Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Toward a Non-Eurocentric Social Psychology: The Contribution of the Yogacara

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Toward a Non-Eurocentric Social Psychology: The Contribution of the Yogacara

Article excerpt

Science, theory would have it, is the pursuit of an unbiased understanding of objective reality, and must therefore be independent of the cultural assumptions and biases of those who carry it out. This has always been a tall order, however, especially in the social sciences. In this age of globalization and the nearly instant flow of information, it is becoming increasingly clear that much of what was billed as "objective science" has been built on a foundation of Western cultural assumptions and beliefs.

In sociology, the problem is most obvious in macro theories which have often drawn sweeping conclusions with data from a relatively narrow range of Western experience, but the same issues occur at the micro level as well. No one would question the fact that the social psychological paradigm used in sociology and the other social sciences is derived almost exclusively from the work of a relatively small group of male scientists and social philosophers from the middle and upper classes of the Western European nations and their former colonies. Its defenders would say that this narrow base is not the result of Eurocentric bias, but the fact that no other civilizations have developed any comparable body of psychological knowledge upon which to draw. Such claims may or may not stem from some kind of cultural chauvinism, but whatever their origins, they are clearly false. While it is true that only a few intellectual traditions, whether Western or Non-Western, have focused on social psychological issues, there is a highly developed school of psychological thought that began in India and spread throughout East Asia that has been ignored by most Western social scientists.

Aside from simple ignorance about this tradition and the discomfort many Westerners feel in attempting to deal with a system of thought that developed under a very different set of cultural assumptions, there are other reasons Western social psychologists have ignored the world's other major school of psychological thought. One is that this body of social psychological theorizing developed within the Buddhist religious tradition and was therefore seen as something quite different from secular scientific thought. But this sharp distinction between the secular and the religious is itself part of the Eurocentric cultural assumptions of the social sciences. Simply because a line of intellectual endeavor is carried by monks in a religious context does not mean ipso facto that their conclusions are based on faith and not reasoned investigation. A second criticism is that the conclusions of these Buddhist thinkers are mere philosophy without empirical foundations. It is certainly easy to dismiss their views as unscientific, since the monastics and intellectuals who developed this tradition did not view themselves as scientists in the Western sense. But the body of psychological knowledge they developed was based on centuries of the careful systematic observation of the operations of the human mind and rigorous logical analysis and debate. The value of introspection in social psychology has, of course, also long been a point of contention (See, Varela & Shear, 1999). The behaviorists have been particularly vehement in their claims that introspection is too subjective and undependable to be of any scientific use. Yet whatever its weaknesses, even a cursory look at the history of social psychology shows us that its founders' most common subject of research was often themselves. The entire interactionist tradition from James and Mead on down was built upon introspective reflection on the mental process. The same is true of in the psychoanalytic tradition, and a slightly different kind of introspection is central to the verstehende methodology used so effectively by Max Weber (1949) and numerous other macro theorists.

Once the legitimacy of introspection as a scientific tool is admitted, the Buddhist psychologists become virtually impossible to dismiss, since they are widely recognized as masters of the introspective examination of the mind. …

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