed to the impressive evidence of neural efficiency in accounting for individual difference in intelligence, thus further bolstering the biological argument. Proponents of the cultural view, on the other hand, argue that observed behaviour is not independent of the cultural forces that shape, support, and guide its organisation and development. Despite the strong claims on each side of this "either-or" and "how much" debate, we shall take an interactionist perspective, which may shed light on the issue.

Definition of Intelligence

Intelligence is a culturally derived abstraction that members of a given society coin to make sense of observed differences in performance of individuals within and between social groups. The search for an objective definition with universal consensus is fraught with a lot of difficulties. As Horn (1991b: 198) states, '[e]fforts to define intellectual capabilities "once and for all" are doomed to failure because not only is the universe of these capabilities so vast that its boundaries are beyond comprehension, but also because it is constantly evolving into a new vastness'. Therefore, we shall tentatively define intelligence as

the deployment of culturally dependent cognitions in adaptation to meaningful encounters in our environment in a purposive manner. Its expression as behavior reflects the gradual transformation of biologically programmed cognitive potentials into developed cognitions through a process of cultural socialization
(Armour-Thomas and Gopaul-McNicol, 1998: 59).

The emerging evidence from various disciplines that human cognition is context specific in addition to evidence of the strong influence of culture on cognitive development provide the empirical basis for the assertion that intelligence is a culturally dependent construct. More specifically, the evidence suggests that the mind functions and develops within 'cultural niches' (ibid.: 59) and as such the comingling of biological and cultural processes is inescapable. Although the range of cognitive potentials may be constrained by biological programming, which potentials develop and find expression depends, to a great extent, on cultural experiences. In view of this, the mental life of individuals is inseparable from the culture that gives it direction and meaning.
There are four assumptions underlying the biocultural perspective of intelligence: a) The interactions between biologically derived cognitive potentials and forces obtaining within the child's culture are reciprocal, b) the interdependence of knowledge and cognitive processing in the development of cognition, c) instruction is a precursor to the development of cognition, and d) motivation as energy activated from both within and outside the person. We shall only briefly discuss a).


The biocultural perspective asserts that the characteristics of the individual and characteristics of specific characteristics within the child's culture are reciprocally interactive. All human beings are born with capabilities that enable them to think in complex ways, such as the capacity to encode, transform, reason, store and retrieve information from memory. It is culture, however, that determines when, how, and under what conditions these potentials develop and manifest themselves in behaviour. Moreover, whether these cognitions will reach their fullest possible expression, remain undeveloped, or show stunned or uneven development depends on two factors: a) the opportunities and constraints within the culture that may foster or impede their growth, and b) the receptiveness or vulnerability of the organism at critical points in time toward these liberating and inhibiting forces operating with the culture (Armour-Thomas and Gopaul-McNicol, 1998: 60-61).

Concluding remarks

What emerges from this short discussion is that culture permeates the daily life of a people and as such plays a pivotal role in human development. In terms of its role in cognitive development, and more specifically intelligent behaviour, it seems that it has the potency to shape and transform biologically constrained potentials into developed cognitions. One's cultural experiences and context are integral to the development of one's cognition. It is culture that dictates the amount of time a child will spend on a particular task; it is culture that will form the types of tests and formal examinations that are supposed to check students' competence and then categorise them accordingly. Those students who are not comfortable in decontextualised settings under impersonal and timed conditions are likely to be thought of as "less intelligent," even if the difficulties that beset them have nothing to do with cognitive abilities. For some people, intelligence resides in our genes and "grey cells"; for others, it is the result of the interaction of a "thinking human being" with other such human beings. For us, though, intelligence is the residue of a "chemical reaction" between nature and nurture.


Armour-Thomas, E. and S. Gopaul-McNicol. (1998). Assessing Intelligence: Applying a Bio-Cultural Model. London: Sage Publications.
Cole, M., Gay, J., Glick, J. A., & Sharp, D. W. (1971). The cultural context of learning and thinking. New York: Basic Books.
Geertz, C. (1973). Interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.
·Goodnow, J. J. (1976). The nature of intelligent bahavior: Questions raised by cross-cultural studies. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), The nature of intelligence. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Goodnow, J. J. (1990). The socialization of cognition: What's involved? In J. W. Stigler, R. A. Shweder, Q.G. Herdt (Eds.), Cultural psychology (pp. 259-286). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Gordon, E. W. (1991). Human diversity and pluralism. Educational Psychologist. 26, 99-108.
Gordon, E. W., & Armour-Thomas, E. (1991). Culture and cognitive development. In L. Okagaki & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Directors and development: Influences on the development of children's thinking. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Horn, J. L. (1991b). Measurement of intellectual capabilities: A review of theory. In K. S. McGrew, J. K. Werder, & R. W. Woodcock (Eds.), A reference on theory and current research to supplement the Woodcock-Johnson-Revised Examiner's Manuals (pp. 197-245). Allen, TX: DLM.
Rogoff, B., & Chavajay, P. (1995). What's become of research on the cultural basis of cognitive developmen? American Psychologist, 50(10), 859-877.
Stocking, G. (1968). Race, culture, and evolution. New York: Free Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Dimitrios Thanasoulas studied English Literature and Linguistics at Athens University and then did an MA in Applied Linguistics at Sussex University. After that, he earned an MBA from Mooreland University and is currently finishing the second year of my PhD studies in Education at Nottingham University. His academic interests include fostering cultural awareness and learner autonomy, as well as such issues as language and ideology, Critical Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics, Sociolinguistics, and the Psychology of Education.


Dimitrios can be contacted at:

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